Call of Duty XP, Infiltrated

All Call of Duty 3 Secrets Revealed

Building a Phenomenon

The Stages, Saturday September 3th 2011.

Outside, a sunny but breezy Los Angeles day is winding to a close. Inside, it’s standing room only on the hangar floor in front of the main stage. A massive jumbotron flashes the Call of Duty XP logo, and occasional bursts of stage smoke erupt from the jets at the foot of the elevated platform. Spectators are packed in like sardines, the sea of people punctuated by upraised cameras and the tops of posters sticking up out of gift bags slung on backs. Nearly the entirety of this 76,000 square foot hangar is full of people, with huge screens hung from the 72 foot ceiling at regular intervals so that even those in the far back can still see the gameplay feed of the competitive round that is about to begin.

Once upon a time, billionaire Howard Hughes built the Spruce Goose in here. Dozens of Hollywood blockbusters have built sets here. Today, eight people are imagining what they might build out of the $400,000 in prize money that will be awarded to one of the two four-man teams competing for the championship of the Call of Duty XP $1 Million Tournament.

After months of qualifying play, and two days of intensive on site competition, the playing field has been whittled down to two finalists: US team Optic, and UK team Infinity. Ousted competitors and fans of every stripe have gathered to watch the two teams face off in this, the capping event of a two day experience that most will have to admit has been uniquely impressive even in the increasingly glitzy arena of game reveals.

In explaining the goals of the Call of Duty games, Activision CEO Eric Hirshberg said one of the principles the game is founded on is Epic Realism: "The perfect balance between real world authenticity and amazing holy sh*t moments." It would seem that the Call of Duty XP planners were aiming for something similar with their event, and most would have to agree that they delivered.

Setting the Stage

Gaming events usually come with some impressive set pieces, so maybe the full-size chopper by the bar isn’t so unexpected. The full-size recreation of Burger Town – the fast-food joint players defended against a Russian invasion in Call of Duty: MW2 – on the outside lot is a bit more unusual. But it’s once you make your way under the folks zooming overhead on the zipline and past the various military vehicles parked nearby that you reach what has to be the crowning immersive experience for all hardcore fans: the real-life recreation of the Scrapyard map from MW2, into which participants were released in teams, with paintball weapons, to fight for control of flag points. This brings the idea of living your games to a whole new level.

And if the Scrapyard wasn’t enough Epic Realism for you, you could always jaunt over to the Jeep Experience. Is this a commercial opportunity for Jeep to show off the abilities of their vehicle, as the driver zooms you up steep inclines, over rugged terrain, through ponds of muddy water and sandbagged canals? Sure. But few car demos give you the opportunity to weave through a combat zone recreation, complete with the burning husks of blasted cars and trained military personnel engaged in a shooting war just outside your window. And in case that all felt too tame, being hustled out of the car under the guidance of Navy Seals who laid down covering fire for you while you extracted key intel from a smoky building upped the ante.

On Saturday, as I staggered away from the zipline, sunburned and wind-tossed, the guy who took off my harness handed me a bravery patch: a skeleton in a green beret holding fast to a line. Each of the Live-Action Experiences at XP earned you a unique bravery patch. Several fans walked away from XP with enough patches to turn any jacket or hoodie into a display piece of their devotion to the Call of Duty games. But only the truly dedicated could boast a complete set, as the sheer number of attendees meant the wait for some events could be hours long. The shortest wait of all had to be for Juggernaut Sumo, which might have required the most bravery of all; no amount of sophisticated air-conditioning systems could fully counteract the stuffiness a hangar full of hardcore gamers can create, and those padded suits looked to be spectacularly hot to wear. Props to the brave souls who simply could not resist the opportunity to pad up and attempt to menacingly roll their opponents out of the ring.

But if you were too busy to sample all the Live-Action Experiences, chances were it was because you couldn’t pry your hot little hands away from the controllers allowing you access to the reason everyone was present to begin with: Modern Warfare 3.

In the Sights

So the question is, what can fans expect from MW3?

Activision CEO, Eric Hirshberg, launched into the answer to that question by explaining the four principles on which every Call of Duty game is based. The first: Epic Realism. The second: Ultimate Adrenaline Rush. "We want your knuckles white," he says, "your pupils dilated." The third: Easy to Pick Up, and Hard to Master. "It’s a game where skill and status can only be earned," he says, but adds that their hope has always been that newcomers to the game can be having fun within minutes of first picking up the controller. And the fourth principle: 60 Frames Per Second. "This is like a religion for our developers." And most players would agree that this bit of designing piety has definitely paid off.

With those four principles in mind, and after soaking in some of the great imagery from the MW3 trailers premiered at XP, it seems safe to assume that the game has Epic Realism and Ultimate Adrenaline Rush covered. But what about the minutiae that goes into Hard to Master, and earning skill and status? What gameplay changes are in store?

The presentation placed a lot of emphasis on the idea that MW3 will support a larger variety of playstyles than ever before. Better and more strategic for the experienced guy, but also more fun for the newcomer. "Every element of the game has gotten more balanced," is Hirshberg’s claim.

Relying heavily on fan feedback, kill streaks have been streamlined into a new system called strike packages. The new "point streak" system is not just about kills anymore; you get points for objectives and assists, and rewards can be customized into three types of strike packages: Assault, Support, and Specialist. Assault incorporates the elements of the familiar kill streak system. Support rewards players for teamplay, allowing you to activate turrets to shoot down enemy craft or fly recon drones, and your kill streak won’t reset on dying. Specialist rewards the player with perks past the previous max of three, and after the eighth kill you get every perk available, but with the kill streak resetting on death.

Your favorite weapons will now improve with frequent use, and bonuses earned in Spec Ops will now travel with you over into multiplayer. MW3 also introduces a new mode called Kill Confirmed, which featured heavily in tournament play at XP. In Kill Confirmed, killed players drop a large set of floating dogtags which then need to be collected by the opposing team in order to confirm the kill and earn the credit for it. Enemy dogtags shine gold, while the dogtags of fallen teammates glow red and can be grabbed by your teammates before the enemy gets to them, in order to deny your opponents the kill.

Sixteen multiplayer maps will be included on the game disc itself, not counting the forthcoming DLC. And when it comes to DLC, one has to address Call of Duty Elite.

Half social network and half content marketplace, Call of Duty Elite will come in two forms: the free subscription, and the Premium. All subscribers will be able to use the various platform apps meant to allow players to track player profiles, share their stats, and take advantage of the new networking systems to create clans: play groups of like-minded folks, somewhat reminiscent of the various guild systems employed in MMORPGs.

Paid membership in the Premium service gets you all that and more, including early access to every piece of DLC for the year after game release – 20 pieces of new content in all – and the DLC remains yours even if you later let your Elite membership expire. In addition to access to participation in daily competitions for both real and virtual prizes, tailored for players at all skill levels, Elite members get eight times more video capacity for replay moments, access to strategy and analysis from "the best players in the world," and access to Elite TV: "premium episodic entertainment created by top Hollywood talent who also happen to be CoD fans," including Ridley and Tony Scott as producers for Friday Night Fights, and Jason Bateman and Will Arnett providing the smack talk for the best replay videos of the week on Noob Tube.

Premium membership for Call of Duty Elite will be $49.99 a year, but the Hardened Edition of MW3 comes with a year’s subscription to the Elite service straight out of the box.

But at this point those who couldn’t make it to XP might be thinking, enough of all that – how does the gameplay actually look?

Frankly, World War 3 looks pretty stunning, with a gorgeous level of graphic detail infused into all the maps. I got capped at least a dozen times while mesmerized into reading the fully texted maps of the subway system and the fully detailed, varied, and unique advertisements in the European shopping district. Gone are the days when all Russian civilians apparently shopped at the same airport store where that one orange shirt was on bargain sale. No detail was overlooked in the effort to make these new arenas look as real as possible, adding new depth to the immersive experience.

The maps themselves look promising in terms of gameplay, with most of the maps being showcased at XP seeming to take you through European streets. The ‘Resistance’ map featured a sunny day in what looked like a quaint, cobblestoned, patio-umbrellaed Paris bistro district, and made a great backdrop for carnage. The huge glass-paned train station foyer from another map would have made a fitting setting for a blockbuster action sequence, which is pretty much what the gameplay felt like. There seems to have been a dedicated effort put into making MW3 scenarios feel like an epic WW2 war movie, but spiced up with a modern touch for the third go around.

The Tournament

And how did competitors in the $1 Million Tournament feel fighting it out through some of these new maps?

Judging by the looks of intense and sometimes grim concentration, and the crestfallen expressions of those who didn’t make it quite as far in the competition as they had hoped, one might be tempted to say they hated it. But once the fever of the experience has passed, doubtless they’ll be looking back on the experience fondly. As a spectator, it was a treat to see these new maps unfold on the big screens displaying the competitors’ gameplay feed.

The teams themselves came not only from all over the US, but all over the world. There were teams to represent the UK, France, Sweden, Norway and Germany, among others, and some of the players brought their nation’s flag draped across their shoulders, or worn like a cape. The final four spots came down to a face-off between two UK teams and two from the US. Infused (UK) ultimately took fourth place, losing to Icons (US) in the overtime minutes of the fourth and final game of their match, a Capture the Flag scenario – a match that featured the first and only use of a Riot Shield in the tournament. Infinity (UK) and Optic (US) moved on to the championship round.

Eighth through sixth place in the tournament netted a team $25,000. Prize money went up from there, with the second place team taking $200,000 and first the jackpot of $400,000. With so much at stake, it’s no surprise that gameplay felt intense, with the play by play commentary over the stage sound system further increasing the level of intensity. The commentary was taken quite seriously, with a lot of respect for the gaming skill being displayed, helping to make this the sort of moment hardcore gamers dream of: a time when all your hours of sweat, finger cramps, junk food, obsession and love earn you a moment in the spotlight at long last. And, in this case, a whole lot of money.

So who took home the $400k?

The championship match went through all four game scenarios, but not into overtime. Optic dominated the first two games, but the third – the new Kill Confirmed scenario – allowed Infinity to come back with a strong counter jab. They worked hard and fast not only to claim their opponents’ dogtags but also to deny Optic their kills by diligently recovering their teammates’. Infinity’s performance in Kill Confirmed forced the match into a fourth game: Search and Destroy.

But in the end it wasn’t enough to carry the day, and it was Optic who seized the victory and the $400k prize. One of the members of Optic, who admitted that he works at McDonald’s, said he didn’t plan to keep that up; one can only imagine how satisfying giving his notice might have been. Another member, on being asked what getting his share of $400k meant, crowed: "No student debt!" Let that be a note to all parents: indulging your kid’s gaming habit might just pay off for them and you in the long run!

All Shapes and Sizes

But even though thousands crowded close together to watch the final tournament match, with eyes locked on the screens and groaning and shouting in shared pain and triumph, XP was not ultimately about the competition, but about every fan’s individual relationship with a game series they love, and with which many have had a very long affair.

The 21 year old catering waiter who sat down for an impromptu chat with me said he’s been playing Call of Duty games since he was fifteen years old, and was excited to have the opportunity to work the XP event. When I asked how many other people working the event were also fans, he said it was maybe a fifty-fifty split between fans and laypeople. Some of his co-workers had taken to calling this excited fan portion of the staff the "nerds," but I pointed out that his co-workers were about to be surrounded by a million "nerds" and when one is that badly outnumbered, perhaps a reassessment of labels is required.

In an industry where cult success is often the best measure of the word, Call of Duty has managed to reach beyond any such limiting classification to grab the brass ring. My catering companion isn’t the only one at XP who has come of age on Call of Duty games, and it’s not often you can ask how many people in your working group are fans of a video game and get a fifty-fifty split as your answer. That’s not just a game – that’s a phenomenon.

Standing in the sun waiting for my turn on the zipline I spoke to Velinda, an environment artist with Infinity Ward. She and her husband were decked out in MW2 shirts, and were still going strong on this, their second full day at XP. Velinda has been working on the Call of Duty series since Call of Duty 2, a working love affair as dedicated as any the fans might experience. Infinity Ward, she says, is a good company to work for when it comes to loyalty to its employees, and she has enjoyed being able to work continuously on a franchise like CoD without fear of falling victim to artist turnover.

Fan feedback does filter through to artists like Velinda, and she said the teams made a real effort to listen to the fans and meet a lot of specific fan requests with MW3. I asked her if, in the course of wandering about XP, she had overheard anything from players that really jumped out at her in this respect. She was happy to have caught several exclamations from the Spec Ops area: "Oh wow, you can do this now?" Many wishes, it would seem, are coming true, and that’s a great thing for wandering artists and developers to hear.

That’s when I shielded my eyes from the sun and pushed down my sunglasses to start the next bout of questions with a conspiratorial, "All right, so you’re a girl, I’m a girl." Her expression suggested she had been able to see this turn of events coming. I admitted to being surprised by how many women were present at XP – they were out in force – and asked Velinda if she thought the developers would be surprised by this too, or if they are aware of the growing female fanbase in FPS gaming and gaming in general. She assured me that the developers are very aware of the female fans, who are vocal in the community and have already been forming groups on their own. With the new emphasis being placed on social networking in MW3, such as integrating with Facebook and the variety of apps, the field would seem ripe for female CoD fans to capitalize on elements like the new clans system. If the franchise continues to grow and prosper as it has these past years, perhaps we’ll be seeing some female teams competing at the next $1 Million tournament.

Girl gamer or waiter, 18 year old or 50 year old, game designer or player, the whole range of Call of Duty fans made it out to Call of Duty XP. The parking structure was a rainbow of license plates: Illinois, Texas, Ohio, Michigan. And the hotel foyers were, as the fellow in line behind me marveled, a veritable buffet of international accents.

After the championship round, the packed hangar was treated to a concert performance by Kanye West, but by that point one has to wonder how much energy the fans really had left after all that Juggernaut Sumo.

Energy enough, however, to not want to let the experience end. There was definitely a strong party vibe in the air as the extravaganza came to a close. Many of the fans in attendance will doubtless be more than ready to give the XP experience another go. With live events as with the games themselves: how will the folks behind Call of Duty wow us next time?

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