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What a timeline we find ourselves in, one in which an incredibly hot video game is free to play, published by Activision, and based on one of the most popular franchises. Yet, here we are. Call of Duty: Warzone has entered the competitive battle royale fray, with a few tricks up its sleeve to shake up the formula. Warzone is not the series’ first attempt at the genre: Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 featured a battle royale mode back in 2018. Warzone, however, is based on the 2019 Modern Warfare reboot and deviates from Black Ops’ focus on equipment, while retaining Call of Duty’s signature gameplay and feel. It’s an Editors’ Choice PC game.

Warzone introduces unique battle royale elements, such as loadout kits and respawn mini matches, that separate it from the competition and greatly impact how the game plays. These additions are hit-or-miss, but the overall package is highly polished. Warzone has enough meat to attract traditional first-person shooter fans regardless of its battle royale designation. 

Heart of the Shrinking Circle

If you aren’t already familiar with battle royale style games, the goal is relatively simple: be the last player standing on a massive, but ever-shrinking map as you face off or avoid more than a hundred other players. A circle cuts off a portion of the map incrementally as the match goes on, forcing you to move and risk engaging other players. There are plenty of variations of this gameplay formula: Apex: Legends introduce heroes with unique abilities, while Fortnite adds environmental demolition and building. 

Warzone is a squad-based affair, but it also offers a single-player battle royale mode for those who like to go at it solo. It pushes the envelope a smidge by featuring 150 player lobbies, but the basic game rules are similar to other battle royale titles: be the last man or last squad standing. Warzone mixes up the battle royale formula by being defiantly Call of Duty, with missions, leveling, and loadout kits. These elements have a big impact on how you play the game. 

Enter the Warzone

As mentioned, Warzone is built on Modern Warfare’s framework. Its contemporary weapons, sounds, and animations combine with Warzone’s tremendous and astoundingly detailed map to make a terrific title. Verdansk, the game’s fictional location, features a sprawling, derelict cityscape replete with furnished and meticulously designed interiors. The environments include a building-dense downtown area, suburban towns, mountainous outskirts, and other locales. 

Warzone also has a fantastic sense of verticality, too. Fall damage is lenient, and your parachute can be deployed whenever you want, so you can and should leap off structures whenever you see fit. You’ll find some mirrored graphical assets here and there, most notably with the buildings, but even these make sense within the environment you find them. The interiors are so detailed that they more than make up for the occasional flipped asset.

The game is well balanced, and there are no egregious glitches to report save for a few minor bugs. Matchmaking works well, and leveling your weapons and rank doesn’t feel like a chore. There is a lot that could have gone wrong with Warzone’s launch, especially for a major free-to-play, cross-platform and cross-play launch, but so far my game gripes are relatively minor. Perhaps this all sounds like excessive praise, but considering how many recent AAA games were pushed out of the gate only to crash and burn, it’s apparent that developers Infinity Ward and Raven Software put extra effort into polishing this release.

Level Up

Leveling your primary and secondary weapon via XP is more a means to an end, and not a nuanced Warzone facet. Improving your character’s XP level unlocks new weapons, as well as camo decals, attachments, and other weapon enhancements. Gear that extends your range and places rivals in sights, such as the thermal scope for sniper rifles, are acquired by leveling, too. 

Earning XP is not nearly as much of a chore as I was expecting it to be, since many actions during a match count towards your XP total. Apart from killing enemies, you also earn XP by fulfilling contacts. An alternate game mode, called Plunder (more on that in a bit), also nets you plenty of XP, making it a great way to rank up between battle royale matches.  

Contracts are randomized objectives that appear on your map, which you undertake with your squad. You can only accept one Contract at a time, but they are key to earning the funds needed for purchases at the Buy Stations in Verdansk, as well as rewarding you with precious XP. Contracts alone radically change how you approach the game. While many battle royale games encourage a turtle-oriented, camp approach to victory, Contracts encourage you to take risks and move out into the open. Contracts range from scavenging missions that push you towards visiting a specific location, capturing a point, or hunting down other players via bounties. The focus on moving rather than camping, definitely shakes things up so you’re always doing something during the match. This mechanic is easily one of the biggest improvements Warzone brings to the battle royale meta.

The Big Twists

So, why do you need XP in a battle royale title, you ask? Well, in traditional Call of Duty style, you can use XP to unlock the weapons, camo, attachments, and other perks. The more you unlock, the more you can take advantage of Warzone’s second major twist on the genre formula: access to a customized kit during a match. Prior to a game, you create a loadout with your weapons and perks of choice. 

Besides XP, you rack up in-game money as you play. Once you’ve amassed enough money during a game, you can head over to the nearest Buy Station to purchase a Loadout Drop marker. It lets you summon a drop that contains several premade loadouts, as well as your custom one. With this system, you eliminate a significant amount of randomness inherent in battle royale titles, as you no longer need to scavenge for a worthwhile firearm. If you earn enough cash early on, you can cruise through the rest of the match with your favorite gear and perks.

Reducing randomness is how Warzone stands apart from other games in the genre. You even start with a pistol right from jump, to alleviate some of that early game panic as you run for cover in search of a weapon. The first circle that restricts the map is revealed to you before you even drop into a map. Some recon Contracts reveal subsequent circles, too. Removing the luck factor that defines other battle royales games puts greater emphasis on strategy, gunplay, and positioning. You won’t feel as robbed as you would in say, Fortnite, because a player found a legendary weapon in a random living room and turned it against you at the start of the match. Everyone can access their own loadout if they earn enough cash for it, which usually doesn’t take very long during a game. 

The flipside, however, is that loadout drops make looting largely irrelevant once you get hold of your kit. The randomness associated with finding loot and gearing up greatly contributes to the fun of battle royales, and gives you a different experience every time you play. Warzone’s loadout system removes that element from the game. As a result, there is no real incentive to proactively engage other teams unless you absolutely need to do so. Once you nab your kit, you essentially have all you need to cruise to the end of the game, so there is little reward in fighting other players unless you’re pursuing Contracts.

Perks are unique passive abilities that enhance your innate skill set. Double Time, for example, boosts sprint duration and increases crouched movement speed. Cold Blooded makes you undetectable by thermal scopes. Tracker lets you see enemy footprints. There are dozens of these perks, each of which gives your character a notable advantage over players who lack them. Having access to your preferred weaponry, as well as your perks of choice, makes the Loadout Drop far too appealing to overlook. To inject some of the randomness back into the game, perhaps the perks available should come from a random pool every match, so you never know which ones you can access until the start of the game. 

Get Out of Jail Card

The last major gameplay element in Warzone is the unique respawn mechanic, called the Gulag. When you are defeated in combat, you are dragged into a prison alongside other defeated players, and must fight one in a duel to the death for the right to return to the map. Equipment is randomized here, so you need to be adaptable and use what’s given to you to best the other player. It’s goofy and quite nonsensical, but is a clever way to incorporate respawning into the overall experience. The Gulag is only available early during a game, however. The prison is cut off once a certain number of players have been eliminated, and the only way to return to the map is to be bought back in by squad mates with hard-earned game cash. However, as long as your team has the funding to bring you back, you’re never truly out for the count.

Aside from the basic battle royale modes, you can also play Plunder mode. This mode is all about amassing money: you and your teammates make a mad dash across the Verdansk map to collect as much cash as possible by hunting down other players, raiding randomized cash drops, completing contracts, or simply looting supply boxes. There is no collapsing circle to hinder you, and no gulag either: when you die, you simply respawn after a set period of time. This mode is quite fun, and is notably more relaxed than its battle royale counterpart. As a bonus, the lack of constraints means you get more opportunities to rack up XP, so it’s a great mode for leveling.

Kinks in the Rug

Thankfully, I haven’t run into many issues during my time playing Warzone. The game runs well on my gaming desktop, which features an Nvidia Geforce GTX 970 GPU and Intel i5 4690 processor. I was getting a consistent 60 frames per second (fps) at 1080p, with most visual settings at high or medium. You can, of course, tweak individual settings, such as Shadow Maps, Particle Lighting, Ambient Occlusion, Anti-Aliasing, and Motion Blur to squeeze better performance out of the game, but I found that Warzone ran well enough right from the jump that I didn’t need to tweak much. 

Call of Duty: Warzone can be downloaded via Activision/Blizzard’s Battle.net site. At the bare minimum, you will need an Intel Core i3-4340 or AMD FX-6300 CPU, with either an Nvidia GeForce GTX 670 or AMD Radeon HD 7950 GPU. For a more optimal experience, you’ll want an Intel Core i5-2500k or AMD Ryzen R5 1600X CPU, and Nvidia GeForce GTX 970 or AMD Radeon RX 580 GPU. You also need to create an Activision account, especially if you wish to play with buddies cross-platform on the Xbox One or PS4.

Performance aside, I did encounter a handful of odd and annoying issues during matches. Footstep audio can be wildly inaccurate, resulting in panicked situations where you hear someone nearby but can’t place exactly where. Likewise, gunfire can sound frighteningly close to you, when the actual source is actually so far away that you need not worry about it. I’m not sure if there is some setting I overlooked to rectify this, but I couldn’t puzzle it out. As far as bugs go, during one match I found that I could not repair my armor, but this resolved itself when I died and respawned. I’m not sure what caused the problem. But overall, my experience was relatively smooth, and extremely fun.

A Fantastic Time Sink

A fun diversion is what the doctor ordered in these trying times, and who would have thought that Activision would rise to the occasion to deliver quality entertainment for free. Call of Duty: Warzone marries much of what you enjoy from the CoD series, alongside the massive multiplayer frenzy found in battle royales, to create something distinct, yet comfortably familiar and addictive at the same time. Warzone is well worth checking out if you’re a fan of shooters or battle royales, or if you’re just looking for some free and easy fun to enjoy with your friends online. 

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