So much for Call of Duty being gaming's safely predictable 800lb gorilla.
The people making the new Black Ops II are changing multiplayer. A lot.
Black Ops II is still a first-person shooter (set in the high-tech future of 2025, mind you) and players will still be able to spend endless hours virtually shooting each other in all sorts of competitive modes. They'll still see their successful maneuvers rewarded with all sorts of battlefield power-ups that will be rewarded when players have been doing well. That system was introduced to Call of Duty in 2007's Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and has been a staple ever since. But, in Black Ops II, these perks will no longer be activated after a set number of consecutive kills. Instead, say hello to Score Streaks.
Any major action in Black Ops II multiplayer earns score. Kills, assists, flag captures, guarding buddies with riot shields and all sorts of other actions in a match will grant the player and their team points. Earning enough points for one's self or one's team activates a score streak bonus. Streak rewards in this near-future setting include the ability to plant a microwave turret called the Guardian that slows enemy forces who run past it. Another sends in a swarm of drones.
The Black Ops II team switched from killstreaks to score streaks for a couple of reasons. It allows lesser players to help their team through support actions, allowing those of us without perfect aim to contribute toward the activation of a great streak bonus. Score streaks also allows Black Ops II's developers at Treyarch to more heavily drive players of objective-based multiplayer modes toward completing those objectives—say, capturing the flag instead of camping for kills. That said, in regular deathmatch modes, kills will count for a lot of points.
What's one of the things in 2012 that could change gaming forever? Oh, maybe the fact that every player of Black Ops II on console or PC will be able to livestream their game onto the Internet with a click of a button (with USB camera support, to boot, for any livestreamers who want to be seen while people watch the footage of their gameplay). Treyarch is committing to allowing players to livestream without the need for any added gear. This kind of one-click-to-stream support is becoming prevalent in computer games, but bringing this to console could transform what people do with their time in front of an Xbox or PlayStation.
Don't want to stream your own game? Then you can shoutcast. Owners of Black Ops II will be able to find an ongoing match, select one of six different display views and do live play-by-play of the match. Anyone can watch.
Livestreaming and shoutcasting are popular in competitive PC gaming circles and among the most hardcore of console gamers already, and that's while requiring some technical expertise. Now it's being made to all be as easy as pressing a button. This has a chance to be very big.
They're changing class selection, too. Now you'll be able to spend 10 points in class creation, any way you want. You can allot all your points in character perks, none in weapons and scavenge the battlefield for guns. You can load up your weapons with attachments and go in with the most tricked-out dual-attachment guns the series has seen. Or you can spend a point on something new called a Wildcard, which is essentially a rule-breaker that then allows you to, say, add yet another (third) attachment to a weapon. The Treyarch designers' hope here is that players will concoct hundreds or even thousands of variable class variations.
To go along with the livestreaming and the shoutcasting, players will be able to compete in leagues full of people of similar skill levels. Wins will let you advance to tougher divisions.
…which Treyarch still doesn't want to talk about. Later this year, I guess.
I played Black Ops II multiplayer very briefly back in June at a then-semi-secret event for the game. Ostensibly I was there on the top floor of a Los Angeles skyscraper, surrounded by Treyarch developers, and models in short skirts to consider the new Call of Duty for a Best Multiplayer of E3 award. At the time, I was not permitted to cover it, as was the agreement with the game's publisher, Activision, and Treyarch for seeing the game. The game's creators were pushing the shoutcasting aspect, and had brought in a professional to do play-by-play for a series of matches played by me and my fellow E3 judges. We played several rounds of multiplayer, some on the maps you can see here in this story, some in simple team deathmatch modes and some in modes that Activision still won't give me the ok to write about.
I can mention that I played team deathmatch in a level called Aftermath that is set in the ruins of an attacked Los Angeles. (Two official screenshots from that map are in this section).) I'm no Call of Duty pro, so I mostly hung back and took direction from a teammate from Treyarch. He advised me to equip some of the new gear, including a gun attachment called the millimeter wave scanner. That handy add-on let me see the outlines of opposing players through walls and smoke, as long as those opposing players were standing still or only moving slightly. I also tried using an assault shield, which was good for absorbing bullets and could be placed into the ground to form a new cover point. (Items that I didn't use included the Target Finder, which distinguishes between friend and foe; a Dual Band Scope that displays targets that generate heat; a Shock Charge that can be tossed like a grenade and stuns enemies on contact; and a Laser Sight; there are plenty more, of course. You can see a lot of them in the game's newish multiplayer trailer).
My standout memories of the match involve camping in a closet (the Treyarch guy recommended this!) atop a staircase while a Guardian microwave emitter we set up slowed every poor sap who came up the steps. This made it very easy for me to kill them and rack up a lot of score. Because I was indoors for much of that match, I must have missed some of the enemy score streak spectacles: did they call in an A-10 Warthog? Possibly. Did they bring in one of those quad-rotor, machine-gun-armed Dragonfire drones, take manual control of it and attack my allies with it? They may have. My notes tell me this was possible, and it makes sense, since those quad-rotor drones seem to be in just about every Black Ops II screenshot. They're a signature of this sequel. I think the opposing players called in some Autonomous Ground Robots, little machine-gun-armed R2D2s of death, that players can control or let the computer control and get kills for them. I do recall the Guardian emitters being deployed a lot. When I was running around in another match, I kept seeing my screen get hazy, as if I was overwhelmed by heat. This was a Guardian slowing me down. A smarter player would have blown up the Guardian from afar.
I liked Black Ops II's futuristic weapons, which make the game feel a little more sci-fi. I didn't love having a pro shoutcaster talk about all the times I was killed, but, hey, it's neat that that is possible. I loved the fact that just catching bullets with a shield could help my team's effort and get us closer to activating powerful scorestreak combos.
There's a lot more to Black Ops II that the game's creators still won't talk about. They won't detail the new game's iteration of Treyarch's Call of Duty co-op staple, Zombie mode. They won't elaborate on how they're handing solo-able combat training, what kind of new competitive multiplayer modes they have and so much more. The note they keep hitting is that they're ready, willing and able to change things, so even though, from afar, Black Ops II looks like the latest in an exhausting, similar-looking line of military first-person shooters, there are a lot of new features in this game. This game is legitimately different than those that have come before. Actual risks are being taken.
The multiplayer changes shown so far in Black Ops II complement the numerous changes being introduced in the game's campaign: some slightly-branching paths, alternate game endings, a near future setting, etc.
Kotaku will have even more info about the changes in the new Call of Duty in the days and weeks to come. The game will be out for PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 on November 13.