Call of Duty: Warzone is a free-to-play battle royale mode set within the popular first-person shooter franchise. This is not the IPs first battle royale game, as Black Ops 4 had such a mode in their multiplayer mode, but it failed to take off. The move into free-to-play gaming is a bold step into a small but very competitive genre for Activision, with games like Fortnite and Apex: Legends holding on to some serious real estate in the market.
So how can Call of Duty make itself an essential new combatant on such a bloodthirsty field? Based on these initial playthroughs, I am not confident it can.
Nothing about Call of Duty really screams “battle royale,” a genre that is known for being larger than life and thoroughly divorced from reason, where Call of Duty clings to the illusion of realism like a barnacle on a rusty old hull. The map, the operator models, the weapon loadouts, the entire aesthetic of Call of Duty: Warzone leans into realism but even flirting with the concept of realism in this genre creates huge logic holes. Why is an entire island of people fighting to the death? An opening cinematic introduces Modern Warfare mainstay Ghost investigating the strange behaviour on the island, calling for back-up in the form of your squad to get to the bottom of this mystery. The problem with trying to tack on a narrative hook to the battle royale genre is that there is no avenue to explore this, there is no story to be told here, only a battle royale to be played. Additionally, everyone else playing the game is also a squad called in by Ghost as everyone is jumping out of the same plane, so within the ‘reality’ of this story, why are you all participating in this bizarre murder ritual?
You absolutely can and should maintain the tropes of the genre, there is a reason they are repurposed with every successful battle royale game, but you cannot attempt to rationalise them because the entire thing falls to pieces the second you do.
The other big issue with the ‘realism’ approach is that the game lacks any discernible personality. Fortnite and Apex Legends have an abundance of style and personality. You can identify those titles with just a passing glance, their visual design is so distinct. And they each exist in fantasy realms where the internal logic is less likely to be questioned, it is far easier to simply buy into the idea that people would do this when it exists in another universe entirely.
Furthermore, when a map is designed to look believable, the sense of geography that is so crucial to the battle Royale experience is lost because every area looks essentially the same. After a few hours of play in Apex or Fortnite, if I blindly landed at a random point on the map then I would have a good idea of how to get from one point to the other. Warzone ultimately leaves me feeling lost, which becomes an issue when certain daily objectives require you to complete tasks in certain areas of the map. Everything feels so grey and uninteresting. This is an issue that could be fixed with updates to make areas stand apart but so far a lot of time is spent studying the map screen, which is a genuine hazard in a game where every second counts and everyone is out to kill you.
On a more positive note, Warzone does introduce some interesting new concepts to the genre. Firstly, there are contracts that can be accessed in the game. These are just mini objectives that you need to accomplish in a set time; the contracts I have taken were essentially fetch-quests, running to item crates and opening them in a set time limit. It adds an extra element of gameplay, keeping things interesting during any lulls in the action.
The second, and the most interesting and novel element introduced in Warzone, is The Gulag. If you are killed in combat, you are taken prisoner by the island inhabitants and offered one chance at freedom in the form of one-on-one combat. You wait in the viewing area of the gulag, watching other players fight until your turn is up. At this point, you are assigned a random, basic weapon loadout and placed in a small arena where you have to fight another player to the death. If you win, you are dropped back into the game. If you die, you are sent to spectator mode where you can either wait for your remaining teammates to purchase a revive for you or you can just impatiently quit when it becomes apparent that no one is going out of their way for someone who got killed in the first place. I usually went for the second option as I knew I was not worth the effort.
The gameplay itself is as clean and precise as you would expect from a COD game, the franchise has spent decades refining their combat systems into a perfect machine, but unless Call of Duty is already appointment gaming for you then nothing much about Warzone is going to grab your attention. Apex Legends has fantastic gameplay, it also has clearly defined design and a unique selling point. Fortnite may lack fast and engaging gameplay but it is bursting with content. For Warzone, simply being a COD Battle Royale will not be enough to sustain it. It was not enough for Blackout mode, the more dedicated players prefer the more frenetic, instantly rewarding deathmatch style to the slower pace of a battle royale game so Warzone needs to reel in lapsed fans of the franchise or fans of the genre who have grown tired of the other titles on offer. At this stage, I simply do not see this working.
Being free-to-play, the game has substantial monetisation in place. Mercifully, there are no loot boxes, instead favouring a battle pass system. The battle pass levels are largely cosmetic with a few weapons and XP boosts thrown in. There is a free version of the battle pass that unlocks at a less regular rate but the paid and free battle passes share weapon unlock levels so you can rest easy that you are not being paywalled out of getting new weapons in the game.
COD Points are an in-game currency you buy with real money and you can use them to buy packs that contain the sort of items you unlock in the battle pass, this is not a loot box as you are guaranteed certain items within whatever themed pack you choose. The pricing for COD Points seem slightly imbalanced with the packs, you would need to buy more points than the packs need so you will likely have leftover points that you can top up with another in-game purchase or, helpfully, you can earn COD Points via the battle pass, naturally premium pass earns you more points than the free version but it is an option for anyone who just wants to play the long game.
So in summary: The monetisation system is weighted towards cosmetics, any significant gameplay enhancing unlocks are earned through gameplay. That is not too bad, given the sometimes predatory nature of these free-to-play games.
Personally, I have little intention of ever making use of the monetisation system. I have, in the past, paid to unlock a new hero in Apex Legends, I have paid to access operators in Rainbow Six: Siege from any season passes that I didn’t buy, but I will not spend money on Call of Duty: Warzone. The two games I mentioned allow me to access new characters with new gameplay styles to add more depth to my games, while still not providing any significant advantages over players who opt out of in-game purchases, but nothing about Warzone made me feel like it was a game that demanded that such an investment. Nor will I spend enough time grinding away at the game to reach the necessary ranks. Putting this as gently as possible, the game is not holding my interest enough to be worth that sort of time or money.
The reason this is a First Impressions rather than a review is that the nature of this style of game is to be constantly changing, if Activision is serious about making Warzone work then the game will probably feel very different in a few months time as new content is added over time. The real challenge for Warzone is what exactly can it add? Apex Legends can add new heroes to play with all new mechanics to toy around with, Fortnite can add literally anything it feels like and people will roll with it, but Call of Duty is so firmly rooted in a gritty real aesthetic that they are limited in terms of imagination. Will we see new variations of men in camouflage? Slightly different tints of metal for the guns? At least with the Black Ops series, the game could have introduced some wilder sci-fi elements, but as Warzone is connected to the Modern Warfare series there is only so much to be done.
Ultimately, Warzone feels like a game that will struggle to please most gamers in the long run. Fans of the COD style will revert back to the classic multiplayer modes for more excitement, fans of the battle royale genre will look elsewhere for more variety and fun. I am already getting ready to switch back to Apex: Legends, your mileage may vary but I cannot see Warzone taking you very far.