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Activision unveils Modern Warfare 3 multiplayer at Call of Duty XP

Activision revealed the first details of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3's much anticipated multiplayer mode to a room of journalists in Los Angeles Thursday evening. The press conference came on the eve of Call of Duty XP, a first-of-its-kind two-day fan event that will see some 7,000 players converge inside the enormous hanger that played host to Howard Hugh's famous Spruce Goose aircraft. The attendees will be among the first to play the upcoming blockbuster game, with a lucky few competing in a tournament with a purse worth one million dollars.

The most popular online first-person shooter franchise in the Western world--seven million people play daily, and more than half of all online console players are engaged in Call of Duty games at any given moment--the multiplayer portion of each new release in the series typically falls under intense scrutiny by millions of fans.

A mass defection of key programmers and artists in 2010 led some members of the game's community to worry that Infinity Ward, the studio behind the series' "Modern Warfare" entries, would struggle with this edition. To fill the gaps, Infinity Ward hired new people and drew on talent from Treyarch, Activision's other dedicated Call of Duty development house, which delivered Call of Duty: Black Ops last fall.

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Based on the brief 90 minutes or so I spent playing Thursday evening, it seems as though this collaboration of developers has managed to construct a compelling multiplayer experience with some interesting innovations.

One of the new modes I was able to try--dubbed "Kill Confirmed"--sees players hurrying to collect the dog tags of the soldiers they kill, lest an enemy claim the tags first and deny them their glory. It tends to keep players moving and discourages camping--the practice of remaining in one spot and picking off unsuspecting passers-by--while giving rise to original tactics, such as baiting foes to run into the open and collect their fallen team mates' tags. Indeed, I couldn't help but be reminded of the sniper scene in Full Metal Jacket as I watched three of my allies rush to collect the tags of a recently fragged brother and get taken down one by one in the process.

Kill Confirmed isn't the only way Infinity Ward's designers are trying to encourage people to change how they play. They've also done away with the previous game's popular "kill streak" feature, which tended to appeal primarily to players obsessed with their kill/death ratio and was best suited for simple team death-match games.

The system that replaces it is composed of three customizable "strike packages" that allow players to select goals suitable for widely varying modes and play styles. Choose the assault strike package and it's basically business as usual, with players trying to rack up plenty of kills in a variety of ways. However, switch to the support strike package and you'll receive rewards based on how well you support your team by accomplishing mission objectives. The game's most skilled players, meanwhile, will likely opt for the specialist strike package, which offers up more subtle and challenging objectives and rewards players by unlocking extra slots for perks--special abilities that can enhance a player's performance. Play well enough under the specialist package objectives, and you'll be able to use every single perk available to your avatar at once.

Hardcore fans will likely also warm to the new weapons proficiency system--which will allow players to not only customize the look of their favourite rifles but also improve their performance with use over time via reductions in recoil and sway--as well as the ability to create, customize, and share their own multiplayer game types with the community.

Of course, the verdict is still out on game balance, that all-important teeter-totter governed by minute tweaks to avatar movement, weapon strength, and map design. Everything felt good while I played, but balance only becomes apparent after weeks and months of experience and experimentation by a large community of players.

Beyond serving up in-game action, Activision also provided more details on Call of Duty Elite, its new online service designed to enhance the franchise experience when not in the heat of battle.

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Earlier in the summer I reported on the free version of Elite, which will provide players deep stat tracking, improved clan and community services, and the ability to design custom weapons loadouts using the Elite smart phone app and have them waiting for you the next time you log into the game.

Now Activision has finally revealed the features that will come with the premium version of the service, which will cost $49.99 per year and come included in the cost of the special "hardened" edition of the game.

Paid subscribers will automatically receive every piece of downloadable content (maps, modes, missions, and weapons) that is released for the current version of the game. Purchased separately, these items would cost around $60. More than that, they'll receive early access to this content and get it doled out in monthly drops, which means no three-month waits between content packs.

They'll also receive eight times more storage capacity for video replays, have on-demand access to expert strategy and analysis of their style and performance delivered by professional gamers, and earn the ability to level up their clans in the same way they level up their own personal player profile.

Plus, they'll gain exclusive access to episodic video entertainment on a web channel called Elite TV. Directors Tony and Ridley Scott will curate a weekly game video feed dubbed Friday Night Fights, while actors Will Arnett and Jason Bateman will host NoobTube, a show in which the two comedians (who happen to be rabid Call of Duty fans) offer smack talk on videos uploaded through the game's theatre mode.

But perhaps the most compelling reason to dish out an extra $50 per year for the premium version of Elite--especially if you're a truly hardcore player--is Activision's commitment to host tournaments with live referees in which players compete for real prizes, including cash payouts, iPads, and even vehicles. We're only a few short months away from stories about players making a living playing Call of Duty in their basements, I'm sure.

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And that brings us back to this weekend's event. Call of Duty XP will see 32 teams consisting of four players each competing for the first of these prizes. The top team will win a cool $400,000--not too shabby for just being really good at a video game.

In fact, as I type this the event is just moments away from beginning. I'll try to report back here over the weekend with significant updates, as well as multiplayer screenshots and video once I have them.

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