Opinion: Call of Duty: Warzone’s Loadouts Are A Balance Problem

Call of Duty: Warzone is taking the world by storm. More than 30 million people have jumped into Modern Warfare’s 150 player Battle Royale mode since it launched nearly a fortnight ago, and people are loving it.

I’ve already poured around 30 hours into it, winning games I shouldn’t have, losing others I should, dying early and late and every time in between before escaping from the Gulag. I’ve had a lot of fun in Call of Duty: Warzone – it’s entirely filled the Battle Royale-shaped hole in my life – but there is one element unique to its design that is somewhat troubling to an experienced fan of the genre: it’s Loadout drop crates.

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None of this is to say Infinity Ward shouldn’t strive to leave its own mark on the genre – Battle Royales are regularly defined by their most effective tactics, or “metas”. There’s the building meta in Fortnite, shield management in Apex, which encourages mid-fight looting, and in PUBG the DMR/M4 combo dominates both casual and pro play. That said, the new meta that is emerging in Warzone around Loadouts – which allow players to have custom-created weapon and perk loadouts air-dropped to them – has the potential to reshape – or even completely negate – some of the most important aspects of the Battle Royale experience.

On-Site Procurement

In Warzone, like in most battle royales, the dominant strategy is to acquire your favourite guns and perks as soon as possible after dropping into a match so that you have an effective arsenal as you reach the final showdown. This is known as “the loot phase” and, much like the “laning” phase in MOBAs, eliminating or drastically altering this phase of play can fundamentally change the way a game is played.

Allowing players to walk into Warzone’s final circle with the exact equipment they need – regardless of the game they may have had up until that point – defeats the purpose of the first phase of a battle royale altogether. Finding crates and boxes full of random guns and equipment is a vital component of the genre’s appeal because it directly leads to conflict or, at the very least, offers an exhilarating sense of tension. People feel good when they open a crate and find their favourite gun – but, more importantly, if they don’t see their favourite gun, they’ll typically seek out another crate, which increases the odds that they’ll run into more players as they search.

Warzone’s Loadout drops eliminate the need for this loot phase almost entirely — at least any beyond all three players collecting the requisite $2000 each and finding a buy station (though crates also drop randomly, too). You can pool your cash, and suddenly you and your team are fully kitted out with the best weapons and perks, scavenging and fate be damned – which, of course, manages to further complicate Warzone’s meta.

Balancing Act

Warzone feels like it’s balanced for engagements using the weapons you can find within Verdansk itself — the weapons dropped by in-world loot crates. In the first few hours of the game — before everyone realized Loadout drops were practically mandatory — there was a priority management system in place. If you wanted to be silent, you needed to find specific weapons like the Nursing Death Bizon or Dry Heat P90. If engaging at range was your plan, you’d want a sniper rifle or DMR — ideally a high rarity one that actually had a scope – and if you found the Zip Tie M4 and a Khemical FAL, your only concern was ammo, because you had short to mid-range engagements locked up.

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But Loadout drops introduce a whole swarm of weapons into the loot economy of Warzone that it’s not prepared for or balanced around. The JOKR launcher adds rainable death to player’s secondary slots, usurping a role designed for the Cluster Strike or Airstrike killstreaks, and silencers can be equipped to practically any weapon. Perhaps the biggest shift, though, is that Thermal Imaging Scopes make visible what was previously hidden.

All Battle Royales are information games at heart – information drives positioning, positioning leads to lopsided gunfights and winning gunfights is how you get your Helicopter Ride. And thermal imaging significantly redefines the information aspect of the game, showing (most) players as bright white objects against a dark grey background.

It’s not great that the scope doesn’t show up on any of the weapons native to Warzone, but what’s worse is that the only way to directly combat it is via Loadouts themselves. Cold-blooded is a perk which makes the user invisible to thermals, AI targeting systems and Snapshot Grenades. If you add it to your preferred loadout, snipers with thermal imaging scopes will find it harder to see you. This is commonly referred to in other games as ‘teching’ — using specific items or abilities to deliberately counter the specific abilities of your opponent.

In competitive play, teching is par for the course, and can actually be a fascinating element of the meta-game itself. But Warzone doesn’t currently have a “ranked” mode, meaning there is no competitive play  — which means teching is instead just the absence of player agency. It robs players of choice, forcing them down a particular path — you have no option but to equip perks X, Y, and Z to avoid being more vulnerable, even if you’d rather use others instead. You’re no longer making decisions about your gear as you play — you’re not even really making them about your loadout. A choice between winning and being kicked repeatedly in the crotch is no choice at all.

Thermals aren’t the only thing the Warzone ecosystem has a problem handling, either. Riot Shields are notoriously tricky to deal with, requiring either specific gear or flawless coordination between teammates, and Underbarrel grenade launchers inject either lethal or non-lethal explosives into the economy as effectively a third weapon. In essence, players can ditch their rocket launchers to just use underbarrels instead.

Teching in high-tier competitive play is exciting because it demonstrates mastery of the systems involved, and tournaments require a few dozen matches at most. Having to tech in regular games causes stagnation, when the absence of repetition is the entire reason Battle Royales became so popular in the first place.

Positional Play

When Infinity Ward revealed Modern Warfare’s multiplayer, the team explained that the changes they’d made to the game emphasised a slower pace and ‘positional play’.

To many people, positional play simply means “camping” – but there’s a bit more to it than that. When you’re camping on the objective — that’s positional play. Nobody should be getting mad at you for hanging out around B to defend it from incoming attackers in Domination, because that’s the objective of the mode. Similarly, in Battle Royales, any movement you make which leads to a higher end-game ranking is furthering your objective, so there is no such thing as ‘camping’. There is only “positional play”.

Of course, that doesn’t make it any less frustrating when you get blapped by somebody hiding behind a door and a claymore, or that your best course of action is to do the same. But acquiring a superior position and holding it is literally the aim of a Battle Royale – it widens your path to victory.

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One of the common arguments we’ve heard from people who enjoy Loadouts is the idea that it disrupts the “typical” Battle Royale end-game where everyone in the final circle “camps” until they are finally forced to engage in a fight. In practice, however, Loadouts exacerbate this issue. The players who are bringing thermal-scoped AX-50s into the game the moment they get a collective $6000 together are also setting claymores at every entry point they can. They’re hunkering down until the gas itself forces them to move — and even then, the Overkill perk means they’re switching to a fully-decked out M4 (with a thermal-hybrid scope of its own, naturally) so they can enter the circle with superior firepower.

As we pointed out in our review, you can have a loadout drop inside the first minutes of a round of Warzone. The average game lasts around 20 minutes. That’s a long time for players to engage in positional play, generally by heading to where you think the centre of the circle will be and pitching a tent. Not only do loadouts fail to rectify the “final circle campers” issue — by eliminating the loot phase, they extend it dramatically.

What To Do?

There are a few different ways that Infinity Ward could potentially remedy this Loadout situation. The most drastic solution is to simply remove weapons from loadouts entirely. Loadout drops could still give players perks, and, ideally, players would pick perks based on the weapons the match had offered them thus far. They might select a sneaky perk loadout to accompany their silenced weapons, or a Scavenger-based loadout if they’re rocking the AR/LMG combo.

That said, Loadouts are very “Call of Duty”, and it would be a shame to rob Warzone of that unique flavour. Another alternative could be to restrict Loadouts to “blueprint” weapons. A large number of the guns native to Warzone are based on blueprints — that is, they drop with multiple attachments already installed. Blueprints would allow Infinity Ward to still give players a wide array of excellent weapons while also maintaining the loot phase spirit by not including items like Riot Shields or Thermal Sights.

By the same token, Infinity Ward might simply put together a unique list of attachments that aren’t available in Warzone. The team already restricts the “Specialist” system from the mode, and certain Perks work differently in Warzone than they do in regular multiplayer, so there’s precedent — Infinity Ward doesn’t seem to have a problem altering elements of Modern Warfare to better suit the needs of a given game mode.

However, even if weapons are restricted to blueprints or attachments and shields are banned, the loot phase will still be disrupted by an early influx of superior weaponry.

The other adjustment Warzone needs is to raise the price of Loadout drops in order to heighten the risk/reward stakes. Raising the price to something like $18,000, or making the $6000 drop from a buy station a single-use only, would drive more engagement with the world and other combatants, plus it would help incentivise more players to go for the random drops, especially if random drops were still three-use items. I’ve noticed more and more that players aren’t contesting the random drops at all – the risk is too high compared to directly buying your own. But if purchased loadout drops were more expensive, some players might reassess, and random drops would become a focal point for conflict once again.

The Saga Continues

At the end of the day, the appeal of Battle Royale games is in the stories we get out of them.The genre is built on emergent player-generated narrative, going as far back as DayZ, where players would spend four hours doing nothing while sharing tales of the 10 minutes where something happened.

All great stories need stakes. They need risk, and they need players to experience adversity in order to overcome it. The stories we tell are about succeeding against impossible odds, about the difficulties we face and how we managed to overcome them — not the times we’re given everything and still nearly snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. But Loadouts lower the stakes of each Warzone match, therein lowering the variance in the storytelling.

If loadout drops as they currently exist are going to remain core to the Warzone experience, then I wonder why there remains any loot phase at all. We could just as easily with our ideal loadouts, as the game does in Plunder, and abandon loot entirely beyond cash, armour and utilities. Regardless of how the adjustments manifest, it will be interesting to see how Warzone evolves, both in terms of its own metas and how it fits into the Battle Royale genre as a whole. Without substantial revisions it risks going the way of games like Radical Heights – but, hopefully, it endures to become as unique as its contemporaries rather than just another flash in the Battle Royale pan.

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Joab Gilroy is an Australian freelancer that specialises in competitive online games and chicken dinner acquisition. You can tweet at him here.