Modern Warfare 2 open beta demonstrates Activision’s neglect of accessibility

The Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 open beta has ended. It was a trial I entered with an open mind. While I found Modern Warfare 2019’s visibility and repetitive entries challenging, I put in a lot of hours into it. Subsequent entries felt worse due to a regression in graphical fidelity, but I still crave what Call of Duty has to offer.

Not a fast-paced shooter, but a noncommittal game. Rather than knowing that I have to dedicate hundreds of hours to the experience, I can adapt to sessions over a time range through multiplayer matches of around 15 minutes and frequent checkpoints in the country.

So it’s disappointing that in the three years between Modern Warfare entries, accessibility doesn’t seem to have progressed. Granted, what we’ve seen over the past two weekends has been limited to multiplayer, but the available settings inform what we’re likely to see in the full release.

That the beta immediately dropped the player into a marketing screen, with no instructions on how to exit, wasn’t ideal. More than once I tried to go back and was rebooted to the login screen.

A screenshot of a section of the Modern Warfare 2 Open Beta settings, showing options to change input device, change some button layouts, and adjust sensitivity.

Accessing the settings outside of a match was tricky on its own, as they were hidden behind a small, unclear options prompt on PlayStation 5.

The available options focused on colorblind filters and button remapping. Other aspects were more general. You can reduce motion blur and fine-tune the graphics (no amount of manipulation with which visibility is improved for me), change the FOV, and have awesome control over dead zones and look sensitivity. The options to change the UI and text size were also useful, given how obfuscated the beta’s menus were.

There isn’t much of a difference between the settings found in Modern Warfare 2019 and its sequel beta. Indeed, the settings of the last three Call of Duty renditions have been surprisingly similar, and there’s little indication in the beta that Modern Warfare 2 will offer anything other than a basic level of accessibility – at least, such. as defined by the game’s accessibility guidelines.

MW2 Open Beta Settings

A screenshot of the graphics section of the Modern Warfare 2 open beta settings. Demonstrated are the ability to change the field of view (FOV), various graphical adjustments including motion blur and film grain, along with explanations of what these settings do.

Infinity Ward has maintained in the series’ two recent entries that it wants to encourage a range of playstyles, which has drawn criticism from a vocal and obnoxious core of existing players. If so, it would be good to see the proof.

I asked gamers with disabilities on Twitter for their thoughts on what this evidence might look like from their perspective. Some suggestions such as aim assist, potential tilting, and sensitivity adjustments are already implemented, at least partially.

A wide range of visual effects in MW2

A wide array of visual effects that bombard the screen, including the rainbow effect shown here, but also blurs, smoke plumes and damage filters contribute to the game’s lack of visibility.

Others, like damage sliders, are perhaps difficult to balance in online multiplayer, but should be standard in single-player modes and private matches. Granted, these should be sliders and not the general presets found in previous iterations. It’s also frustrating not to see options for single-stick modes, auto-motion, or screen-reading.

Infinity Ward also didn’t mention accessibility in its response to feedback on the first weekend of the beta. It therefore seems unlikely that greater accessibility is forthcoming.

It’s a lack of progress that suggests Infinity Ward and Activision don’t understand the relationship between the abilities of its potential players and the obstacles in its games. Yes, these mechanics can play well in competitive spaces. But that leaves huge swaths of players behind with little to overcome the series’ entrenched barriers.

For example, visibility in Call of Duty has been problematic for some time. Rather than implement some form of contrast mode, Infinity Ward has removed opposing player nameplates in the open beta, making the visibility worse.

This could be improved by adding color to the uniforms. Could this hurt the realism that many gamers crave? Maybe, but a few weeks after release, multiplayer will be flooded with cat ears and anime-inspired tracers. Of course, that’s part of why Activision might not go for it, given how lucrative selling skins is for the publisher. But if that’s an option for gamers like me, it might be disabled.

This adds to the community’s continued frustration with varying playstyles, which in itself is a complaint that ignores accessibility. Many gamers struggle with the rushed style that many Call of Duty vocal fans promote. Instead, other playing methods are more comfortable. For some, that means hanging back and shooting for a more manageable experience. For me, it’s about setting up guns for the hipfire, greatly limiting my options but reducing repetitive inputs.

We can criticize Infinity Ward for the lack of accessibility highlighted in the open beta, but we also have to understand that the community around the game – and Activision’s relationship with it – doesn’t help.

MW2 - player nameplates removed

It can be hard to tell what’s going on in the open beta with a lot of different filters laid across the screen to indicate damage, dirt, and disorientation. This is exacerbated by the decision to remove enemy nameplates, as seen in this image in which two enemy players appear without any ID markers, merging with the background and foreground effects.

When you refuse to implement adequate accessibility, it is no longer slow progress but a deliberate exclusion of groups of players, apparently in order to retain a core of vocal players whose attitude towards accessibility and the change it represents in the series is not favorable.

Because if there’s one thing Call of Duty fans fear – more than changes to their beloved minimap, more than someone sitting in the corner – it’s change.

This may sound unnecessarily inflammatory, but if you had spent as much time in Call of Duty discussions as I have researching this, you might feel less than charitable towards a core of players vehemently against the accessibility while they make small complaints.

That Activision’s studios are more willing to cater to these groups than to such a large portion of the gaming population is an odd position. Given how mercenary Activision is, excluding a huge potential market is, to say the least, foolish.

Not that anyone was under any illusion that implementing greater accessibility would be easy. Three years later, it’s pretty clear that the IW engine isn’t built with that in mind. But the scope of accessibility in Modern Warfare 2’s open beta is worrying.

This, however, leaves an obvious void that other studios can exploit to create a more open Call of Duty-style FPS, but one that deals with accessibility that Activision ostensibly ignores. Maybe Battlefield 2042’s disastrous attempt to attract disgruntled Call of Duty fans may put people off, but talking to gamers with disabilities, it’s clear there’s a lot of potential here.

Enemy player blending into their surroundings in MW2

An enemy player almost indistinguishable from the background, despite the camera pointing straight at them. Layers of effects and filters that further obscure the screen don’t help.

An example mentioned in my discussions is Swamp. A first-person audio shooter that shows how, with the right focus, accessibility – especially auditory accessibility – can be deployed even in a competitive FPS environment. Yes, I’m somewhat skeptical of the accessibility that could be added to Call of Duty multiplayer, but games like this show that accessible, competitive multiplayer is possible. Beyond these features like slowing, single-stick modes, many of the accessibility options mentioned above – and more – should be standard in PvE modes in 2022. The fact that they don’t not be is, frankly, unacceptable.

I envy those who can watch the Modern Warfare 2 open beta and complain about minimap changes that ruin their chances of upsetting inexperienced players. For me, and for many others, the open beta was a signal of Activision’s continued apathy toward meaningful accessibility.

I’m sure Infinity Ward, despite Activision’s apparent apathy toward accessibility, is sincere about bringing in more gamers. But the open beta suggests an ignorance of who these players are and a maintenance that Call of Duty still isn’t for everyone. Although this, and all games, should be.

We’ve asked Activision reps if the beta’s accessibility settings are representative of the final game and haven’t heard back yet.