Activision kicked off its inaugural Call of Duty XP fan event in Los Angeles on Thursday night with a press conference detailing the multiplayer features of Modern Warfare 3, the certain blockbuster game to be released Nov. 8, as well as its new Elite online subscription service.
There were about 500 journalists from all over the world in attendance, which should leave little doubt that this particular game series is among the top entertainment properties in any medium. Personally, I find it nothing short of amazing that so many people want to read about the minutiae of a game that they’re going to buy in a few months’ time anyway.
We got to play the multiplayer for a few hours and yup, it’s Call of Duty alright. Modern Warfare 3 packs all the features that 30 million players have come to know and love. It’s still all about earning experience points to level up and unlock new weapons, attachments and perks. There are still all the same adrenaline-pumping game modes, from Team Deathmatch to Capture the Flag to Domination. And there are still the cool Killstreak rewards such as air strike and care package, which players earn after racking up multiple kills.
I found the details about Elite to be more interesting in a bigger-picture sense, but before we get to that, some thoughts on the multiplayer features. If the details of Modern Warfare 3 online multiplayer don’t interest you, skip on down a few paragraphs.
One of the main new features this year is the “confirmed kill” mode, which forces players to be more mobile. After they shoot an opponent, they have to run and grab a set of glowing dog-tags that hover over them. The opponent’s teammates can, however, rescue the dog-tags, which makes for a fun back and forth. Players can use the dog-tags as traps to lure enemies in, or they can make a mad run for them in hopes of earning points.
The other big addition is something called “strike packages,” which requires players to choose one of three play styles. The “assault” package is the most familiar – it’s mostly about earning offensive Killsteaks such as Predator missiles and air strikes. The “support” package is for those who like to help their team achieve game objectives, such as capturing a flag. If the support package is chosen, the player’s kills don’t reset on death, so if you’ve got two kills racked up and someone offs you, you still have those two on respawning. It’s a way of letting players actually get to and use some of the upper-level Killstreak rewards.
The third package, “specialist,” is somewhat unusual. Rather than giving the player Killstreak rewards, they instead earn perks such as quicker reloads or longer sprinting as they rack up kills. That means the more kills the character gets in a row, the more powerful – and potentially unstoppable – they become. I didn’t get to play with this mode enough to come to any real conclusions about its efficacy, but it’s an intriguing option.
Ultimately, there are even more customization options in the game, which is good. The secret of Call of Duty’s success is, of course, it’s online multiplayer, which keeps people hooked long after they’ve completed the game’s main single-player storyline campaign. The series got a leg up over its rivals by adding role-playing game-like elements that encourage players to “level up” and customize their characters. Just about every game worth its salt has since followed this lead. The new features, such as strike packages, only add to that advantage.
It was, however, Call of Duty: Elite that particularly spiked my attention. While Activision announced the service, essentially an online statistics tracker for hard-core aficionados of the game, a few months ago, the details of the paid tier were unveiled on Thursday.
The basic version of the service, which is in beta-testing now, will be available to all Call of Duty players for free and allow them to track their gameplay in as much excrutiating detail as they want. The service features “heat maps” that tell the player where they tend to die more, plus detailed stats on which weapons do the best for them and so on.
One of the neatest features is an app for iPhone, iPad and Android that will allow players to remotely set up their next game. If you’re on the bus, for example, and you think of a particular weapon combination that would work well, you can fire up the app and get it ready for when you get home. I often think about Call of Duty when I’m not home (I know, it’s sad), so I’ll definitely be using the app.
The paid service is where things get even more interesting. For $50 a year, players get all downloadable content, which includes the map packs that come out quarterly, as well access to contests and competitions where they can win real prizes such as iPads and even a Jeep. Activision CEO Eric Hirshberg said these competitions won’t be reserved for just pros – there will be specific games reserved for rookies too.
Moreoever, film directors Ridley and Tony Scott – big fans of the game, apparently – will be producing video segments called “Friday Night Fights” that will be available to premium Elite members. The segments will be video shows related to the game.
Similarly, actors Will Arnett and Jason Bateman – who famously worked together on Arrested Development – will be producing “NoobTube,” a show that will apparently feature smack talk about the game clips uploaded by players. Activision also said other famous types are also interested in doing stuff with Call of Duty, all of which would likely be folded under this premium banner.
Elite is intriguing because it’s an effort by Activision to create not just a social network around the game, but one that provides a steady stream of revenue. It’s pretty clear the company is seeing its future income coming from online sources rather than the sale of plastic discs.
Activision is not alone, as all major game developers are eyeing internet and “cloud” distribution. This will, of course, have major effects on internet service provider networks and consumer usage patterns, but that’s a topic I’ll save for next week.