Hands-on: Call of Duty: Warzone is a perfect example of how the Battle Royale genre should evolve

Back during the battle royale craze of 2018, Activision and EA both tried to jump on the bandwagon by announcing battle royale components for their respective holiday tentpole games, Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 and Battlefield V. The subsequently launched Blackout (for Black Ops 4) and Firestorm (for Battlefield V) modes were each serviceable in their own right, but they both also encapsulated battle royale being done for all the wrong reasons. EA was fortunate that it had an ace up its sleeve in the form of Respawn Entertainment’s later released Apex Legends, but Activision was left with a battle royale attempt which, while noteworthy, failed to outshine its competition.

Given Blackout’s quick slide into obscurity, fans of the more recent Modern Warfare reboot were understandably not thrilled when rumors that it too would have a battle royale experience started surfacing even before the game itself had launched. Now, that battle royale experience is finally here, taking the form of a sort of hybrid Modern Warfare add-on/standalone F2P game called Call of Duty: Warzone.

As a battle royale game, Warzone makes a good first impression by leveraging some of the best elements of the Modern Warfare reboot upon which it’s built while also sprinkling in a few unique twists. More importantly, developer Infinity Ward has created in Warzone a promising blueprint for how major AAA companies can leverage such a well-worn format as the battle royale genre in a way that benefits both them and the players they’re appealing to.

Warzone Overview

Whether you’re already part of Modern Warfare’s playerbase or you download Warzone’s standalone client, you actually have access to not one but two distinct game modes which both utilize an absolutely massive map called Verdansk. Existing Modern Warfare players will recognize Verdansk as the same open locale where the game’s various co-op missions are set, and certain maps from Modern Warfare’s standard 6v6 multiplayer and 32v32 Ground War mode are also nestled into Verdansk as distinct landmarks.

To ensure the entirety of Verdansk sees its fair share of foot traffic, each Warzone match can accommodate up to 150 players at once, with players divvied up into squads of three. There’s currently no solo option for Warzone matches (you can manually choose not to be sorted into a squad but you’ll still be facing opponents who are in squads) which might rub some battle royale purists the wrong way. If, on the other hand, you prefer battle royale games where you have buddies watching your six, Warzone was built with you in mind.

If you’ve played other battle royale games like the aforementioned Apex Legends or Battlefield V’s Firestorm, there are certain aspects of Warzone which will look immediately familiar to you. Warzone players can utilize a ping system to highlight items on the ground or call out enemy locations, equip armor plates to boost their survivability, and utilize map-based ‘Buy Stations’ to purchase helpful items like self-revive kits and killstreaks.

Speaking of buying things, both of Warzone’s two available modes, Battle Royale and Plunder, allow players to loot in-game cash during matches. This in-game cash factors more heavily into Plunder matches than in Battle Royale, but regardless of which mode you’re playing, hoarding cash can help you turn the tide in your team’s favor when it matters most.

So how do the Battle Royale and Plunder modes differ from each other? Both modes involve open-world combat on a massive scale, but each mode feels distinct enough to make Warzone an enticing package for many different sorts of first-person shooter fans, not just those who enjoy the more traditional battle royale format.       

Battle Royale

Those who are at all familiar with the battle royale genre can probably guess how Warzone’s Battle Royale matches shake out. Players are dropped into Verdansk with nothing on their person other than a basic pistol, forcing them to scavenge for weapons, equipment, and cash. Deadly gas slowly overtakes the map, gradually shrinking the circle of safety and forcing squads into tense engagements until only one squad is left.

Found weapons and equipment are divided into different colored rarity levels (grey, green, blue, purple, and orange), with higher rarity weapons having more attachments. If a player amasses enough cash and reaches a designated Buy Station, they can purchase helpful items like a gas mask that provides temporary protection from the encroaching gas hazard or a self-revive kit which allows them to come out of a downed state without the aid of a squadmate.

One of the more unique items a player can purchase with cash is a ‘Loadout Drop.’ Once purchased, the player calls in the Loadout Drop much like they would a Care Package in Modern Warfare’s standard multiplayer, but instead of awarding a random killstreak the Loadout Drop allows the player to equip one of their customized multiplayer loadouts.

Along with the obvious benefit of being able to utilize favored weapons and gear, equipping a loadout through a Loadout Drop is the only way Battle Royale players can access character perks (Double Time, EOD, Tracker, etc.). The catch is that calling in a Loadout Drop broadcasts your position to all nearby enemies, layering a risk/reward component onto an otherwise game-changing prospect.

Another unique aspect of Warzone’s Battle Royale mode is the number of options players have for re-entering a match after they’ve been eliminated. Along with the standard squadmate revives and previously mentioned self-revive kits, players can also respawn back into a match via one of two methods. First, a squadmate can purchase a ‘Redeploy Token’ to bring a fallen friend back into the fray. Second, players can take their chances in the Gulag.

The first time a Battle Royale player is eliminated, they’re tossed into the Gulag (one of the maps from Modern Warfare’s 2v2 Gunfight mode) and pitted in a 1v1 battle against another player who was eliminated. The player who wins this 1v1 standoff gets a second chance in the Battle Royale match, providing an incentive for more competitive players to stick around beyond their initial death.

If the idea of Call of Duty Battle Royale still doesn’t totally appeal to you even with features like the ping system and the Gulag present, Call of Duty: Warzone’s second offered mode, Plunder, might be more your speed.    

Plunder

In the Plunder game mode, cash is king. Much as in the Battle Royale mode players must explore Verdansk and defend themselves from enemy squads, but whereas Battle Royale is all about survival of the fittest, Plunder is more of an arms race.

Plunder players must accrue large sums of cash by finding supply drops throughout the map, completing special contracts, or by simply killing enemy players (any cash a player holds is dropped upon death). This cash must then be “deposited” by calling in an airlift from a designated helipad landmark or by purchasing and using a ‘Deposit Balloon’ item. If a single squad manages to deposit a total of $1 million in cash, they win. Each Plunder match also has a 30-minute time limit and the team with the most cash deposited wins if the timer expires.

Unlike in the Battle Royale mode, Plunder players can freely respawn as many times as they like. Plunder players also don’t have to worry about scrounging for weapons and gear since they can just use their existing multiplayer loadouts. Whenever a squad reaches certain cash accrual thresholds, they get marked on the map as high-value targets for all other squads to see, leading to tense standoffs where bold rival squads can attempt to take down the high-roller alphas.

Calling in a cash deposit chopper also triggers a map-wide alert, affording nearby squads an opportunity to steal the depositing squad’s earnings at the eleventh hour. This dynamic of having to defend your cash while you load it onto a chopper makes these Plunder encounters feel eerily similar to the Dark Zone item extractions from Ubisoft’s The Division, giving all players that extra anxiety of knowing their not-so-ill-gotten gains aren’t truly safe until they’re physically on the chopper.  

Why It Works

Call of Duty: Warzone succeeds where Black Ops 4’s Blackout failed because it deftly rides the line between accessibility and longevity. An in-depth tutorial helps to bring all players, be they brand new or existing Modern Warfare combatants, up to speed on the unique features found in both Battle Royale and Plunder, and there’s even a Battle Royale practice scenario which allows players to run a simulated match against bot opponents. Best of all, playing through these tutorial and practice modes unlocks rewards like weapon blueprints, operator outfits, and battle pass tier skips, providing tangible incentives right off the bat.

The fact that Warzone is free-to-play proves that Activision learned from its biggest mistake: locking Blackout behind a mandatory purchase of Black Ops 4 ($60 when the game first launched). Battlefield V players have long lamented that a similar F2P rollout would have been a much better route for DICE to have gone down with Firestorm, especially since Firestorm itself has gotten little in the way of post-launch support over the following months. Here’s hoping Activision’s efforts with Warzone inspire DICE and future developers who are considering a battle royale component for their games.

Speaking of good value, the fact that Warzone is essentially rolled into the existing Modern Warfare framework is just the icing on the cake. I admittedly didn’t think Modern Warfare had much going for it when I reviewed its initial launch last year, but the addition of Warzone has certainly changed my tune. Any and all existing progress a Modern Warfare player has made can be leveraged in both of Warzone’s modes, allowing them to utilize their favorite loadouts and keep earning desired rewards while participating in two highly engaging (and highly replayable) open-world game modes.

The Battle Royale and Plunder modes are certainly not perfect, which isn’t surprising given how new they are. Lobby issues and bugs have plagued the initial Warzone rollout, and the squad-based format means it’s easy for pre-made parties to dominate matches, especially in Plunder where they can essentially “farm” less-skilled squads by luring them to landmarks like cash deposit choppers. However, when it comes to overall stability and performance, both modes hold up rather well, at least on PS4 where I played.

Another thing to note is that an active PS Plus subscription isn’t needed to play the standalone Warzone client on PS4. However, Xbox One players do unfortunately need an active Xbox Live Gold subscription even if they’re playing Warzone’s standalone version.

If you think that large-scale open-world Call of Duty-style combat is something you might enjoy, Call of Duty: Warzone’s F2P format means that giving it a try will cost you little more than a bit of your time. Warzone naturally offers the most value to existing Modern Warfare players, but even as a standalone experience it has the chops to stand alongside other established battle royale games, especially if Activision chooses to support it long-term (which I hope it does).

Call of Duty: Warzone is available now for Xbox One, PS4, and PC.