What’s special about COD Warzone?

When you were a kid, lying on your front on the living room carpet, playing with your green plastic army soldier set, what was your preferred machine gun noise?

Was it the classic “EHHH-EHH-EHH-EHH-EHH!” vocalisation? Did you blow a muted raspberry using just your lips? Some of you will have been that show-off kid who had to sound more realistic than everyone else; rolling your “R”s behind clenched teeth to create a “TRRRRR, TRRRRR!” sound. Either way, we can all agree that these are all very cool things to do. I’m thirty-seven years old.

Call of Duty has always been a ludicrous, obscene, garish action series that purports to represent elements of real war whilst simultaneously being the fever dream of that 8 year old playing toy soldiers on his carpet, except that 8 year old has been given a multi-million dollar budget. “War is gritty and awful,” they tell us, before whispering “but we also secretly think it’s really cool.” It’s amazing how many of us have squared away the dichotomy of a series that drops you into the D-Day landings to relive its horrors through the eyes of the people who were there, whilst elsewhere rewarding you with sick guitar riffs for achieving a headshot quota. To quote a much older videogame series centred around military conflict

“War has never been so much fun”

Canon Fodder, 1993

Blackout was Activision’s first entry into the Battle Royale genre, and the idea of a BR game with CoD’s shooting proved to be an irresistible combination. Then, Respawn and EA released the free-to-play Apex Legends, and I put down Blackout for good – it felt superior to play in every way. So when Infinity Ward eventually responded with their own free-to-play BR – Warzone – it needed to be something special to divert my attention.

The Gulag rocks

It’s Warzone’s multiple ways of getting you back into the fight that makes the game unique in the battle royale genre. Players can get a second chance by winning their Gulag fight, or they can be bought back in from a buy station if you have collected enough cash. Alternatively, a Most Wanted mission marks the player on the map for all to see but, should they survive for the time limit, all teammates will respawn. It makes for a thrilling, last-ditch attempt at staying in the game, and three minutes feels like forever when you’re watching through your remaining teammate’s eyes as they fight to survive. Some people hate that, but nothing feels better than going from watching one teammate hang on by the skin of their teeth to seeing your squad rise from the ashes and secure a victory.

Warzone feels so different to Blackout, which put many off at first, but Warzone excels in what interests me the most in a battle royale – the story. It’s not a 50 hour, AAA open world game with a fully voice-acted script, it’s a game where you make your own stories. Apex Legends is wonderful and can have its twists and turns, but the abilities and rulesets give it a very prescriptive “esports” flavour. The lore even sets the game in an arena of sorts, so you always feel like you’re playing a weird futuresport. There’s nothing wrong with that, and I’ve sunk a lot of time into Apex, but it has never quite produced the magic Warzone provides when the ingredients are just right.

Call of Duty’s veil of realism has always been comically thin, but it doesn’t stop you becoming immersed in the action. A casual session with friends starts with jokes and silliness, but a few rounds later (especially if we haven’t won yet), it’s serious voices and curt, efficient exchanges; that’s all down to the sense of atmosphere Infinity Ward has created. We’re a band of brothers, working together to stay alive. An encroaching cloud of gas compels us to press onward, dodging lethal pingers from an enemy sniper as we weave in and out of abandoned houses. We spot a rival squad, probably having the same panicked conversations as we are. An airstrike is called in and we make a split-second decision to leap off a nearby clifftop to parachute to safety, a cacophony of explosions ringing in our ears. But none of this is scripted, this is just the product of different rulesets coming together harmoniously, organically, an improv play created by a hundred different people all looking for the thrill of the big win. When events play out just right, you feel like you’re in the middle of an exciting, improvised epic action scene from a blockbuster war movie, like if someone made an incredibly tasteless Dunkirk: The Ride at Universal Studios.

Our squad aren’t the greatest Call of Duty players that ever lived, I’ll admit it, but we have our moments. When everyone comes together and gets the job done, the rush is amazing. If you were a pro player, I imagine you’d get a lot less out of this game; it’s the slightly bad decisions, the hilarious cock-ups, and the skin-of-the-teeth moments that make the game so good. Nothing feels worse than second place, but Warzone has, hands down, the best victory screen in a battle royale by a mile. The hard cut to black makes it feel like the end of a movie, and that’s exactly what a round of Warzone is: a movie. Sometimes that movie is a knockabout farce as someone flies a helicopter into some power lines, sometimes it’s a tense, slow-paced thriller. Sometimes it’s a war epic with key characters unceremoniously dying, before coming back from the dead to miraculously save the day. Sometimes it’s all three.

Being in strict self-isolation during this coronavirus outbreak, shielding a particularly vulnerable loved one, I’ve been unable to leave the house and see anyone in person, be it socially distanced or not, for fourteen weeks. A regular meet up on Warzone with the same squad of buddies has meant we’ve been able to go on some incredible adventures and have sorely-needed laughs late into the night.

Is it the same as meeting up in person? No of course it isn’t – it’s a videogame, mate. But it’ll fucking do for now.