At a recent Activision-hosted event in Los Angeles, I got the chance to go hands-on with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare's competitive multiplayer portion and came away impressed - despite a few niggles and one lingering concern.
First up, the good stuff. Modern Warfare is a reboot of sorts for the franchise, and it taps into nostalgia for the series on the last generation of consoles. As such, it's a somewhat stripped down shooter sans some of the outlandish abilities seen in the previous games. You won't find super powers in Modern Warfare. Rather, a press of L1 and R1 activates your field equipment - a round of high-damage bullets, perhaps, or a deployable shield. You won't be flying through the air - unless you're blown away by a frag grenade, of course. The operatives you can play as are a cosmetic consideration only. After Infinity Ward's unsuccessful journey into space with 2016's Infinite Warfare, Modern Warfare makes sure to stay grounded.
Still, you can get up quite high. One of the best things about the new maps I played was the various mini-platforming sections that enabled you to reach higher ground. It's not always obvious how to get upstairs in a Modern Warfare multiplayer building because the stairs are probably rubble. So, you look outside for a bin that'll give you a leg-up to the first floor, or a stray ladder that helps you onto the roof. Modern Warfare's multiplayer feels like a battle for building space. Control the buildings and the rest will come.
Then it's on to the gunplay. As teased by recent footage of the superb 2v2 mode Gunfight, Modern Warfare's gunplay packs a punch, with unique recoil across most weapons. Infinity Ward clearly cares deeply about the gun feel of Modern Warfare (some weapons have over 40 attachments), and throughout its presentation to press it stressed its commitment to realism. The upshot is a firecracker of an FPS.
There are loads of cool little details worth noting: the idle animation for holding weapons sees the player twitch slightly - the laser sight moving independently of the reticle. Super sprint (double tap the left thumbstick) and your soldier will hold their gun in the air as they bust a move. You can hear your expelled shells hit the ground, which is a lovely touch. Barrels sizzle with smoke after firing. Reload before the clip is empty and your soldier will hold the expelled mag while popping in a fresh one with the same hand, like a barber flipping their comb into the safety of their fingers as they clump your hair. And, my favourite, the context-sensitive weapon tilt for when you're shooting from behind cover.
The Call of Duty games have always been blisteringly responsive, and Modern Warfare is no exception. But there's a weight to the warfare here that stands out. The guns really do feel distinct, impactful and, at times, challenging to use. "We wanted to add this depth and replayability to every single firefight," multiplayer director Geoff Smith said in an interview at the event. "We feel like some of the guns in other games have got really laser-gunney, and that interaction between those two players starts to play out similarly every time.
"We also wanted to add learnability of the weapon. All the recoil is a predictable pattern you can get used to and start counter-steering. We're trying to add more depth to those firefights."
"The games have gone down this valley of laser gun, point, shoot and there's no real gameplay or characteristic between the weapons," animation director Mark Grigsby added.
"We wanted characteristics for each weapon. So, yeah, an AK-47 in real life kicks like a mule. But an M4 has a little bit more stability to it."
Time to kill is around four hits for an assault rifle, but of course mileage varies per weapon. The thing to note on Modern Warfare's lethality is headshots feel incredibly important, and I suspect that's because the game has a significant headshot multiplier. This is a game that rewards precision, and if you can land a headshot you'll end a firefight quickly, no matter what weapon you're using. I love this feel to the gunplay - you'll do well if you put time into mastering the weapons, as you should.
My initial impression of Modern Warfare was it played a little slower than Black Ops 4 and maybe even the first couple of Modern Warfare games, but after a couple of hours I found myself moving swiftly and fluidly - and the super sprint helps get you where you need to be fast. I think a lot of that initial caution came from the fact there's no mini-map, which is a massive change for Call of Duty multiplayer. I'm used to glancing at the COD mini-map every few seconds in previous games, and it was only when it was taken away from me for Modern Warfare did I realise how much confidence I drew from it. Replacing the mini-map is a Skyrim-style compass bar that appears on the top of the screen, and it sort of helps you out, but it's no substitute, which makes the personal UAV Recon killstreak (three kills) particularly important. I expect Infinity Ward's decision to ditch the mini-map will divide the community, but for me it's in keeping with the developer's desire to create a more tactical shooter that's not all about run and gun.
My first few games of competitive multiplayer were traditional team deathmatch on what felt like standard, rubble-riddled maps, and a lot of fun they were. But it was familiar fun. Where Modern Warfare started to feel more interesting was when we played with night vision. Here, in a map set inside a cave system, Modern Warfare turned into this tense shooter where listening to footsteps and keeping an eye out for stray laser sights was the key to victory. There was no feedback on the HUD, either. Did I land my shots, there? I think so. Are they dead? Maybe! Should I aim down sights as I slowly approach a corner? Maybe not, because if I do, my laser sight will reveal my presence. Is that laser sight from an enemy? I'd better chuck a flashbang just to be sure. Night vision gameplay in Modern Warfare felt fantastic, and I can't wait to play more.
After night vision, I went hands-on with the new battle maps in games that saw 10v10 and then 20v20 fights. I played a lot of Headquarters (King of the Hill, basically) on 10v10, which was fantastic. Five-flag Domination on a battle map was a relentless push and pull, while Team Deathmatch on a battle map felt like it gave me more freedom to run and gun, although you do need to work together to cope with packs of enemies. This wasn't available during the preview event, but Ground War is a new mode that supports up to 64 players and it's confirmed for launch. Infinity Ward told me some of the battle maps it's made are so big they accommodate over 100 players, which is something I look forward to trying out. But this is not battle royale, Infinity Ward stressed. This is core multiplayer on a much bigger scale than we're used to. At points I was reminded of WW2's superb War mode. ATVs are available to jump into and drive, and there's enough room to make the most of the powerful two-player tank killstreak. Killstreaks, if you hadn't already guessed, still apply on battle maps, so with so many players all popping off their cruise missiles and precision airstrikes at the same time, there's a lot going on. Certainly the announcer never shuts up.
The return to killstreaks gives more meaning to your life. If you're one kill away from a killstreak, your heart starts pumping and you naturally play more conservatively. Die when you're close and it feels like a gut punch. I quite like this aspect of Modern Warfare - it's a world away from the rinse and repeat feel of Black Ops 4, that's for sure - and taps into the more tactical gameplay Infinity Ward is going for. But is the game more tactical? There are more tactical options, for sure, some of which seem inspired by other popular shooters. You can open doors ever so slightly now to peek inside, and even throw grenades through the gap. There's a new breach system that lets you burst through closed doors - and doing so makes a lot of noise. But it's hard to get a good sense of all this in the kind of hands-on preview environment we played in. For now, I can say this: Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is as in your face as you'd hope from the series - although on the massive maps you might want to pack a sniper rifle.
As I was playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare multiplayer and having a great time with it, I felt a scratch at the back of my mind. This is all well and good, I thought, but what about progression? What about the inevitable grind? And, crucially, what about loot boxes? I loved Black Ops 4 at launch and indeed throughout much of its first year of life, but the game has been strangled by loot boxes and ill-advised microtransactions that have given it a whiff of pay-to-win.
Infinity Ward has promised not to split the Modern Warfare userbase by selling a season pass, which is fantastic. And it's promised to give free maps and other gubbins to all players for free, which is also fantastic. But you can't help but wonder, what will take the place of the season pass? The live service lever pullers at Activision will have post-launch revenue targets for Modern Warfare, as they've had for Black Ops 4. How long before all that's good about Modern Warfare is smothered by a depressing conversation about microtransactions?
I asked Infinity Ward about this, and, frustratingly, the developers didn't have much to offer by way of reassurance.
"We read all those things and we're aware of all those situations and the changing landscape," Smith said. "But we're just talking about multiplayer today, and we're still working out how that all works out towards the end when we finish the game."
"We definitely want to make sure the community feels like it's a fair experience," Grigsby offered. "We're still figuring all that out. But we have the community in mind. We're gamers ourselves. We want to make sure everyone's happy."
"It's a big topic and there are a lot of different voices in it. We're one," Smith concluded. "But we're doing what we can."
This last comment stuck with me as it touches on the push and pull between developer and publisher we've seen emerge with Black Ops 4's monetisation. Infinity Ward's multiplayer designers and animators and sound people all want Modern Warfare to be the best shooter it can be, but in the world of triple-A video games, it's not that simple. I'd love for Modern Warfare to end up a game without loot boxes, without any pay-to-win elements, without anything that makes me feel sad about playing it. But given what happened to Black Ops 4, it's hard to act optimistic.
In its pursuit of hashtag gritty realism, Infinity Ward has created maps packed with rubble and... well... it's all a bit bland. At least, the maps I played on all seemed to blur into a grey fudge. There's a sense of Call of Duty coming full circle here, I think. I remember the common criticism of the series back on Xbox 360 included the brown smudge slur, and in tapping into nostalgia for Modern Warfare, well, here we are again. But I've only seen a snapshot of the game. I hope there's more variety to this Call of Duty's palette.
Talking about realism, Modern Warfare is a bit of a tonal disaster. The multiplayer portion of the game is, let's be honest, not in the least bit realistic, but it takes its tonal cues from the campaign, which I'm sure will prove to be one of the most controversial of 2019. So, on the one hand we have a video game that's about realism, authenticity and telling a story inspired by the headlines of today. On the other hand we have a 20v20 frag-fest starring instant respawns, bunny-hopping, quick-scoping and... checks notes... a white phosphorus killstreak?
Call of Duty has always had this tonal disconnect. Over the years the Modern Warfare campaigns have had something to say about war, while the multiplayer has been about your kill/death ratio. This is a multiplayer that, if you get enough kills without dying yourself, lets you call a nuke down to destroy the map. Still, having white phosphorus, a chemical weapon that pretty much everyone feels uncomfortable about, as a power up in a game that's about hashtag realism seems in bad taste.
Despite these issues, there's a lot that's fantastic about Call of Duty: Modern Warfare's multiplayer and the truth is I'm excited to play more. It feels significantly different than the last few years' worth of CODs, and the gunplay is satisfying and rewarding. Let's enjoy this moment before the rot sets in, eh?
Activision paid for flights and travel to and from the event.