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Black Ops 2 customization and 'League Play' brings Call of Duty to the future

Xav de Matos, @Xav

The most important shift for the Call of Duty franchise was when developer Infinity Ward transformed the World War II series into a modern era military shooter. Infinity Ward changed what it meant to be a Call of Duty game: it became a game focused on action and not the war itself. Treyarch, the developer that brought the series to the Vietnam war in 2010, pushed beyond the timeline boundary set by the original developer and rests much of its next game – Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 – firmly within the year of 2025.

For its multiplayer experience, Black Ops 2 takes place exclusively in this near-future time period.

Despite going to "the future," the setting of Treyarch's latest effort isn't as drastic a change as it was when Infinity Ward made the period shift in 2007, but many of the features found in Black Ops 2 are just as crucial as the franchise's modern era setting change. Based on these new features, Treyarch – once thought of as the series "B" team – may be the studio dictating the future of Activison's annualized Call of Duty franchise going forward. And the new position suits them.

Gallery: Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 'Multiplayer' (GamesCom 2012) | 7 Photos

The changes to Call of Duty multiplayer in Black Ops 2 are evident right from the create-a-class screen. The new system, dubbed 'Pick 10,' allows players to select any combination of weapons, items, and perks for their loadout on a simple grid. Each selection is worth a single point, with a maximum of ten points allotted per loadout. But you can do anything you want with this system and you'll never be forced to bring something you don't care for. Want a second flashbang instead of a sidearm? That's cool. Spend your points the way you want to.

Aside from perks, Black Ops 2 offers a new system called Wildcards. Wildcards allow players to change their loadout defaults in certain ways. For example, you can select the wildcard to allow for two lethal grenades to be carried into battle. But selecting this wildcard uses a point and then adding a second lethal will use a point. Another wildcard – called "Gunfighter" – allows players to equip three attachments on their primary weapon. The "Perk Greed" wildcard can be used to take a second Perk from the selected three perk groups. It's a risk/reward system. It's like you're getting an advantage, but you have to pay for it. Use more points to dig deeper and get the items/abilities you want, but you'll end up bringing less equipment to the party.

I spent a large chunk of time playing and tweaking create-a-class loadouts. It's a little like building a house out of Legos. You're given the pieces and are free to build it in any way you see fit. Going back to the systems found in Black Ops or Modern Warfare 3 now seems silly. It's a measure of control for the player that the series must adopt going forward.

Black Ops 2 customization and 'League Play' brings Call of Duty to the future
What Treyarch didn't want to do in its new system is offer the player perks or upgrades that change the way default settings function. All perks from previous games that modify the way weapons perform and the ability to unlock "Pro Perk" rewards have been abandoned in Black Ops 2 under this new philosophy, game design director David Vonderhaar says.

Fan favorite items and perks will return, but some have been altered. One highlighted by Vonderhaar specifically was the "Ghost" perk, which now only makes players invisible to UAVs if they are on the move. This protects against campers that have relied on the perk to keep them hidden for years, and it's a fantastic change.

The menus have also been tweaked, laying everything out in a visual grid rather than various lists that players need to button through. If an item has an available accessory, it will appear in the grid, otherwise it's absent. "We never prevent you from something you want to do," Vonderhaar added. "We never gray out items." Weapons are displayed in a complete list much like the XMB on PlayStation 3. You select type (like assault weapons) in a vertical menu and choose from the available options in the horizontal menu.

'We never prevent you from something you want to do.'- Game Design Director David Vonderhaar on the philosophy behind customization in Black Ops 2

Unlocking items are more streamlined as well. There is no COD point or money system in Black Ops 2. Each level gained – and there are 55 in total with 10 Prestige levels – gives players a single unlock point. These points can be used to unlock items and wildcards, with a bundle of items being available to select from upon achieving a new rank. You don't immediately get something for hitting a new level, you are given a choice based on your standing. But there is more content than there are levels, and you cannot unlock all create-a-class content in one shot from level 1 to 55. "That's intentional," Vonderhaar says. "It offers something to look forward to."

Adopting what seems to be a middle of the road approach compared to Modern Warfare 3, Treyarch is introducing Score Streaks as the only way to unlock in-game streak rewards. Streaks can be achieved by lethal or defensive actions. Players build their streak meter by helping their team or getting kills – with resets coming upon player death.

And streak rewards have the appropriate level of future tech included among fan favorites. One of the lower-level streaks is the ability to drop the Goliath, a turret-sized radar dish that fires a skin-melting microwave at any enemy that comes close. I found myself relying on the microwave emitter frequently, dropping it in the middle of busy hallways. Getting "cooked" means you move slowly, taking damage when hit by its waves, and making you completely vulnerable. It's one of the few ways players can alter the landscape of the maps, cutting off sections and funneling adversaries into choke points. You can point it at a flag for extra protection, too! Riot shields also help alter the landscape, as they can now be planted into the ground and used as mobile cover. Standard practice was bringing a Riot Shield to the party along with the wildcard that unlocked the ability to select any primary weapon in the secondary slot.

Though more will undoubtedly be shown in the near future, only one major mode announcement was made during my time with Black Ops 2: multi-team matches. Four teams of up to four players can now face-off in a multitude of modes. There were four maps available at the event: Yemen, an urban map with changing elevation and tight alleys; Aftermath, a destroyed, downtown Los Angeles; Cargo, taking place at a dockyard in Singapore; and Turbine, a large wind farm with a crashed plane in the center of the level.

I can typically hold my own in sessions of Call of Duty multiplayer, but I tend to abandon the mode over time. The best players stick with it and regular intervals of "spawn, die ... spawn, die" aren't the way I want to spend my free time. Treyarch hopes to change things by introducing League Play into the game.

Much like Blizzard's approach to multiplayer in StarCraft 2, the league system in Black Ops 2 groups players based on their performance. Players move up and down the ladder and are grouped – when they select "League Play" from the menu – with those in the same division. When you first start off, a small group of matches will determine your division and your performance from there determines whether you move up or down the ladder. Of course, standard matchmaking exists to face off against any opponent, but Treyarch says they wanted to offer more options for players of all skill levels.

If it works as intended, this grouping of skill levels could be what keeps me focused. Games aren't fun when it's a blowout. For either side (maybe I should speak for myself). What I want is a challenge, not to be destroyed/the destroyer. This could be what fixes the system for me.

'Detractors may lambaste it for the name it carries, but the developers all seem to have a detailed, daunting plan for what the series can do going forward.'

There are a few other additions to the game, like being able to decide whether some score streaks are controlled by the A.I. or by the player. You could, for example, unleash a sentry drone or turret that can be controlled via A.I. or manually. Or switch between the two to make sure your equipment is packing the right punch. There's new equipment like the Tactical Shock Charge, which you can use as a grenade against enemies to stun them or use it in the environment as a trip mine for the same effect. The Millimeter Wave Scanner attachment for primary weapons shows stationary targets at close range through surfaces.

There's a lot of new content to here – and I haven't even mentioned Treyarch's huge push into the eSports realm with built-in Shoutcasting options and the ability to live stream games from any platform over the web. (Read all about and watch Shoutcasting in Black Ops 2 here!)

Where the series continues to fall short is in its visuals. Despite its best efforts to present a future setting, it's a game built on technology from the past. When asked why it doesn't update the engine – as though that's some flip of the switch decision – Treyarch is quick to point out that one of the pillars of the franchise is "60 frames per second." It can guarantee that – on all platforms, mind you – with this engine. Some of the new enhancements look good when noticed, but for the most part, the tech behind it is just continuing to age.

Black Ops 2 looks like a fully-featured behemoth. Detractors may lambaste it for the name it carries, but the developers all seem to have a detailed, daunting plan for what the series can do going forward. It would be easy for any developer to take the popular Call of Duty brand and release something wholly expected to meet its reserved November release, but Treyarch is going above and beyond Activision's Call of Duty.

Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 is coming to the PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3 on November 13.

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