Last night, I took out dozens of enemies in a few rounds of Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3 multiplayer combat.
But as usual in these multiplayer death matches, the human enemy players took me out more, shooting bullets at me at 60 frames per second. It was my idea of wholesome, first-person shooter fun, even if the score came out lopsided.
Activision Blizzard, the biggest independent video game publisher, allowed the press to get its first real good look at the multiplayer version of Modern Warfare 3, which hits shelves November 8 as the latest incarnation of the most valuable video game series in history. And Activision is betting hardcore gamers and casual fans alike will buy the game because it’s so popular it’s embarrassing to admit you don’t play it. The Call of Duty franchise has become a cultural phenomenon, selling more than $1 billion worth of games each year.
Particularly since Electronic Arts is launching its Battlefield 3 modern combat game in direct competition with Call of Duty this fall, Activision has a lot at stake.
“Trust me when I say that nobody here takes this for granted,” said Eric Hirshberg, president of Activision Publishing, in an address to the press. The exec stood on a giant stage within a cavernous aircraft hangar where Howard Hughes built the giant Spruce Goose aircraft long ago.
The marketing battle begins
If Activision gets the multiplayer features right in Modern Warfare 3, tens of millions of gamers will play it for years to come. To that end, the company made some big changes to the multiplayer experience and unveiled them to hardcore fans today at the first-ever Call of Duty XP fan event in Los Angeles.
For non-gamers, there’s probably a lot of puzzlement about the slow striptease that game companies do when they launch blockbuster games. At the E3 game show in June, Activision Blizzard revealed the first part of its single-player campaign for Modern Warfare 3, which features pitched battles in the streets of New York, Paris and London.
Now, the multiplayer combat and more details on the Call of Duty Elite social network are the news of the day. But there’s still more to come. John Riccitiello, chief executive of EA, said that in all likelihood, both companies would spend more than $100 million each marketing the games this fall.
For Activision, a big piece of its marketing budget is going to the fan extravaganza, which includes a life-size replica of the Scrapyard multiplayer map from a past game. Attendees at Call of Duty XP will be able to play paintball on the real Scrapyard map. The event also features a tournament with a $1 million prize, a donation of the proceeds to the Call of Duty Endowment — which helps veterans find jobs in civilian life — and a Kanye West closing concert on Saturday night. The whole point of all of this is to raise the awareness of Call of Duty to the level of mass media so that even non-gamers will become curious enough about the game to give it a try.
Easy to play, hard to master
Robert Bowling (pictured at top), creative strategist for the Infinity Ward studio that co-produced the game with Sledgehammer Games, said in an interview that making the game beginner-friendly is where the strategy on the multiplayer development comes in. The hallmark of Call of Duty is that it is easy to play and difficult to master. So now, the developers came up with a way to make beginners more comfortable playing multiplayer.
In the newest version of the game, players can choose to play three different types of modern warriors with different packages of weaponry. These include the Assault Strike Package, where you can do as much direct damage as possible with Killstreak rewards (where you get rewards for shooting multiple enemies in a row without dying) that include Predator drone missiles, helicopters and air strikes.
You can also use the Support Strike Package, where you can use rewards such as an unmanned aerial vehicle for recon, counter-UAV and anti-aircraft missile turrets. Players who aren’t quite as skilled at killing can use this package to help teammates win.
When a support player dies, the streak count doesn’t reset upon dying. If a player dies four times in a row, they get a “death streak” reward, where the player can run faster for a short time. If you die five times in a row, you can see on the radar map where the person who killed you. If you die six times in a row, you fall into the “last stand” mode, where you’re bleeding out but can still shoot, and you carry an explosive that can blow up nearby enemies. That tips the odds in favor of beginners’ survival in battle against expert players, Bowling said.
“This is our most balanced multiplayer ever,” Bowling said.
Also, the game presents the Specialist Strike Package, which is designed for expert players such as snipers. The Killstreak rewards of the last game rewarded players for individual kills, said Bowling. But this game rewards players for achieving collective goals known as Points. The more Points you get for your team, the more you can reap bonuses that help you in combat.
Weapon proficiencies and attachments
For the expert players, there are also some tweaks. You can now level up your weapons the same way you level up your character. There are 40 different weapons to choose from, and each one has a progression for leveling up. The higher you level up, the more you can add things like camouflage, reticules for better aiming and attachments for additions such as a grenade launcher. If you become proficient at using a weapon, you can level up and reduce the recoil when firing. As far as attachments go, you can now get a dual scope, which lets you see both close-range and long-range targets at once.
New multiplayer modes
The multiplayer also includes “survival mode” for the Spec Ops version of the game, originally introduced in Modern Warfare 2. In Spec Ops, you can play cooperatively with another player to defend against a horde of computer-generated enemies who come at you in progressively tougher and tougher waves. I played the Spec Ops mode and had a lot of fun loading up on ammo and purchase supplies in between rounds and using different strategies as more powerful waves hit me. Ultimately, you always die in this mode as the enemies overwhelm you like the undead surrounding the good guys in a zombie movie.
The regular multiplayer also has a “kill confirmed” mode. In this mode, you shoot an enemy and then have to run over the body to collect “dog tags.” That results in a confirmed kill. If you don’t confirm the kill, you don’t get credit for it. And if a person on your team dies, you can retrieve his or her dog tags so that you can deny the kill to the enemy. There’s also a mode called Team Defender where your job is to protect a player who grabs a flag and moves it to your part of the map.
All told, there are 16 new maps that will ship with the game disk. Five are on display at Call of Duty XP. The maps look good, and they have plenty of places where you can use the terrain to your advantage, such as places where you can get behind cover or shoot down from a greater height.
By popular demand, Modern Warfare 3 will support dedicated servers, allowing players to browse, filter and join dedicated servers as they wish. Players can set up their own servers and administer them with direct control over features such as game rules, setup and ban lists.
My two cents is that this multiplayer version is a lot more fun, the maps look cooler, the graphics look better, and the touches such as final slow-motion death of the last player killed in a match are much better now. It’s a big improvement upon last year’s multiplayer for Call of Duty Black Ops.
This version of Modern Warfare 3 will be accompanied by Call of Duty Elite, the first social network dedicated to the Call of Duty audience. Gamers will be able to access Call of Duty Elite on the console, the PC and mobile phones to look up their stats, chat with friends, learn how to play the game better and immerse themselves in the Call of Duty culture, which includes everything from fan videos to tournaments. Elite subscriptions will cost $49.99 per year. Microsoft is getting in on the action by launching a Call of Duty limited edition Xbox 360.
In a nutshell, Activision is trying the best it can to draw hardcore fans deeper into the experience of Call of Duty, and it is trying to spread its gospel to new players at the same time. That formula has made it the most popular and lucrative game in the world in the past.