Inside Modern Warfare's Push to Rebuild Call of Duty's Multiplayer From the Ground Up

Inside Modern Warfare's Push to Rebuild Call of Duty's Multiplayer From the Ground Up

Animation director Mark Grigsby and multiplayer design director Geoffrey Smith break down the huge overhauls in Modern Warfare.

Call of Duty last had a chance to catch its breath back in 2004, the only year since 2003 in which there hasn't been a new Call of Duty game to shoot through. It was a breezier time then, with Infinity Ward being in charge of developing what was at the time a franchise set in World War II. Times have obviously changed though. Treyarch started developing games in the series in the off years. Sledgehammer, much later in 2011, started helping ease the load too. Since 2003, there have been 16 games in the mainline series released.

There's a change in the air with this year's installment. This year's "reimagining" of Modern Warfare, bringing it to actual modern times, is rethinking the Call of Duty experience from campaign to multiplayer. The campaign is grittier. The multiplayer is both expanding and minimizing the play size, oscillating from 2v2 to an astoundingly chaotic 20v20—and then some. Spec Ops is returning to the series too, but Infinity Ward isn't saying more about it yet. It's all built on a still-unnamed new engine, pairing much-improved graphics with a greater sense of in-game weight. My character feels sluggish and human, contrary to the wallrunning that was present in 2016's Infinite Warfare.

At an event this week for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare's multiplayer, animation director Mark Grigsby and multiplayer design director Geoffrey Smith were bullish about Modern Warfare's future. As live service games are consistently supported for years at a time nowadays, a question is often posed at annualized series like Call of Duty: Is there life in them beyond their launch year? With so much riding on this entry, does it stand a chance at being the big thing for more than half a year before the next Call of Duty is inevitably announced and dominates the conversation?

Their answer, unsurprisingly, is inconclusive.

"I mean, that's kind of a broader franchise question, you know. It's above our pay grade," says Smith. "But that's awesome that this feels like a bigger thing," adds Grigsby with exuberance. "Yes!"

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is a more substantial than usual overhaul. | Infinity Ward/Activision

Smith notes that Infinity Ward has a solid post-launch plan in place, and with no season pass gating players, all maps added to Modern Warfare will be free. While the studio isn't talking about how microtransactions will factor in yet, or whether they will be implemented late like in Black Ops 4, the lack of a paid pass splintering the playerbase has fans excited.

Redefining The Feel of Call of Duty's Weapons and Maps

As animation director, Grigsby's key focus has been to rebuild the weapons from the ground up; from how they sound to how the player's head and gun move independently from one another like in real life. Modern Warfare, as a result, is a very heavy-feeling game, but it's by design.

"That was the number one mandate when we started the project, which was to have characteristic differences between all the weapons," says Grigsby. "To make the lighter weapons feel like their handgun is light, versus a launcher or a LMG. [...] So it was just a process, that was the mandate. We were just like, hey, let's just make sure that each one feels proper to what it's supposed to be in real-life."

Even the map design is moving away from the typical three-land structure. Modern Warfare is introducing small-scale environments for 2v2 modes like Gunfight, as well as large-scale maps for 10v10, 20v20, and even more than 100 players for the new Ground War mode.

There's a lot of verticality and traversal in maps now too. In one map, I scrambled onto a box and then onto an abandoned train car, and took shots from that higher vantage point—I even saw some crawlspaces. You can peek slowly into doors now and toss a grenade in, or even close a door behind you. In terms of progression, the three staple modes—single-player, multiplayer, and the co-op Special Ops—share not just the same unlocks (well, less so for single-player), but weapons that feel the same across all three modes. Surprisingly, that's a first.

"In past games the weapon feel has been a little different. These are all one-to-one, so if you use the AK through single-player, it's gonna feel the same across the other modes," says Smith. "But if you really want to progress your AK through the unlock tree of that weapon, and you're not so great at shooting humans, you can go over and play Spec Ops and you'll be unlocking attachments over there."

You'll have a variety of throwables to equip, such as a molotov. | Infinity Ward/Activision

The amount of maps that will be in the final game is still in flux, according to Smith and Grigsby. Most maps will be the standard "tactical" size, where 6v6 marches onward. There will be a healthy amount of smaller maps and a handful of the bigger ones, of which I played two of during my demo time. Naturally, I ask about the potential for a battle royale, what with 10v10, 20v20, and the much bigger Ground War already in Modern Warfare proper.

"We definitely have an engine to build big environments and we've definitely pushed player accounts really high, but we're just talking about MP here," says Smith. Then he turns the question on me: would I like to see it? I tell him that I'm curious, though Treyarch's Call of Duty: Blackout never grabbed me like PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds and Apex Legends did. After just a week with Blackout, I bounced back to Black Ops 4's main multiplayer.

"The battle maps get much bigger than what we have out here [at the event]," he continues. "They're just still cooking in the oven, and they're just not quite ready for performance reasons and things like that. So yeah, it'll be interesting."

An All-New "Realism" Mode

The more hardened tone of Modern Warfare as a whole drips down into a new mode where you can play without the HUD—meaning no kill counter. Creatively, Smith jokes, it's called the Realism Mode until the team can come up with another phrase.

"That was actually a bug," Smith says. "Our HUD wasn't drawing one day during a play match and because the game looks kind of photorealistic everybody was just like, 'wow, this is actually pretty cool.' You know, you don't get the obituaries. You don't quite know if that person went down and it really made you question if you could move forward. And I think that just with anything, we're always driving ourselves to grow and get better at things and find new solutions to things."

One day they coupled it with night vision, which is the version I played at the event. Night vision is another new mode where you can play maps in the pitch black darkness, where the only light is what might emit indoors or from lamps. (Some maps even have light switches where you can make a room dark and flip on your night vision goggles accordingly to surprise enemies.) The night vision goggles illuminate the world, and when you aim down your sights (ADS), a laser from your gun appears, making you immediately visible.

"We had a crappy version of night vision in COD 4, but we never really had the guts to do dark maps, because it was really just this film overlay, green overlay," says Smith. "It didn't really brighten up the scene, and so it caused a lot of problems. But single-player really invested a lot of time and effort into night vision for single-player, so we really wanted to see if it was even fun. So we turned a couple of maps pitch black and started to run around, chasing each other. We're still trying to see where that nets out and if that resonates, and if it's fun."

It all amounts to quite a bit of changes for this year's Call of Duty. During the presentation before my hands-on time, the sheer amount of information was overwhelming; and that was just focused on the multiplayer, not even touching the deep single-player focused introduction to Modern Warfare that I saw back in May. For Grigsby and Smith, they're cautiously optimistic about how it'll be received.

"I definitely want them to feel like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare has the best down-the-barrel gameplay and weapon feel in any game. Not just shooter, but any game," Grigsby says with emphasis. "I want them to feel that we've done our homework, we've researched and are delivering the most realistic feeling, in animation, effects, the sound, and the art. And to have a lot of damn fun shootin' those weapons, you know."

"I think it'd be obvious to say that you want to make it the best Modern Warfare ever, but that's just like anything that you work on. You want it to be the best," adds Smith. "Hopefully the takeaway is that damn, this is the best one yet. We'll see."

We will see if all the overhauling pays off when Call of Duty: Modern Warfare releases on October 25 for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. It's even getting an open beta on September 14 on PS4, so you'll be able to play it yourself sooner rather than later.

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Caty McCarthy

Senior Editor

Caty McCarthy is a former freelance writer whose work has appeared in Kill Screen, VICE, The AV Club, Kotaku, Polygon, and IGN. When she's not blathering into a podcast mic, reading a book, or playing a billion video games at once, she's probably watching Terrace House or something. She is currently USgamer's Senior Editor.

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