“When we were working on [‘Warzone 2.0’], I think the challenge was, okay, we need to innovate and we need to make something that’s absolutely disruptive and better in every single way,” Kelly said. “We’ve gone across the board on it. … We’ve changed up how you move. We’ve changed up how the gun feels. We’ve connected the player camera to the player body, the player body to the gun. We’ve now connected the bullets coming out of the gun to the gun. … How [players] unlock things has completely been innovated on. How you loot and pick up and interact with things, how you store things. …”
The list ran longer, but the subtext was unmissable. Infinity Ward, and Activision, are aiming high with the future of Call of Duty.
Even beyond the numerous in-game refinements and additions detailed around “Warzone 2.0,” it’s impossible to ignore the changes sweeping through Activision around the video game publisher’s flagship franchise, as well as the fact many of those changes seem inspired by the success of the free-to-play “Warzone,” which released in March of 2020. “Warzone” had accumulated 125 million players through June of this year, generating hundreds of millions more in revenue and becoming the connective tissue for a franchise that has famously produced different-feeling games every year.
Thursday, Kelly and others at Activision highlighted these changes during a live presentation titled “Call of Duty: Next.” The presentation, streamed live, outlined the future of Call of Duty, including the upcoming October release of “Modern Warfare 2” — the sequel to the stand-alone 2019 Infinity Ward game that gave rise to “Warzone.” That will be followed by the Nov. 16 release of “Warzone 2.0,” as well as the 2023 launch of a Warzone mobile game.
For Kelly, the importance of the “Warzone” sequel isn’t so much about becoming Call of Duty’s “most ambitious” release, a phrase that became an internet meme when Marvel invoked it around its “Avengers: Infinity War” plans. It’s more about setting the end goal for Call of Duty’s developers.
“Success is defined by continually growing and doing better,” Kelly said. “And the only way we’re going to do that is to make something that is absolutely — in every way, shape or form — better than the previous ‘Warzone.’ ”
Call of Duty’s importance to Activision Blizzard, and to the gaming industry as a whole, is indisputable. It is one of the best-selling game franchises of all time. Scrutiny around Activision Blizzard’s proposed acquisition by Microsoft for $68.7 billion has centered around the potential for the Xbox-maker to mark Call of Duty as an exclusive title, pulling it away from PlayStation — a threat that recently drew PlayStation and Xbox CEOs into a rare public sparring match. Following the release of “Call of Duty: Mobile” in 2019 and “Warzone” in 2020, shares of Activision Blizzard stock spiked to a high of over $103 per share in February 2021. Over the past two years, the company reallocated studios and resources from around the globe to fuel the Call of Duty franchise. Then in the summer of 2021, a sexual harassment lawsuit against Activision Blizzard filed by the state of California on behalf of company employees sent share prices careening under $60 by December, reportedly leading to the proposed sale to Microsoft in January 2022.
Given that backdrop, Activision’s latest plans for Call of Duty are resonant news for both gamers and those minding the video game industry. For better or worse, the impending release of the three upcoming games is going to be big. And their success will hinge as much on developers’ efforts honing the game as secondary factors, like “marketing-speak words.”
“Warzone 2.0” will take place in the fictional in-game region of Al Mazrah in West Asia. The game, which will be available for both last generation (PlayStation 4, Xbox One) and current generation consoles (PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X|S), as well as PCs, will add new experiences beyond “Warzone’s” traditional battle royale settings, such as the “sandbox” DMZ mode for up to 100 players. It will also see a new squad matchmaking platform, more realistic, refined vehicles that react to enhanced physics (depleting gas tanks, veering off course following a flat tire), a new endgame dynamic with multiple closing circles instead of the usual one, the ability to revive players on other teams and, perhaps most interestingly, the introduction of proximity chat to allow real-time communication between different squads.
Kelly outlined a scenario in DMZ in which a squad could down a sniper from a tower, corner him and say, “Okay, we’ll revive you, but you’re on our team now,” he said. “And now you’ve picked up a new teammate, and we’re off doing different things.”
Through the proximity chat, Kelly said he envisions scenarios in which two different squads of strangers could discuss a strategy around a particular objective instead of simply shooting one another — though that probably remains the most likely outcome, given the tendency for most Call of Duty players to shoot first and leave the talking for open-mic death comms. Still, collaborative teams could embark on missions such as unlocking, clearing and raiding so-called Strongholds for superior weapons and equipment. And with what Infinity Ward is calling “cloud parties” squad matchmaking, friends won’t have to wait for would-be teammates to return to the lobby, instead joining them in-game. This dynamic will also allowing the infusion of more teammates into their strike force beyond the usual cap of four.
“But,” Kelly notes a caveat, “these kinds of things have to happen in the game. And until they happen, you can kill one another, you know?”
Conversely, if players are running as a solo, they could try to join up with another squad in the game. Kelly touted a variation of battle royale he unofficially called “Unhinged” in which the game would allow up to seven players to team up. Proximity chat will be moderated using the same code of conduct currently enforced in “Warzone,” and players can toggle the feature on and off, Call of Duty spokesperson Neil Wood confirmed.
The other major crucible for player interaction will be the new Gulag, a revolutionary aspect of the original “Warzone” that allowed defeated players to win their way back to the battlefield by besting an opponent in one-vs.-one combat. In “Warzone 2.0,” the Gulag will feature two potentially random teammates battling another team of two in a bigger arena than most current Gulag settings. In a new a pre-fight area, players leaving the safety of their holding cell can be damaged and even killed before getting the chance to fight for their freedom.
The new Gulag will also feature a heavily armed (and armored) guard that players can take down to earn a jailbreak, but they’ll have to collaborate closely to do so with just rocks and melee attacks against the jailer’s weaponry. Work together and all could live, Kelly said. Challenge the guard without support and you could be gone for good. The enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend dynamic will also apply to the 2-v-2 Gulag arena battles, Kelly said.
“If a little bit of time goes by [in a Gulag match] and you haven’t eliminated or been eliminated by the other team, the people running this really cruel prison get frustrated,” he said. That’s when a door opens and a Juggernaut enters the fray trying to end all combatants. Should all four players in the arena team up, they can try to kill the Juggernaut and win their release.
Another new dynamic features up to four closing circles, as opposed to the usual one, with that number chosen at random. Teams can end up in any of them, potentially even split between different circles, and after a period of time, the circles collapse into one.
“From a gameplay perspective, this approach changes the dynamics of every single match, offering a different rhythm and flow each time,” Jack O’Hara, game director at Infinity Ward, said.
The improvements for “Warzone 2.0” aren’t all splashy. Some of the more important changes to frequent “Warzone” players may be the under-the-hood variety, with all Call of Duty games now utilizing the same engine. As Activision sought to infuse new content into “Warzone” from the two games that followed “Modern Warfare” — “Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War” and “Call of Duty: Vanguard” — there were frequent hiccups, particularly around weapon behavior. Such issues figure to be smoothed by the standardization of the “Modern Warfare” engine.
“There were growing pains with ‘Warzone,’ ” O’Hara said. “And as we were figuring out where we wanted this to go, there was a lot of coordination we needed to have.”
Kelly put it another way: “The weapons were modeled on a completely different engine [for ‘Black Ops Cold War’], they’re modeled a different way. … And so when we went to integrate those things into ‘Warzone’ it was particularly challenging. And of course you want to preserve the character of guns, for example, from ‘Black Ops’ as you bring them in … but, boy, you’ve got a completely different system. So, as we look forward and knowing we want to have new flavors and characters for the different offerings, we built all of that into our systems and our thinking.”
O’Hara said that while the engine consistency would ease some aspects of developers’ jobs around “Warzone,” it didn’t necessarily reduce the level of work. Instead, he said, they would spend the time focused on new ideas and opportunities.
“[On one side] it increased the level of coordination and cooperation to put together multiple teams,” O’Hara said of the change. “But then everybody’s got visions for where they want to work on things and how they want to evolve certain parts [of the game].
“On the [positive] side, it unlocks a huge potential. You have a lot of really smart people working together on the same problems.”
“Warzone 2.0” will also shed layers of content accumulated over two-plus years of infusions into the original “Warzone,” which Activision has said will live on as its own experience. While characters, player skins and weapons — some purchased by players for additional money through Call of Duty’s in-game store — will not be portable to “Warzone 2.0,” it will allow developers to slim down the game’s size and make sure all of the new elements introduced sync a bit more cleanly.
Call of Duty enters its prelaunch window the weekend of Sept. 16 with the beta for “Modern Warfare 2.” Some Call of Duty fans have expressed concern there would not be enough time to incorporate any feedback from players or fix any bugs uncovered during the testing period. Kelly, who noted he’s previously called Reddit posters on the phone to discuss critical posts, said he and developers will be mindful of community feedback. But, simply put, he didn’t share those concerns around a tight post-beta timeline. While he may beg to differ about whether “Warzone 2.0” is the “most ambitious” title in the franchise’s history, Kelly said the resources available to these new launches are considerable.
“There are thousands of people that work on this,” he said. “And they’re really talented people.”