Within a cavernous hangar on LA’s Hercules campus, the place where eccentric visionary Howard Hughes built his Spruce Goose aircraft, Activision unveiled its own ambitious vision of the future last night. Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 is getting a range of updates, improvements and additional features, as well as deep COD Elite functionality – much of it free, the rest for a $49.99 annual subscription. Most of the details were enthusiastically welcomed by a whooping audience of pressmen, somewhat pummelled into submission by roving spotlights, a huge demo screen and pounding music.
The big news: killstreaks are no more. Infinity Ward mouthpiece Robert Bowling took to the stage to announce their replacement with a more expansive 'pointstreak' system that rewards players for assists and for meeting objectives, as well as gaining kills. These streaks will be split into three different Strike Packages reflecting different styles of play. Opt for the assault pack and you pick up the ability to call in assault drones or don a Juggernaut outfit for downing enemies or destroying vehicles. Go for the Support Strike option, however, and you’ll gain recognition for calling in UAVs and building SAM turrets, earning the likes of airdrop traps and stealth bombers. Meanwhile, the Specialist package gives expert players temporary access to extra perks as they hit kill thresholds.
The weapons upgrade system has also been tweaked. Instead of earning currency to add extras to guns, a la Black Ops, players unlock features such as attachments, reticules and camo skins as they gain more experience. It’s also possible to add custom weapon proficiencies to your favourite arms – for example, reducing the amount of sway when you’re running, or decreasing the jolting ‘flinch’ factor when you’re hit by enemy fire. There are over 40 weapons in the game, though a new ‘landmine’ device, shown during the fresh multiplayer trailer, seemed to get the biggest crowd reaction. When triggered, the device appears to rise to waist height and then detonate – to gasps from the attendant crowds.
And of course, there are new perks, most of which are tweaked old favourites. Key additions include Stalker, which allows players to move faster while aiming, and Marksman, letting you identify targets at longer range. Tactical play is clearly a priority this time round. Elsewhere, Activision highlighted new multiplayer game modes, specifically Kill Confirmed, in which kills only count when you grab the dogtags that appear over your victim. If a teammate gets to them first, the kill is scrubbed from the records. In Team Defender, two sides fight to hold on to a single flag for as long as possible. There will also be a large range of customisable private match modes, and the publisher confirmed its support for dedicated servers.
Call Of Duty: Elite drew some vocal support, not least for its announced annual subscription fee of $49.99, which seemed to provoke a largely positive reaction. Its defining social connectivity features, including the ability to join groups of like-minded players, find friends and view and compare in-game achievements, are all free and available from the outset of an account. Paying subscribers get free monthly DLC content drops including map packs, game modes and fresh missions for the game’s Spec Ops modes. There will also be daily and weekly competitions with in-game and real-life prizes, more video capacity to store and show off replays, expert analysis of the game’s weapons and maps, and a Call Of Duty online TV channel, with regular programmes produced by COD fans Tony and Ridley Scott and Arrested Development stars Jason Bateman and Will Arnett. One announced programme entitled Friday Night Fights will show COD face-offs between specific careers (firemen versus police, for example) and other rival groups. Also, the Hardened edition of the game will include a year’s subscription as part of the – as yet unconfirmed – retail price.
The XP press preview night ended with images of the MW3 edition of the Xbox 360, complete with battle-worn metallic styling, 320GB hard drive and custom sounds from the game replacing the usual system noises. A final few whoops echoed around the chamber.
Broadening COD's multiplayer
Clearly, what Activision wants to do with MW3 is broaden the multiplayer experience. In the past, online sessions have been dominated by killing machines with super perks and little sense of team responsibility; the likes of the Strike Packages and the refined perk list (with overpowered features like Last Stand and One Man Army gone for good) are designed to support more thoughtful and gregarious play – a factor enhanced by the social connectivity of Elite, which even brings in support for Facebook, allowing you to spot when your pals are in-game.
Today, the Call Of Duty XP event is open to the public; its demo pods will be rammed with fans, who will also get to enjoy a life-size paintballing reproduction of Modern Warfare 2's Scrapyard map and other live attractions. Activision says it wants to reward and thank its fanbase, but this vast and massively expensive endeavour (when we asked one PR exec what it all cost, they refused to specify but confessed genuine shock) is also here to whip its audience into a frenzy of excitement – an excitement that will no doubt spill out into blogs, Tweets and Facebook posts, spreading the message to the more mainstream audience.
Just as the Spruce Goose was more than just an aircraft, Call Of Duty has become more than just a game release; Activision’s hubris is as keen as Hughes’ but, it seems, many times more grounded and realistic. As a show of intent, COD XP is astounding.