Above: 10 minutes of CoD: Modern Warfare multiplayer gameplay (played with a PS4 controller).
I’m sitting in the backseat of a rickety jeep, a pair of identical ghillie suits leering back at me. Within seconds, six of us have hopped off and donned the very-much-required night vision goggles, our sight momentarily blown out in the desert night. Welcome to the intro to (most) modes in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’s multiplayer. Fewer timers, a distinctly slower pace, and woe to anyone playing it like the CoDs of '17 and '18.
A cave entrance to our immediate right seems like the most reasonable route into the match. Inside is a winding path of hiding spots, waist-high tables and crates, and a few lanterns tied to the crumbling planks of wood holding it all up. I can instantly tell which dark little corners I’ll be hiding in when the shooting starts.
And yet, here I am, moving up from cover to cover, communicating angles with teammates. We’ve moved all of 40 yards, and we’re only just coming up on the halfway point of this cave, a raised platform and road less than 10 yards ahead.
Infrared lasers flash around the corner, wobbling with deliberate movement. We hurry back into cover, pressing up against crates and man-made barriers. With a single key click, I’ve pushed my camera up against the edge of a waist-high concrete roadblock, my sights able to pivot along the angle I’ve set up for myself. This is mounting—a new feature that changes the moment-to-moment movement and flow of multiplayer COD matches, emphasizing covering your corners and lowering your odds of getting picked off. With a buddy posting at the opposite end, we’ve got every inch covered while minimizing our profiles practically into shadows.
Soon the cave is flooded with M14 and automatic gunfire, stun grenades that blind us particularly hard through our green-tinted NVGs, and the reverberation of every shot echoing into the darkness. One enemy drops dead before he makes it five feet beyond the mouth of the tunnel. Another plunks down a metal shield wall to provide better cover. I’m laying down suppression with my M14. With no UI, I’m not entirely sure if it's helping, but it feels like a fight where you don’t have time to think. Just as the sounds of gunfire begin to die down, I snag a perfectly timed headshot on an enemy further down the tunnel as he crosses between bits of flimsy wooden cover. For the first time in years, I’ve a killstreak going.
Modern Warfare wants you to be “in the shit,” as studio director Pat Kelly puts it. No more wingsuits or double jumps, no more trick shots. Aside from more grounded military sims like Arma, Modern Warfare might be the closest thing to “Zero Dark Thirty, the Game,” and that’s not just reserved for the single-player.
But even if that makes you nervous for your action-shooter, there’s a kernel of the more recent games’ spirit in there, even if it’s been dramatically reshaped. Amid the earnest, if painfully familiar presentation points about “authentic, gritty,” experiences and gameplay being “king,” when multiplayer design director Joe Cecot mentioned the game’s supposed similarities to, of all things, the lightgun arcade game Time Crisis, you bet your ass I started listening.
Infinity Ward’s entries into the Dutyverse have always felt just a hair snappier and tighter than even the most beloved Black Ops. Sledgehammer’s WWII and Advanced Warfare gave them a run for their money, but even post-MW3 (and god forbid Ghosts), Infinity Ward’s entries have always felt like home to me.
That makes it all the more pleasing to know that the Modern Warfare’s reboot is drawing, at least partially, from Time Crisis, another staple of my inner warm and fuzzy nostalgia. On my 11th birthday, I received 11 dollars, and proceeded to spend every quarter of it playing the first Time Crisis at my local theater. Maybe it was there that I gained an appreciation for snappy cover-to-cover shooting. This new Modern Warfare gave me distinct flashbacks to those days, even if the experience is far from a 1:1.
Yes, comparing the best-selling shooter in the known universe to an increasingly dated arcade game is a bit reductive, but bear with me here. Remember how crucial timing and cover were in Time Crisis? Even in later installments, the fundamental approach never quite changed, even with more cyborg ninjas thrown in. Run to cover, throw yourself up into the fight only when appropriate, dodge every death blow at any cost. Though you’re not “popping” up and down, you're encouraged to lean into cover and choose your battles, in a way that feels more fluid and tactical than some other cover-based shooters. Those of us who got to play on the fancier machines with recoil built into the lightguns will also remember that sense of weight and thrust with each shot. Even though it wasn’t exactly comparable playing Modern Warfare, I felt that same heft with each shot of the M14. There’s a weight to everything now, you and your gun included.
“We did want to give some new verbs to the players,” says design director Jack O’Hara. “So that's where the mount came in, wanting players to be able to rest up and cover the angle, which then led to modifications in the level design, where now every level designer has to think 'OK, somebody is going to post up here. Let's make sure that that's what we want them to do and that we're not just creating scenarios where it's awful gameplay because everybody is mounted on corners of this thing.’ So it definitely modified our level design and gave us this extra layer that we wanted in the combat, of taking the choice that I'll stop here so my teammate can move forward, and then I can cover him up.”
I can feel myself fighting against my natural impulses in Modern Warfare. The last several years of COD multiplayer have all been about wall-running, double jumps, and general speed. The new Modern Warfare feels like the slowest, most deliberately paced entry in memory. Maybe that’s why I’ve glommed onto battle royale shooters like PUBG and Apex, and admire Black Ops 4’s Blackout mode from afar. Who wants to spend two-thirds of a match sprinting around in silence only to be cut down by someone with snappier aim? Give me that longevity, that sense that I’m at least contributing by watching a corridor, that I’m pressuring the opponent to make dumb decisions so my likely death isn’t ultimately in vain. Color me shocked to find that feeling in a Call of Duty game of all places. In some ways, and the developers admit this during our interview, it’s drawing from the single-player in ways that go beyond the usual tutoring for multiplayer.
It’s that slower pace, the pace of a single-player level before the shit hits the fan, when you’re toeing your way into a hideout and you see your diligent squadmate stacking up alongside you, like in the opening moments of the original Modern Warfare’s “Crew Expendable” as you work your way through the decks of a cargo ship to unsuspecting combatants.
Competing design philosophies
I’m struggling to survive through Domination mode, learning what angles to cover and where to give my teammates room to breathe. I’m just inside the interior of a rusted out garage, a capture point just in front of me in the form of a supply truck. The new mount mechanic allows me to stack up against the edge of the garage door, and suddenly that little bit of extra stability and cover affords me three clever kills. It’s starting to click. If you play Modern Warfare as you did the original or its later counterparts—each fight ending with whoever can snap and tap Mouse 1 the fastest—you may not necessarily lose a fight in MW, but you will make things considerably harder for yourself.
Nowhere was this more apparent than in the new mode Cyber Attack. It’s pretty similar to the old Search & Destroy, only now both teams are attempting to grab a shared bomb on the map and plant it at the enemy’s base, or just eliminate opponents. It was here that the leader inside me (read: loud jerk) came out, and communication quickly became key to boxing in our opponents and heading them off when they managed to snag the bomb. With only one life per round, it reminds me of CS:GO.
By now, I’ve remembered why I love the M14: it's comfortable up close and at long range, its stopping power is brutal, and it coughs out a terrifying pow. I feel comfortable as I turn the corner into the center lane of Hackney Yard, an appropriately British-looking series of dock warehouses. It’s perhaps the map that most resembles an older layout, with its three relatively symmetrical lanes. We’re mounting up against steel shipping containers in the center, pressuring the leftmost corner where the enemy seems to be emerging from. I’m digging in, even though I know I can’t be more than 10 yards from the enemy already. An enemy player sticks his head out and promptly loses it, his teammate stepping backwards to avoid making it a two-for-one. A teammate of my own is crossing to the right, exposing themselves but providing fresh pressure, and suddenly we’ve pincered them all into one convenient firing line.
“When you look at MP games, I think a lot of games these days are driven by data. You can get into a world where people think three lane maps is most fun, so make everything that way,” O’Hara says. “I think what that ends up with is everything is the same, and that's not what we wanted to do.
That feeling of being boxed in comes back one round later when I’m the sole survivor, driven to the leftmost edge of the map. Suddenly I remember, hey, I can open doors, and squirrel my way around the few enemy players left, snag the bomb, and make a mad dash to their base. With such dense cover and few long lines of sight, I’m in their house before they even know what hit them.
Out with the old, in with the familiar
That stop-start-stop-start rhythm and slower pace is what will most likely define this new Call of Duty, though that of course comes with the caveat that all Call of Duty games come with: This is Call of Duty, and it’s still an arcade shooter in most senses.
Of course, it isn’t Call of Duty without some thunderous fireworks, and the return of killstreaks provides about what you’d expect. It works on a fairly simple “pick three” system, with greater rewards requiring greater killstreaks. There’s your standard assortment of guided missiles, airstrikes, random killstreak supply drops, and yes, the recently discussed white phosphorous gas for 10 kills.
Fast forward back to the night vision cave battle, and I’ve finally got one of the new toys at my disposal thanks to a perk that rolls over a certain number of kills into my next life.
As soon as our pitched firefight slows down, I launch the Wheelson, a four-foot-tall anti-infantry tank that looks like the militarized version of those battery-powered jeeps you’d drive around as a five-year-old.
If I thought individual gunshots were imposing, Wheelson’s rounds impacting on the cave wall felt like a Fourth of July show. The little tank is a quick mover, and my teammates are quickly following behind him just as in Modern Warfare 2’s Honey Badger mission, just on a smaller scale. As each round fires, the cave lights up, like a series of old timey flash photographs, revealing enemy positions and generally scaring the bejeezus out of everyone.
Until I get him snagged on a rock and he turns into a stationary turret for the remainder of his life. Unfortunately, Wheelson controls like Halo’s Warthog on ice. For a game that revels in a (somewhat) slower pace, this drone felt like the twitchy remnant of a different era of Call of Duty.
Just the 2v2 of us
In an age where even CoD has its own battle royale mode, the fact that Modern Warfare is giving us a 2v2 mode with maps that you can cross in about 10 seconds is a bit surprising. Chris got to play on the King map not long ago, but with this demo we got the chance to play on the similarly industrial Stack map and the outdoors Pine map. Equipped with the same loadouts as our enemies, these bite-sized fights feel surprisingly tense, especially when your 2v1 advantage turns into a 1v1.
Like more classic maps, these are designed to be almost perfectly symmetrical, to the point where Pine has dual wooden platforms on either side that provide a valuable (but vulnerable) overlook. Here, it’s less about boxing in your opponent and attritioning their strength like in other modes, and more about getting the one perfect shot or sightline. Think the speedball variant of paintball, with evenly distributed obstacles on either side and a focus on efficiently eliminating your opponent with one shot.
It’s a popcorn kind of mode for sure, but it may end up having some legs as more maps hopefully get revealed in the future. Living with a roommate who’s obsessed with NBA 2K19’s 3v3 mode, I can certainly see how it might happen for me and Call of Duty.
It almost feels like a cliche to say it, but for better or worse, Modern Warfare is still a Call of Duty game. That said, this is the first Call of Duty in a long while that’s felt like something structurally and stylistically up my alley. Rather than chasing another trend in battle royale, Modern Warfare seems glad to reinvent itself just enough to bring in players who prefer a more moderately paced, less twitchy controls that will hopefully bring in a fresh wave of players who perhaps gravitated towards shooters with more deliberate pacing.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is out on October 25. The PC early access beta starts September 19, while the open beta starts on September 21.