Call Of Duty: Black Ops multiplayer hands-on preview
Format: Xbox 360, PS3 and PC
Released: 9th November 2010
Call Of Duty: Black Ops hopes to go one better than its world-beating predecessor this Christmas. Nick Cowen sees if it's up to the test.
Anyone who is under any illusion about the importance of multiplayer modes, at least as far as shooters are concerned, should have a gander at the colossal task facing Treyarch this Christmas.
The developer Call Of Duty: Black Ops will see its new game beset from all sides in the run-up to its release date.
First, it has to fend off competition from both Halo: Reach and the new Medal Of Honor reboot, which is no easy task; both games offer fantastic online modes, with the Halo series in particular being renown in this regard.
Second, Black Ops is under pressure to sell at least as many units as its predecessor, the world-conquering Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, the game which broke international sales records when it raked in more than $1bn in revenue.
Modern Warfare 2's multiplayer mode is looked at by many shooter fans as the gold-standard in the medium and the main reason millions of gamers parted with their cash for a copy.
For Call Of Duty: Black Ops to stand any chance of unseating its rivals, its online mode needs to be absolutely incredible. In fact, it's not overstating things to say that, as far as Black Ops is concerned, the multiplayer is the game's silver bullet.
On the evidence of their game's amazing online mode, nobody understands this better than Treyarch. Black Ops's multiplayer is an incredible piece of work; its developer has constructed a competitive shooter experience which feels fluid and familiar, while at the same time adding enough kinks, tweaks and tucks to enthral the franchise's most ardent fans.
Not only that, but Black Ops manages the enviable trick of being able to satisfy hard-core FPS players while at the same time offering an olive branch to those who, up until now, have found avoided online shooters due to their intimidating (read: almost non-existent) learning curve.
To begin with, most of Black Ops's multiplayer will be familiar to anyone who played Modern Wafare 2's online mode.
Players are presented with a load-out screen in which they can select a match-type they wish to take part in.
They can then pick both a primary and secondary weapon, a lethal and tactical piece of equipment, three perks and three killstreaks.
During each match they play, they earn experience points (XP) which unlock more guns, equipment, perks, killstreaks and other items they can use to customise both their weapons and appearance.
The basic controls are the same on default setting, although they can also be customised to suit anyone's taste.
The core gameplay experience is almost exactly the same as that in Modern Warfare 2, but with a couple of tweaks made here and there; being hit with bullets, for example, no longer covers the screen completely in claret so one can actually see what they're doing.
There are some new perks and killstreaks, and some which make returns from previous games (some with new names).
The first notable change is that Modern Warfare 2's deathstreaks, which offered help to newcomers, have gone.
As a replacement for this, Treyarch have built an entire mode which offers a better introduction to online shooter action called Combat Training.
This essentially pits players against the computer in multiplayer maps and match-types. They can play solo or with friends (in local or online co-op) and can also toggle the difficulty of the AI, making each match accessible according to their own skill-level.
Combat Training may not fully recreate the experience of playing online – the AI will never be able to fully recreate the sneakiness of human opponents – but it's a great first experience of online play, and its inclusion in Black Ops is nothing short of a stroke of genius.
If anything, it's almost certainly guaranteed to get more players into the online mode.
COD veterans may be drawn to Combat Training to see if they can beat it on the hardest difficulty, but aside from that it'll offer them little challenge.
What's more likely to keep the COD faithful playing Black Ops well into the night – aside from the excellent core experience – is the game's new currency system.
Along with XP, players now earn COD Points (CP) in every match they take part in, which they can then spend on upgrades, equipment and weapons.
In past COD iterations, items were fixed to very linear XP levels; in Modern Warfare 2, for example, an AK-47 was off-limits until you had reached level 70 XP.
In Black Ops, if a player decides they want a weapon tied to an XP level that they haven't reached yet, they can buy it if they have the requisite CP.
Even better than earning CP, is the ability to win them off other people in a new type of competition called Wager Matches.
In these matches, players ante up an amount of CP and then compete against opponents for the opportunity to win big.
The players who end up in the first three positions will take home a share of the pot. The remaining players leave the match empty-handed.
To prevent players from cheating, all of the Wager matches where huge sums are at stake are free-for-alls, so players can't charge in with a couple of mates and farm CP.
There are four types of Wager Match, each one offering a different spin on the COD template in order to level the playing field somewhat.
In Sharpshooter, players pick out their own perks and killstreaks and then the match assigns each player the same weapon, randomly changing it at certain intervals.
Gun Game starts players of with low tier weapons (such as a handgun) and then upgrades each player to a heavier weapon every time they score a kill.
If a player is knifed by an opponent in Gun Game, they drop back a tier. The winner is the first player to score a kill with every weapon.
Sticks And Stones matches arm players with an explosive crossbow, a ballistic knife and a tomahawk.
Players score points by killing opponents with the crossbow and knife, but if they are hit with a tomahawk they are 'bankrupted' and their score returns to zero.
For my money, the most nail-biting Wager Match is One In The Chamber. In this match players have handgun loaded with one bullet, and a knife. If they score a successful kill, they take their victim's bullet. If they miss, they need to rely on their knife and timing.
Aside from the new arsenal, match-types, game modes and currency system, Black Ops contains some new maps for players to master.
The four available for my hands-on were called Summit, Radiation, Cracked and Launch.
Summit is set at a military facility on top of a snowy mountain peak, Radiation in a Russian nuclear power station, Cracked in a South East Asian town filled with narrow alleyways and bullet-pocked buildings and Launch is at a missile site.
Launch is particularly thrilling to play on due to the fact that a missile launch is taking place while the battle rages, and certain sub-level rooms are engulfed in fire when the rockets finally take off.
Finally, Black Ops offers players the chance to get a little creative. There's a wide variety of options for avatar and weapons customisation and there's even a tool players can use to design the pictures for their clan-tags.
They can also use Theater (sic) mode to create videos of their finest moments from their online battles.
Treyarch deserve quite a few plaudits for the job they've done with Black Ops's multiplayer.
If the mode lives up to the promise of what I saw, then it will deserve to be ranked with some of the best in the medium.
This is an FPS that will not only satisfy the hardcore, it may well win new recruits to the franchise.
On the evidence of their online mode, Treyarch has loaded their game's silver bullet into the chamber.
Now, if the single-player campaign from Call Of Duty: Black Ops delivers at the same level, we may be standing in the presence of greatness come this November.