Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’s multiplayer is as brilliant as the original

Battle royale bows out as classic ingredients return with new polish

Not long after a helicopter drops us off to start the action in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’s multiplayer event, we’re struck by a warm, comforting sense of familiarity. We rush forward, hawkishly scanning any new spits of land that emerge in hopes of spotting our prey. Our patience pays off – with another player in our cross-hairs the tempo ratchets up as the two of us race to gun each other down (we get the kill, of course). Once the fight is done, it all begins again.

From moment-to-moment, be it the familiar Deathmatch mode or newcomer Gun Fight, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’s multiplayer feels pleasantly in tune with the classic game it hopes to recreate. Gone is battle royale – what’s here instead is team-based action punctuated with moments of individual heroism that still endears CoD 4: Modern Warfare to so many.

Gun Fight is front and centre of that. The new mode pits you and one ally against an enemy pair in narrow, tightly packed maps, with the first team to win six rounds declared the overall victor. You’re all given the same, randomised loadout, and it’s up to you to see what you can do with them. One round we play forces us to think tactically as we line up shots with a sniper rifle, whereas the next sees us charging in with a shotgun impulsively. What remains a constant, though, is the potential to defy the odds if your teammate falls in battle. Improvise well with your given loadout, and you can take out the two enemy players to seize the round.

If you enjoy exploiting the kind of space that comes from a higher player count, though, then there are modes for you, too. A 10v10 affair called Headquarters sees you fighting to take control of a random objective – but once you have it, your team can no longer respawn. It’s a nice twist. Sure, if you die you’ll be watching a spectator camera for a minute or so, but if you’re one of the players holding the zone down, you’ll have an audience for your heroic holdout against the respawning enemy hordes. Once the zone is captured, a new one appears, and your team can rejoin the fight in search of their own clutch moments.

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If stuffing twenty players into a map isn’t enough for you, then you can opt for a 20v20 experience instead. This one’s a classic domination mode, except there are five areas to capture instead of the conventional three. One of the newer attractions here is the addition of vehicles to jump into – in our case, a buggy with one person driving, and the other acting as a makeshift gunner.

The mode highlights a new approach to map design. You won’t find the typical three-lane format of Deathmatch or Gun Fight, but instead maps with plenty of verticalities, and thus plenty of hard-to-reach spots upon which you can perch. Every map we play is dotted with houses and other buildings to skulk in. Luckily, however, climbing has been addressed, so you can more readily hop on a box and bust through a window. This is especially helpful when someone is hunkered down somewhere and you want to push them.

The return of killstreaks has a big say in how any game unfolds. If you and your team get off to a strong start, you can snowball with various buffs and one-off moves and shut the enemy right out of the game. Some are familiar, like the UAV that opens up the map or the airstrike that targets a specific area of it, but there are new ones, too. Netting a five-person killstreak allows you to spawn an infantry fighting vehicle (IFV) that you can use with a friend. Another, which requires seven kills, calls in a white phosphorus airstrike, dousing the battlefield in deadly white smoke which cuts all enemies’ health in half and obstructs their vision.

A number of smaller tweaks succeed in making even classic modes like Deathmatch feel fresh, too. One such example – and bear with us here – concerns doors. If you want to play hard and fast, you can use your momentum to barge through them and surprise your enemy. If you’re playing a stealthier game, you can open a door and leave it slightly ajar, tossing in a grenade that leads to the ultimate payoff if a troublesome camper is turning the room on its other side into a fort. Following this physical logic, if a grenade detonates near a door, it’ll blow it right open.

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The game’s audio deserves special mention. The usual bang and pop is still there – gunfire fizzes and bombs boom on detonation – but subtler noises that have become more pronounced, too. For example, you can hear the creak of a door as someone passes through to sneak up on you, providing a new avenue of information. This comes in especially handy in Call of Duty’s new nighttime game mode as your HUD is stripped away in the name of realism. It’s not obvious why night-vision goggles don’t have a HUD while naked eyes do, but let’s suspend our disbelief.

Despite being billed as a reimagining of the original Modern Warfare, there are plenty of improvements that this game can call its own. Gun Fight delivers moments of tension and individual heroism that deathmatch, with its quick respawns and low stakes, has always lacked, and small tweaks to audio and traversal make Call of Duty feel smoother than ever. More importantly, the inspiration driving all these changes feels like it comes inwardly from what we’ve always enjoyed about the series. Like comfort food made with alternative ingredients (and, er, riddled with bullets) it all makes for a fun, fresh, yet reassuringly familiar experience.

Activision paid for flights and accommodation for this preview event.