The player's lounge at Activision's Black Ops multiplayer event in LA was a pretty cool place. It was set in a converted plane hangar (or at least that's what it looked like), with a DJ at the front pouring incredibly loud hip-hop beats into the room, and outrageously good looking women walking around with beers and mini burgers. Oh yeah, and there were also copious amounts of Xbox 360s showing off the new multiplayer modes in Call of Duty: Black Ops, and I spent the majority of my evening propped up in front of one of them.
Before getting down to the nitty-gritty, a quick reminder of what was revealed at the presentation: Combat Training, Wager Matches, an emblem editor and Theatre mode. It seems some people were expecting something a little more Earth-shattering from the reveal, but the new game modes are pretty interesting nonetheless. While it might get overlooked by the hard-nosed core gamer, Combat Training is a fairly huge addition to the franchise. Essentially taking the multiplayer framework and replacing those bothersome real-life players with AI bots, Combat Training attempts to bridge the gap between the single player and multiplayer aspects of the game. Treyarch's plan is to lure online FPS virgins into the dark and daunting world of multiplayer with altogether more pleasant enemies; enemies that won't shout profanities down the microphone, kill members of their own team or do disgraceful things to your bullet-ridden corpse.
For those not bothered by all this, Black Ops features a new and conceptually fantastic mode known as Wager Matches. For those confident in their ability to shoot people in the face (and most people that play online are), Wager Matches are the perfect way to become disgustingly rich. Indeed, for the first time in the series a form of currency has been adopted; the ingeniously named COD Points (CP). Complimenting the levelling system that has been in place since the first Modern Warefare, COD Points allow players to purchase new gear and upgrades that have been unlocked through levelling. If you're feeling outgunned on the battlefield, chances are you could benefit from some more CP, and this is where Wager Matches come into their own.
Wager mode is split up into four game types; One in the Chamber, Sticks and Stones, Sharpshooter, and Gun Game. One in the Chamber forces players to curb their enthusiastic trigger fingers, throwing them into a match with nothing more than a knife, a pistol and one bullet. Successfully burying that bullet in the head of an enemy will earn you another bullet, but a much better way to start building up ammo is to rack up some kills with the knife. Of the four modes on offer, I found this to be the hardest. It's a game that forces accurate shooting and punishes players that shoot their load too early. Like many things in life, it requires a little self-control.
Sticks and Stones furnishes players with ballistic knives, crossbows and tomahawks. While ballistic knives and crossbows present the most convenient method of killing somebody, the tomahawk has the ability to turn the whole game on its head in a matter of seconds. Killing somebody with the tomahawk will bankrupt that player of their entire CP, immediately putting them in last place. Anybody wielding said weapon becomes a fearful opponent, and if you don't want to go from hero to zero it's probably best to stay well out of their way.
Sharpshooter conforms to no structure or gun playlist; it simply gives everyone the same random gun, and politely asks that you kill with it. This game mode is a fantastic way to become acquainted with all the weapons in the game, and - as far as I can tell - is a much better test of raw skill.
Finally - and I feel I've saved the best 'til last here - is Gun Game. For every kill you make in this mode, you'll move up a weapon tier. Starting out with a single pistol, players will move through shotguns, assault rifles, sniper rifles, rocket launchers and finally, ballistic knives. There are 20 tiers to work through, which in theory means you could win the game with 20 kills. Should you bite the dust enough times, however, you might find yourself demoted; stripped of your weapon and replaced with that of the tier below. The fun is derived from knowing the order of the guns, and working out how to move onto the next tier as quickly as possible. On the level I played, the sniper rifle was the hardest tier to move up from, and with people running round with rocket launchers and quick-fire assault rifles - it became incredibly hard to get a shot in edgeways.
At the end of the game, a friendly chap from Treyarch asked if I'd like to watch back the match I'd just played. Given the fact I hadn't sucked quite as bad as I had on previous occasions (I got to tier 19 on this occasion), I decided to take him up on his offer. The game stores roughly 100 of your previous matches, which can be viewed at any time in Theatre Mode. If you like what you see, the game can be placed on your File Share, where it can be edited and chopped up into segments as you see fit. You can view the action from any of the other player's perspectives, and there's also a free cam for getting the perfect shot of the action. Finished clips can be uploaded for anybody in the community to see, and will also find themselves on a yet-to-be-revealed Black Ops site. While this is obviously a feature pioneered (or at least defined) by Halo 3, it's a very welcome addition to the game, and rounds the multiplayer facets of the game off nicely.
Before drawing things to a conclusion, one last point; killstreaks no longer count towards further killstreaks. It might seem like a trivial point to dedicate an entire paragraph to, but this has a huge impact on the pacing of the game. Just like any other first person shooter, players have to earn their kills. This should be something achieved through skill, not through (what some people might describe as) a cheap killstreak. As far as I could tell, this gave Black Ops a much better sense of progression, and made the game harder for those people who are clearly better than everybody else anyway.
Truth be told, I left the Black Ops Multiplayer presentation with a pang of disappointment. No open beta. No crazy subscription model that would get the whole industry arguing in an excitable fashion. Just a few new game modes that could have been announced in a far less hyped (and expensive) fashion. That said, this is Call of Duty, the Crown Jewels of the video game world, so hype and extravagance are part of the package.
The Wager Matches I played were thoroughly engrossing, and given the fact I have a weakness for gambling, I can see this as something I'll be investing a lot of time (and COD points) into. As always, it'll take time to see how the gaming masses take to the new modes, but with customisable character classes, emblems, COD points, and a fairly in depth Theatre mode, Treyarch is proving that this isn't merely a repackaged Modern Warfare.
Call of Duty: Black Ops is available for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC on November 9.