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Millions of players around the world are playing multiplayer combat in this season’s biggest video game blockbuster, Call of Duty: Black Ops II. But just how many of those players are doing things by rote, playing in the same old style year after year and never getting any better?
I have been one of those players, too lazy to change. And we’re not good for Activision Blizzard, which generates more than billion dollars a year from more than 40 million Call of Duty fans every year. (This year, the game sold more than $1 billion worth in its first 15 days). If you get progressively worse at multiplayer, you’ll drop off sooner and move to another game. Worse yet, you might be so embarrassed at how you play that you never even try multiplayer. Bit by bit, such fan erosion could one day knock Call of Duty off its perch as the fastest-selling game of all time.
That hasn’t happened yet. Its players are still very active. As of earlier this week, fans had played Black Ops II for 178,535,425 hours, and more than 399,835,504,682 shots had been fired in multiplayer. Players had thrown 2,359,330,195 grenades and killed more than 20,132,02,068 enemies. Of those, 1,677,862,824 had been killed with head shots. Call of Duty Elite developer Beachhead Studios tracks and shares the data on every bullet fired. It has figured out that the data itself has created a metagame that makes fans even more competitive.
I’ve played Call of Duty games for years. But this time, I engaged in a serious experiment as I rushed through the single-player game and began multiplayer. I got some expert advice from Treyarch game design director David Vonderhaar. His sensible advice reminded me that I should equip myself better to become consistently faster in order to get the drop on (the much younger) players with faster reflexes. He also suggested equipping myself alternatively for stealth, support, survival, or run-and-gun roles. That was like a basic therapy session on how I could play better, without embarrassing myself.
I’ve continued to play, keeping close tabs on my progress using Call of Duty Elite, the social network that now comes free with the game. And now I received a second review of my tactics from Michael Gesner, the executive producer at Activision Beachhead Studios (maker of Call of Duty Elite), and Jason Ades, a producer at Activision Publishing. I’m sharing their collective wisdom with all of those players who need the help, like me, but don’t get a chance to quiz the game developers. These experts are the front-line in the battle that Activision is fighting to get players to re-engage with Call of Duty.
My track record doesn’t lie (I wish it could)
For those who don’t know the game, Call of Duty: Black Ops II is not a realistic combat simulation. It is set in the year 2025, and some of the weapons, while rooted in fact, are not real. You can run faster in the game than in real life, and you can take more bullet damage. The game is very violent, but it is respectful of the sacrifice of real soldiers. Activision donates some of the proceeds to veterans causes. The single-player story conveys a mature tale about the horrors of modern war, and it tries to give you a sense of what war is like.
But multiplayer is different. I think of the multiplayer version of the game as a sport. Activision encourages this comparison, encouraging players to create their own competitive clans and participate in league play. And it pays to have coaches in this sport.
The experts reviewed my lousy stats, which are available in an amazing amount of detail on Elite. With Elite, you can log in and go to your career page, which has a host of details aimed at helping you brag about the good stuff and improve your play. The stats come from every session you play. You can drill down on a “heat map,” which shows an overhead view of the level and has a timeline. If you haven’t done this yet, you should go to Call of Duty Elite and check it out. You can see where most of the deaths occurred on the map during the session, and who shot whom. The playback shows you exactly who shot you, the weapon they used, and the positions of the shooter and victim.
If I had recorded some matches, they could have seen the video playback of the match from my point of view. With all of this help, I feel that I’m getting enough feedback to help me get better at the game. And that makes me want to play it longer.
In Black Ops II, after 17.5 hours of play, I have a kill-to-death ratio of 0.74. For every three kills, I die four times. On last year’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, my kill-to-death ratio was 0.43. That was after 59 hours of play, and it was from playing a mode of multiplayer dubbed Domination, where your team tries to take and hold three flags on the map. I wrote about my Modern Warfare 3 experience here.
As you try to grab those flags, you’re more likely to get killed and less likely to get kills. And on the original Call of Duty: Black Ops, I had a 0.76 kill-to-death ratio after 69 hours of play. I always thought Black Ops multiplayer was easier than Modern Warfare 3, thanks in part to small changes like the radio-controlled car in Black Ops that enabled even the lamest players to get some easy kills.
I’ve become a Lieutenant Colonel III, on level 39 of 55 total, and I score about 136 points per minute in the game. My total score is 141,765. By comparison, the top player in the game has more than 4 million points. I’ve got about 23 hours to go before I hit the top level, or Prestige. I’m actually playing more than I have in the past. I’m also thinking about it more and am starting to use the Call of Duty Elite app for the iPhone, which lets me change my custom classes, or favorite weapon kits.
The stats tell you that the Modern Warfare style of multiplayer is much more difficult and less forgiving for average players like me. But I also feel there are some significant differences with Black Ops II that help equalize the playing field.
The no-brainer tricks I had already figured out
The first 10 levels now have a tutorial that you can play with bots, or computer-controlled characters. You can also watch five multiplayer videos on Elite TV for helpful hints. If you still need help, you can head over to Twitch to watch live Black Ops II games in action. It is mesmerizing to watch players who are really good.
The new Pick 10 system, where you can customize your loadout using 10 points — rather than be restricted to certain choices — is great for people who need to fix their problems with multiplayer fast.
Finding your right game is also essential. I switched from Domination to Team Deathmatch to improve my survival and get a better kill-to-death ratio. But I can probably earn more points taking one for the team and grabbing a flag instead of going for a kill. Domination is also a team game, and I mostly play on my own.
I also learned the maps better. When you know a map, you can start executing on a strategy to outwit your enemies. Some of the maps are very hard to figure out. For those ones, it pays to know that everyone dies in the middle. If you want to stay alive, keep to the edges.
If you know an area is well-trafficked, like a corner in a corridor, you can put a Bouncing Betty mine on it. If you’re going to snipe, find good cover. Match your weaponry to the map, as appropriate. Submachine guns are better for indoors, and sniping is good for maps with long, outdoor spaces. When you are moving, go from cover to cover. Sprint to get to your hiding spot, but don’t get caught walking in the open.
The weaponry of Black Ops II, which is set in the year 2025, is far more deadly than in past games. But that can be a good thing for new and average players. If you level up your assault rifle, such as my MTAR, enough, you qualify for more and more accessories. I quickly latched on to the Target Finder, a scope that identifies enemies in bright pink rectangles as soon as you look through the scope. That helps my older eyes discern enemies against any backdrop in a split-second. I simply move my crosshairs of my gun into that rectangle and a white “X” appears. I fire indiscriminately at that X until the enemy drops.
Now that I have leveled up my weapon (getting access to the better accessories in doing so), I don’t really want to go back and start over again with other weapons. But that could pay off for me if I do that with better guns. Overall, I’ve only completed 88 of more than 1,700 challenges, such as getting 25 kills with a particular weapon.
You could say that’s cheating to use such a powerful scope. But I contend that anybody can take advantage of this scope, and it really helps the people who need some extra help pinpointing exactly where the enemy is. It helps the “noobs” and the average players more than it does the excellent players. And Black Ops II has counters to it. You can spend a point in your 10-point armory kit to negate the effects of the Target Finder.
Gesner says the interesting thing is the “rock, paper, scissors” effect of the strategies and counter-strategies. If you know how to counter somebody’s else’s strategy, then you’re a step ahead. But good players adapt and find new counters to a winning strategy. In fact, you can actually watch a good player and copy his or her custom class kit in Call of Duty Elite. And there are many different ways to succeed at Call of Duty, which makes the game so fun to so many different types of players.
Good advice on staying alive that I didn’t know
The good thing is their advice had an immediate effect on my game play.
They fixed one obvious problem in my kit, or the things I took into battle. They told me to get rid of the grenade launcher attachment (known as the noob tube) since I clearly wasn’t using it that much. That saved me one of my 10 points and I could apply it to something else.
I was using grenades and concussion bombs, to no effect. Whenever I tossed these, they only hurt the enemies by pure accident. I replaced them with electric shock charges, which you can plant in the ground and stop an enemy cold with an electric blast. The blast doesn’t kill the enemy, but it holds them still for a precious second. If I am camping by a window, I can turn around as soon as I hear the electric blast and shoot the frozen enemy.
Supplementing the shock charges is the Bouncing Betty land mine, which pops up in the air and explodes when an enemy comes near. If you plant this near the shock charge, you can kill the stunned enemy. These two changes to my loadout enabled me to stay in a building, look out the window, and shoot passersby without worrying that someone would take me from behind. It made me much deadlier as a “camper.”
But it didn’t make me invincible. The maps are designed for balance. Gesner said that the best camping spots are also the ones with the most intersections. You can’t possibly watch your back if there are three entrances into a room where you are camping. Gesner says that every camping spot has its weaknesses (on purpose). Perhaps the best method for camping/sniping effectively is to keep moving — maneuver to one camping spot, take out an opponent, then seek cover and move to your next one.
The big counter to camping is a new accessory, the millimeter scanner. At short range, this scope can see through buildings and barriers, showing you the outline of someone who is stationary. If you have a weapon equipped with a “full metal jacket” bullet, you can shoot through walls and take the camper out. The millimeter scanner also works when you toss out a smoke grenade, as it allows you to see the silhouette of someone obscured in the smoke.
Some more tips
Study the maps. And look at your heat maps. If you get too bored as a camper, or if the enemy comes after you, try the next best thing. Move around on a circuit. You can run from camping spot to camping spot, or from one part of the map to another where you know you can get the drop on people who are moving in the usual heavily trafficked spots.
Get the right accessories. If the recoil of your assault rifle is a problem, get a foregrip or stock to reduce the recoil. If you’re a sniper, consider carrying an assault shield to create your own cover. Every accessory should complement your style of play.
Scorestreaks (such as an air or missile strike you can loose on an enemy when you reap enough kills in a row) are a lot of fun to unleash on the enemy. But they are costly if you use the “Hardline” perk to reduce the number of kills it takes to get a Scorestreak. If you never get enough kills to get a Scorestreak, the Hardline perk may be a waste.
Corners matter a lot. Never go around a corner in a sprint, said Ades. It takes time to stop, draw your weapon, aim, and shoot. If possible, you should be aiming down your gun site if you can when you round the corner. Glance at your minimap to see if you can spot an enemy. And toss out a shock charge or Bouncing Betty mine to check to see if there’s an enemy there that you can’t see.
Pay attention to the range of your gun. Light Machine Guns have longer range than an assault rifle, but they slow you down. Sniper rifles have long range, but they’re slow, have a low rate of fire, and they don’t work in close quarters. Submachine guns are good for short corridors and maps with lots of corners. But they have a short range. Each of the guns also has a different amount of recoil, but you can reduce that with accessories like the stock or foregrip. And you can further reduce it by lying prone on the ground and shooting.
As I noted, the battlefield of 2025 is deadly. But the changes made to Call of Duty: Black Ops II’s multiplayer serve to level the playing field. Once you learn how to play a certain way, you can try out another method, such as stealth. That should increase the time you spend with the game, and that is good for Activision and your overall competence as a multiplayer participant.
One of the best moves that Activision made was to make Call of Duty Elite free. It provides the necessary feedback and transparency that a player can use to objectively evaluate different fighting styles. It pays off if you take the time to analyze your game (or find a seasoned veterans to analyze it for you) and make the changes you need to stay alive longer.
Gesner said, “There are other camps that will disagree with our advice, and that’s what makes Call of Duty great.”