Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is as brilliant as it is utterly unforgiving. That's my takeaway after getting some hands-on time with Gunfight mode, the hardcore 2v2 experience that is going to send a certain subset of players – i.e. those that like to blame lag for disappointing kill-to-death ratios – into a freefall spiral. Hell, I'll be right there with you when the Gunfight alpha goes live next weekend on PS4.
The truth is, when it comes to Gunfight, there is nobody to blame for failure but yourself. That's difficult to accept, but something you have no choice but to get over. I learned this as I sat there with my head in my hands, wondering whether I could blame the mouse or the keyboard (or let's be honest, both) in lieu of any noticeable network problems. But I couldn't, because when I died it was absolutely my fault. And when I won, that was absolutely my fault too – an illicit elation followed each and every one of my kills, the dopamine thrills arriving in a way that I haven't felt from an online shooter in quite some time.
Gunfight is hardcore Call of Duty. You really do need to understand that. At times it almost feels as if it has crossed this weird chasm of genre-shooter separation and unwittingly ventured into Counter-Strike territory. Where Modern Warfare's Gunfight mode saves itself – and finds its brilliance – is in its balance. The skills necessary to succeed in this mode don't reside solely in wrapping your head around the meta-movements of play or in finely tuning of your loadout, but in learning to adapt in the split-seconds between life and death. It's in this that Modern Warfare finds its strength, in Gunfight's ability to surprise you without fail in each and every one of its rounds.
The action is centred around tight spaces, unpredictable loadouts, and a mantra of one-shot-and-you're-fucked. This of course is a departure from Modern Warfare's core multiplayer offering; traditional three-lane map design, deep weapon customisation, and a steady flow of respawns to help patch over any cracks in your ego. Gunfight ignores the classic combat cycle of Call of Duty's multiplayer in favour of something that finds contrast between the muscle memory that this series thrives and relies upon, and the unpredictability born out of thrusting different loadout configurations into your hands between rounds.
Infinity Ward has curated an array of loadouts and each player on the map will be assigned it between rounds. You could end up with a pistol and a rocket launcher, or a scoped shotgun and a sniper rifle. You never know what you're going to end up with, but you do know what you'll be going up against. This pushes you to approach the maps, as simple as they are in their design, in different ways to account for the weapons you hold in your hands. It rewards bold play, fast reflexes, and quick thinking – the magic occurring because you know the rival team is thinking in exactly the same way. Predicting enemy strategies is the name of the game here – crucial, not only to survival but to victory.
Therein lies the genius of Modern Warfare. With no opportunity to deviate from your assigned loadout, it pushes you to move out of your comfort zone and embrace the chaos laid at your feet. Because while the goal in Gunfight is simple enough – the first team to win five rounds secures a victory – you have to do it with nothing but the weapons you spawn in with and the team-mate by your side. The maps themselves are easy to learn, these tightly wound spaces that are impossibly well designed and balanced. The key to success is in finding your way around the loadout that has been thrust upon you as quickly as possible – in seconds, really, a death comes for all quickly in Modern Warfare's Gunfight mode.
Not only is Gunfight fantastic for pushing players to be adaptive and reactive, but it's also a really smart way to highlight everything that Infinity Ward is doing under the hood this year. You really appreciate the animation of the weapons when you're aware that you could only be alive for a matter of seconds. The weight of the movement and the nuance in control is immediately apparent, as too is the wider focus on considered shot-taking rather than a spray-pray-and-sprint mentality that has dogged recent instalments to the franchise. Perhaps this should go without saying, but Modern Warfare also happens to be an absolute stunner – its detail is crisp and its level design expressive, everything you'd hope to see from the most ambitious Call of Duty game to arrive in years.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare might be a spiritual reimagining of a decade-old classic, but in Gunfight it proves that there's still plenty of life in the franchise yet. Infinity Ward is taking some risks with the game this time out and, while that may well worry some of you it is worth remembering this: Infinity Ward did exactly the same back in 2007, when it reinvented the FPS with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Embrace it, because, for Call of Duty, there is no going back now.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is hitting PS4, Xbox One and PC – complete with crossplay – on October 25, 2019.