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Modern Warfare Tears Call of Duty Down to its Foundation and Builds it Differently – Multiplayer Hands-On

Being a yearly franchise, there’s something to be said for the fatigue that some players feel when hearing about yet another Call of Duty game. The sub-series under each developer have had a unique feel, but there are also certain Call of Duty staples that have kind of carried forward throughout the years, for better or for worse. Elements such as three-lane maps, arcade-like movement, and score streaks have long been taken for granted. With Call of Duty Modern Warfare multiplayer, Infinity Ward wanted to challenge the perception of Call of Duty by tearing the game down to its barest foundations and building it up again, taking a hard look at each component to see what was really necessary or how those parts fit in with the studio’s vision for their particular game.

I might be talking about multiplayer specifically here, but I’d be remiss not to point you to our preview about how Infinity Ward is redefining the core of Call of Duty and the groundbreaking tech used in Call of DutyModern Warfare. Our time at Infinity Ward’s studio a few months ago really set the stage for everything we experienced earlier this week. That overall vision of realism, grit, and weight (mostly) carries through to the multiplayer (though I’ll address a small caveat a little later).

So on to the multiplayer, arguably what Call of Duty is most well known for. There’s a lot to unpack here, and even having a day to experience it, I was told what we got our hands on was just a fraction of what’s coming at launch. Probably the biggest element that’s immediately noticeable is how much the map design has changed. Gone are the usual three-lane maps that promote face-to-face encounters and repeatedly only reward the players with better aim. Instead the maps are designed around power positions that can grant tactical players an advantage, but can also prove to be their downfall.

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Maps are designed in such a way that they actually feel like real places, as opposed to the more manufactured and artificial sense that previous Call of Duty maps have come to feel like. More locations are built with verticality in mind, and players can traverse this playground in a variety of ways to gain advantageous positions and sightlines. It’s a risk/reward system though, because these auspicious positions are highly contested points on the map. Infinity Ward’s studio head described this as a throwback to the days of arena shooters. They wanted to create tension without forcing head to head engagements. They wanted to give even kill-based modes like Team Deathmatch the opportunity to have these mini objectives as you try to tactically overtake or hold one of these power positions on the map.

When I first got my hands on the controller, I tried playing this like previous Call of Duty games, and was immediately met with frustration and multiple death screens. Infinity Ward’s new map design definitely promotes as many kills through flanking as it does head to head engagements. Until I started understanding the tactical dogma that had been injected Modern Warfare, it seemed frustrating and unfair. But once I grasped that concept and slowed down, it was like a light switch. I started checking my corners, sticking with my team, and attempting to gain an advantage through positioning. I realized that even a player who can’t usually hang with top-tier Call of Duty competitors can still hold their own through playing smart. In Modern Warfare, intelligent play is just as valuable a skill as good aim and a twitchy trigger finger.

You’re Not a Superhero in Call of Duty Modern Warfare Multiplayer

You are not a superhero. I say that as a good thing. Infinity Ward is not only reinforcing tactical play in map design, but also in slowing down the pace of the gameplay itself. Modern Warfare plays almost as a polar opposite to the Black Ops series, which has been in the arcade space for a few years now. I say that while reiterating that it still feels like a Call of Duty game, so everything still moves at a pretty quick pace in general, but this isn’t the “superhero soldier” that Treyarch’s been training us all to play as.

I found myself playing the edges a lot, at least once I wised up to the design of the game. The new tactical mount on corners and ledges is a great way to check those corners and do so with less recoil than if you were free standing. Mounting is easy to do and was never jarring to the gameplay, becoming one of the tactics that I used the most. Approaching a corner, you simply push R3 to steady your gun against the edge, at which point you can use that positioning to pivot and check what’s around the corner without fully exposing yourself. There’s still some risk, but it’s better than just blazing through the map with reckless abandon.

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Not feeling like a superhero as the soldier, I was left to dig into my bag of tricks a lot more. Where in previous Call of Duty games, I never really bothered to play around with things like claymore mines or flashbangs, Modern Warfare’s tactical focus got me sizing up the tools in my arsenal to see how they could best be used. And if all that’s not enough, the minimap is gone. Killstreaks and abilities can sometimes allow you or your team to have a UAV up or to see the map, but for the most part, you’ll need to rely on map knowledge and smart positional awareness. It’s a small thing that has big implications in the pursuit of the more realistic and grounded approach that Infinity Ward wants to take this game in.

I have to admit I went into this game apprehensive about the switch from scorestreaks to killstreaks. Scorestreaks felt like they rewarded me for playing objectives and helping my team, where killstreaks have always felt punishing to players who can’t get those high kill/death ratios. Scorestreaks allow you to play passively though and almost forget about them, and killstreaks make you really value the life you have. You know that you are one kill away from that controversial white phosphorus or attack chopper, so you naturally play smarter with the life you have. It’s a way to make death feel significant in a game where near-instant respawns kind of cheapen what it means to die. We’ll see how this plays out in the wider game once it releases though, because I do still think that killstreaks don’t inherently reward players who support their team through methods other than kills.

From 2v2 to 20v20

Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 bumped team sizes up to five players each, and many were wondering what the standard for Modern Warfare was going to be. While I’m sure that the esports side of it will have some kind of standardization for Call of Duty World League, we were given the chance to play everything from the 2v2 Gunfight game mode on tiny maps, to huge intense 20v20 battles

Where things start to get a little bit more chaotic is on the bigger maps with the larger player counts. At one point we were thrown into a 20v20 match with five points around a massive map to control. While it sounds awesome in theory, I found this mode to be extremely chaotic and unpredictable. 40 players randomly scattered across a huge map makes for a lot of unfortunate spawns and luck-based kills and deaths, where even smart positioning and holding power points can’t save you. When Infinity Ward talked about larger player counts, I envisioned something more like MAG (yeah, remember that game?) that mimicked the theater of war, rather than an inflated version of a standard shooter game mode designed for far fewer players. Infinity Ward still has a lot to show off before October 25, but this was a disappointing introduction to the possibility of massive player counts.

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Of course some wry smiles crossed faces when I asked about player counts in the full game. They said they are still testing some things, but they’ve managed to exceed 100 players in a match at once before and they’ve got some huge maps that support 100+ players for a mode called Ground War. (Infinity Ward was not showing off Ground War at the event.) I’m still hoping that the potential of huge 50v50 versus matches goes beyond just having a ton of players playing Modern Warfare’s overblown versions of standard game modes and that Ground War actually offers that tactical depth that I’ve been craving since MAG’s servers went offline half a decade ago.

Varying player counts and map sizes do help the multiplayer component to feel really dynamic though. Each map is supposed to be tied into a specific combat op, and the load-in intros actually have your team being trucked in or otherwise arriving at the combat zone, rather than just loading in ready to go. I also noticed that the bodies of fallen players don’t immediately despawn, littering the ground with corpses especially in modes like Control where players tend to stack in one place. I wonder if this was an intentional choice to communicate the fact that other soldiers are dying round you and to push the idea that multiplayer is supposed to be mimicking a piece of a greater war.

This is my Rifle, This is my Gun

Can’t talk about a Call of Duty game without talking about the guns. Infinity Ward has done some incredible things with the personality of each and every one of Modern Warfare’s weapons, but more importantly, they’ve given the player the ability to really craft the perfect weapon for themselves. Again, I talked a lot about the sights and sounds of the guns back in my studio visit to Infinity Ward, and that’s a primary component to making each gun feel extremely powerful and real. That already goes a long way in creating a sense of ownership of the weapon in your hands. But customization is where the gun really starts to become yours.

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Players can add up to five attachments to almost any gun from a massive pool of around 60 different components for each weapon (many parts being specific to individual guns). Instead of just imbuing perks like “suppression” or “steadier aim,” these attachments have both pros and cons. A longer barrel might compensate for vertical kickback deviation, but it will make the gun heavier and thus slow down your time to aim down sites. A stock on the back of the gun could help to steady your recoil but it will have an adverse impact on your movement speed while ADS.

It’s all about finding that attachments that support your particular play style. Now if you don’t like the way a gun feels, you don’t have to find a different one to play with. Different attachments can make the same weapon feel significantly different, so if you don’t like the way a gun recoils or feel like it makes you too slow, you can try to tune that using the attachments to see if you can get it to a place you like. I had a lot of fun just picking attachments at random between matches to see how different these small little changes could make a gun feel. In a way, there’s an almost RPG-esque aspect to it, min-maxing the stats on your weapon to perfectly fit your play style. With unified progression across the entire game and the same feel for weapons whether you are playing campaign or multiplayer, it means that even the traditionally single-player people can find a weapon they love and take it into multiplayer performing exactly how they expect it to.

Badass Fun, or Brutal Realities of War?

If you haven’t seen the trailer for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’s multiplayer yet, it’s a stylish montage set to Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” with a bunch of sweet action shots. During the presentation, Infinity Ward talked about the multiplayer being “badass fun,” which I feel is in direct opposition to their stated goals for the campaign as a brutal look at the horrors and the realities of war. I’ve previously written about this conflicting messaging and tried to find that happy middle ground between allowing the developers to employ a heavy storyline in the campaign, but accepting that the multiplayer is simply an “entertainment product.” When I asked about the dichotomy between the two reveals, Multiplayer Designer Joe Cecot told me that at the end of the day, that’s what it is: an entertainment product. He also said that he doesn’t feel like the two elements are mutually exclusive.

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Sometimes, that’s how people have to engage with tough topics. Some of the most thought provoking games that I have ever played have also been a lot of “fun,” which didn’t take away from the fact that they made me think and have stuck with me. In fact, speaking to Call of Duty specifically, Infinity Ward’s already done this with the controversial “No Russian” mission in Modern Warfare 2, as well as a variety of other horrific scenarios throughout the campaign, while having a fun multiplayer component that players can re-engage with regularly. It’s up to each individual to determine whether that’s tasteless or not, but I have a feeling that the people who are most against it aren’t the types of people that were planning on playing this anyway.

The conflicting messaging of “badass fun” and wanting to make players feel like this badass soldier within the multiplayer really did strike me though, but I realize that no matter how much Infinity Ward wants to push the idea of this unified game, Modern Warfare (and Call of Duty in general) will always have these two distinct separate sides. The campaign may very well have this brutal intensity that provokes thought and shows war in another light for those of us who have never enlisted or seen combat, but multiplayer will always just be a sport and a game, designed to be replayable and badass fun. We’re never going to sit and reflect on our kills or our actions or the horrors we’ve encountered in multiplayer in the same way that the campaign is trying to accomplish. There is one mode that gets close, however.

Call of Duty Modern Warfare Multiplayer Realism Mode

Hands down my favorite mode of the entire event was the realism mode, set on a nighttime map with a cave system and requiring players to use night vision goggles. The HUD is also turned off, and you don’t even get hit or kill markers when you down an enemy. With the impressive new technology that actually emits specific IR lighting (instead of just coloring everything green and calling it “night vision”), and visible IR lasers that come up when you ADS, there is a ton of skill and strategy to this mode. It ratchets up the tension of the match and forces you to play on an even more tactical level than Modern Warfare is already doing. In some ways it really felt like a horror movie to me, and I believe (as someone who has never enlisted or seen combat, keep in mind) that this mode most reflects the realities of combat without many of the conveniences that video games afford us.

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Having no ammo counter makes it tough to determine whether or not you should continue to engage. Not getting a kill marker means you don’t know if the enemy just ducked away or if you manage to land that killing shot. And all of this in night vision as well, which means that there’s not nearly as much contrast between the people you are aiming for and the environment. It’s fun in a deeper way that made me appreciate tactical thought and a methodical approach to the gameplay.

Infinity Ward isn’t pulling any punches when it comes to changing up the Call of Duty formula. Some of these changes are going to be seen as a little shocking especially for people who have come to love the Black Ops series. But IW had a good reason for making every change that it did, all in pursuit of a better Call of Duty game that unshackled itself from the chains of the past games to build its own unique identity. I love the change of pace, slowing things down to give players more time to think rather than just react. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is a smart shooter, one that rewards a good brain as much as a steady hand. You’ll be able to better judge that for yourself when the beta launches in September.

Call of Duty Modern Warfare multiplayer was previewed at an event. Travel and accommodations were provided by Activision.