'Call of Duty: Warzone' is a serious contender to Fortnite's throne

It's a lot, which might put some people off, but it's also super fun.

Despite being pretty late to the party, Epic Games' Fortnite has become the battle royale title to beat. The cartoon-like survival shooter helped the company earn a reported $1.8 billion in 2019, thanks to a mix of slick gameplay, unique building mechanics and tons of big-budget crossovers to get players from every age group to part with their (or their parents') cash.

But with popularity comes competition. Fortnite may have dispatched early incumbents like DayZ, H1Z1, Rust and PUBG, but big name publishers have since joined the battle royale arena. Respawn, with the backing of its owner EA, surprise-launched Apex Legends just over year ago and quickly amassed more than 70 million players. But before that came Blackout, a last-player-standing mode that was released as part of Treyarch's multiplayer-focused Call of Duty: Black Ops 4. While it had some initial buzz, the mode never took off quite like Fortnite and Apex Legends. There were a few reasons for this, but the most notable was that it wasn't free-to-play.

Then, almost out of nowhere, developer Infinity Ward released Call of Duty: Warzone, a free-to-play battle royale. Unlike Blackout, Warzone is meant to stand alone from the main game and doesn't require you to own Modern Warfare, the game it's built on top of. It delivers the multiplayer experience Call of Duty players know and love, but plays out on an enormous map and with as many as 149 other people. It's a lot, but somehow, it works.

Warzone isn't pay-to-play, but it does require the bulk of Modern Warfare to be installed. That means a 20GB update if you already own the game, or a 100GB download if you're new to the latest instalment of the franchise. PlayStation Plus isn't required to play Warzone on PlayStation 4, but Xbox One owners will need an Xbox Live subscription. Worth bearing in mind before blocking out some time to practice.

There are two modes, Battle Royale and Plunder. In Plunder, the objective is to "battle with your squad to collect the most in-match Cash and escape from the tension-filled combat of the warzone." Respawns are enabled and it's a lot more of a free-for-alll. For the purposes of this article, I will be referring to the Battle Royale mode.

Upon dropping in with your squad -- games are limited to trios for now -- you'll notice how big the Verdansk map is. Warzone is home to thousands of buildings big and small, including a sprawling airport, a football stadium, a train station, a hospital and a farm. Infinity Ward tried to instil a sense of nostalgia by recreating classic maps like Terminal and Broadcast inside some of the above points of interest.

The reason the area is so big is so it can comfortably fit 150 players, which is unprecedented in modern battle royale games (Blackout and Fortnite count 100, while Apex Legends hosts 60). And there's room for more: "I can tell you we are already playing with 200 players. We are going to release that a little bit later," Patrick Kelly, Head Creative Director at Infinity Ward, recently told USA Today.

Warzone actually does a lot of things differently. Sure, the basic setup is like any battle royale game: you drop from an aircraft and parachute/glide to a chosen destination, then move towards zones as the circle (in this case poisonous gas) closes in. Unlike its main competitors, though, Warzone will always equip you with a weapon: a single-fire pistol that may help you extricate yourself from a dicey situation during early game exploration. Loot is also plentiful, with floor loot and chest spawns providing an array of shields, assault rifles, machine guns, shotguns, grenades and RPGs.

That said, Infinity Ward has counteracted the random nature of weapon spawns and in-game abilities with the introduction of Buy Stations. They are located at fixed points throughout the world (denoted by a shopping cart on the mini-map), providing you with the option to purchase killstreaks, armor plates, ammunition and more. If you enjoyed deploying a UAV to seek out enemies in deathmatches, Buy Stations bring that to battle royale.

None of the Buy Stations can be used without first acquiring Cash. As you'd expect, Cash is in-game money that spawns as floor loot but can also be acquired by completing "Contracts," which -- no joke -- put a price (typically $2,000) on a nearby player's head and reward you for taking them out within the allotted time frame. You can also secure "Locations" by visiting various points of interest before the countdown ends. Oh, and if you kill an enemy you can steal all of their money, too. Don't worry, you won't need to spend any of your hard-earned dollars to win in Warzone.

Inventory pricing starts at $1,500 for a Armor Plate Bundle, ranging up to $6,000 for a Loadout Drop (the complete listing is shown below). Armor is one of the things I feel Warzone gets right, compared to Blackout and other tier-based shield systems like in Apex, as health and shields are universally the same. All players have regenerative health and are afforded three spaces for armor plates. You drop into the map with two already equipped, but plates can be bought, foraged and equipped at any point during the match. Buy Stations allow you to buy a bundle of five, giving you much-needed protection if you're caught in a firefight.

Then there are Loadouts. Before you enter your first Warzone matchmaking lobby, you'll be encouraged to spec these out. These things drastically impact your chances of winning, which is the reason they're the most expensive option at the Buy Station. Loadouts are essentially pre-configured packages of weapons and perks that you can call in via a Buy Station. They consist of a primary and secondary weapon, a perk (things like making you invisible to radar, faster sprinting and increased health regen), lethal equipment including explosives, and finally tactical equipment like a snapshot grenade that can pinpoint enemies near its blast radius. They give you exactly what you need, instead of having you find guns that can possibly do the job.

It might sound like the game is incentivizing you to forage for Cash, but really it's encouraging players to hunt for kills -- and with 150 players on the map, many can be had. More money means better preparation for later game skirmishes. Being able to call in a radar-inspired UAV scan, for instance, is a massive help when you can hear but not see nearby enemies.

Speaking of eliminations, I have to talk about respawning and Gulag. What a wonderfully torturous concept Gulag is. You see, when you die in Warzone -- you can actually be knocked down and restored by a teammate, but also self-revive using a kit -- you'll typically be afforded a second chance, a literal fight to the death to win your freedom. Inside the Gulag, you'll wait to be matched with another unfortunate player and forced to capture a flag or fight one-versus-one with a randomly spawned weapon in a prison bathroom. You get 40 seconds to do your thing with no health regeneration. Win and you'll parachute back into the action, lose and you'll have to spectate your teammates while they hunt for enough cash to spawn you back in via a Buy Station. Yes, there's an option for that too.

The amazing thing about the Gulag is the adrenaline rush you get when you win and return to the game. While my teammates were pinned down in the firefight that led to my demise, I won a second chance at life and helped win a battle that was never in their favor. In the unfortunate event that more than one member of your team is wiped, you're allowed to spectate your teammate during their duel from a gallery above the bathroom, calling out the whereabouts of their opponent and throwing rocks at them to stun them. If everyone loses, it's back to the lobby. There are fine margins between success and failure.

Warzone sticks to the basic battle royale concepts, giving you time to explore each new area before restricting the zone and bringing players together in closer proximity. If you do find yourself outside of the zone, you will notice how quickly it can claim you. I've often found myself locked in a battle with rival players way outside the next zone and succumbed to the poisonous gas as I attempted to find safety. Gas Masks are a thing, but they only provide short-term relief from the encroaching cloud.

To ease this, Warzone provides a decent array of mobility options. The majority of players will be able to outrun the circle, but Warzone also lets you deploy your parachute from up high, providing quick escapes when on a rooftop. There are also five types of vehicles located all over the map: the two-seater ATV, four-seater Tatical Rover and SUV, a Cargo Truck and a Helicopter. Some are faster than others and they provide varying degrees of protection, but they can help you escape that gas cloud when in a pinch.

Given that the game is less than 24 hours old, it'll take players a little while to work out the meta -- the desired play style and weapon loadout -- needed to consistently win battle royale matches. But already, seasoned Call of Duty players are utilizing the expertise gained in Modern Warfare to smack down their opponents -- watch out for proximity mines and the clever use of explosive C4 around corners.

The fact you can play with your friends across PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC is a godsend. Fortnite was obviously the first battle royale game to introduce mixed-platform lobbies (you can choose to limit lobbies by platform), but for Infinity Ward to offer it day one when Respawn/EA still haven't confirmed the same for Apex Legends, makes finding a workable trio all that much easier.

With all of these new elements, Warzone definitely offers something unique. However, there are a few mechanics that could use some work. One of the most perplexing choices is the kill system, which rewards not the person who knocked a rival player down, but the person that finishes them. This can partly be explained thanks to the existence of self-revive kits, but if someone has successfully reduced an enemy from full health to zero, they should be rewarded with the kill, not a teammate who happens to be nearby.

Some players have even reported that if a downed player leaves before they die, the player won't get the kill or their loot.

Another minor inconvenience is the squad leader selection. There's absolutely no point in nominating a leader when each player has to jump individually. Apex employs a grouped system where trios -- Warzone's only game mode right now -- are linked to each other until they choose not to be. In its current state, Warzone puts players in a sort of middle ground that doesn't especially work for most teams -- especially when not everyone is in voice chat.

Even Gulag has its weaknesses. While you're waiting for your one-versus-one, you'll be waiting in the gallery above the shower room arena with a handful of other players. If you just stand there and wait for your turn to load, other players can throw stones and punch you while you do. It doesn't impact your fight in terms of health, but it's just so noisy. There should be an option to either turn off hitmarkers or stop the violence from making any sound.

Call of Duty Warzone Battle Pass

When all is said and done, Warzone is a free game in public beta. You have to expect that there are going to be some kinks that need working out. Movement is slick, gun play is exactly what you'd expect from a Call of Duty game, looting an enemy requires far fewer interactions than in other battle royale shooters. It directly addresses nearly all of the issues people had with Blackout and even copies one of the best in-game ping systems from Apex (Fortnite did too).

Given that everything ties into Modern Warfare, you can expect that many will unlock the standalone game to carry their progress across, but Infinity Ward also offers a Battle Pass system (roughly $10 for a month) for those who just want to pick up things inside the battle royale. As with most Battle Pass systems, Warzone doesn't incentivize pay-to-win, but instead provides cosmetic items, access to different Operator skins and blueprints for weapons.

Once some of these issues have been worked out, I would expect Solo and Duo playlists to be added, possibly even four-player squads. Then the fun really begins.