Call of Duty: Warzone 2 Review: Refined and Redefined

Call of Duty: Warzone 2 is a fascinating and even a bit controversial follow-up to the free-to-play phenomenon that was released in 2020. This sub-franchise has completely changed Call of Duty at large and it seems that it's using its sequel to try and solidify its identity in a very specific way. Call of Duty: Warzone 2, like Modern Warfare 2 (2022), slows things down a bit and opts for a more tactical feel. This is very much Warzone, but it is refined and feels made with more of a purpose than its predecessor. When it began, Call of Duty: Warzone felt like a game that didn't know it would strike gold and had to quickly adapt as it became more popular. It felt a bit aimless at a certain point, but this new game feels like it knows more what it wants to be.

That may not jive with the hardcore fans of the previous title who got used to things like slide cancelling and other extremely fast-paced, sweaty gameplay mechanics. However, for some (like myself), the changes here make for an extremely fun and gratifying game, even if not all of them come completely together.

Some of the more controversial changes come in the form of equipping your character. In the previous game, as soon as your team gathered a bunch of money, you could buy a box that would give you your loadout. Within minutes of the match starting, you'd have two decked-out guns, perks, and everything you'd need to survive. It was less a race to find good gear and more of a race to get money. It eventually became a really boring, repetitive formula that saw people speedrunning contracts to get a kit that they copied from their favorite YouTuber.

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Now, things are extremely different. $5,000 will get you your primary weapon from a buy station, but not your full kit. An actual loadout has to be earned by completing strongholds or surviving until near the end of the game when they drop. The difference in this game is that everyone can access the same loadout boxes as opposed to them being reserved for certain squads, meaning it can result in a battle over the dropped box.

It makes the loadout much more of a reward rather than an easy-to-attain thing. Even armor has been changed to where you can only have two plates on unless you find a special vest that grants you the ability to equip three. Combine this with the pretty fast time to kill and you get some incredibly brutal and quick gunfights. Some people are going to hate this, but I found it to be pretty enjoyable. You really have to work hard to be more powerful and it creates a stronger feeling of equality.

The buy stations have also been tuned to be a bit more interesting. Each buy station has its own unique set of items and a certain stock. Of course, some items are going to be far more common in buy stations than others but items that are otherwise rare in the game at large may be purchasable at a handful of these shops. It's another way to keep things fresh and interesting, rather than always being able to expect the exact same thing. You also can't spam the buy button on items and produce an infinite supply of UAVs, the buy station only has a select few, so you'll have to use them wisely.

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If you do want to buy gear for your team, they don't have to be with you, though. The game has introduced a pretty brilliant backpack system and, while that exists in other games, it feels like a breath of fresh air to Warzone. You can store streaks, self revives, grenades, ammo, and even additional weapons if you have the right size backpack, meaning you can make sure you're properly prepared for anything. You can grab extra items for your team, stock up on extra UAVs or other killstreaks, and carry a healthy supply of armor. It's just yet another way to strategize and plan.

This is a game that rewards strategy over being able to have the most well-researched kit or being able to bounce off the wall. The movement is slower, gunplay is pretty fast – meaning you have to be first on the draw and have solid accuracy to win most of the fights if you don't have a partner right at your side – and smart thinking will put you ahead of the competition. 

The sandbox gameplay is incredibly freeing and is where you'll feel the most satisfied. You can use drill charges to flush enemies out of buildings, lure enemies toward AI for a big threeway battle that will disorient your foes, or even utilize the new proximity chat to employ psychological warfare or even create an alliance. I came across someone who was practically narrating every single thing they were doing and even though I couldn't see them, I knew exactly everything they were going to do because they were speaking it aloud. They were completely clueless to this and I ended up getting the jump on them as a result.

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For the first time since the first few weeks of the original Warzone, I feel like I can be creative and come out on top. It's not a matter of spinning around with extremely high sensitivity, spamming buttons, or bunny hopping. It's about actually using your head and not letting your hands completely take over. 

This way of playing also lends itself well to the map of Al Mazrah, which takes some of the best parts of Verdansk and really builds upon them. There are areas from Verdansk that feel like they've been ripped straight out and dressed up a bit more to fit in with this new map, so if you feel like you're having deja vu, you may be right. That's not to say there aren't new bits and pieces; the vast majority of the map feels new, fresh, and most importantly: dense. Buildings have multiple levels and many of them feel unique to their area rather than seeing the same environments repeated, the map is layered to take you to high peaks and into underground tunnels or submerged in bodies of water, and there are more ways to navigate the map than ever before via new vehicles and things like elevators.

You can go pretty much anywhere you want without fear of the game automatically killing you, with the exception of the clearly labeled out of bounds areas. Cities also feel like actual cities, allowing you to shake enemies in alleyways and buildings more easily than before. There's a sense of variety, scale, and density that helps the map feel fun to play in regardless of where you're at. Despite having played it for nearly a week, I still don't really know the map. I know what to expect from key areas, but I don't know necessarily how to get from point A to point B without consulting my map a few times. That's fun and while that will eventually go away with more playtime, it feels like there are a lot of ways to adventure around this map.

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The map has also been designed in a way to make looting feel more logical. First aid boxes and bathroom mirrors will have medical supplies, police stations will have more tactical gear and weapons, warehouses have shelves stocked with various items, and more. If you want something specific, the most logical place will be where you can find it rather than mindlessly kicking down doors until you find a flashy gun. That's not to say that element is completely gone, but it's not as boring.

Infinity Ward and Raven Software have also done a bang-up job of deepening the experience beyond just finding other players and killing them. In addition to the contracts that were available in the previous game, there are also things like strongholds, which are bases filled with AI. If you kill them, you'll get various rewards, including keys to Black Sites, which are even harder strongholds with better loot. The AI themselves present enough of a challenge to be worthwhile, even if they're a little clueless at times, and it helps spice up the gameplay and keep things engaging and rewarding during the downtime in matches.

There are some changes that don't really work, however. Some things feel like change for the sake of change, such as a 2v2 gulag with an AI juggernaut that comes in after a timer hits zero. If players kill the juggernaut, they all get let free, meaning there's an opportunity for teamwork if you use your mic to convince your team to do so. Though, some people have voice chat completely disabled, are in party chat, or may not even have a mic, so this mechanic relies on a lot of assumptions. 

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Nevertheless, that bit is optional, so it's not super important. The 2v2 system, on the other hand, is mandatory and extremely flawed, especially because it's included in solos. Your goal should be to ensure no one else can leave the gulag, because eventually, you'd have to come face to face with them and do the whole song and dance all over again. Your teammate could also be terrible or, worse, not even playing the game, leaving you to fend for yourself against two enemies with nothing but a pistol or a shotgun if you're really lucky.

It's also a problem because the footsteps in the game are terribly broken, so you can't even try and hear where they're coming from. The sound is pretty loud, but it's nearly impossible to pinpoint the direction they're coming from, particularly when someone is above you. This isn't a problem exclusive to the gulag, but it does feel like this small arena really highlights it. All of this makes the gulag particularly dreadful this time around rather than intense and rewarding. If it goes back to 1v1, it may take a bit longer to actually get your gulag match, but it will at least feel fair regardless of the circumstances. 

There is also a new mode in Call of Duty: Warzone 2 called "DMZ" and it shows potential, but it's one of the other weak parts of this game. It shares a similar model to Escape from Tarkov where you create a loadout and enter Al Mazrah to get loot and extract. If you die, you lose everything you had with you, including the stuff you entered with. AI are roaming around the map, holding down strongholds, and players are also out there trying to get as much as they can to extract. However, unlike Escape from Tarkov which builds the entire game around the loot including the menus, DMZ comes across as extremely hollow.

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The only thing you're going to actually keep if you successfully extract are the weapons you found as well as some XP. With the exception of some blueprints that can be unlocked to use in the rest of the game, you're only really earning weapons to continue using in DMZ or XP. Gaining weapons for you to use only in this mode isn't exactly a very rewarding loop.

DMZ is a decent way to level up, too, but it's not very fun after a few hours. If you're already level 55, there's not as much of an emphasis on leveling up. Sure, it progresses the battle pass, but it's not enough to actually want to play DMZ. There are some pretty basic missions to complete as well, which can make for some mindless fun with friends, but it's not going to wow you and will probably only be worth doing to kill time while you wait for your other friends to finish up a battle royale match.

If Infinity Ward and Raven continue to support DMZ by fleshing it out with more interesting content or creating some depth, it has potential. However, as of right now, it's nothing more than a pretty average time-waster that makes me continue to wonder why this industry wants to copy Escape from Tarkov if it has no interest in committing to the hardcore elements that make that game fun.

Call of Duty: Warzone 2 doesn't succeed at every single big idea it wants to take on, but it certainly justifies its existence as a sequel to a beloved free-to-play shooter. It's one of the most refined, satisfying, and premium battle royale games out there, making it best in class. In many ways, it's a better game than its predecessor thanks to its desire to keep every game fresh and varied with much needed quality of life changes. Whether it can sustain this with years of updates and changes remains to be seen, but if it can, it has serious long term potential.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Call of Duty: Warzone 2 is now available for Xbox, PlayStation, and PC. Activision provided a code for 2,400 CoD Points on Xbox Series X during the review period.