Ah, Call of Duty – one of my favorite signs of autumn. Just as mornings are broken by the sound of Canadian geese migrating to warmer climates, the tranquility of my living room is interrupted each fall by the coming of the Call of Duty beta period. Modern Warfare II (no, the new one, you're thinking of Modern Warfare 2) is the latest arrival – the 19th mainline game, if you’re keeping score – and it brings with it a return to a modern setting after last year's… return to World War 2. Much like another fall favorite that returns each year, the pumpkin spice latte, Call of Duty is familiar, reliable, and doesn't have any real surprises in store. In other words, it's nice to have it back, but outside of the obvious visual differences between the two eras, don't expect anything much different than you enjoyed last year.
If it sounds like I'm being negative, I'm not. There's something to be said about familiarity, and Modern Warfare II, in spite of its re-re-return to present-day shooting, is recognizable and comfortable from the first second you log in to play your first round of the multiplayer beta. That being said, overall, I think Modern Warfare II feels better than last year's Vanguard did – both during its open beta and after launch. The maps are great, I really like the operators and their available skins, and everything just feels a little quicker and tighter.
I'm actually surprised by just how well everything is working already, considering Modern Warfare II doesn’t formally launch until October 28. The only real issues I've run into are some connectivity problems, losing connection during two matches – but given the fact I’ve now played many more than just two matches, it's not even close to a dealbreaker. It’s filled me with optimism for launch, since last year's initial beta for Vanguard was not hitting for me, because last year, the early beta lacked polish and felt… well, it felt more like an alpha test.
One of the most unpopular features of Vanguard, skill-based matchmaking, seems to have returned. I say "seems to" because I don't know for sure, but I have a really good hunch, and earlier leaks seem to have uncovered its return. You see, I am not great with a controller as opposed to mouse and keyboard, but after a few matches in the PlayStation-exclusive first beta weekend (perhaps the last of those, if Microsoft’s acquisition of Activision-Blizzard goes through) I found myself able to rack up a respectable kill count each round. (There's also the option to play with a compatible mouse and keyboard, which is nice, but not something I took advantage of largely due to the fact that my PS5 is not at my computer desk.)
It's highly unlikely my controller-based gameplay improved that rapidly, so for someone like me who just sucks at CoD on PS5, I definitely appreciate skill-based matchmaking, but I also get why it's so unpopular for more dedicated players. Basically, it makes your average match less frustrating for filthy console casuals like me, but if you're serious about CoD, skill-based matchmaking requires you to play at your highest possible level 100% of the time, and can end up pulling down your overall stats.
That being said, I do find playing with a controller much easier than in past years, and I don't exactly know what to chalk it up to. It's possible I’ve gotten better over the course of several days, but I think it has more to do with the way weapons and movement feel. As usual there's a noticeable snap-to-aim when playing with a controller, something not present for a more accurate mouse-aiming set up, but all in all, moving around the maps and firing thousands of rounds of ammo at other players feels a bit more natural than it has in the past.
Movement in Modern Warfare II is fast, and you can double-tap to sprint, but one thing that really stuck out to me about this year's Call of Duty is how the maps force me to slow down sometimes. It's not in your best interest to just run around like a maniac the whole time. Sound design this year is really good, and I was able to hear enemies running up on me even on my TV set up. In the past, I had a hard time identifying or even hearing footsteps without using my headphones. Since the audio cues are so much better, I found myself sneaking around interior sections of maps to try and get the jump on other players, as opposed to running in, Leeroy Jenkins-style, and giving myself away before I even opened the doors.
Another thing I like about the maps is they encourage you to move around constantly and take advantage of the entire area, whereas with Vanguard I found myself sticking mostly to the perimeters, circling over and over in the course of each match and shooting at people in the middle like fish in a barrel. Not only are the new maps difficult to circle, they’re laid out in ways where you almost never have anywhere to hunker down where you aren't making yourself vulnerable from at least two vantage points. Hopefully this carries over into most if not all of the final game’s list of maps, because I like it quite a bit.
Breenbergh Hotel has great, open expanses that guide you into the building itself, where there's a strong mix of medium and close-range combat. Farm 18 is littered with buildings and maze-like training areas that put you up close and personal with your opponents, but even that has a few longer areas to get off a sniper shot or two. Finally, Mercado Las Almas also mixes things up, with lots of buildings to run through spamming melee attacks while also having more than one spot where you can peer out of windows and try to pick people off as they turn the corner. There's also a great section in the middle of this map where several pathways converge on a market, with a little indent where you can sit and get a clear view of one side of the map… but not so great for hiding you from enemies who flank you and attack from the rear. I'm really enjoying them, and as of now I have a hard time picking out my favorite. If there's any negative feature of the maps and how they require you to keep moving it's that scoring executions is just a bit harder now because you're less likely to sneak up on a camper. That’s a small price to pay for a better overall flow, of course – but who doesn’t love giving a camper what he deserves?
One of my biggest complaints about Vanguard was how I'd oftentimes run into an enemy and not know if they were on my team or not, and we'd dance around one another for a bit until one of us realized "hey wait, that guys on the other team!" and opened fire. This year, I’m pleased to say that I haven't had that issue once. The two warring alphabet soup organizations, SPECGRU and KORTAC, both look mostly like generic spec-ops operators, so the potential for confusion is very much there. However, when someone on your team is nearby they'll say some line like "I got your six," and the blue dot over their heads identifying them as teammates is much easier to spot, even if you're crouched.
Once again, though, I have to say while I'm having a lot of fun with this year's Call of Duty beta so far, that’s exactly what I expected to happen and there's really not a lot that feels new or different despite leaping 80 years into the future. Sure, the operators look awesome and there are a few familiar faces in there (would it really be a Modern Warfare game if it didn't include Soap MacTavish?), and it's nice to have actual modern guns instead of WW2-era weapons made to feel like modern guns, but so far the loop of multiplayer is exactly the same. Level up your profile to unlock new guns, skins, operators, and the like, then level up your weapons to unlock attachments to customize your loadout. It's the exact same thing as last year… and the year before… and the year– well, you get it. This is the 19th mainline CoD, remember.
The game modes, too, are exactly what you're expecting. Team Deathmatch and Domination return, and despite all the rules being effectively the same I actually really like how Domination games play out now, as opposed to last year. Again, I have to credit it to the maps; every damn Domination match I played last year boiled down to whichever team controlled Bravo was the winner, but this year I haven't had a single match play out in that way. Instead of concentrating the action around one point, the matches I played over the weekend saw ownership of Alpha, Bravo, and Charlie all swing back and forth in such a way as to make it really fun and exciting.
Knockout mode requires your team to secure a bag of cash and keep it for a full minute; whichever player holds the bag is visible on the map to everyone, giving survival an extra layer of difficulty, and there are no respawns (you can revive teammates, however) so killing the other team off is also a valid path to victory. It's fun, but not really my favorite mode. I prefer modes with respawns, so I can jump back into the action, rather than wait for a revive from a teammate that never comes.
Prisoner Rescue puts you in the role of either the kidnapper or the rescuer of hostages. The kidnapping team has to guard two handcuffed, blindfolded prisoners, while the rescue team works to extract them. It's basically capture the flag, but with NPC prisoners playing the role of the capturable item. Just like Knockout, there are no respawns, but revives are possible. I enjoyed it, but less so than the tried and true classics, again mostly because I just don't like non-respawn game modes as much.
Finally there's "3rd Person Moshpit," the first time a third-person mode has appeared in CoD multiplayer since 2011’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 (not to be confused with Modern Warfare III, which we'll probably see in 2029 or something). I dig this mode a lot, although I can't figure out why. Functionally, it's just Team Deathmatch, but you can see your operator running around the map. Aiming down sites is exactly the same as in first-person, unsurprisingly, but there's just a little something extra that makes it appeal to me. I will say, though, I encountered my first set of cheaters in third-person mode, so that soured me on it a little bit. That’s not Moshpit’s fault, though, so I'm willing to give it a clean shot again this coming weekend.
Overall, while I'm having more fun than I did even with the finished version of Vanguard (which I still liked!), I'm most excited to see what, if any, meaningful new additions might make their way into Modern Warfare II for the final release. My favorite new mode from Vanguard was Champion Hill, and while I don't expect to see it return this year, something along those lines on these vastly superior maps would really thrill me. Same goes for Patrol, another favorite from Vanguard.
In spite of the fact Modern Warfare II feels almost overwhelmingly familiar, I'm having a good time playing it, and I'm keeping my fingers crossed that we see some meaty, meaningful additions to shake things up a bit. I have a (completely unconfirmed) feeling that Activision may be holding some surprises for the next round of betas, which could hopefully get me actually excited instead of just comfortably pleased to be back in my groove. I’ll check back in after this coming weekend’s beta (all platforms get to jump in this time) to let you know how that pans out.