Warzone was my lockdown game. Funnily enough, they both started around the same time.
Activision's big Call of Duty battle royale launched on 10th March 2020 and was an immediate hit. And then, just a fortnight later, the first UK lockdown began. Warzone popularity exploded.
A year later, and we're still in lockdown. And Warzone is increasingly popular. It topped 85 million players by the end of 2020. I mean, just look at what its updates do to download traffic in the UK.
But Warzone is more than just a mega popular battle royale. It's changed Call of Duty forever - and dragged the series kicking and screaming back into the big time.
Built on the foundations of Infinity Ward's 2019 shooter Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, Warzone is a technical marvel that feels great to play. It moves like Modern Warfare, shoots like Modern Warfare and plays like Modern Warfare - all on an enormous scale.
This is an action-packed battle royale that, yes, has its camping problems - as all battle royales do - particularly when played solo, but gather a few friends and it's a blast. And it brought with it genuine genre innovation, too. Warzone's Gulag, which offers those who die a chance at a return to the action if they can defeat another player in a 1v1, is an inspired idea brilliantly executed. Stressful, exhilarating and memorable, Warzone established itself as the battle royale of the year, and sits comfortably on the pantheon of the genre's greats.
One of my enduring memories of playing Warzone is lying prone under a building in a squad with Eurogamer reporter Emma Kent and Digital Foundry's Tom Morgan. With an enemy squad fast approaching, it felt like a 'hide under the bed from monsters' moment. When Emma killed the entire enemy squad by shooting their feet off, I couldn't help but burst out laughing.
The battle pass / seasons model popularised by Fortnite suits Warzone, too. Like Fortnite, Warzone is free to download and free to play. And it does not sell gameplay-affecting items (although that horrible Roze skin is borderline). Instead, you can buy the premium version of the battle pass and individual skin bundles. As new weapons are released into the Warzone meta, the balance shifts, as you'd expect. But, thankfully, you cannot pay your way to an advantage. And, unlike rival battle royale Apex Legends, Warzone does not have loot boxes. At all.
It's certainly not been plain sailing, though. One thing that's dogged Activision over the last year is cheating within Warzone. This is an issue many games face, but it seems particularly problematic here - so much so that some console players disable crossplay to avoid PC hackers.
Activision has released a number of statements about cheating in Warzone, but the game quickly obtained a reputation for hacking, and it's failed to shake it. There are signs recent bans are having some impact on Warzone cheating, but it remains a very serious problem for the game. I don't see it going away any time soon.
The cheating accusations have even extended to Warzone's skill-based matchmaking (SBMM), which Activision seemingly refuses to discuss despite the Call of Duty community's vociferous pleas. Third-party websites will tell you how difficult your lobby was. At one point they would tell you how difficult your lobby was about to be, prompting the emergence of "bot lobby cheaters". Gaming Warzone's SBMM has become an underground effort. I've heard about everything from players tinkering with their region and time of day, to joining the worst person in the lobby in a bid to match up with low-skilled opponents. There are even reports of players using alternative accounts with a low kill/death ratio to gain access to low-skill lobbies with their high-skill main account, then logging out of the alternative account. And let's not forget so-called input device cheats who fool the game into thinking they're using a controller when in fact they're using a mouse and keyboard.
Warzone has also been a relatively buggy game over the first year of its life, too, and its developers have struggled to keep on top with the various exploits and issues players have unearthed. There are infinite stim glitches, and all sorts of problems with guns. Warzone nerfs are commonplace, and the meta is constantly in flux.
Despite all these significant problems, what's remarkable is how quickly Warzone's success changed Call of Duty forever. Warzone is so huge it's seen by Bobby Kotick and co as the canvas upon which all of Call of Duty's sub-brands are now painted. Treyarch's Black Ops Cold War was revealed within Warzone, and already the executives at the top of Activision have suggested they want to try the same trick for the rest of the company's intellectual property. "... we are accelerating our path to reach a billion people as we apply the Call of Duty framework across our other franchises, including premium content, free-to-play access to all consumers, expansion to mobile and continuous regular delivery of in-game content," Activision said in its recent financial results.
There's evidence to suggest Warzone's success has boosted the success of Black Ops Cold War, which came out as a full-price, standard Call of Duty game late in 2020. Activision said full year Call of Duty premium unit sales grew 40 per cent year-on-year. Revenue from the Call of Duty franchise grew by a double-digit percentage year-on-year in the fourth quarter of Activision's financial year. Also during the fourth quarter, monthly active users grew 70 per cent year-on-year, and time spent more than doubled.
Yes, all those battle passes and character skins and weapons skins are making bucket loads of cash for Activision. Yes, lockdown has fuelled Warzone's popularity and resulted in more money flooding into the company's coffers. But here's the key for Activision: following the launch of Black Ops Cold War's first season and the game's integration with Warzone, unit sell-through grew sharply year-on-year in December and January 2021. Call of Duty in-game revenue on console and PC grew more than 50 per cent year-on-year in the fourth quarter. The new first season - the one for Black Ops Cold War and Warzone's integration, saw the highest number of battle passes consumed since the introduction of the new system in late 2019 for Modern Warfare.
It's clear that Warzone's success has rubbed off on Black Ops Cold War. That annoying menu screen that constantly pushes Warzone players towards buying Black Ops Cold War does the trick, it seems. And I'm sure Warzone's success will rub off on this year's Call of Duty game, which is widely reported to be a return to World War 2 for Sledgehammer Games. I doubt we'll ever see another premium Call of Duty game marketed in the pre-Warzone style ever again. Future Call of Duty games are now inexorably tied to the battle royale, whether they like it or not. When Infinity Ward's inevitable Modern Warfare 2 rolls around, Warzone will surely be the battleground on which it is unveiled. Warzone began life as a Modern Warfare spin-off. Now, it feels like Black Ops and Modern Warfare are Warzone spin-offs.
Call of Duty's many developers are now having to work together to make all this integration make sense. And so, for the first time, the Call of Duty: Warzone, Black Ops, Zombies and Modern Warfare storylines are all connected. Treyarch is making content for Black Ops Cold War that Raven Software is charged with making work in a game built on Infinity Ward's engine. It's a crossing of the Call of Duty streams I never would have thought possible back in the height of Modern Warfare and Black Ops' rivalry.
This all-encompassing integration hasn't gone smoothly, though. When Black Ops Cold War began its integration with Warzone, the battle royale received a raft of weapons from Treyarch's shooter for use out on the field. Players predicted weapon balance chaos and so it proved, with three weapons from Black Ops Cold War overpowering the Warzone meta over the Christmas break. Three weeks later, Warzone custodian Raven released a nerf for the DMR 14, the Type 63, the Mac-10, and dual pistols in a bid to improve the state of the game. Many felt the nerfs didn't go far enough, and the weapons were nerfed again shortly after. Confusingly, Warzone has two AK-47s, one labelled Black Ops, the other Modern Warfare. The Cold War integration was largely bugged, too, and developer Raven is only now getting on top of the problem.
One year down, and yet there's still much more I'd like to see from Warzone. A proper next-gen version of the game would be a great start. Currently, the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X and S are running the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One versions of Warzone respectively via backwards compatibility. Warzone is a fantastic looking and feeling shooter - but I'd love to see it all-singing, all-dancing on current-gen consoles. And how about a field of view (FOV) slider for Warzone on console? Black Ops Cold War has it, so Warzone is letting the side down here.
Thinking big picture, one thing I think Activision's various Warzone developers have struggled with is the pace of change. The main map of Verdansk has largely remained the same since release. In the summer, Stadium opened up and a train arrived. Soon after, Warzone got a subway system. And then, more recently, the Shipwreck point of interest kicked off a zombies invasion. But that's about it. The hope is that by the end of the current season, Verdansk will be changed significantly. It really needs to. I still have a blast playing this game, but I find the map a bit samey at this point.
As we hopefully emerge from lockdown, Warzone is at a crossroads. It is, fundamentally, a wonderful battle royale, with superb gunplay and action-packed games. In my view it is the best-playing battle royale around. But it could be so much more. Fortnite still outdoes Warzone in the event sense. Epic's effort around map changes and additions makes Activision feel a bit stuck in the mud. Warzone has yet to experience the kind of wow factor Fortnite saw with its black hole event, for example. In order for Warzone to remain relevant, it needs eye-catching events and changes to happen on a fairly regular basis. Perhaps the promised nuke of the map will be Call of Duty's first Fortnite moment.
Whatever the future holds, what cannot be in doubt is the impact Warzone has had on Call of Duty, its developers and Activision in just a year - for better, and for worse. It's worth remembering that Call of Duty was in quite the hole just a few years ago. 2016's Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare was a decent game, but it flopped by Call of Duty standards. Back then, it was felt by many that Call of Duty was in a downward spiral from which there was no return to the glory days of the late noughties and early twenty-teens. Call of Duty wasn't the cool shooter any more. Kids didn't care and celebrities weren't interested. They were too busy playing battle royales like PUBG and then Fortnite. Nobody, it seemed, cared about Call of Duty.
Burnt by Infinity Ward's space shooter, Activision doubled down on "boots on the ground", and Sledgehammer's 2017 effort Call of Duty: WW2 was well-received by fans. Treyarch's 2018 game, Black Ops 4 is perhaps most notable for Call of Duty's first battle royale: Blackout. While Blackout did not hit the battle royale heights Activision perhaps hoped for, it proved Call of Duty could do the genre and do it well. And then Infinity Ward put Call of Duty back on the map with 2019's Modern Warfare, which felt to me like the series' first big hit in years.
When Warzone launched in March 2020, it benefited from a perfect storm: brilliant technology, brilliant gun play, free to play and lockdown. A year later, it's one of the biggest games on TikTok. It's played by celebrities across the world. Premier League footballers tweet clips of long-range sniper kills. Activision made an eye-watering $3bn out of Call of Duty in 2020. Over 200 million people played Call of Duty last year. Undoubtedly, Call of Duty is back in the big time. The question now is, will it stay there?