There was a time, not long ago, where battle royale was the zeitgeist concept sweeping the whole industry. You couldn’t scroll on any gaming website and not hear about “chicken dinners” and “victory royales”. While those games certainly haven’t gone away – Fortnite still pulls in millions of players a month and Apex Legends has a respectable viewership on Twitch – I think it’s fair to say we are coming out of the battle royale craze; it’s cemented itself as a viable genre and the excitement of its discovery is beginning to fade. The time has come for more competitors in the genre to jump in and flesh out the field. And in Call of Duty: Warzone a big one has just landed.
One of the biggest first person shooter franchises ever has finally thrown a serious entry into the fold. Call of Duty has had its own battle royale mode in the past with Blackout, however that was a mode sectioned off of a mainline entry, and you had to buy Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 to play it. Call of Duty: Warzone is entirely different – it’s mostly separate from Modern Warfare and it’s completely free to play. It’s a no nonsense battle royale that takes the best from its contemporaries to craft a serious challenger to the top games in the genre.
Warzone’s major advantage is clear from the first game you join, the gunplay. Call of Duty has been perfecting it’s gunplay for years and the tight controlled interplay of guns and equipment sings in the matches. You honestly can’t find a single gun that is not satisfying to use; aiming is snappy and the guns feel like they have heft. There’s a respectable amount of variety here, and in combination with the ability to choose your perks and pick up loadouts on the battlefield, a welcome amount of gameplay customization is available to the players.
The combat between players never feels cheap either: there is a constant sense of fairness and death can come quick but it also can be delivered just as fast. You never feel like something killed you too easily because you’ve seen the damage that you can do. Positioning is the name of the game and the strategy, while seemingly simple, can become very complex. Equipment such as flashbangs, heartbeat sensors and various perks mix up and add depth to every cat and mouse battle you have on the map.
This is accentuated by an outstanding map, and it’s clear that much of the larger map was made up of the designs of other smaller maps previously in the series. But it totally works; it gives every location on the map its own unique feel and makes all of it feel intricately designed and laid out. There are clever arenas, chokepoints and places to camp out throughout seemingly every inch of the larger map. While there definitely is some, there’s a lot less wide open space that seems to be a hallmark of the genre. There’s much more texture throughout, especially compared to something like Fortnite.
Warzone does it best to bring its own ideas into the fray, the most major one being the addition of the “Gulag”. This is a one-on-one arena in which you arrive when you first die. It’s two players against each other and whoever manages to kill the other first wins. If you do emerge victorious, you respawn and return to your team. If you lose, then you die as you normally would and have to wait for your team to pay to revive you, much like Apex Legends. It’s a fantastic addition and adds so much more tension to the game, often I would be listening anxiously as my teammates described their Gulag battles, hoping that they win. I have found myself literally yelling in anguish when I lost one of these fights, as often your whole game can depend on them.
At launch Warzone comes with two game modes – one of which is the classic battle royale in which 150 players try to fight to be the last ones alive, across either teams of three or solo. However there’s also a new game mode called Plunder and it may be Warzone’s greatest strength. It’s still 150 players split into teams of three that can always respawn, but the goal is to go around the map collecting as much cash as possible and dropping it off into stations. There are multiple ways to collect and distribute the cash, and it’s great fun, accommodating a multitude of strategies and playstyles. Incredibly ingenious and really original, it feels like the start of a classic new game mode that will live on past this title.
But it’s not all good news for Warzone as the game lacks any unique or distinct personality. It’s about as bland and muted as it can possibly be. Despite its excellent design, there’s almost no character or colour in the map, it feels like all of the areas have the same exact aesthetic and due to this it can come across as painfully boring. The skins are even worse, for both weapons and playable characters; unimaginative and plain. These complaints may understandably not matter to some players but it will majorly affect its future success and brings the overall game down a slight notch.
Call of Duty: Warzone on Xbox One takes the best – and occasionally the worst – from its own history and mixes it with the knowledge gained from its contemporaries to make an excellent experience that players can easily spend hours joyfully fighting in. This will fill a hole for many players looking for the next battle royale to get obsessed with. It’s easily become that for me and I plan to spend many more nights desperately seeking victory in Verdansk.