The developers at Treyarch must be feeling immense pressure right now. They have to be, when one considers the environment Call of Duty: Black Ops is about to land in. To start with it's the latest instalment in what has now become a world-conquering franchise. Its predecessor broke international sales records and also placed itself firmly on the mainstream's radar with the "No Russian" level. Talk to 10 people who have no interest in videogames and it's likely that, along with GTA, Pac-Man, Mario and Sonic, they'll have heard of Call of Duty.
Second there's the pressure to compete, not just with Modern Warfare 2 but with some of the genre's biggest franchises in the run-up to Christmas. By the time Black Ops trundles out of the gate in November, both Halo: Reach and Medal of Honor will be jostling for position at the cash register. Last year, MW2's closest competitors quietly and considerately removed themselves from the festive retail window. This year no one's being that polite.
Finally, there are the expectations of Activision. With Infinity Ward going dark after losing key personnel, Black Ops is Treyarch's ticket to the big leagues and the developer knows that it doesn't just need to hit one out of the park - it needs to put it into orbit. For better or worse, the game's multiplayer mode will play a key part in whether it's able to do this.
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While MW2 was rightfully criticised for the length and lunacy of its campaign mode, its multiplayer is looked at by many as the gold standard in military-themed FPS shooters. Treyarch needs to go one better than that, so let's get the obvious question out of the way first: how does Black Ops's multiplayer stack up next to Modern Warfare 2's online battleground?
As it turns out, very respectably. The core gameplay is based on a modified version of the World at War engine, so you should feel right at home. The controls are customisable and the intuitive target-lock makes a return, so yes, you can still quick-scope with sniper rifles. The HUD is very similar to other COD games. Two notable differences are the addition of demarcated squares on the map (handy for telling team-mates where the enemies are) and the fact that the screen isn't caked in blood when you get shot, so you can actually see what you're doing.
Players still have a ton of customisation on offer in terms of killstreaks, perks, equipment, skins and an arsenal of weapons, which are period specific to the Cold War. Players can create classes which utilise any number of combinations of these different aspects and the more they play online, the more XP they earn, which results in promotions and unlocking more content.
The match types are familiar, as is the construction of the maps, if not their outward appearance. The four environments available at tonight's preview event tick all the usual COD boxes - multiple entries to each room, narrow stretches between buildings, plenty of balconies and high points to snipe from - but all are varied enough to offer different tactical advantages to players.
"Cracked" is set in a rundown shantytown in Vietnam, "Summit" takes place in a military facility on a mountaintop and "Radiation" is basically a nuclear power station. The best of the four is "Launch", where the action plays out in a missile facility as a missile is about to take off; at one point in the battle, the room myself and two opponents were in was engulfed in flames as the rocket fired its boosters.
So far, so Call of Duty. Still, Treyarch has some tricks up its sleeve and the most impressive of these is how Black Ops will satisfy multiplayer veterans while managing to attract players who previously had no interest in online play.
To lure in the uninitiated, Treyarch has included a mode called Combat Training. Here players square off against computer-controlled bots in online match-types using multiplayer maps. It's a good way to give novices a crash course in COD's online mode; they can play solo or with friends (in local or online co-op) and they toggle the difficulty of the AI from accessibly easy to insanely hard. It still may be no substitute for the real thing - we don't know if the AI camps, for example - and it uses a completely independent rank progression, but it's certainly a way to make the experience of jumping into your first online match less intimidating.
COD fans will probably have little use for Combat Training though - beyond testing the difficulty of the AI or for when the internet goes down - and are more likely to concentrate on Black Ops' new content. The loadout screen offers a couple of new and interesting additions; apart from the new weapons, there's some new equipment such as motion sensors and camera spikes, both of which can be used remotely to pick out opponents on the map.
There are also a couple of new perks (such as Flak Jacket, which reduces damage from explosions) mixed in with old ones (Sleight-of-Hand, Scavenger), while others have been renamed and re-catogorised (for Cold-Blooded, read Ghost). What's more, Category 1 perks now influence the player's appearance in the game. For example, players armed with Scavenger are carrying tons of equipment while those who pick Flak Jacket look like bomb disposal experts. It's a nice cosmetic touch, but it also makes the player's primary perk obvious to their online opponents.
The killstreaks are a mixture of new and old. Some are re-skinned versions of their MW2 counterparts (UAV is now Spy Plane) some are slightly tweaked (instead of a Predator Missile you have a remote controlled RC-XD) and some are completely new (such as SAM Turrets and Napalm Attack).
There are also a couple of new, nasty pieces of hardware available from care packages: The Grim Reaper, a satisfyingly brutal chaingun, and The Death Machine, a high-powered RPG. In the build we played the killstreaks only went as high as 13 - which produced a Gunship - so it's too soon to tell if Treyarch has removed the Nuke. The Death Streaks, however, have disappeared - presumably because Treyarch feels that Combat Training is enough of a concession for newbies.
Black Ops also boasts its own currency system. Every time players take part in an online battle they gain COD Points (CP), much in the same way they earn XP. However, unlike XP, CP can be spent as and when the player sees fit, and effectively removes linear progression from the unlockables.
What once was only unlocked by progression is now for sale. If a player wants a high-level perk, killstreak, weapon or skin, they can buy it provided they've earned enough CP. They can also invest CP by purchasing time-limited challenges called Contracts, which once completed award more CP or XP or both. The Contracts themselves are divided into three categories: Mercenary, (which award players for kills and using killstreaks), Operation (which reward players for doing well in team-based matches) and Specialist (unique or unusual challenges). The harder the contract challenge is, the bigger the payoff.
Players can also gamble CP in Wager Match mode. In these high-tension affairs, players can ante up in four different online match-types for a bigger payoff. Those who finish in the top three positions get a share of the pot and the rest go home empty-handed.
To prevent dishonest souls from farming CP, all the Wager Matches are Free-For-Alls and so opponents are randomly selected. The match types are all designed in a way to ratchet up the tension to nail-shredding levels. First up is One-In-The-Chamber, in which players are armed with a knife and a handgun with one bullet in it. If they manage to take out an opponent, they receive another bullet. If they miss with the gun they only have a melee attack.
Next is Sticks and Stones. Players enter the match with a crossbow, a ballistic knife and a Tomahawk. If a player manages to kill an opponent with the Tomahawk, they bankrupt them. Gun Game forces the player to use a variety of weapons to win the match; they start with a pistol and finish on a rocket launcher. However, if another player kills them with a knife they are set back by one weapon. Then there's Sharp Shooter, in which all players starts with the same randomly selected weapon and are forced to use it for a fixed amount of time before everyone cycles to another random gun.
There are still a couple of questions left unanswered concerning killstreaks and downloadable content, but there will of course be dedicated servers for the PC version, which is sure to entice back players who were put off by the lack of this in Modern Warfare 2.
Finally, Treyarch has gone to great lengths to accommodate the more creative shooter fan. Players can customise nearly every inch of their avatar's appearance, using camo facepaint, uniform patterns and skins for their guns. They can create their own clan tags and place them on weapons. They can even change the shape of their reticule and put a smiley face on the red-dot sight. There's also a theatre (sic) mode in which players can record segments of their online battles, watch them in playback from nearly every conceivable angle and then share them online.
All told, Treyarch has produced an impressive and robust multiplayer mode, which pulls off an interesting balancing act by making concessions for entry level players while adding enough content to keep veterans glued to it until the wee hours of the morning. Whether Black Ops conquers all during the Christmas rush probably wasn't ever in doubt anyway, but the prospect of it doing so in gameplay terms too is more real by the day.
Call of Duty: Black Ops is due out for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 on 11th November.