With Call of Duty: Black Ops, developer Treyarch is taking the venerable first-person shooter franchise into the secretive world of Cold War-era special operations. Thus far, we’ve seen single-player demos ranging from an intercontinental flight by SR-71 Blackbird aircraft to subterranean tunnel combat in the throes of a Vietnam war zone. Tonight, however, Treyarch and Activision gave the press its first look at the game’s online multiplayer side--that leveling-up system of persistent unlockables that’s long been a hallmark of the series. With additions ranging from training tools to ease in new players to a points gambling system for the hardcore bunch, it’s clear that Treyarch is casting a wide net with the new features it has conjured up for Black Ops multiplayer.
The most daring change to the leveling and experience points formula that Modern Warfare first introduced to the series is a new currency system. In addition to earning XP the good old-fashioned way, you’ll now be able to earn an in-game currency called CP, or CoD points. Depending on the game mode you’re playing, you’ll be rewarded in XP, CP, or both. On a basic level, CP lets you manually unlock new weapons, attachments, and perks a la carte, rather than follow the preset upgrade tree we’ve seen in previous Call of Duty titles. But in addition to paying CP for a new red dot sight five levels before you would normally unlock it, you can elect to gamble your CP in a new collection of game modes called Wager Matches.
These new modes--four in total--require players to risk some of their CP at the beginning of the match with the potential to win it all back and then some at the end of the match. The thing is that only the top three players in the match win money--the rest go away empty handed. In addition to this gambling mechanic, the four Wager Match modes offer an interesting twist on standard Call of Duty multiplayer modes. In One in the Chamber, each player starts the match with three lives and a handgun loaded with a single bullet. Killing players lets you pick up their guns, but if you waste your bullet, you’ll have to run around with only melee attacks. The action is very tense, and conserving ammo in such a way couldn’t feel like more of a departure from the usual run-and-gun style for which has the series has become known.
We also played a Wager Match mode called Gun Game. This one starts each player off with a single handgun as well, but the difference becomes apparent very quickly. With each kill in Gun Game, you suddenly pull out a new, more effective gun--essentially moving up a tier. There are 20 tiers in total, and the first to get a kill with each gun is the winner. However, when you get knifed, you’ll actually drop back a tier, so it’s possible to lose progress (especially if one of your enemies is hell-bent on griefing everyone). In our experience, the endgame strategy in a Gun Game match can differ wildly from its early moments, as the sniper rifles you get when you reach about tier 15 require a more patient shot than the shotguns and automatic weaponry you wield earlier. When you add this to the fact that you’ve got money on the line, it’s easy to see how some of these Wager Match modes could feel very intense.
If this new currency and gambling system is more suited for the hardcore Call of Duty player, the new Combat Training mode seems geared to lure in those who would normally be intimidated by such complex mechanics. For the first time ever in the series, players will be able to set up a match against AI-controlled opponents to learn the ropes of a competitive multiplayer match. These can be played either solo or with friends. Combat Training lets you learn the ins and outs of each map, as well as get a feel for the game’s various weaponry--all without the fear of being killed constantly by high-level human opponents.
Another new feature that offers similarly educational potential is the Theater. Like the Halo 3 mode of the same name, Theater automatically saves your replays and gives you the chance to go back and watch them from any perspective in the match. You can even record certain segments within the replay, customize the transitions, and turn them into a highlight reel of gleeful kills. All of these replays can be shared online, giving you the chance to either learn from the masters or simply boast your triumphs to friends.
Neutral to any “hardcore” or “casual” designations is the expanded suite of customization tools in Black Ops. It doesn’t matter how good you are or how well you know a map’s check points--all you need is an artistic streak to appreciate these additions. The big one is the emblem editor. Modern Warfare 2 introduced the idea of player emblems--those little graphics that players could choose to appear next to their names on the onscreen menus and “killed by” notifications. In Black Ops, you can design your own emblem from scratch with a system similar to Forza Motorsport’s multilayered vinyl editor. After you’ve made your own custom graphic--we elected to go with a bunny rabbit with an imposing skull for a face--you can then choose to slap that emblem onto your gun for all to see in battle. The same goes for your clan tag, as well. Other options include expanded camo patterns and even customizable reticles. If you’ve ever wanted to grief opponents by killing them and making sure the kill cam they see of your actions shows a smiley face aiming reticle taking their lives, well, now you can do that.
Of course, Call of Duty online multiplayer is still, at its heart, about visiting exotic locales and finding new and exciting ways to shoot people in the face. So naturally, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention some of the gear and maps we experienced during our hands-on time. One of the fun new bits of weaponry is an honest-to-goodness flamethrower gun attachment, and we had a fun time roasting enemies with it. There’s also a Valkyrie missile that lets you fire your weapon and manually guide the ordinance directly to your target, whether that’s through windows or around corners. In terms of map offerings, we played in three different locations: a snowy Russian mountaintop called Summit, a Vietnamese urban war zone called Cracked, and a fairly standard warehouse map called Radiation.
There’s certainly a lot to the multiplayer in Black Ops. We could go on about various and sundry observations we spied, like the equipment you can drop to wreak havoc on your enemy's radar or the minature RC car rigged with explosives you can unlock as a kill streak, but we might be here all day. So suffice it to say, there’s quite a bit going on here--but fortunately, it's not all added complexity purely for the most diehard of players. Still, exactly how all these new features wind up coming together is something that only time will tell, but we’re optimistic about a lot of these features. When you throw in the training tools to help ease the transition, a lot of these things look even more appealing. You can expect to see more Black Ops coverage leading up to the game’s November 9 release date.