The Beauty of Black Ops II

So simple even a zombie could play...

So simple even a zombie could play…

The last Call of Duty game I finished was the original. That’s not to say that I didn’t play the sequels; I did, but the fact that they were all almost exactly the same as the original put me off from really giving them a proper go. Then along came Call of Duty 4, and though the game had once again failed to progress beyond the original’s feel and mechanics (which is not an entirely bad thing: the basis on which all Call of Duties have been based is an excellent one) the new setting made it somewhat fresh and exciting. Remember that this was before modern military shooters reigned supreme—in fact, Call of Duty 4 is the very reason that they now do. But the online? Never got a chance to give it a proper go.

Thanks to the free weekend of Black Ops II, I was able to put that right; assuming, of course, that the multiplayer suffers from the same positive stagnation as the single player.  As negative as this introduction may sound, I was surprised to discover just how excellent the multiplayer was. Surprised? Well, yeah. Sure, Call of Duty is not only an incredibly popular series, but one that is critically acclaimed too, and most of the appeal seems to be rooted firmly in the multiplayer. Yet it has just about as many detractors as supporters. Besides, the unchanged single player, while imitating an excellent system, hardly excites.

But the ease with which Black Ops II eases one into play made it all but impossible for me not to enjoy myself. Despite the extraneous fluff of video uploading, video watching, and general video related activities, one can simply and easily find themselves in a game in but a matter of mouse clicks, the parameters of said game clearly and easily described for a newbie such as myself, thus preventing me from joining some obscure game of exploding crossbows and knives and having a rather horrid first experience. But getting someone into a game is one thing; keeping them in said game is another altogether!

The same accessibility can be found in the game’s very mechanics themselves. The first thing to note is that contrary to the fast paced videos on YouTube, the player movement and pace of the game is actually somewhat slow; something that Call of Duty’s many imitators seem to fatally misappropriate. While watching a game of Call of Duty is a frantic affair full of players being gunned down left right and centre, and explosions going off with a Michael Bay level of glee and excess, the actual experience of playing is far simpler and slower.

This is due not only to the slower than it appears movement of the characters, but the design of the maps, too. Each map, unlike many online first person shooters, is effectively a series of corridors and passageways with a couple of open areas. These corridors and passageways mean that the player is relatively safe, with the possibility of attack coming only from certain angles; angles that are generally obvious simply from glancing around. There are few hidey holes or enemies waiting in surprise, which means that a new player need focus only on their twitch reflexes.

Of course, the maps do have their own little kinks here and there. Though minor, they do give a knowledgeable player a noticeable advantage, but two other clever tricks are employed to avoid frustration and get a new player up to speed as quickly as possible. The first is the kill cam which not only teaches you how to approach aiming and movement—if someone is repeatedly killing you, just take note of how they did!—but also where your murderer came from or was hiding. I did say there were only two, but it’s more like two and a half!

The half is the action movie special effects on the bullet tracers, which don’t just make things look cool and Bruce Willisy, but also help the player understand where the fire fights are, and where the action might be focused. The second (which probably only applies to deathmatch) is the variety in spawn points. Instead of having a very static spawn system, you can find yourself spawning all over the map, which forces you to visit more of the map, and not simply follow the same familiar paths that you’re comfortable with, due to the simple fact that it’s spawning you regularly in new places. Simple but effective.

After only a few games I had the basics down pat, and amongst players of a similar skill level was able to do very well indeed. However, this made for a slightly strange sense of progression. There was little satisfaction in becoming decent, because most of the work had been done subconsciously: I had been conditioned into understanding the maps, and the somewhat lightweight nature of the guns meant that there was little to learn about the gunplay, and much of what there was had been taught to me with the kill cams. Being a limited session, the experience system was meaningless.

Which leaves me wondering: what’s left to engage players after a few sessions? I could happily come back due to the accessibility and the lack of frustration, and play a multitude of games again, but as easily as I could do it, I would be hard pressed in finding motivation to actually do so. If so early I had learned the maps and got the basics down, then there doesn’t seem to be much room for further improvement beyond honing my aiming and movement. Even in an obscure game of crossbows at dawn I wasn’t embarrassed, despite not even realising at first that all the explosions were from the crossbow bolts themselves. The opponents were ranked much higher, too.

But what of the experience system? Does the key to keeping players engaged lie there? Luckily we have with us someone who actually has the experience to discuss the experience system!

Ahem, Chris Langner here, Chief Executive Officer of Laser Lemming. Let me start by disclosing something very important: I’ve had a rocky relationship with the Call of Duty franchise.

I enjoyed Call of Duty 3, and 4. I also played my fair share of World at War and Modern Warfare 2. But something snapped in me during a team deathmatch game of Modern Warfare 2 one day. Too many people had learned how to exploit their killstreaks (care packages were falling from the sky several times a minute) and I had respawned directly in front of a member of the opposing team for the last time—I was pissed and I was done with Call of Duty.

Black Ops and Modern Warfare 3 passed me by and I didn’t blink. I had moved on to Bad Company 2 and Battlefield 3. They were fun games. But this is a Call of Duty article so let me just get to it already: I’m back.

While I love the Battlefield games, there are certain things that the Call of Duty franchise just does better. On consoles, 60 frames per second is the benchmark, just as it is on PCs; Battlefield 3 and Bad Company 2 achieve only half that. Call of Duty is also more accessible to the new player. Within a few rounds, a newbie can get the gist of the game’s core aspects. But as Tom mentioned, this can also hurt the attachment a player has to the game. When you’ve mastered a deep learning curve, you feel much closer to your game. You want to hug it and whisper sweet nothings in its ear.

But I digress… Ah, experience, yes. Beyond my own dysfunctional relationship with the series, there’s an actual experience system embedded into the game. Who’da thunk?

The experience system has evolved quite a bit over the years—for the better I’d say. Too many damn people were setting off nuclear bombs in Modern Warfare 2 because a couple of good killstreaks paved the way for 25 kills in a row.

Present day Call of Duty changes things up. Gone are the days of merely levelling up and unlocking things. No longer will a single killstreak allow a single player to dominate a game. Today, everything is point-based. The core of the experience system remains the same: you level up, you’ve unlocked something new. The difference is that everything is now bought with in-game tokens. You earn tokens and you unlock. Weapons, equipment, etc.

Likewise, killstreaks are now affected entirely by points. Different killstreaks have different point requirements. For example, calling in a UAV takes just 350 points, while sending in a pack of rabid dogs will cost you 1700.

You can still equip up to three killstreaks, but instead of jumping from streak to streak simply because your last killstreak killed 5 people, the game has switched to a point system. You know the drill: you shoot a guy, you get 100 points. Shoot 7 guys, you unlock a lightning strike. Now pay attention, because this where things get fun. Every digital human being that lightning strike kills is only worth 25 points. Brilliant. They fixed a critical problem that turned Modern Warfare 2’s multiplayer into a chaotic mess.

Those 25 point kills still count towards your next killstreak, but it definitely slows you down. For me, it made Call of Duty fun again. I’m not being killed 2 seconds into a round because of a constant barrage of jets dropping bombs overhead.

And while these changes have made it easier to get into the game, it appears that Treyarch and Infinity Ward have reached a point where they feel their core players aren’t being challenged enough. We’re talking about the people that buy the new Call of Duty every single year and proceed to master it all year long. When World at War introduced the vicious dogs killstreak, it only took 7 kills to send in the hounds. Today’s 1700 point requirement would translate directly to 17 kills from a gun, grenade or knife (much more via killstreaks) in the old system. So while the Call of Duty franchise has tweaked itself for the better, its creators have also become very aware of their core audience and their abilities (besides, hearing those damn dogs barking every 3-5 minutes got pretty annoying).

There you have it: Call of Duty’s experience system circa early 2013.

Well, I dare say that pretty much covers it, Chris! Just even reading about all those numbers requires a great deal of mental effort, especially for your average dudebro! So in summary: a collection of well worn basic principles polished close to perfection all come together to make Black Ops II pretty damn rad. At least when it comes to the multiplayer. Fist pump, bro! booyeah!

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4 comments
Juhis815
Juhis815

I really don't want to play any Call of Duty game in my life-time, as they are nothing but timewasters even if they are free!

Tom Towers
Tom Towers

Well, if it's any comfort it's not free anymore!

Juhis815
Juhis815

If I would transit from TF2 to CoD, I would instantly notice that mechanics are too different that it'll take time to make myself comfortable within CoD, so if I would only own one game, then it would be TF2 as that's the game that I got accustomed to in first place.

Tom Towers
Tom Towers

It's pretty easy to get into (as was the gist of the article), but yeah it's hard to shake off the habits of an online FPSer you've played incessantly. I have the same problem with PS3 shooters due to my Killzone 2 addiction...