Playing Call of Duty: Warzone 2.0’s DMZ mode this winter has been one the best first person shooter experiences I’ve had in years. It’s not because of the graphics, the level design, the battle pass, or the gunplay. All match but rarely exceed expectations for a free-to-play shooter in 2023. Instead, DMZ is awesome by mixing an open sandbox of activities with widely divergent human psychology. The results are unpredictable and often fascinating.
DMZ’s power derives from how much it differs from normal big budget multiplayer gameplay that funnels players down a narrow path of expected behavior. Racing games like Gran Turismo: Sport or Forza Horizon 5 push players through a track as fast as possible. Large scale battle royale shooters (Fortnite, Apex Legends) drop combatants into a combat zone as players battle to remain the last standing. There are, of course, endless tweaks and variations to give each game its character and difficulty, but successful gameplay hinges on an easy to follow win condition.
Narrow sets of objectives make for practical game design. The simplicity lowers a game’s learning curve for new players and breaks down barriers for successful cooperation on the same team. “Stay together and shoot anybody else” or “drive as fast as possible” are easy rules for a team to rally around.
However, focused objectives cut down on variety and emergent gameplay across play sessions. For battle royale, I find most matches follow a similar pattern: I run around to grab gear for over 90 percent of a game, only to butt heads with a more experienced enemy team who blows us away in a matter of seconds.
In contrast, DMZ juggles a wide variety of goals and activities for a shooter. Players can take on random contracts (e.g., demolition runs, hostage rescues) scattered throughout the map. For those wanting more unstructured play, a team can attack randomly generated enemies while looting buildings for valuables. Contracts, eliminating enemies, and looting give players better guns, equipment, and cash. Players exchange cash to buy extra in game items, weapons, and vehicles. All actions produce XP points, which like most free-to-play games, progress the player through new ranks, unlockable skins, guns to bring into battle, and more. In practice, the PvE mini missions and random encounters produce a fun, sandbox style remix of traditional Call of Duty single player gameplay.
That said, DMZ’s biggest shake up to shooter mechanics derives from its risk reward surrounding exfils. To end the play session, a squad heads to a handful of exfil zones to call in a friendly helicopter that yanks them out of the combat zone. A successful exfil gives players a hefty XP bonus and the benefit of keeping most of the guns and items as contraband to bring back into future DMZ sessions. Many faction missions also require an exfil to make progress. Conversely, dying on the battlefield means virtually all losing progression beyond XP.
However, exfils are risky. A player calling one in generates a big flare alongside a noisy aircraft that inevitably draws attention from other live players and AI enemies. A final, stressful shootout is all but inevitable as a squad races to get on the helicopter.
There are also considerations around timing, given players can call in an exfil at any time within the thirty minute or so time limit per match. The longer players stay in the combat zone, the more missions, loot, and items they can pick up. However, more time in combat increases the odds that a stray bullet from an AI or live player ends the match prematurely, wiping player progression and XP bonuses.
When you mix DMZ’s volatile gameplay elements – randomized contracts, AI enemies, loot, and the exfil endgame – with the whims of three individuals on a squad, varied play sessions are inevitable. Admittedly, that variety can devolve into chaos. Around half of my play sessions are short and unmemorable: the team doesn’t work together, and aggressive AI enemy players wipe us out in under ten minutes.
However, it’s all worth it in exchange for the memorable stories that emerge from my long runs. A heated session with two highly skilled players, knocking out contract after contract, ending in a race against the clock in a banged up SUV, barely making it to the final exfil spot before time ran out. Another time I guided two novice players to help them complete their first contract missions, hand holding with instructions over voice chat. Afterward, what should have been a cakewalk exfil became a tense firefight against the AI, alternating between defensive shooting and reviving downed teammates. Another session saw two of my squadmates run far ahead, only to be downed by a rival squad that happened to be traveling by car nearby. I took a quiet, conservative route, waiting for the enemy team to finish looting my teammates, assuming no other threats were nearby, and then rushed in, guns blazing, wiping the other team and saving the day.
Notably, fresh gameplay doesn’t hide DMZ’s flaws. The mode is marked as “beta” and shows numerous visual glitches and frequent crashes. Enemy AI can be frustratingly difficult to engage with, having the superhuman ability to hit players from long range. Some missions can feel repetitive or overly complex. Many have taken these elements to consider DMZ something of a half cooked battle royale, another skinner box around general Call of Duty rank and battle pass progression.
I disagree. DMZ provides a strong balance of accessibility and variability that sets it firmly apart from its highly competitive PvP battle royale competition. Here’s hoping Activision sees value in the mode and presses for its expansion over the long run.