I spent most of my holiday vacation playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, specifically the DMZ version of the wildly popular free-to-play battle royale mode Warzone 2.0. It is very much in beta — the enemies seem like they’ve had a brain transplant every four or five days or so, and the dang thing crashes hard every few days, taking all of my hard-won loot with it. But, for me at least, DMZ is delivering white-knuckled thrills on the regular. After a long day at the word mill here at the good ship Polygon, I can count on season 1’s Al Mazrah map and the many heavily armed factions that populate it for a good time — a great time, actually. And it hasn’t cost me a dime.
DMZ is a session-based multiplayer survival game. If that sounds like a niche within a niche, that’s because it is. The only other game even remotely similar to it is Escape From Tarkov, an extremely technical tactical shooter that puts Arma 3 to shame. Developers have told me that it was designed with the help of former Russian special forces operators. They have never proven these bona fides to me, but if that sounds like a hard sell in the year of our lord 2023, you’re not alone. I just can’t bring myself to boot it up anymore because of… gestures broadly in the direction of the world outside his window.
A session-based multiplayer survival game is a player-versus-player-versus-enemy-AI playground with a fixed set of really obscure objectives: Visit this realistic landscape filled with enemy soldiers, look out for the highly skilled players lurking in the shadows, open this one weird door to advance your own personal quest lines, and make your way to the exit as discreetly as possible.
In Tarkov, advancement in those quest lines opens up new vendors and new opportunities to — you guessed it — do it all over again, but moar harder. In DMZ, success means unlocking weapons and attachments in the usual style of a Call of Duty progression tree. The gimmick with both Tarkov and DMZ, though, is that anything you bring with you into a session is at risk if you go down… or if the game crashes. Lose that nice gun and you’re empty-handed for the next challenging run through the gauntlet.
There’s a big difference in complexity, however. For instance, Tarkov models ricochet and penetration in a realistic way that would make Raytheon blush. Its arsenal includes a mind-bendingly obscure assortment of oddball NATO and Warsaw Pact small arms and related furniture, like thermal optics, high-powered armor-piercing rounds, and grips and stuff. Toss in a hefty amount of inventory Tetris while under fire and a full location-based medical system. It’s not for everyone.
But DMZ removes those barriers for anyone who isn’t concerned with the muzzle velocity of non-NATO frangible rounds. You’ve got access, more or less, to the full assortment of weapons from the multiplayer modes of the full-fat, full-price Modern Warfare 2 via what’s called an insured slot. If you die and lose that really nice light machine gun that you’ve grown fond of, you can have it back in two hours, thank you very much. While you wait, you can hop back into another session with a piece of “contraband” — a class of weapon that you earn by completing quests, or that you find in-game and bring home with you after a successful session. Run out of contraband? You get a random loadout — usually an over-under shotgun and a pistol.
Boats are a great way to beat the traffic in DMZ. There’s always at least one helicopter on the map as well, and certain quests will require it.
Image: Infinity Ward/Activision
The other innovation that DMZ tosses in is a kind of press-your-luck ethos with health and armor. The armor system allows you to take a single bullet to the chest or back before your health starts falling. Some loot crates will include two- and three-plate ballistic armor carriers. These allow you to take two and three rounds, respectively, before your health takes a hit. But when you die, your plate carrier goes back down to one. The only way to get a new carrier is to grind away in-game, under fire, at risk of death, and find another one.
This all adds to a virtuous cycle of briskly escalating tension. Instead of hiking for several hours north to an airfield à la DayZ, or fighting over a contested airdrop as in PUBG, you can just run a few sessions with your friends to gear up for the big push two or (in my circles) three sessions later. After an hour the adrenaline is really pumping. Better yet, that loot persists each time you boot up the game. I can gear up solo over lunch, and then have a high-intensity session with my three-plate vest, my favorite insured gun, and a self-revive kit for dinner the next day.
The in-game map includes a load of information. Clockwise from the upper left corner you have one of the three blue exfil locations — where a helicopter will land to pull you out of the session. Along the river you can se a rubber boat, and to the east of that boat a hostage rescue mission — which will spawn another exfil location. The player (1) is just northeast of a landmark — the police station — which is filled with cash and potentially self-revive kits. In the lower right, the long string of white marks is the train that circles the map. And, finally, at the bottom of the image is a shopping-cart-shaped buy station where you can pick up a two-plate carrier, high-end contraband, and more. Personal quests are stacked up on the left-hand side of the screen, always there to remind you of your bigger goals. For a guide that covers the basics, try this tutorial on YouTube.
Image: Infinity Ward/Activision via Polygon
This solves one major problem of the modern batch of live-service first-person shooters: time commitment. I don’t need to run a four-hour raid à la Destiny 2, or commit to an open-ended battle royale session that could last a full hour. I can hop in and hop out in 20 minutes, have a great time, and build on that experience the next time I play — it’s just the thing for a sad dad like me trying to get back into good sleep habits in the new year.
But developer Infinity Ward is also doing some sophisticated things with the map. Players can see extraction points as soon as they land. This allows solos, duos, or three-person teams to drop into a session, make a plan to exit at a given location, and then move toward that site, ticking boxes on their various personal quests as they go.
There are missions on the map as well, and they appeal to different play styles. Want a knock-down, drag-out fight against another team of three up-armored players? There’s a mission for that. Want to just kill a handful of bad dudes and GTFO? Go do a hostage rescue and they’ll fly a whole fourth chopper in just to get you and the friendly AI character out of the session. It’s the only way to go, if you ask me.
The rules are designed to respect your time, but they also reward playing together in small groups. Progress toward personal quests is shared between all members of the party, meaning that if your buddy lugs home five flash grenades and you bring three more to the chopper, you both get credit for looting eight. So more players means more capability to move things along in the metagame.
DMZ is just so dense and thoughtful, and it allows players to move at their own pace. If DMZ were a pizza, then every slice would be made up of a series of perfect bites. And the crust is good, too, by which I mean the overall featureset that underpins the entire experience.
Look no further than the integrated proximity chat, which incorporates voice and text. It’s not nearly as nuanced as the Teamspeak plugins utilized by dedicated military simulation groups like Shack Tactical (a group of which I am a member, for what it’s worth). Camelpoop420 sounds just as loud and shrill when he’s across the street as when he’s right next to you, and the directional audio in these situations is a bit hit-or-miss. But it gets the job done. You can heckle, you can taunt, you can make people panic as you stalk them through the smoke… or you can make friends.
I will never forget when, the day before Christmas Eve, my own team of sad dads rolled up on another team of sad dads at a poorly defended LZ screaming — pleading, more like — with each other not to shoot. “Friendlies! Friendlies!” we panted, not unlike the early days around DayZ’s Chernogorsk, circa 2014. Then all six of us piled into the helicopter, had a good laugh, and literally waved goodbye to the next team of three waiting for their turn. You can even team up with strangers to complete quests, mixing depleted squads and solo or duo teams into one big, happy, gun-toting found family.
Bottom line is that DMZ is the most experimental thing that the Call of Duty franchise has done in years, and I am here for it. It successfully blends the tension of a great roguelike with the kind of open-world exploration that makes games like Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain and Hitman 3 so immersive. It leaves room for players to express their creativity and flex their problem-solving muscles, while also seamlessly integrating all the bells and whistles that make a modern Call of Duty game such a AAA-level experience. And it does it in a way that displays a trust in the player, while also respecting their time.
Did I mention it is literally free?