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Call of Duty is putting a big bet on machine learning. Will it be valuable?

We could be going to witness the beginning of a new era of multiplayer shooters.

The writing is fully evident on the walls. Call of Duty is going through a change and this time this might stick.

With the yearly Call of Duty releases, you can roughly map out the evolution of first-person shooters over the last 1.5 decades. There was a moment when everyone was fascinated with modern military shooters, followed by a period when our feet lifted off the ground and we started wall-running or jetpacking. Treyarch responded to the notoriety of hero shooters with Black Ops 3’s unique characters and ultimate. That was enjoyable for a little while, but then the clock resets, and Activision eventually realized, hey, maybe World War II would be fun again. It wasn’t the scenario.

This brings us to our current era, which also I believe is approaching its conclusion (opens in new tab): battle royale. Activision had been an early supporter of battle royale, trying to capture a broad audience with its standalone, free-to-play Call of Duty: Warzone. In 2022, the most popular way to play CoD is in a lobby with 149 other people, which I had never imagined in 2007. But, after almost three years, I’ve noticed a decrease in interest in the same old battle royale, and I think Activision has too. Infinity Ward is bringing back battle royale in Warzone 2.0, but it’s also betting big on AI and PvPvE.

If you haven’t noticed, AI combatants could be discovered all through Modern Warfare 2. In fact, AI is prevalent almost in every tentpole mode in Modern Warfare 2:

  • In the 20v20 Ground War modes, AI grunts join the battle.
  • Warzone 2.0: AI is littered with new Al Mazrah in strongholds protecting rare loot.
  • Spec Ops: 2 different collaborative missions against AI
  • Raids: Co-op missions in the blood vessel of Destiny, full of complex AI encounters and combat puzzles.
  • A mysterious new PvPvE extraction mode DMZ: Warzone is launching alongside battle royale.

During this season’s Modern Warfare 2 beta, we’ll receive our first taste of CoD’s AI push (opens in a new tab). Unnamed grunts join a large-scale 20v20 team deathmatch where AI kills are worth zero passes then the player kills in new mode Invasion, a take on Titanfall’s Attrition mode. I didn’t expect much from Invasion, but it’s actually my favorite method so far in the beta. Moment to moment, it’s still TDM, but the extra bodies saturate the map, giving the appearance of a grand, almost Battlefield-scale conflict in a much smaller space. It’s also satisfying to decimate a phalanx of AI including one or two bullets.

I’m intrigued by how Modern Warfare 2 will manage raids. Infinity Ward’s summary of raids as “cooperative engagement requiring teamwork and strategic, puzzle-solving thoughts in between bouts of intense combat” purposefully makes a comparison to Destiny 2. The raids in Destiny are almost universally regarded as the best parts of the game, yet only a tiny portion of those who play it ever see them due to level requirements. Infinity Ward seems to be exacerbating the process by developing raid missions that anyone can play.

Further than the Warzone

Even so, I think the real test of Call of Duty’s AI experiment will have to wait until Warzone 2.0. I suspect that the nameless grunts wandering the map in battle royale will add anything more than target practice. AI enemies have a “variety of lethality levels” and “defend their territory like a CDL pro,” according to Infinity Ward, but the grunts content streamers encountered during the live Warzone 2.0 reveal were pushovers. I’ve yet to arrive across one of these AI that truly threatens players in the exact way that Hunt: Showdown’s slug monsters, bug assassins, and aquatic tentacle freaks do.

If AI is merely a distraction in a battle royale, I’m wishing it takes center stage in DMZ. My newfound love of extraction shooters may be affecting this, but I get the perception that DMZ is essential to Infinity Ward. The format that bridges the divide between high-risk survival shooters and battle royale is getting popular. Many extraction shooters have emerged, characterized by the freedom to roam the map, fight players, complete objectives, and leave whenever you want. The stealthy cowboy shooter Hunt: Showdown(opens in new tab) and milsim Escape From Tarkov had already dominated the burgeoning genre, but newer challengers include the diesel-punk shooter Marauders(opens in new tab) and The Cycle: Frontier (opens in new tab). Last year, Battlefield 2042 attempted the extraction format with Hazard Zone(which opens in a new tab), but still, it can’t take off.

The Warzone 2.0 announcement blog post makes reference to DMZ as a “passion project” inside Infinity Ward and contributing studios, language that does not seem to be in the show’s other two hundred modes. It is also the only mode with its own logo, unique from the Warzone branding.

Infinity Ward should consider getting creative with AI to distinguish DMZ from Warzone. Recognize much more grunts: one of Hunt’s greatest strengths is how the unique behaviors of its monsters force you to reconsider your plan (like the Human Torch-like Immolators). There should be environmental hazards and other things to do besides that run around it and shooting other players. Think too small when that tends to come to extraction shooters, but you’ll end up with Battlefield 2042’s infamous Hazard Zone.

If Infinity Ward can do for extraction shooters what it did for battle royale, it could really be something special (and even beat Fortnite to the punch this time).

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