A week ago, Call of Duty: Warzone's cluster strikes were just another way to kill your enemies in the popular battle royale mode. Spend $3,000 at a buy station, mark a target with a laser, and it will rain hellfire from above. It's a good way to make people scramble, but it also gives players a fair warning to run for cover, so it's actually hard to take them out with it.
But jump into a match today, and you're likely to witness a seemingly impossible, never ending barrage of cluster strikes that makes the game almost unplayable.
"Infinite Cluster Strike exploit in Warzone is wiping out lobbies," writes the gaming website Dextero. "Call of Duty: Warzone Glitch Gives Players Infinite Cluster Strikes," according to a headline on Game Rant. "Call of Duty: Warzone is experiencing an infinite Cluster Strike glitch," said Daily Esports.
Several of us at Motherboard play Warzone regularly (23 wins for me personally, thank you very much), and we have definitely noticed an uptick in cluster strikes. In fact, I learned about this talk of an exploit in the community only after we experienced the unusual increase in a couple of games, which made us go searching for answers. After looking into the problem, we are fairly certain that there isn't really a cluster strike "exploit," as much as there is a confluence of issues endemic to the game: widespread cheating, a quickly shifting meta, and misinformation. Put simply, spamming cluster strikes is not really an exploit, it's simply a popular strategy in the game right now.
As far as we can tell, talk of a cluster strike "exploit" or "cheat" was popularized by gaming YouTuber Jackfrags, whose video is embedded in all the stories by gaming websites listed above.
In the video titled "Call of Duty Warzone - This has to stop PLEASE!" Jack is playing a solo Warzone match and mostly annihilating the competition when suddenly he's bombarded with cluster strikes. He immediately notes that this is strange both because of the number of cluster strikes and their ability to hit him even though he's driving a car through the woods in a pretty remote area of the map.
"He's got some kind of infinite cluster strike cheat," Jack said, and speculates that the player is probably using an aimbot, a cheat that gives users perfect aim.
In addition to the Jackfrags video and the video game sites riffing on it, talk of the cluster strike problem spread on Twitter, Reddit, Call of Duty Discord channels, and other YouTube channels. Some link back to Jackfrags, while others share similar stories or videos showing cluster strike spam. As I said above, we have also seen an increase in cluster strike use while playing ourselves.
A source at Activision with knowledge of the company's anti-cheat efforts who asked to remain anonymous because he wasn't authorized to speak to the press told us that, judging from what they saw online, the cluster strike problem was likely not a cheat that was literally hacking the game, but perhaps a bug that was being exploited.
After searching through communities that discuss and share cheats and exploits, I found no explanation for how players would be able to do something like this. That's strange because exploits, especially ones that you can see just by playing the game, are often shared online freely until they're fixed. For example, earlier this year Infinity Ward took choppers out of Warzone briefly so it could fix an issue where players found a way to fly them under the map, making them invincible. As that exploit was becoming more common, there were many videos online showing how to use it.
We decided to see if it would be possible to spam cluster strikes without an exploit or cheat, and it clearly was. In the Battle Royale Quads mode, we were able to complete a few contracts, get a lot of money, and buy about 20 cluster strikes in quick succession, which we were then able to deploy liberally. We luckily were able to buy cluster strikes during a "fire sale," an in-game event which temporarily makes all items in the game cheaper. With a little bit of money and access to a buy station it's easy to just buy multiple cluster strikers, leave them on the ground, and keep using them.
The problem was that while it's certainly entertaining to carpet bomb half the map with your friends...it wasn't very useful; other players simply run for cover. What was notable about Jackfrags' video wasn't only the number of cluster strikes, but how they were able to target him so well.
So what's going on here?
Searching for the username of the player Jackfrags accused of cheating in his video brings up several other videos uploaded by other players accusing the same player of cheating. Some of these videos were uploaded after the Jackfrags video was published, but others were published days or weeks earlier. We can't say for certain that the player accused in all these videos is hacking—it's possible that they are just extremely good at the game—but they show them spotting and headshotting enemies from across the map, at times out of the air as soon as they drop into the game.
One video is particularly informative because it shows this alleged cheater racking up dozens of kills from a secluded part of the map. As the circle begins to close, this player moves to a buy, where they spend about $30,000 on cluster strikes. This player then spams cluster strikes all over the map, and gets some kills this way before winning the game. The player is able to win the game before it even got to the final circle, which is rare. It looks almost exactly like what we saw in the Jackfrags video, where the same player was also spamming cluster strikes from near a buy station.
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What we have here is a player who is probably cheating in the same way most Warzone players cheat (wallhacking and aimbotting), but is buying cluster strikes legitimately, without hacking or exploiting the game. Jackfrags, a hugely popular Warzone YouTuber encounters this player and makes a video about them, thereby introducing the community to the idea of spamming cluster strikes. The video makes its way through the community, and shifts the "meta," the constantly evolving strategies that players use to win the game. A player gets bombarded by multiple cluster strikes and thinks, "you know what, I would like to bombard someone with multiple cluster strikes as well." Suddenly, everyone is using a lot of cluster strikes, something they've always been able to do, but didn't.
Ultimately, the cluster strikes will subside once someone finds a good way to counter them or Infinity Ward updates the game to make them less useful. This is a normal process for any online game of Warzone's size, constantly updating and adjusting to keep it balanced and fun. Aside from that, all Infinity Ward can do is keep combating the cheating problem in its game.
Activision and Jackfrags did not respond to a request for comment.
Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai contributed reporting.