Today, Call of Duty launched a new Modern Warfare mode that doubles as a standalone spin-off: Call of Duty: Warzone. It's a free-to-play game that comes at a hefty price in terms of space (a staggering 80 to 100GB), but if you're already an owner of Modern Warfare proper, it's "just" 15 to 22 GB—for me it was around 15GB. And while it ain't the series' first rodeo with free-to-play or battle royale, it's the one packed with the most ideas yet.
The biggest phrase in Warzone's arsenal is a familiar one: battle royale. After spending a few hours with Warzone, I find its battle royale has more in common with Apex Legends, contrary to 2018's Blackout taking cues from PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds. It brings to Call of Duty's battle royale pinging and respawning team players, as well as trios in place of four or six-person squads. Your parties have a squad leader, but there's no group dropping. (My first match saw my team unexpectedly scattered, because I assumed it was a Jumpmaster situation. Oops!) However, Warzone's secret weapon actually has hardly anything to do with battle royale at all: its new mode called Plunder.
Plunder shares the same map as Warzone's traditional battle royale mode, one that stitches together familiar locales from the somehow-still-busted Spec Ops co-op missions with new regions. In Plunder, 150 players in teams of three drop onto the map as always, only now you can have a loadout equipped. Here, your endgoal isn't to be the last trio standing, it's to make the most money. Money can be found around the map in supply crates, and can be earned through completing objective-based "Contracts." Once a team reaches $1 million, a final two minute frenzy kicks in for the match's end, and the team with the most money wins the match. The downside of Plunder is that matches go on for a really long time because of the steep goal. Two matches back-to-back took me an hour. The upside: It's far more fun than Warzone's battle royale.
It's the objectives, really. Called "Contracts," across the map of Verdansk parties can pick up one mission at a time, which are scattered around like loot. An objective can be to hunt down supply crates marked in the distance once you pick up the Contract, or it might mark another player on the battlefield for you to find and take out as a bounty. Contracts are available in battle royale as well, but there's honestly less incentive to tackle them.
In battle royale, these bonus systems make the mode needlessly complex. You can pursue Contracts for money to buy Killstreaks and "Redeploy Tokens" to bring back a squadmate, but you can also find most of the same things as loot. The battle royale's biggest weakness is in its pacing. Part of that is due to its unique "Gulag" feature, wherein upon your first death, you're dropped onto a small Gunfight map and have to take out another player in a quick 1v1 battle with a limited arsenal. (In one, we each just had a pistol, for instance.) If you win, you can redeploy and rejoin your team. If you lose, you're forced to wait until your teammates make a large sum of money to buy your way back in at a "Buy Station" on the map.
The problem is: this is a Call of Duty audience we're dealing with, possibly the least patient pool of players I've ever played with. (No offense!) In the thousand-ish hours I've spent playing Call of Duty over a dozen-plus years, I've found that players are often quick to quit if they're on a losing team. In Warzone, there's no exception: During my matches, most quit upon dying immediately, without fail. In one match where I waited patiently, no one made an effort to ever redeploy me. On the opposite situation, no one seems down to hang around for the potential of being tapped back into the fight, like in Apex Legends.
Maybe this will change as more players funnel into the mode now that it's launched as a standalone release proper, alas, my experiences this morning have been frustrating for this reason. It's understandable, considering it's a big ask to have your players pivot to a new goal part way through a match because someone died. The ease of piling near a risky respawn beacon, like in Apex Legends or Fortnite, is missing here. It's one step too many, and not at the forefront of players' minds as a result.
In Plunder though, this isn't an issue. When you die, you simply spawn back in. While this does elongate matches considerably—I hope in the weeks to come, Infinity Ward finds a way to shorten matches by at least 10 minutes somehow; whether it be by rebalancing the money around the map or lessening the endgoal of $1 million to trigger the two minute match finale—it does remedy the frustration of waiting periods of relying on your teammates to tap you back in.
There's still steep blowback for dying: You drop and lose all the money you were carrying if you failed to deposit it into either a helicopter call-in point, or in a Cash Deposit Balloon, which you can purchase at a Buy Station or find as loot on the map. The tension that I come to battle royales for is plainly more present, and more dynamic, in Plunder than in the battle royale proper of Warzone.
In my matches with Plunder, my team experienced far more action than in battle royale too. In chasing after Contracts, we often got into firefights. When we called a helicopter in to deposit money on a designated helipad, in one instance two squads tried to kill us, but we somehow emerged victorious (and with more money on the opposite end). We were even the top team for a short while afterward—until we lost an especially large sum as we died later, which sank us to 5th place. It's easy to come back from a loss, and to pull into the lead unexpectedly.
The Contract objectives work in Plunder. They give the mode a purpose, and tension. While the chief issue of matches lasting a touch too long remains (in addition to an especially long lobby wait time), if I find myself dipping back into Warzone, it will be for Plunder, not battle royale.