The writing is on the walls. Call of Duty is changing, and it just might last this time.
You can roughly trace the evolution of first-person shooters over the past 1.5 decades with the annual Call of Duty releases. There was the time when everyone loved modern military shooters, followed by a few years when our boots took off the ground and started wallrunning or jetpacking. When the hero shooters hit hard, Treyarch responded with Black Ops 3’s unique characters and ultimates. It was fun for a while, but then the clock reset and Activision thought, hey, maybe. to be that WWII would be fun again. This was not the case.
This brings us to our current era, the one I believe is about to pass away (opens in a new tab): battle royale. Activision got into battle royale early on and grabbed a massive following with its standalone, free-to-play Call of Duty: Warzone. The most popular way to play CoD in 2022 is in a lobby with 149 other people, something I never imagined in 2007. But now, almost three years later, I’ve noticed waning interest in the same old battle royale and I think Activision has too. Infinity Ward is bringing battle royale back to Warzone 2.0, but at the same time it’s going big on its next bet: AI and PvPvE.
If you haven’t noticed, there are AI fighters all over Modern Warfare 2. In fact, literally every tentpole mode in Modern Warfare 2 implements AI in some way:
- Multiplayer: AI grunts join the battle in 20v20 Ground War modes
- Warzone 2.0: AI is scattered around the new Al Mazrah in strongholds protecting rare loot
- Spec Ops: 2-player co-op missions against the AI
- Raids: Destiny-style co-op missions with challenging AI encounters and combat puzzles
- DMZ: Warzone’s Mysterious New PvPvE Extraction Mode Launches Alongside Battle Royale
We get a first look at CoD’s AI push during this weekend’s Modern Warfare 2 beta (opens in a new tab). In the new Invasion mode, a take on Titanfall’s Attrition mode, nameless grunts join a large-scale 20v20 team deathmatch where AI kills are worth less points than players. I wasn’t expecting much from Invasion, but it’s actually my favorite beta mode so far. Moment to moment it’s still TDM, but the extra bodies running around saturate the map so it gives the illusion of a large conflict, almost battlefield scale, in a much smaller space. It’s also just satisfying to mess up a whole gang of AIs going down in one or two bullets.
I’m very interested in how Modern Warfare 2 will approach raids. Infinity Ward deliberately draws comparisons to Destiny 2 in its description of raids as “a cooperative engagement requiring teamwork and strategic puzzle-solving thinking between intense combat”. Destiny’s raids are almost universally considered the best parts of these games, but only a fraction of people who play them see them due to level requirements. Infinity Ward seems to speed up this process by simply creating raid missions that anyone can play.
Beyond the War Zone
I think the real test of the Call of Duty AI experience will have to wait until Warzone 2.0, though. I’m skeptical that the nameless grunts that roam the map in battle royale will add anything other than target practice. Infinity Ward says AI enemies have a “variety of lethality levels” and “defend their turf like a CDL pro”, but grumbling content streamers encountered during the Warzone 2.0 live reveal were games of d ‘child. I’ve yet to see AI that really threatens players like, say, the slug monsters, insect assassins, and water monsters in Hunt: Showdown.
If the AI is little more than a distraction in battle royale, hopefully it takes center stage in the DMZ. My new found love for extraction shooters may color this a bit, but I feel like DMZ is a big deal for Infinity Ward. There’s growing interest in the format that splits the difference between high-risk survival shooters and battle royale. Many extraction shooters, characterized by the freedom to roam the map, fight players, complete objectives and leave whenever you want, have appeared lately. The burgeoning genre was dominated by stealth cowboy shooter Hunt: Showdown (opens in a new tab) and milsim Escape From Tarkov, but new challengers include diesel-punk shooter Marauders (opens in a new tab) and The Cycle: Frontier (opens in a new tab). Battlefield 2042 even gave the extraction format a spin last year with Hazard Zone (opens in a new tab)although there was no catch.
The Warzone 2.0 announcement blog post describes DMZ as a “passionate project” inside Infinity Ward and contributing studios, language it doesn’t use for Modern Warfare 2’s other two hundred modes. It’s also the only mode with its own logo, completely separate from the Warzone brand.
To make DMZ feel distinct from Warzone, Infinity Ward should really consider getting creative with AI. Think bigger than grunts: One of Hunt’s greatest strengths is how its monsters’ unique behaviors force you to switch up your strategy (like human torch-like Immolators that explode if you pierce their skin with anything). sharp thing). There should be environmental hazards and other things to do than run from place to place and shoot other players. Think too small with extraction shooters and you’re left with Battlefield 2042’s unfortunate danger zone.
If Infinity Ward can do for extraction shooters what it did for battle royale, it really could be something special (and even beat Fortnite to the punch this time). I can see this is the right kick off of a PvPvE trend where all battle royale games are slowly getting closer to Escape From Tarkov or Hunt. Hope this pays off, because I’m definitely done with shrinking circles.
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