Call of Duty: Mobile is the best shooter I’ve played on a smartphone

Mobile games suck.

Ask any gamer at E3 2019 about mobile, and that’s the response you’ll receive. Mobile games are in hiding at the show, and when they do appear, the response is usually a pained groan.

That might why Call of Duty: Mobile kept a low profile at the show despite the game’s massive appeal. This is the biggest mobile game coming in the second half of 2019 and, after a couple of matches, I’m convinced it deserves your hype.

Pure, refined Call of Duty

Loading up a match of Call of Duty: Mobile is like having a syringe of pure, refined, unfiltered Call of Duty stuck straight in your jugular. Tencent, developing the game for Activision, could’ve watered it down until it was unrecognizable, but instead, the mobile version feels like a master cut of every CoD game ever made. Its clean and sometimes colorful looks are reminiscent of Advanced Warfare and Black Ops 4, but the mostly realistic weapons and reeled-in class system have more in common with Modern Warfare.

The biggest obstacle facing a mobile game is the controls, of course, and shooters are among the most challenging genres. Call of Duty: Mobile offers two control schemes, and I tried both.

The simple controls put your left thumb in charge of movement, and your right in charge of aim. There’s no fire button. Instead, you fire as soon as your reticle finds an enemy.

It sounds strange, I know, but it works. The fact your gun is firing doesn’t mean you’ll win a battle. Accuracy, range, and even aim still matter. You won’t do any damage if you try to shoot someone across the map with a shotgun, and it’s important to aim for headshots. I killed several foes who began firing at me first and, yes, I was owned by several I surprised.

The advanced controls add a button that lets you aim down sights. You’ll only fire when aiming. This gives you more precise control and makes headshots easier, but sharp aim is required to make the most of it. I preferred the advanced controls. Aiming down sights for a headshot at range felt rewarding. It’s not great for 360 no-scope kills, but I never felt my success or victory was due to fat-thumbing the fire button.

Shooting fools is the main activity in Call of Duty: Mobile, but other favorites carry over. You can throw grenades and flash-bangs, use killstreaks, and pick up weapons dropped by enemies. It all happens at the press of on-screen buttons. I played on an iPhone XS, which was just large enough to fit the many controls. Players on small smartphones may be in for a rough time.

Battle royale is here, but it’s not flying solo

Battle royale makes its way to Call of Duty: Mobile, though it’s not the game mode I tried. Instead, I was shown a brief demo. Anyone who enjoyed the Blackout mode in Black Ops 4 should be pleased. Mobile’s battle royale isn’t a copy of it, but it’s similar. Even the map looks like a spin-off of Black Ops 4.

My time was spent playing two matches of the game’s classic 5-on-5 mode. Unlike battle royale, which can be a lengthy experience, this mode is perfect for short bursts of play. Most 5-on-5 matches will take between five and 10 minutes.

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The maps, once again, are callbacks to Call of Duty favorites. They did seem smaller than what I remember, and less detailed. That lead to a frantic pace of combat. Both matches were in team deathmatch mode with a goal of 50 kills. The first game was a blowout victory for my side (no thanks to me), but the second was a real nail-biter. My team pulled out a 50-to-48 victory. I even made the top-three podium.

Everyone wants battle royale, but I suspect I’d play the 5-on-5 games more. I had the same experience in Black Ops 4. I bought it for battle royale, but I played classic multiplayer more. The quick, merciless matches are a rush, even on a 6-inch smartphone screen.

All the customization, for better or worse

Customization is a core feature of Call of Duty, and Mobile carries over everything you’d expect. Custom loadouts, weapon skins, player skins, killstreaks, and badges all make an appearance. Though visually a step back from Call of Duty: Black Ops 4, the graphics are at least on par with a late-generation Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 game. Armor, weapons, and other customizations look slick enough to tempt you.

That leaves a concern: Micro-transactions. They’re definitely in the game. Activision representatives weren’t willing to go into specifics about how they’ll look at launch, but I don’t have to guess, because Call of Duty: Mobile is already available in other countries. The version of the game launched in Australia has a combination of micro-transactions and battle passes to support the game. Cosmetic awards are the main lure, and it’s a strong one. Many of the game’s premium gun, grenade, and other skins look fantastic, while the default player skin couldn’t be more dull.

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I also noticed the different weapon skins were linked to stats and perks. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a chance to go deep into the system myself, but the Australian version apparently links potentially advantageous perks to weapon skins. As I understand it, you can technically grind out perks through gameplay — but the grind is very, very long. Drift0r, an experienced shooter player, has a full breakdown of these perks on his YouTube channel.

Whatever the specifics, Call of Duty: Mobile is heavy under the weight of the microtransactions. You’ll find slots for customizations everywhere, cluttering up the display and weakening your willpower with the relentless assault of possibilities. Most of these were empty in my demo, but the space for them cluttered up the interface.

It’s Call of Duty. It’s mobile. And it’s made by Tencent. The existence of microtransactions, even those that offer in-game advantage, isn’t a surprise. You’ll have to decide whether you can live with that.

Call of Duty on your phone feels like … well, Call of Duty

Call of Duty: Mobile is a faithful port of the franchise’s core gameplay to the smartphone. It’s also the best first-person shooter I’ve yet played on a phone. The microtransactions are a problem, just as they’ve become a problem in mainline Call of Duty titles, but fans who don’t mind that annoyance will love the mobile version.

You can play Call of Duty: Mobile on Android and iOS later this year. The game will roll out in a series of betas. You can register your interest on the official website.

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