Call of Duty XP is currently underway in Los Angeles, CA. Last night, before the big event kicked off, Activision treated the press to a reveal of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3's multiplayer component. We'll jump you right to the bottom line: The core gameplay itself is a whole lot like the rest of the Call of Duty series, in that you grab a couple of weapons, sprint around a map, and try to shoot the bad guys as much as you can.
Where Modern Warfare 3's multiplayer differentiates itself, however, is outside of the actual game. In fact, says Infinity Ward's Community Manager-turned Creative Strategist Robert Bowling, the real steps forward in MW3 aren't in the game -- they're in the platform. "We designed it specifically to be that kind of experience," he says. "To basically go from designing a game to designing a platform that allows the widest audience possible to have fun any way they want to have fun. That was a major goal of Modern Warfare 3."
There are indeed multiple examples of that in the build playable at CoD XP this weekend. Infinity Ward has tweaked the metagame quite a bit, and made it possible to play the new sequel while chasing more than just a great K/D ratio.
Killstreaks are probably the area where that's most evident. In place of the old Killstreaks system there's a new setup called "Strike Packages," organized into three choices: Assault, Support, or Specialist. The Assault Strike Package works basically the same as the old killstreaks did, where you rack kills up to earn in-battle bonuses, like UAVs and airstrikes, or new weapons like a remote-controlled helicopter or a ground-based attack drone.
The Support package works differently. It's a points-based system that grants points not just when you get kills, but also when you do things like capture a point or support your team in some way. Those points don't go away when you die, so throughout a match, even without getting kills, you can build up a streak and unlock support-related items. "It's not focused on getting you more kills," says Bowling, "it's focused on allowing you to be a better team player, allowing you to give things to your team for that situational awareness, to allow them to be better. Things like throwing out a ballistic vest, so that guy who's going into the Dom point can put it on and have more resistance to all the frags coming in."
Support definitely seems like a nod to the more casual player, to let them in on some of the killstreak fun that players who could never build up lots of kills in past games missed out on. But in practice, while it does allow for killstreak rewards eventually, it's not like you're getting bonuses for free. You'll need more points in Support than you will in Assault to get similar rewards, and Support's rewards in general are very team-based -- things like Counter UAVs and airdrops (though Support does have access to fun things like a decoy Airdrop crate for the other team that explodes when "opened"). Those in favor of the traditional killstreak structure will likely stay Assault, while those without the K/D skill will still get special things to do (eventually) with Support.
And then there's the Specialist package, which targets yet another playstyle. "Specialist is all about that expert player," says Bowling. Specialists don't get traditional killstreaks at all -- instead, as they rack up kills, they activate extra perks, and eventually have the default three choices and three or four more all running at the same time. The balance, however, is that those perks are all lost when the player dies -- essentially, it's a huge bet that you'll be good and stay alive, or lose everything and have to start over again.
Having extra perks means the Specialist Strike Package can be strategic too. "Say I'm playing Capture the Flag," suggests Bowling. "When I first start a match, I don't need Scavenger, which gives me more ammo, because I have a full magazine. So in the past I was wasting one of my three perks on something I wasn't always getting a benefit from. So instead, I can focus on something I always need in Capture the Flag, like Extreme Conditioning so I can sprint longer, or Steady Aim, or things like that. Then, as I'm fighting my way to the flag, and taking guys out, then I unlock Scavenger, when I actually need ammo. Then I unlock something that gives me resistance or Marksman, identifying a target for later on." Building up that many perks can be very powerful, but one stray bullet will send you back to square one.
There's also a new system for weapon customization, called weapon proficiencies. In the past, Call of Duty has found myriad ways to slowly unlock the various parts and attachments on your weapons, but in Modern Warfare 3 your proficiencies with weapons will level up on a per-weapon basis. The more you use a gun, the more you'll be able to do with it, opening up options like faster reload or less kick on that weapon.
"We want Modern Warfare 3 to be about the player, his gun, and his skill," says Bowling, "not relying on air support to be a replacement for his ability to get kills." Bowling says the team wants to go back to "gun-on-gun gameplay," and while the weapon system isn't completely done yet, the proficiencies will even enable things like holding your breath on an assault rifle, and a few other new elements to the series.
There are new modes, too, and though I didn't get to see the new mode called "Team Defender," but I did get to play a mode called Kill Confirmed. In it, teams fight not for kills but for dog tags, picked up by running over a recently killed player. "It pulls out a whole new teamwork aspect to Team Deathmatch, and forces you out," says Bowling. Because you need to go pick up tags to get credit for a kill, "you can't just sit back and passively get kills -- you have to constantly stay in the fight." Players can also pick up the tags of their fallen teammates, denying them from the enemy team. The mode is built around sticking with your comrades, and being careful about where and when you take the enemy on.
And even in Kill Confirmed, Bowling says Infinity Ward was thinking hard about how to keep all kinds of players involved. "As it is now, when you get a kill, you get XP," he says. "When you get the dog tags, you get XP. But when your teammate gets the dog tags of your kill, you both still get XP. So we played with that mechanic, thinking about how you balance it out and keep that fun level, but still make it fair."
There's even more to the multiplayer than we got to see in action. Players will be able to create user-generated game modes in private games, which Infinity Ward will be watching closely to consider adding to the official playlists. That content will also play a part in the Call of Duty Elite service, which you can read more about over here.
They briefly showed off a "prestige shop," featuring a new way of rewarding players for conquering the game's progression system. There will be a total of sixteen multiplayer maps with the game, and they will all work with the previously revealed Spec Ops Survival mode. And the multiplayer game will have "loyalty rewards" for every Call of Duty game going back to Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, though we weren't yet told what those will be.
Call of Duty is undoubtedly the biggest game in the world, but Bowling and his team are going to face some stiff competition, both with this title up against EA's Battlefield 3, and in the future market for these games from his former colleagues now at Respawn Entertainment. Is there really room in this space for a huge multiplayer platform on all of these games?
"I don't know," he answers. "I think we're going in the right direction of trying to expand the market outside of just the core shooter fan, to make it even more accessible to fans of any genre, because we're looking at giving even more control to the player, and I think that's the right direction to go, really allowing people to craft their own experience and have fun any way they want to have fun, rather than catering to a certain market. Rather than catering to competitive or catering to casual, giving them the ability to both play in the same sandbox, but build their own divisions."
"As long as everyone's offering a unique experience and a fun experience," says Bowling, "I think there's plenty of room for everything. People want a variety of tastes -- there's not one ultimate taste, and I think that's what's important."