PS4 players are currently taking part in a Call of Duty: Modern Warfare alpha test. This is open to everyone on the platform--surprisingly, even those without PlayStation Plus--and allows you to check out the new 2v2 Gunfight mode. More extensive beta tests are coming up in September and will include Xbox One and PC, but if you're eager to know what the rest of Modern Warfare 2019's multiplayer is like, read on for our impressions.
When Infinity Ward developers talk about their vision for the multiplayer side of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, they talk about breaking down the franchise's gameplay to its core elements. The point is to find the fun in every part of multiplayer and figure out what does and doesn't work. The new version of Modern Warfare shows the results. In many ways, it's a throwback to an earlier point in the franchise's long yearly evolution: it does away with the more recent turn toward heightened mobility, defined hero characters, and sci-fi technology. In others, it's finding new ways to differentiate itself from a crowded field of shooters, including a plethora of games that have been inspired by the series' success. Modern Warfare maintains the DNA of Call of Duty, but it's also a refresher on the shooter genre that's making the old feel new again.
Activision gave journalists a chance to play a few hours of Modern Warfare's multiplayer a few days before its official reveal livestream event. At the presentation, Infinity Ward gave a pretty broad sense of everything that players can expect from the game when it launches on October 25. One of the biggest pushes evident during our play session sees Infinity Ward reworking the Call of Duty formula to accommodate more varying playstyles. That's evident in just about everything, from the layouts of its maps, to the game's movement and climbing mechanics that are used to reach new locations, to the Gunsmith menu that lets you heavily customize every gun in the game. A lot of the fun of Modern Warfare's multiplayer--and it was a lot of fun--comes from discovering your favorite, strategically advantageous parts of maps, and loading into a match with a gun customized for your specific needs.
Infinity Ward showed off several different modes during the play session. We got in a few sessions of the 2-on-2 Gunfight mode, which takes place on small, symmetrical levels that Infinity Ward refers to as "Flash maps." Slightly larger "Tactical maps" accommodate six-player squads for team deathmatch games, as well as modes like Headquarters, the classic king-of-the-hill game type, and Cyber Attack, in which one team tries to set a bomb on a specific location while the other defends it. A nighttime map shrouded in darkness showed off Modern Warfare's new tech for rendering night-vision goggles, along with the realistic effects that come with them--like the inability to fully aim down sights, since a gun against your face would knock into the goggles parked there.
Matches got even bigger and more intense, though: We played some that sported 10-player teams and others with 20-player teams. Art director Joel Emslie told GameSpot that Modern Warfare's multiplayer will support more than 100 players in some matches, and has the maps to match.
Redesigning The Playing Field
It's the maps that make this new approach to Call of Duty work. Infinity Ward said it's moving away from the "three-lane" style of shooter maps--a design that usually includes three main pathways toward the center of the area, driving players to engage with each other but offering little in the way of strategic and tactical options.
Instead, Modern Warfare's maps are designed more like real urban areas, with the emphasis placed on free-standing buildings and verticality. There are lots of structures you can enter and ascend to find useful sightlines and elevated positions. Infinity Ward is also putting a big emphasis on traversal and mantling, giving you ways of reaching high ground that aren't immediately obvious.
The movement system is perfect for reaching "power positions," where you can use sightlines to take down unsuspecting foes or flank an entrenched enemy who's picking off your teammates from a hard-to-hit spot. Infinity Ward likened the approach to that of arena shooters, which drive players to critical locations (and into firefights) with the placement of power weapons.
Studio head Pat Kelly said during the presentation that Infinity Ward wanted to encourage players to explore to create and refine their own strategies based on the maps' designs. The goal was to make sure you could feel clever as you found innovative ways to take the advantage.
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Infinity Ward said these changes to how it makes maps are meant to accommodate lots of different strategies, even in the middle of fights. Running and gunning with a shotgun can be lethal in some places, just as staking out a tough-to-spot window and camping it can be. Maps are generally built with a lot of flanking opportunities and verticality, requiring you to adapt to many different situations as you play.
Another big addition is that of doors, which can change fights significantly. You can use doors in a variety of ways, just by opening and closing them to create or eliminate sightlines. Opening a door while aiming down your gunsights lets you peek through--and maybe toss in a flashbang or grenade. Sprinting or sliding into a door, or using a melee attack, lets you kick it in, potentially disorienting people on the other side, but it's a loud approach that gives away your position.
You can also breach doors with any explosive in the game, or use them to hide claymores to take out approaching flankers. Elements such as doors can also give you a ton of information about other players' locations if you listen carefully, thanks to Modern Warfare's sound technology and design. That's extremely handy, since personal radar is only accessible by earning Killstreaks, a change from past games.
There Are Many Like It, But This One Is Mine
Modern Warfare's customization options allow for a lot of variety in playstyle as well. The new Gunsmith menu adds a lot of freedom to Call of Duty's usual custom weapon loadouts, allowing you add a mess of attachments to every gun in the game once you've unlocked them. Each weapon can handle up to five attachments, which is a few short of all the available options--and you can unlock anywhere between 30 and 60 attachments for each weapon. You can add sights, targeting lasers, extended magazines, and various barrels, grips, and stocks. All of them have strengths and weaknesses: a scope gives you better range at the cost of handling speed, while a stock that reduces recoil is heavier and thus slows down your movement.
Emslie said the size and variety in the maps, the materials used to construct them (some of which you can shoot through, depending on your gun's caliber), and new additions like driveable vehicles (which you can destroy with your weapons, like other Killstreak vehicles such as attack helicopters), make Gunsmith customization a pretty essential part of your strategy.
"The player counts and the environments are so large that you need your weapons platform to be way more versatile and you can go deep with that stuff," he said. "It was almost a necessity. You can get extended mags and drum mags, and yeah, it goes crazy. You can modify the weapon down into a nine-millimeter magwell, so you can turn an [assault rifle] into a submachine gun. And it's just really fun."
Call of Duty's perk system makes a return in mostly the way players expect, as well. You can choose three perks for your character, but individual guns can also each sport a perk slot as one of its five attachments. Those can give you little boosts, like a faster melee attack or better bullet penetration, that can further amplify your particular method of approaching a fight.
Support For Support Players
Modern Warfare brings back the franchise's Killstreaks, which give you special weapons or abilities based on how many enemies you take down before dying. The significant change here is the move away from Scorestreaks, which gave you rewards for completing objectives or helping teammates, not just making kills. The Scorestreak system gave players ways to contribute to their team without necessarily being big kill-earners, but Infinity Ward said Scorestreaks made those rewards too unpredictable. Instead, it reworked the old Killstreak system because it added higher stakes to staying alive during a match.
That doesn't mean you lose the ability to contribute if your kill-to-death ratio is a bit lacking, though. Your equipment choices can provide you with additional ways to support your team. You can trade a grenade for a Tactical Insertion flare, for instance, which you can drop in a match to choose your next respawn point--perfect for defending a specific location. You can also add one of a new set of Field Upgrade items to your loadout. These equipment pieces all run on cooldown timers and become available periodically as you play. Most offer ways to support your teammates by allowing you to provide extra ammo, destroy enemy explosives, or control a remote recon drone that can mark opponents.
Killstreaks have gotten an overhaul as well. There are plenty that let you rain death on enemies with airstrikes or support helicopters, as in past games. But several also let you call in driveable vehicles like tanks, which often have room for more than one player. That means a teammate's killstreak can also benefit you: you can hop into the gunner's seat of the roof-mounted .50-cal of someone else's tank, for a start. All those customizations and options provide lots of different avenues for success for different kinds of players. Developers said they expect the combinations of guns, vehicles, equipment, and map design to lead to ideas and strategies the studio has never considered.
A More Unified Experience
One element we didn't get much of a look at is the way that Modern Warfare's modes will interact with each other. During the reveal event for the game in June, Kelly mentioned that one big push is to try to make Modern Warfare a more holistic experience. He said the goal was to move away from releasing a game that feels like three separate products in one package: a single-player campaign, which is pretty much separate from multiplayer, and which is pretty much separate from a more cooperative mode like Zombies. (Modern Warfare doesn't have a Zombies mode, but Infinity Ward has mentioned it'll include the cooperative Spec Ops mode, instead.)
Emslie said part of the synergy between the game modes will come from shared or adjacent locations that make the campaign feel relevant to multiplayer. You can look off the side of one multiplayer map we played and see a site from the campaign, for instance. "You might see different characters appearing in Spec Ops from the narrative, and stories carry through," he said.
The major consistency from one mode to the next is in how Modern Warfare plays, though, Emslie said.
"What we really worked on was our consistency so that, if you're someone that really likes to play narrative, and you're interested in that, and you're familiar with a weapon, when you go and experience that weapon in another mode [it plays the same]. Let's say you could train in single-player for a gunfight. And you pick [the same gun] up somewhere else--'Oh, I know that gun, I know that kicks like a mule. And I know that configuration and profile.'"
Much like the original Modern Warfare, using guns earns you points that allow you to unlock new attachments for those specific weapons. Your earnings also transfer between modes, so you can level up your guns in single-player or Spec Ops and retain all your attachments when you hop into multiplayer.
'Grey Area' Versus 'Badass'
Though Infinity Ward is trying to make Modern Warfare's modes feel more unified, the effort raises the question of how multiplayer interacts with the single-player campaign. During the first reveal for the game, narrative director Taylor Kurosaki explained that part of the studio's approach to modern Warfare was to tell a more realistic story that delved into the gray areas of morality and right and wrong in war. That approach sounds like it's fundamentally at odds with the multiplayer approach, which Infinity Ward emphasized works to make players feel "badass."
Modern Warfare came under fire in the days before the multiplayer reveal when Infinity Ward announced some of its upcoming Killstreaks, one of which is an airstrike of white phosphorus. We encountered the Killstreak during our play session when the opposing team dropped it on us. It functions like a giant deadly gas cloud that turns your vision black-and-white, does a small amount of damage to you, and slows your movement speed. According to the Killstreak description, white phosphorus also can burn players in matches, but we didn't encounter that aspect.
In the real world, white phosphorus is a horrific weapon that melts skin--it was used by the US military in Iraq, resulting in thousands of civilian casualties. Using that sort of weapon for fun on other players in multiplayer seems like a big disconnect from a story that's trying to explore a more human side of warfare.
Call of Duty has long utilized weapons for multiplayer gameplay that are terrifying in the real world. In fact, you could argue all of its weapons fall into that category. As Emslie pointed out, the multiplayer trailer shown during the event ended with the detonation of another Killstreak from past games: a nuclear bomb.
"I think that, in the end, the narrative is telling a story, a serious story, and it does things in a way, to make things--it's trying to get a dramatic reaction out of the player, and making you feel things," Emslie said.
"We want people to be thoughtful about what they're playing," audio director Stephen Miller added.
"In the narrative experience, you're using this landscape and this universe to make people care about these characters," Emslie continued. "And then when you're in the multiplayer space, you're trying to get them, using the same things in the same universe, to care more about the fun that they're having. It's almost like a mental chess game, where you're solving puzzles with mechanics and doing these things. And the characters that are in there, it's more about representing you in this play-space.
"...It's almost like having two different actors in the same film," he said. "You might have a really dramatic, deep, disturbed character with a horrible past and all this trauma. And then over here, you've got another character that's devil may care, whatever. But I look at it that way. I almost look at the game as, it's three very different characters and actors in the same film, in the same play."
Probably the biggest news to come out of the Modern Warfare reveal announcement, other than the game itself, was its support for crossplay between PS4, Xbox One, and PC players. That capability was on display during both events, where matches ran across systems with no discernable difference between the experiences.
Conventional wisdom holds that crossplay might create some disparities between players, though. It's generally accepted that PC players using a mouse-and-keyboard setup benefit from smoother, more accurate aiming than their console counterparts who use gamepads. In testing the game, though, Emslie and Miller said Infinity Ward hadn't seen many issues in that vein--individual skill is the more important factor.
"We had some pro-gamers out to the studio when we had crossplay," Emslie said. "And we had console versus PC, and the console guy kicked the PC guy's ass. And I was just totally impressed, but I've seen people on a pad playing with their thumbs and a touch screen going against PC and, you know, I think it just comes down to how good you are with the interface. It's starting to get to that point, I think."
"And we had console versus PC, and the console guy kicked the PC guy's ass."
Emslie also said Infinity Ward is paying close attention to the balance between platforms and is working on systems to make sure that everyone who fires up a Modern Warfare match is on an even keel. Developers are still refining those systems, but Emslie said ensuring that balance is a major priority for the developer.
There's a lot we don't yet know about Modern Warfare, but the time we spent playing it at the multiplayer reveal suggested Infinity Ward's work in breaking down and reevaluating the Call of Duty formula has yielded a lot of exciting, fun results. From gunplay to sound design and map layout, Modern Warfare is a major refresh on the franchise's formula, without straying too far out of the lines of what fans think of when they think "Call of Duty."
Kelly said during the multiplayer reveal presentation that the studio wants to make sure to distinguish Modern Warfare in the minds of players: It's not a remake or a remaster, but something new. At least after a few hours of playtime, with its focus on new technology, crossplay, and revisiting and refining old aspects of the franchise while looking for new ones, it seems like Infinity Ward has accomplished that goal--and like Modern Warfare could be a big step forward for Call of Duty.