Video game launches have become long striptease acts that slowly reveal the details of a big game over six months or more. And Activision Blizzard has just released a ton of new information about the multiplayer version of Call of Duty: Black Ops II, a potential blockbuster game that debuts Nov. 13. For fans of the series, today is like getting access to newly declassified national security secrets.
We got our own hands-on play with several new maps and modes for Black Ops II, and it is once again a fast and frenetic combat experience. Playing with a small group of game journalists, I found it hard to stay alive in the action-packed modern combat game. But I had a blast doing it.
So far, this game is following the same proven formula of giving players what they want while mixing it up for those who want something new. By following this formula for years, the game series has reached the point where it can reliably generate more than $1 billion in revenues a year. The Call of Duty series now holds the title as the fastest-selling video game series in history, and the decisions that Treyarch’s developers made with this latest version of multiplayer combat will determine whether the series continues to hold that title.
As a refresher course, Treyarch revealed Black Ops II‘s single-player campaign in May and unveiled the first details about multiplayer in August. Now Treyarch, the Activision-owned studio behind Black Ops, is taking off another veil. Some features will reward players for branching out and exploring more of the game, and other features are aimed at drawing in more inexperienced players, nicknamed noobs or newbies.
Four new declassified secrets
The latest revelations give players new game modes, new challenges, new theater options for showing off, and new Prestige structures that award higher status to the best players. The changes show that the development team is still willing to take risks by tearing up its old multiplayer system and giving players something new.
The game modes include Core, which has traditional multiplayer matches like Team Deathmatch, Free-for-all, Kill Confirmed, Demolition, Domination, Headquarters, Capture the Flag, and Search and Destroy.
One new mode is Hardpoint, which I enjoyed immensely. In this mode, the system designates a section of the map as a location in which a team has to keep control over. Two teams converge on the section and attack until they take it. This has the effect of drawing all of the players into a single part of the map in a frag fest. The hardpoint section moves from place to place during the match. If it is placed in a building, team members can communicate and guard each point of entry into the building while the attackers look for an opening where they can break into it.
Players can play in arenas with up to 18 players. One new feature is that multiple teams can play against each other, such as three teams against three. You can also play in a game mode called Party, where you can battle with your friends and ignore a lot of the usual multiplayer rules. You’re encouraged to play this with your friends, just for fun. You earn experience in this mode, and your friends help you level up and rank up.
Another mode is Combat Training. Here, combat training is integrated into the multiplayer leveling-up process. You can play Bootcamp, with one player and bots on one team, against another human player with bots. You can learn how to play in a group during this training session, but none of your teammates will yell at you for screwing up. You can fight in Team Deathmatch against other players with ranks of level 10 or lower. In Objective training, you can play past level 10, where you try to learn how to act in games like Capture the Flag. It includes three humans and three bots against the same number on a rival team.
The Bot Stomp mode doesn’t let you earn experience. But you can have a team of six humans play against a team of six bots. In this kind of game, you can probably score a lot of hits against the other side. You can just take all your frustrations out against bots who are (usually) not smarter or faster than you are. Combat Training is a way to get new players up and running more quickly in the merciless arenas.
Lastly, the Custom game mode lets you take all the other modes and customize them to your own liking. You get to define the rules, like having “headshots only” or “150 percent health.” You can set up your own party games and restrict content. More resources let you equip your gun and other gear so that you can be more lethal on the battlefield. Plus, you can ban Claymore mines from your custom game if you wish.
Challenges are now meant to get players to branch out and experience more of the game. They give you something to work toward. When you meet the conditions for the challenge, you get a pay off. Your rewards including bragging rights in the form of cosmetic uniform changes and personalization features like badges. These details let you uniquely identify yourself as a player. When others see you in the game, they notice that you’ve got a different kind of camouflage or a tattoo. Now, every item in the game has its own camouflage. If you run into someone with a golden gun, you’ll know that’s a badass player. Each scope has a different kind of reticule that you can earn, with eight per optical scope. You have to complete challenges to earn those reticules. That enhances your online persona, and they also help you aim better. One is even a mustache-like reticule called “The Steve,” named after one of the lighting directors who sports a mustache. The game contains thousands of challenges. When you complete them, you get more experience points (XP).
Player Cards have your nickname and your emblem, as well as a background. Other players look at your Player Card to see how good you are. You can earn new backgrounds (150 total) by completing challenges. The emblem editor features 32 layers that you can use to craft your own custom emblem. More than ever, you’ll be able to express yourself better, and you do that by meeting new challenges. If someone creates an explicit image like a penis, you can report the person, and Treyarch will tell the person to change it or lose their privileges.
Theater is now more than just recording a video of your most recent match. Filmmakers used the theater tool in the last game to do real movie-like work. So the new Theater feature doubles down on the ability to edit brag videos, share them across social networks, and also automatically generate them. The latter is good for people who don’t have a lot of time to do editing. The Theater will now take your last match and create a highlights reel of the spots in the game where you killed other players or did something spectacular that earned you a lot of XP. You just press a button, and the highlight reel is created. Each video you create will also be easier to find.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, you can edit with tools for creating cool effects. You can, for instance, launch a drone in the game. In the after-action video, you can attach a camera to the drone so you can see the battle from overhead, viewing the action from the drone’s point of view. If you throw a grenade, you can switch the perspective as it flies. You can slow things down into sl0w motion or speed them up or pause the action to emphasize a particular kill.
There’s more meta data on each game, like time stamps and the type of game mode. Now it’s easier to find the best videos of online league play games. You can also go back into a video and add your own “shoutcasting” commentary to the game, describing the action as it happens.
You can vote up or down when you view someone else’s video, so the best can rise to the top. When you look at the community videos, you can see an activity feed that tells you what your friends are doing. It is like the Activity Feed in Facebook. In other words, Activision has built a real social network into the game.
One of the great controversies in past games was that you had to make a decision once you reached the top level, dubbed earning Prestige. You could get a reward in the form of a token that you could spend to unlock a new feature, but you had no choice in resetting your experience to the first level. You had to give up all of the weapons and attachments that you had earned and start the process of climbing through the ladder all over again. Now, you are not required to reset your weapon XP. That is, you don’t have to start over. You can start leveling up again with your best weapons. (If you really want to reset and give up your weapons, you can do so; only now, you are not forced to do that.) You can continue to unlock new challenges. Once you reach level 10 in Prestige, you are awarded the title Prestige Master.
Back in August, Treyarch said that players will be able to create their own class of weapon using a different system than in the past. Now, you get 10 points to spend on your main weapon, secondary weapon, attachments, perks, and accessories such as grenades. You can mix and match anything until you spend your 10 points. So you could, for instance, spend points to add a second attachment and get rid of your secondary weapon. That allows players to go into battle with the exact kit that they want. Wildcard options let you bend rules even more if you need to.
Treyarch also disclosed earlier its “score streaks,” which will replace “killstreaks” as a more equitable reward system for both hardcore fans and newbies alike. With “score streaks,” you can earn rewards, such as a one-time drone strike, by making contributions to the team effort, like protecting a flag carrier in Capture the Flag. So if you contribute to the success of your team but don’t actually shoot anyone, you can still earn rewards.
If you get three kills (or just two if you have the Hardline perk), you can get an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). In the multiplayer sessions, I chose the typical UAV that reveals enemies on the minimap. I also chose a remote-controled (RC) car that carries a bomb to distant rivals. And I picked the new hunter-killer drone, which can seek out the nearest enemy and blow him up.
Other “score streak” rewards include the Hellstorm missile, Guardian, Escort Drone, Sentry Gun, War Machine, Dragonfire, Warthog, EMP Systems, Swarm, AC XD, care packages, counter-UAV, Lightning Strike, Death Machine, and others. All together, 22 “score streak” rewards are available. Many of them are aerial vehicles, which keeps with the game’s setting in 2025.
The leveling system has changed. Now multiplayer has 55 levels, and you can earn a Prestige point each time you hit 55, with a maximum of 10 Prestige levels. (That takes a lot of days of gaming to achieve.) After-action reports tell you at a glance what rewards you earned and your achievements.
The game will also make it easier to play Black Ops II as an eSport or in tournaments, where professional players square off against each other. Players can “shoutcast” games, meaning they can give a verbal play-by-play commentary as a live multiplayer match is happening. You can easily follow players and see the view of the multiplayer map from overhead in real-time on a full screen. You can show off your shoutcasting skills even in non-pro matches as you goof off with your friends. And so-called CODcasting makes it easy to share your shoutcasts with the rest of the world. You can stream your game videos to iPads and all sorts of other devices. It’s the wartime equivalent of getting your name in lights.
The new maps that I played
The development team showed us a couple of new maps and new game modes.
I enjoyed playing the Express map, which is set in a train station. As the name suggests, an express train periodically races through the middle of the map, killing anyone who is foolish enough to be running on the tracks. The map has both indoor and outdoor areas. You can climb up some stairs to a bridge and get a long view down the tracks. That allows you to take some long shots and take out enemies from above. But if your buddies aren’t guarding either end of the bridge, you’ll be surprised.
In each game, I played with a submachine gun. I used a Reflex scope but should have chosen a more precise one that could help me lock on to targets. I paid for that mistake. And I had to pump three or four bullets into every enemy before I took him down since the submachine gun was pretty light. I eventually learned where to position myself, and it paid off to have a weapon that gave me quick reactions. I even saw one enemy get blasted by a train coming through the middle of the action.
In the Overflow map, the setting was a ruined city with a lot of multistory buildings and debris-crowded streets. It was like a long oval, with buildings in the middle. We played the Hardpoint mode, and I enjoyed it a lot because it drew everybody to the same location. You could toss grenades and flashbangs and then just charge in, get shot, and do it again. I found it much more difficult to stay alive on this map, and I really didn’t improve over time. My colleagues, meanwhile, were earning all sorts of “score streaks” and just kept raining death on me.
Here’s a video of my own match on the Overflow level.