Call of Duty: Modern Warfare multiplayer hands-on: Realism and fantasy combined

Call of Duty Modern Warfare
Call of Duty Modern Warfare (Image credit: Activision)

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is an odd title, not least because there's already a game with that name (insert Modern Warfare vs. Modern Warfare joke here). However, the new title harkens back in a lot of ways to the older one, therefore creating this amalgamation of new and old, nostalgia and originality, which developer Infinity Ward hopes will appeal to all types of fans. In a world of fast-paced, colorful shooters, it's attempting to slow it all down.

"We started on this three years ago and we definitely wanted to re-imagine Modern Warfare," Jack O'Hara, the game director in charge of multiplayer, told Windows Central. "We wanted to make a more tactical, reflexive kind of game where you'll be able to think a little more through what you were doing."

Modern Warfare (2019) in multiplayer is still quite fast. Regardless of mode, death can hit your fast, and rounds can be over within minutes. Still, it's not fast because of its gameplay, but rather in spite of it. Even with all the promises of "realism," especially in regards to its single-player campaign, the multiplayer mode manages to still be a fantasy almost separate from the other parts of the game.

We got a chance to test out the multiplayer mode this week. Here's what we found.

Modes upon modes, with more to come

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare with a molotov cocktail

There are three game modes for the multiplayer section of Modern Warfare. The first is Gunfight, which is a 2v2 duel on a flash map. Players get spawned on a small map with a random loadout and face off until there's only one team left standing.

The multiplayer mode manages to still be a fantasy almost separate from the other parts of the game.

The second is a traditional 6v6 game on a tactical map. Teams of six (obviously) face off against each other in either Team Deathmatch, where you just set out to kill members of the enemy team, or Domination, where you have to capture and defend a set number of points. In the maps I tried, there were three points and the match ended when a team reached a certain score.

The final mode concerns large player count battle maps. It was built from the ground up so it could support an expanded number of players at once according to Paul Haile, a production manager on the game, but at the event, the map supported 40 players. Apparently, this mode can support more than 100 players. On this mode you can play what is called Ground War.

Beyond the traditional Deathmatch and Domination modes, there are ones like Cyber Attack, which is similar to Search and Destroy. O'Hara also confirmed that different modes will be released after launch.

Here's some Gunfight.

Personally I enjoyed Gunfight the most. The random loadouts make the battlefield more even since more experienced players can't go with their prized configurations. Plus they're over quickly and encourage more cooperation between you and the other player on your team.

Another feature to note: there will be crossplay across all consoles, in a move that production manager Paul Haile says will "bring the Call of Duty community together for the first time." He also noted developers worked to balance the game across all control schemes.

"That's been a goal from the very beginning of the game," he said. "We balanced the entire game knowing that we would have multiple control schemes playing together in the same match."

How do you slow a game down?

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare D-Day

Considering how fast a round of Modern Warfare multiplayer can fly by, it's surprising Infinity Ward wanted to actually slow the game down in this new iteration.

It's all about planning out your every move in Modern Warfare instead of running in guns literally ablazing.

Even if you're not looking for it, the choices towards this goal are apparent. The mounting mechanic, which allows you to lean against a wall or other surface for better support while firing, purposely keeps you in one spot. Taking away features like double jumping forces you to step back and take in an environment before figuring out how to get to the second story of a building, for instance. It's all about planning out your every move in Modern Warfare instead of running in guns literally ablazing.

One of the biggest indicators of this tactical move is in a new feature. As we previously reported, Modern Warfare introduces a gunsmithing mechanic that allows you to customize your weapons on a gun bench in the loadout screen before a match. There are multiple slots — muzzle, optics, and an additional perk — which allow for up to 60 different configurations per weapon. Some weapons have more slots than others, but it allows you to customize your weapon to fit the strategy of certain maps.

The introduction of night vision goggles is also a purposeful move by developers to not only allow players to have fun on nighttime maps, but to play around with light. With the goggles on you can see the infrared laser from guns aiming down dark hallways, so you can potentially see an enemy weapon. Some maps also have light switches that give players the option to maybe ambush an enemy wearing the goggles. It's not a matter of just putting the goggles on, but knowing when to take them off as well.

All of this strategy does seem to work to slow down a multiplayer match and force you to think about your next moves. Your strategy begins in the loadout screen with gunsmithing. Since there are seemingly hundreds, maybe thousands (I can't math), of different combinations for weaponry, special abilities, grenades, and more, you can plan out for the map. More experienced players will work to configure their favorite gun to their specific play style, but new players can try a number of weapons to see what works best.

More fast-paced shooters tend to favor a more aggressive approach to gameplay, but being a Modern Warfare tactician can look different for each player. You could theoretically run in with an SMG and fire away, but there are multiple avenues for getting to a location and certain weapons and attachments can impede your movement. However, you can add attachments to guns, for example, which quicken your movement speed or make it easier to run and aim. None of the maps are flat either, with plenty of places to climb and reach an ideal location to sit and wait.

Camping isn't necessarily encouraged but you could theoretically do it if it works for you. You'll have to move around eventually though because the maps aren't big enough to hide successfully for long periods of time and there aren't many places that don't have at least one weak spot. Plus, there are killstreaks (more on this later) that will either reveal your location to the enemy or will force you to scatter.

"Even though we're encouraging moments to think about what your decision is going to be, what your actions are going to be. It's still a game about movement," O'Hara said.

How do you straddle the line between realism and fantasy?

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare minigun

In the presentation Tuesday, which was held before we got our hands on the game, creative director Patrick Kelly noted that the main "dogma" formed the foundation of Modern Warfare was that gameplay was king. Despite the new game's dedication to realism throughout and an authentic, gritty single-player campaign that's ripped "straight from the headlines," according to Kelly, the game still needed to be fun.

These two ideas seem to be at odds with each other at the onset. If the game's story creates a grounded reality where war is death for both soldiers and civilians, then how can you promote a multiplayer mode that doesn't seem to take any of this into effect?

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is both realistic and not. It's gritty and serious but also fun and fantastical.

This has been a topic of conversation this week thanks to Infinity Ward's announcement that it was bringing killstreaks back. This feature rewards players for getting a number of kills in a row without dying and a couple old standards are being brought back for Modern Warfare, such as the Juggernaut. One of these newly announced rewards is white phosphorus, a gas internationally banned from warfare but was reportedly used by the U.S. in Syria.

In the end though, the multiplayer is a separate entity from the single-player. There are elements both share — how weapons work is uniform across all modes, for example, and developers said that Operators' backstories will be consistent — but the multiplayer modes are not to be taken as seriously as the story.

"The multiplayer is definitely a little more fantastical than the single player," Paul Haile, a production manager at Infinity Ward, told me during an interview following the presentation. "The tone can differ quite a bit but we're doing our best to make sure it remains feeling cohesive as any product."

"When you set off in the development, one of the hardest things, especially with a large studio, is keeping many people aligned on this north star vision of the project. For us, realism was definitely one of those north stars," O'Hara added. "There's always compromises on either side, but it gives you a common direction and a common language as well to be able to pressure test ideas against."

That meant the multiplayer team, at the very least, had to strike a balance between going into territory that was deemed too realistic. Certain gamelike elements like double jump and wall riding were removed, but the team held back from factoring in things like weapon jamming, which happens in real life but according to O'Hara, was just too slow a concept to use in a Call of Duty game.

The team as a whole was dedicated to realism as a concept. Developers tried out guns in real life to learn all the ins and outs of recoil, bullet penetration, and even how they work with night vision goggles all to come at Modern Warfare with as much knowledge as possible. Most of that was put into the game, but in the end, fun and gameplay were most important.

"It's weird to say 'realism and imagination,' but it's this weird dichotomy of trying to align the two and falling in this world that's not quite Hollywood but it is realism and trying to find the line," O'Hara added.

Bottom line

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is both realistic and not. It's gritty and serious, but also fun and fantastical; it just depends on what mode you play. We haven't checked out the single-player campaign yet, but in terms of multiplayer, the realism is a feature, but not at the core of its foundation. Certain modes, like 2v2 flash maps, throw players into a more casual experience while large maps put players in a situation where small contributions can play a huge part.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare for PlayStation 4: Everything you need to know

All of it is in service of two ideas: to create a more realistic experience and to harken back to the original Modern Warfare games. The new Modern Warfare is slower and clunkier than more recent games in the franchise, but that's in service of hopefully creating a more grounded game. Ideas like killstreaks are back and add to the otherworldly aspects of multiplayer but also help in their own way to keep everything on track.

We'll see how it all comes together when the game releases on Oct. 25, 2019 on Windows PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4.

Carli Velocci

Carli contributed gaming content across Windows Central, Android Central, and iMore. Her last name also will remind you of a dinosaur. F