The grand entrance of Call of Duty: Elite at the gun-toter debutante ball wasn't graceful. Backstage she nervously applied the finishing touches to her camo paint while she listened to the unexpected wolf-whistles as Modern Warfare 3 shimmered down the red carpet. It was her time to shine: the moment she'd been built for. Yet as she approached the doorway a stun grenade became dislodged in her purse, and fell...
You know the rest of the story: an underprepared and distressed Premium service whimpering on the floor. There she was: crawling around on her hands and knees in clear view of the wealthy bachelors she had hoped to impress. She even did a little bit of sick in her hands. It got into Tatler and everything.
It wasn't pretty. The PC version went AWOL, the mobile app was delayed, the sign-up pages routinely crashed and the servers were clogged: in fact the Activision Empire's battle-station wasn't fully operational until early December, around a month after the release of the game it was supposed to chaperone. Punters were gifted an extra thirty days to their subscription by way of apology, less reported was the fact that they were also sent a Christmas present of two hours of Double XP and a Prestige Shop unlock. (This was my best Christmas present.)
Call of Duty Elite is many things. For free it's a stat-tracker, social hub and equipment fiddle mainframe - for £34.99 it's also a provenor of competitions, advanced clan features, strategy tips and the early delivery of downloadable content. The DLC, however, is clearly the clincher. For the Activision accounts department Elite is a feeder pipe to ensure that the audience does not stray: a money upfront ploy to fend off the inevitable decline in map pack sales that occurs the further they get from MW3, and the closer (what must be) Black Ops 2 becomes.
As of this Tuesday the Xbox 360 feeder pipe started to dribble into life - depositing two new maps into the waiting, willing mouths of the COD cognoscenti. Both are excellent examples of the form - far more individual and specialised efforts than the amiable (if vanilla and snipe-averse) maps provided upon release. Piazza takes place in an Italian hillside town - several dollops of vertical shootery mixed in with an equivalent measure of tight corners and winding roads to guarantee up-close combat. Liberation, meanwhile, is a wide and open map that takes in bits of Central Park that you might recognise from Home Alone 2 - a haven for snipers, and anyone who fancies jumping onto its mounted turrets.
It's telling that playing either map makes you instinctively reconsider your tried and tested load-outs currently rigged for MW3 - and hopefully a sure sign that Infinity Ward and friends are deliberately mixing things up now that a nine month feed of maps, Spec Ops missions and game modes is underway. The only complaint here, really, is that the new maps rub shoulders with the old in Elite playlists - spiking excitement with broad swathes of the over-familiar.
What's happening away from the DLC drops though? Elite's role as a 'COD Facebook' is slightly hampered by the fact that less militant players bypass it or don't frequent it often - as such the clan systems in the deep end are crowded, but invisible to a non-hardcore user floating in shallower waters next to a barren newsfeed.
This is particularly shown up by the (free) ability to join groups of likeminded players. As a fan of the glorious Queens Park Rangers, upon first hearing about Elite groups I saw myself in a post-MW3 world playing exclusively with likeminded individuals - mulling over likely relegation while shooting each other.
As it turned out the biggest QPR group has eleven members, it only says four things on its wall and one is "COME ON u Rs! F**k Man U!". I'm not really able to directly play with these charmers either - only really being provided with leaderboards and the ability to see when someone you're already playing is in a shared group.
As for the Premium Clan support - the system works well in terms of clan management and levelling (you sure as hell know you're going to get pasted when a bunch of players turn up with a shared golden clan tag) but there remains ongoing brouhaha that communal Clan Operations still aren't part of the package. Elite developers Beachhead have been playing catch-up ever since their stymied and cut-down launch - and for many the process hasn't been quick enough. Add in the PS3 owners smarting from the 'Microsoft first' DLC exclusivity deal, and you've got some heartily harassed community managers.
It isn't all DLC and social nubbins for the Premium crowd. Also piped in for paying customers is Elite TV which, with a small degree of hyperbole, is perhaps the most banal American cultural export in recorded history. Its flagship Friday Night Fights often takes on themes that connoisseurs of same-sex male erotica will be all too familiar with (Army vs Navy! Policemen vs Firemen!) It starts out well because it's hosted by Stacey Kiebler off of the wrestling, and after that... Well, here's a transcript:
Exuberant sailors enter from stage left, running
- SAILOR 1: Woo! Navy baby! Navy baby! Navy baby!
- SAILOR 2: It's all goin' down!
- SAILOR 1: Joe's gonna cry!
- SAILOR 2: [Brandishing gamepad] Did anyone tell them how to use this yet?
- COD STRATEGIST MAN: Is this about to be a blow-out?
- SAILOR 1 and 2: OH MY GOD!
It's well meaning, and the map guides are useful, but it's hard not to re-evaluate your life when you hear a gravel-voice saying "J-bird is the Army's team captain. He's a REAL smack-talker but, if you ask HIM, he does most of his TALKING with his M4A1."
Let's not overdose on cheap bravado though. There are plenty of Elite side dishes that are worthy accompaniments. It's certainly not a function exclusive to COD, but the way you can study your gameplay statistics in the free part of Elite is genuinely fascinating - and allows you to pick up on the frailties of your game in quite an alarming way. I became aware, for example, that I was getting 20% more kills with the M4A1 over my (I thought) trusty CM901 - so switched my play-style to suit. (I also realised I should stop playing when drunk.)
On the Premium side, meanwhile, the 'Improve' section contains a range of handy videos to instruct you in the ways of wholesale slaughter, while those who fancy their chances can enter Lone Wolf Operations to win top-end prizes like iPads, and low-end prizes like hoodies or online badges. (The 99% of people who don't stand a chance in these, meanwhile, are consoled with 'best screenshot' competitions, which do feel a little bit like being a crap kid taking part in the 'walking race' on Sports Day).
Obvious question then, with an obvious answer. Has COD Elite proved itself worthy of the asking price? For punters who habitually snap up every map pack or operate in clans then Elite membership seems something of a shoe-in - primarily as a money-saver. Floating voters, meanwhile, are adequately catered for with its free features, unless of course they feel a gnawing desperation to play the new maps first.
Quite whether the ploy has worked for Activision, meanwhile, is still an unknown - having nine different Xbox Elite release dates, nine separate and belated drops on PS3 AND the traditional five map bundles really muddies the water in terms of both explaining and promoting their wares. What's more, the schism between those who've signed up for Elite and those unwilling to shell out until the map pack arrives will inevitably chop up the community - and, indeed, established playing partnerships.
The DLC campaign and fundamentals of Call of Duty Elite remain sound, despite the features still creeping into the mainframe and launch palaver. You would hope, however, that as time goes on it evolves into something more open, something more inclusive and something that has a more direct impact on the people you play alongside and against. Activision may have a firm grip on its audience, but those claws still have room to dig deeper.