Black Ops 2’s multiplayer lets you win first place without firing a bullet, and it feels great

Black Ops 2’s multiplayer lets you win first place without firing a bullet, and it feels great

[Disclaimer: Activision paid for airfare and ground transportation, as well as a hotel room for one night.]

One thing Call of Duty has consistently done right is rewarding players. Being able to customize your look, tag, and weapons just by playing the game is the right way to treat both long-time vets and newcomers, and the race to the next big unlock is one of the most addicting ingredients in the CoD recipe for success. With Black Ops 2, Treyarch has changed the rules of rewards, but this isn’t a revolution - it’s refinement.

From replacing killstreaks with scorestreaks to a new customization system for Create-A-Class, Black Ops 2 streamlines multiplayer. As in previous games, you’ll level up and this will allow you to unlock more challenges, customization options, etc. There are 55 regular levels and 10 levels of prestige, but the nice part is that prestiging is no longer quite the reset button it once was. Now when you prestige, you won’t have to worry about your weapon XP or challenge progress reverting to zero. Once per prestige you gain the choice of unlocking a bonus Create-A-Class slot – to a maximum of five – resetting your stats, or refunding all unlock tokens earned so far at that level.

Game design director David Vonderhaar explained the new refund system as something similar to re-speccing in an RPG, but also explained how it could be used to the most benefit. He gave an example of prestiging while in the middle of completing a claymore challenge, explaining that, since prestiging no longer resets challenge progress, he could simply unlock it again at his new prestige level, complete it, and then refund his unlock tokens so they could be spent on new challenges or anything else he wanted.

Of course, not all unlocks are about looks. You’ll still be earning weapon XP and unlocking attachments, perks, and other game play-changing bonuses which you can then use in your custom class. Black Ops 2 structures its Create-A-Class differently from previous games in that there are no requirements in regards to their structure thanks to the Pick 10 system.

With Pick 10, you can customize your class much more than before. Here’s how it works: A blank custom class has slots for a primary weapon, two attachments, one secondary weapon, one attachment, one lethal grenade, one tactical grenade, and three perks. If you want, you can pick one item for each respective slot and wind up spending 10 points, as each selection costs one point. However, you could also choose to, for example, forgo the secondary weapon attachment in favor of an extra grenade.

Where things get really interesting is the wildcards. Vonderhaar described the wildcards as little “cheats,” something to help players manipulate the system in their favor. A wildcard essentially costs two points to utilize: one to activate the wildcard, and one to take advantage of its benefit. For example, one wildcard will allow you to wield two primary weapons instead of a primary and secondary, while another wildcard will allow you to slot in two perks from the same group.

Here’s my winning combination, if you’re curious: M27 as primary weapon, with quickdraw handle, laser sight, EOTech sight attachments; Hardline and Lightweight from the Perk 1 group; Toughness from the Perk 2 group; and Dexterity from the Perk 3 group. Notice how that’s eight items, but my wildcards let me choose two perks from the same group and add a third attachment to my primary weapon, thus costing two more and bringing the total to 10.

I’m somewhat afraid that removing all restrictions – no more “you must have a primary weapon and secondary weapon and one grenade” – will break the system’s balancing act. Imagine someone getting to choose six perks that turn them into a practically unstoppable killing machine. Sure, they may not start with a weapon, but as soon as they find one on the ground or get in a lucky knife kill, watch out. We’ll have to wait until Black Ops 2 comes out to see the full list of perks and attachments Treyarch is giving players and the combinations they’ll create.

Don’t just make more, make it more meaningful

There’s a distinct middle ground I feel Treyarch aiming for with Black Ops 2. They’re not in a numbers race with Infinity Ward, and they shouldn’t be. Modern Warfare 3 gave players 80 levels and 10 opportunities to prestige. It would’ve been easy for Treyarch to just make those numbers larger, but instead they’ve made them more meaningful. The same philosophy applies to weapon selection.

Weapons feel less interchangeable than before, and I counted far fewer guns in the menu than Modern Warfare 3. Of course, this was a preview build and the final number may be different, but I personally hope the number stays more on the low end of the spectrum. It makes each weapon feel more unique, and it stops character progression from turning into an arms race where everyone has the same gun because X amount of damage plus Y range equals the “best” weapon.

There’s a middle ground when it comes to the feel and pace of combat as well. In previous games, a player could basically take one shot or two before they went down. Now you’re more resilient, and able to withstand greater amounts of punishment. This allows for someone to have a bigger opportunity to escape or fire back, meaning even if you catch someone by surprise, it’s not a guarantee you’ll win. It’s a very small difference.

Vonderhaar laughed when I pointed it out and told me not to worry. “You’re still getting shot, you know? It’s still gotta hurt,” he said.

Killstreaks have been revamped as well, and that may actually be the greatest contributor to Black Ops 2‘s successful multiplayer strategy. Here’s why: Because they’re no longer killstreaks, they’re scorestreaks. Killing an enemy gives you points like before, but now you’ll receive a ton of bonus points for other activities as well.

Think of this in the context of an objective game to see the real benefit. You grab the flag. That’s worth more points than a kill in CTF modes. You capture an area in the new King of the Hill-inspired Hardpoint mode. That’s also worth more points than a kill. No longer is every mode an extension of deathmatch, and no longer is a game quite the Kill/Death ratio race it once was. Points reset after death but scorestreaks don’t, meaning if you obtain enough points to deploy an automated turret but die before you can set it up, you’ll be able to place it right away once you respawn, even though your point total goes back down. This means that people are able to deploy their scorestreak bonuses more often, making matches more hectic and, ultimately, interesting.

With regards to those scorestreaks, a lot of them are just plain cool and fun to use. They’re quick, painless to use, and everyone seemed to have their own favorite combinations, as opposed to everyone finding the “best” scorestreak for every mode. My personal favorite was what one fellow journalist called “The Paper Airplane of Doom,” a Hunter/Killer drone. This tiny robotic plane gets thrown into the sky, where it pops its wings and ignites tiny thrusters. It locks onto an enemy below and arches down into them, culminating in a satisfying explosion.

The walls between progression of a character and advancement of skill have been broken down and streamlined so as to feel completely natural. My motivation could change come release, but at the event I didn’t go score-farming or even try to get the best score, it just happened that way because I was playing like I wanted to win the mode I was in. I didn’t treat Hardpoint like deathmatch, and for that I was rewarded first place.

I haven’t been absorbed in Call of Duty multiplayer for seven years and yet I understood where I was going, why I was being rewarded, and how to put those rewards to use. Treyarch is organically steering players in the right direction with their leveling system, which is impressive.

Welcome back

The lengths Treyarch has gone to to make new players and returning vets feel welcome seem crazy, but as said earlier, this multiplayer is a refinement, not a revolution. Little things that could’ve been encouraging player growth all along have been implemented, as is the case with the Combat Training mode. Combat Training was in the original Black Ops as a separate sort of training exercise, but now it’s a major component of the game where players can practice against bots to beef up their skills and level up.

Playing standard deathmatches in Combat Training will allow you to progress to level 10, while partaking in objective modes will cut your XP in half. These are small touches that turn what was previously a dismissable service into an integrated part of the core experience. When the game isn’t adding things like these new modes, it’s revamping old ways of thinking. K/D ratio will still no doubt factor into how the community views a player, but now thanks to scorestreaks replacing killstreaks, someone who might die a lot but reliably captures the flag can show off their value.

Vonderhaar acknowledged that some people just don’t play Call of Duty multiplayer. “Quite frankly, that bugs the shit out of us,” he said. It’s clear Vonderhaar is passionate about getting the game into the hands of gamers and seeing what they do. Thankfully, the steps taken to refine combat and the leveling system take the overwhelming, fragmented mess of stats and jargon and turns it into something easy to understand and fun to play. It’s not dumbed down, it’s not simplified. It takes things that used to feel separate such as character customization and combat experience, and forges them together as one. Vets and newbies alike can trust this system isn’t anything other than Call of Duty. Black Ops 2 still feels like a successor to the games that turned the franchise into a phenomenon.

Treyarch’s handling of the Call of Duty franchise has been impressive; remember when Call of Duty titles were treated like odd-numbered Star Trek films? Those days are over, and the new additions to the Zombies mode and multiplayer should help Black Ops 2 feel distinct and unique.