Activision has long resisted the urge to put the heart of its blockbuster shooter franchise — the multiplayer, competitive modes — on mobile devices.
In the past, we’ve seen a standalone port of the co-op Zombies mode, a solid single-player campaign with curious strategic elements, and even a cynical freemium Clash of Clans-esque base building simulation — but never a proper online multiplayer experience.
Well, here it is. On the backs of the immense popularity of Fortnite on mobile and the free-to-play PUBG Mobile, Activision and Chinese gaming juggernaut Tencent have deployed Call of Duty: Mobile, developed by TiMi Studios, on both iOS and Android. It’s an online shooter that plays like a free-to-play greatest hits package, bringing together popular Modern Warfare and Black Ops maps while converting the familiar controller or keyboard/mouse gameplay to touch controls.
Amazingly, it works. Call of Duty: Mobile doesn’t come across like a deeply compromised or watered-down rendition of the age-old multiplayer format; it just feels like Call of Duty. And it looks like it too, running at a high frame rate and looking detailed and sharp on my iPhone 11 Pro Max.
Call of Duty: Mobile has the same flow and cadence of combat as its counterparts on consoles and the PC; the same satisfying pop to a headshot or grisly tension of a knife to a back. It also has some of the same modes intact, including team deathmatch, the area-controlling Domination, and the delightful Gun Game, in which you try to be the first player to rack up one kill apiece with 20 different weapons.
The 5v5 matches are brief, however, typically lasting a few minutes due to the tighter kill and point tallies. This is a game designed for shorter sessions.
In that sense, Call of Duty: Mobile feels like it’s optimized for smartphones and tablets. But when it comes to the controls, it’s clear that Activision and Tencent are doing the best they can with a touch interface. It’s not ideal, obviously, to go from the precision of physical controls to an array of virtual buttons on the screen, but I still found the controls to be effective for navigating the terrain and popping off shots. The game eases you into the action by filling your early matches with A.I. foes, leading my initial K/D ratio to shocking new heights. That didn’t last for long, however, as real opponents quickly crushed my short-lived ego.
Call of Duty Mobile offers multiple control options and some customization, and I ultimately preferred the ability to have my weapons automatically fire once an enemy was within the crosshairs. Is that easier? Totally. Dumbed down? Sure. But it streamlines the moment-to-moment experience while still requiring precise aim to rack up kills. It’s not perfect; auto-firing with a scoped rifle takes a beat longer than it should, which can complicate the late stages of the Gun Game mode. But it’s effective, for the most part. Activision says that it is testing physical controller support, so that may eventually be an option for more serious players.
Alongside multiplayer is a full-fledged 100-player battle royale mode, much like Blackout in Call of Duty: Black Ops 4. It’s not the same map, but Call of Duty: Mobile’s large environment similarly integrates locations from past multiplayer maps in the series. Most of all, it looks and feels very similar to Tencent’s own PUBG Mobile — which is a pretty good thing overall. It’s blander than the 5v5 showdowns, given the larger scale of the map and more downtime between encounters, but still plenty satisfying to take the win against the entire field. And it’s still pretty compact: I won a full match in 13 minutes.
Beyond touch controls, the other big question mark coming into Call of Duty: Mobile was the free-to-play model and monetization. Luckily, you can play as much as you want: the freemium energy meters of old are thankfully absent here, plus you don’t have to watch video ads between matches or anything like that. In that sense, the game is surprisingly friendly. Play for hours at a time without paying, if you please.
Still, the sheer repetition of freemium prompts is obnoxious. I’ve seen as many as six straight full-screen alerts about various in-game deals and promotions when opening up the game, promising more rewards if you pay for a Fortnite-like premium battle pass, or offering special gun skins for sale. Premium currency is sold in bundles up to $100 apiece, and you can use those coins to purchase items directly, or take a chance on gacha-style crates that unlock random weapon skins, emotes, sprays, and more.
I’m never going to spend $20 worth of real money to unlock a rainbow spray-painted AK117 anyway, nor are the soldier outfits remotely as diverse or interesting as Fortnite’s skins … so it’s pretty easy for me to shrug off the freemium hooks. Like Gameloft’s Asphalt 9: Legends, a premium, console-quality mobile game like this is only free because of that kind of prodding. If you can deal with that — and ignore it, if you choose — then you should be fine.
Even amidst those free-to-play annoyances, I still had a lot of fun with Call of Duty: Mobile’s short-form shootouts. It’s not going to pull the die-hard fans away from their consoles and PCs, and it’s unlikely to lead to a rash of canceled Call of Duty: Modern Warfare preorders.
It’s meant for more casual play, and for more casual players too — it’s for the few spare minutes at the end of a lunch break, or a quick match while killing time. And it’s for the players who probably wouldn’t spend $60 on a new Call of Duty game, or don’t aspire to compete at a high level.
That seems to be a whole ton of people, too, given the 100 million downloads racked up in Call of Duty: Mobile’s first week of availability. Call of Duty: Mobile is smaller-scale proof that the core ideas of the series work just fine on mobile devices.
Call of Duty: Mobile is out now for iOS and Android devices. The game was reviewed using a free-to-play download on iOS. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.