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Innovation, eSports, and why I can't wait for Black Ops II's revamped multiplayer

15 August 2012

Internet dwellers love to criticize Call of Duty for failing to innovate year-after-year, but those foul cries ring empty when so much of Call of Duty: Black Ops II seems fresh and exciting. With a fundamental reworking of multiplayer goals and customization, alongside a staggering acceptance of and catering to the eSports community, Black Ops II might end up being the competitive shooter of choice for your PS3 this year.

Let's take a look at the sweeping changes to multiplayer first. The big details came out a couple days ago, when Treyarch lifted the veil on a system they're calling "Pick 10". The idea, developed from scratch with a homemade board game to conceptualize the results, gives unprecedented player control to rookies and veterans alike. In recent Call of Duty games, you were largely limited in your class loadout options. One primary weapon, one secondary weapon, a couple attachments of choice, and three categories of perks, with a very rigid choice structure that dictated what you were and weren't allowed to carry.

All the players are here in Black Ops II, but the stage has changed. No longer are you confined to a primary weapon slot, equipment slot, and the like. With Pick 10, you now have ten slots to fill with whatever combat accessories you choose. Never use your secondary weapon? Take a second or third primary weapon attachment instead. Can't choose between claymores and a motion sensor? Take them both, and give up a perk or flashbangs in return. Ultimate flexibility is the key, and slot items called Wild Cards shake things up even more. By sacrificing one of your ten slots, you can carry two primary weapons. Or four perks. Or five. Or even six. By letting you bend the traditional rules of the game, Wild Cards give you something incredible but ask for a sacrifice in return.

The bottom line? Black Ops II multiplayer will be insanely customizable, opening up tactical avenues and gameplay moments that were never possible, or even imagined, in previous entries. But the changes don't stop there. Every perk has been retooled with three simple rules, described by Game Design Director David Vonderhaar: "Perks only impact you, they don’t impact your gun, and they can be tuned."

That means no more Sleight of Hand. Instead, Fast Hands lets you swap between guns faster, and a weapon attachment called Fast Mag increases reload speed - but only for the gun it's tied to. The goal here is balance - by isolating all of your stat-boosting favorites as entities of choice that affect a limited range of gameplay factors, everything can be tuned over time to respond to player abuse or "OP" situations as they arise. The list goes on: Ghost no longer hides you from all UAVs, but it will make you invisible to them while you're moving. Cold Blooded will prevent a target from being painted on you while an enemy uses the new Target Finder scope. These are rather unconventional changes, and only time spent playing the game will tell their effectiveness.

Treyarch's new multiplayer philosophy also means no more killstreaks. Instead, you'll earn points for any number of in-game goals that contribute to a "scorestreak". Capturing flags, shooting down UAVs, defending control points - anything that contributes to the team (even kills) will rack up points that work toward scorestreak rewards like the classic RC-XD deploy or a swarm of Hunter Killer drones. The points you'll get for actions that benefit the team dwarf the amount for simply scoring kills, and your counter is reset when you die.

What does this mean for Call of Duty? It's now a thinking shooter, with dedicated systems in place to incentivize teamwork and careful actions above all else. If you're strictly a Battlefield or Counter-Strike player, you should start paying attention.

The changes described above might be a bit nuanced compared to the game's biggest addition. eSports and shoutcasting are now an integral part of the Black Ops II experience, and the options are extensive. First, you'll notice League Play - a game mode where players are placed into skill level divisions a la Starcraft II and can rise or fall to different ladders based on their performance. Noobs and veterans alike will have a place to test their skills in fair competition, says Vonderhaar. "When I play the game and I win, I have a really good time. I also have a really good time when I almost win. It's not very fun when I get the shit kicked out of me."

With livestream and commentating features, the whole world will get to watch either way. Every single match played in Black Ops II league play can be livestreamed with the push of a button, and spectators can either join in-game or catch the action from computers, tablets, and mobile phones. Your tools as a spectator in-game are powerful - you can provide your own audio (or video!) commentary, swap perspectives, get alerts when specific players are doing well, and even eavesdrop on team conversations. My time spent at huge LAN events for popular PC games tells me that these tools will not go to waste - professional gamers, commentators, and the interested amateur will have everything they need to turn Black Ops II into the ultimate competitive experience for players and fans alike.

If you don't care about Call of Duty, or if you don't care about competitive gaming, then you must not care about innovation or a studio's dedication to radically changing the formula. What Treyarch has planned for Call of Duty: Black Ops II is nothing short of staggering, given the Internet's perception of the opposite. The game's release on November 13 is sure to be record-setting, but that's not why I'm excited. No, I'm excited because Black Ops II looks like the freshest multiplayer experience I've seen in years.

And I never thought I'd be saying that.

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