Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is going big, and not just with Infinity Ward's boasting of its latest photogrammetry technology and audio design overhaul. Its maps and player counts are getting much bigger too, for better and for worse.
Earlier this week at a Call of Duty: Modern Warfare multiplayer event, we played a broad sampling of its offerings. We played Domination and Team Deathmatch on the usual 6v6-sized maps. We played the new duo-based Gunfight mode on significantly smaller maps, custom made for 2v2 battles.
And then came the large-scale maps, of which we played two. The maps can host anywhere from 10v10, which was ideal for the Headquarters mode I played, to more than 100 players. The latter is for a new mode called Ground War, which is light on details for now.
During our demo time, I played 10v10 and 20v20 on two of the large-scale maps. The former felt right at home in Call of Duty. My team in Headquarters naturally drifted from area to area, often coming out on top of firefights with the other team. In one scramble, I tossed a frag grenade over a fence outside of a building where gunfire was happening. My screen flashed with two assists confirmed.
It was 20v20, now in Team Deathmatch, where things fell apart a little more. On the minimap, action was largely centralized to one small area. Venturing to it felt like dropping in a hot spot in a battle royale mode like Black Ops 4's Blackout. It was pure chaos, only now no one had to scramble for a gun.
I even found an ATV on the map, which was a particularly pretty locale. I drove around looking for small scale danger, away from the loud gunfire happening in the back corner. I drove to the southside and in the skybox-distance saw a beautiful field of red flowers. I hopped off the ATV when out of the corner of my eye I saw an enemy, who had probably just respawned, in the distance. I shot them and went back on my ATV. (Driving, for the record, happens in third-person.)
The map felt comically big for Team Deathmatch (not battle royale big though), and it didn't surprise me that players were largely concentrated in one area. It felt like no one was taking advantage of the size of the map and all its buildings; people just wanted the same relatively-close quarters combat that they could get in any ol' Team Deathmatch mode. I imagine it's the same reasoning that a lot of my friends who have complained about battle royales have had: "There's no action here. It's all waiting. I'm going to go start a fight."
Well, Modern Warfare's large-scale Team Deathmatch may be the answer for those people. Here is a large environment, but everyone just goes to one area because the mode basically begs you to go where the loud noises are coming from. It actually reminds me of what was dropped earlier this year in another Call of Duty, wherein Treyarch released a map based on Alcatraz for Blackout. It's a small map where you're likely to get shot as soon as you drop.
Other new modes coming to Modern Warfare include a "new spin" on Search and Destroy and Cyber Attack. There's also the aforementioned Ground War that brings over 100 players to the same map—a new tidbit that was a surprise to me in reading the press release after the event I attended earlier this week. In name and sheer size alone, it's already sounding almost Battlefield-like. Given my solid time with 10v10 Headquarters, I'm hoping that Ground War ends up being heavily objective based to divide players' attentions.
In fact, there's a whole lot about this year's Call of Duty that's reminding me of Battlefield. In addition to these larger maps, there's a greater focus being put on realism, whether in its "Realism Mode" that takes out the HUD and kill counts entirely, or in its ground-up rework of all the weapons to be closer to reality. During a presentation, Infinity Ward told a gathering of press that guns were recorded on 90 different channels, and have different sounds for any context: from shooting from the hip compared to ADS, all the way to where and what you're firing at from different distances.
The live demo examples they played in-game made the differences a lot more apparent. While playing on my own, the way-too-loud headphones only made the gunfire more noticeable. I found myself getting startled sometimes by the loud gunfire even, due to not expecting it to be so close-sounding.
The strangest thing of all: I'm still not sure if it really feels like Call of Duty, even with the quicker runtimes of matches that's always been a draw for me. The gameplay itself feels more laborious, which I imagine will be polarizing for some annual fans. And while its single-player campaign wants to tackle the ambiguous gray area of right and wrong in war, its multiplayer on the other end has a Killstreak where you can rain Willie Pete over the other players who might teabag you in death. It's a palpable dissonance that feels greater than past Call of Duty games, even as its multiplayer team emphasizes the realism of its gunplay, of its graphics, of its character factions that are based on real-world groups, of its shiny new night vision goggles.
Still, I sat on a plane following the event on Tuesday wanting to go home and play more Modern Warfare. And as multiplayer design director Geoffrey Smith told me in an interview, it's not like Call of Duty's ever shied away from incentivizing using other devastating instruments of war in multiplayer. Since the first Modern Warfare, you could call in an airstrike to rain down on the map. This is by all accounts nothing really new.
It's the renewed pitch's particular emphasis on realism that's making it feel more loaded than usual. It wants to be serious-minded and wear its realistic gun-feel on its sleeve—all with large-scale, arguably more "lifelike" maps like its military FPS competitor Battlefield—but it wants players to feel "badass" too, as was reiterated in the presentation. And that's the key question that Modern Warfare needs to answer come October 25: are we in an action movie, or are we soldiers?