Now that the wraps are off the multiplayer mode in the upcoming Call of Duty: Ghosts , what am I most excited about? Squads, man. Squads. I can't wait to field a team of my own design because I'm sure they'll kick the butts of my friends' teams.
This is an entirely new element to Call of Duty, the top-selling first-person shooter on the market, that could work on an ingenious level. As it stands, the games' online multiplayer generally tests two things: how fast you are, and how well you can equip your individual character.
With the upcoming new Squads mode, you'll get to make 10 characters, advance and upgrade them, then field them in groups across different game types. Infinity Ward executive producer Mark Rubin says the artificial intelligence of these player-created zombies is going to be like nothing we've seen before. They'll work in teams and take their behaviour cues from the gear and abilities they're given. A sniper will, for example, act like a sniper. "They'll be so real, you'll end up yelling at them," he says.
I know, I know. Until we see it in action, it's hype. But it's enough to get me excited because it will, it if works as advertised, add the element of management to Call of Duty. Taking to the battlefield with a tailor-made crew of troops backing you up will be akin to being a player-coach on a sports team. It won't just be your reflexes that are tested, but also your ability to assemble a well-oiled machine.
Daniel Suarez, vice-president of production at Activision, uses the same sort of analogy to describe it. "You can create your dream team," he says.
I was disappointed, then, to learn that the new mode wasn't playable at Activision's multiplayer reveal event in Los Angeles on Wednesday. Fortunately, Ghosts' multiplayer has a host of other additional features, including 30 new weapons and seven new game modes, plus character customization, some of which we did get to try.
Being able to pimp out your character has long been one of the biggest requests from Call of Duty players, Suarez says, but fulfilling it hasn't exactly been easy to do. The series depends on balance to survive, so if some players discover something that gives them an unfair advantage, they can easily turn other players off the games.
That's why a lot of thinking and testing had to go into something as simple as clothing options. Would a certain jacket or helmet confer unforseen bonuses, like making a player harder to see? What about the opposite, that a certain pattern might make an opponent easier to spot?
The customizations that were accessible at the event were thus fairly limited. I had visions of eventually decking my squad out in matching purple and orange colours, but quickly figured out that was a bad idea. The slight variations of the camoflage actually on offer were probably more prudent in the long run. On the plus side, multiplayer characters can finally be female. The last bastion of Dudebros has fallen.
One of the new game modes is Cranked, which is pretty much what it sounds like – killing an opponent shoots your character full of crank, giving him a temporary speed burst and a new bonus perk. The downside is you have 30 seconds to get another kill, or you explode. It's manic and crazy. As a fellow player put it, "This is the anti-camper mode."
Also new are destructible environments, which can help or hinder your team. It was definitely a new Call of Duty experience to shoot away the pillars on a gas station roof and then watch it crush the enemies standing under it, even if that sort of thing has been done in other games.
We also got a taste of some of the new perks and killstreaks, including Takedown, an ability that lets you kill enemies without revealing their locations on the map, and Deadeye, which lets your bullets do more damage after you rack up successive kills. Killstreak-wise, there's Riley, a dog who follows you around and attacks opponents on your behalf, and Night Owl, a floating orb that detects enemies around you. There are plenty more, but those were unfortunately locked and invisible in our demos.
All told, there are going to be lots of new ways to play. Along with a main campaign storyline that casts the player in the unusual role – in a Call of Duty game, anyway – as the underdog, Ghosts has me more jazzed for the regular November release than the past few entries.
The game is being released on both current and next-generation consoles, with each having the exact same features. The main benefit with the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 versions will be better graphics and audio. Wednesday's demos were on the Xbox One, and it all looked and sounded super-smooth.
One of the additional, subtle additions for next-gen is something Infinity Ward is calling "contextual audio," where characters shout location-aware instructions in-game. "Tangoes out in the open," for example, alerts you to the fact that enemies have been spotted out in the open part of a map. I actually found the audio to be more useful and accurate than some of my human teammates' warnings and advice.
Still, it's the Squad mode I'm looking forward to, which is ironic because it's actually designed mainly to get new players into the game. The idea is to encourage one-on-one human battles, with the AI-controlled back-up teams, of course, which is potentially a better way of easing newbies into a multiplayer mode that can be impenetrable. Throwing noobs in with seasoned players usually results a quick and merciless massacre.
Activision has tried to ease the process for newcomers in the past, with varying degrees of success, says chief executive officer. Previous games gave players the option to fight completely against AI, or 'bots, but the developers think they might be on to something better with squads.
"This is a very clever way to have people play one on one rather than against 'bots," says Eric Hirshberg, President and Chief Executive Officer of Activision. "Something different happens when it's real people."