Call of Duty: Elite First Look Preview

We put down our rifle and dig out the calculator for our first look at Call of Duty's new social subscription service.

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Activision Blizzard's other major breadwinner in the family, World of Warcraft, has proven that to be successful in the extremely competitive gaming landscape, creating a vibrant, fun world isn't enough anymore. To keep players engaged, they need to be immersed not only in the content within the artificial world, but also in talking about it with the friends they make and thinking about their virtual pastime long after the console or PC has powered down. With this in mind, Activision recently gave us a sneak peek at the Call of Duty: Elite service that it hopes will keep shooter fans coming back for more games and interacting with other like-minded players.

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Our presentation began with some impressive stats: globally, more than 30 million people have played Call of Duty multiplayer matches in the last year, 20 million players continue to play each month, and 7 million log on to cap each other each day. However, as a result of the franchise's yearly release schedule, player fragmentation means that they're not all playing the same game, let alone conversing with each other in the same space. With this in mind, Activision hopes that its Elite service (formally code-named Project Beachhead) will create a "connected service" that will "enrich the multiplayer experience."

Marketing mumbo jumbo aside, what is Call of Duty: Elite, and how does it work? Great question from you there in the back--let us elaborate further. Elite is designed to create a single, portable profile that spans across COD games, moving seamlessly when a new title is released and giving you access to a huge amount of player data for you and your friends, as well as for total strangers. Unfortunately for those of you (and there are plenty) still actively playing older games like Modern Warfare 2, Elite will only support Black Ops and future titles, with Modern Warfare 3 being the first game to be built from the ground up to include Elite functionality.

Activision is working hard to ensure that no matter where you are, you'll have access to your stats--they'll be available through the game's multiplayer mode, accessible online with a Web browser, and (though we didn't see it in action) an iPhone app. The service will be split into three major elements: Connect, Compare, and Improve. Connect will allow you to find friends and keep track of them through a new grouping system. Searching for groups in your areas of interest (in our demo, photography) would return all available joinable groups that you could opt to become a part of. If a group doesn't already exist, one will be automatically created, and you'll become a member. Activision hopes that it will bring together people with similar interests, and eventually feed back into the game, allowing them to foster competitive leagues and impromptu battle groups, such as fans of one football team taking on another.

The Career category works like an extended version of the Combat Record found in Black Ops and provides a breakdown on your kills and deaths, your proficiency with individual weapons, and top-down heat-maps for each environment. Leaderboards can be filtered to show your mettle in the larger COD community, or boiled down to compare against only your friends' records.

Compare and Improve are the two new features we can see being most useful to players. Improve acts like a personalised COD trainer, giving expert hints and tips on each map, weapon loadout, perks, and kill streaks. It lists spawn points, shows the most effective weapon combinations for maps, and opens up potential for plenty of theory-crafters to compare weapon damage breakdowns and kit effectiveness. How much the coaching will improve each player's game remains to be seen, but it never hurts to get a few pointers from the pros.

From what we've seen so far, grouping could be laying the path for more serious competitive play in the future. As it stands, the current system will allow players to enter Activision-sponsored events such as screenshot competitions. Prizes will include a mixture of digital items, like emblems and medals, and real-world tangible goods like Call of Duty belt buckles, iPads, and (at least for North America) a customised Jeep. Read our Q&A with Chacko Sonny for details on how regional competitions will work.

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So, how much would you expect to pay for this new suite of tools and data? Well… we don't know, either. While Activision has said that Connect, Compare, and Improve features will all be available free to current players (multiplayer games will also remain free), there will be a premium subscription available that will include the various DLC drops that are released for each game. All we know so far is that according to the publisher, it will cost "less than any comparable online gaming or entertainment service."

From our time using the system, the wealth of information on tap is deep, the interface is easy to use--if a little daunting for first-timers facing waves of info--and the social aspects will help players expand their circles. We'll be interested to see how the system fares once players begin tracking and participating in a large number of groups, how well regionalisation of competitions will be handled, and whether the stigma that comes with subscription pushes away potential users. Call of Duty: Elite will be available for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC owners later this year. Stay tuned for more details in the coming months.

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