Rebuilding Black Ops 2 multiplayer, “We went back to the drawing board. A blank sheet of paper”

A host of new features is to be expected from a direct sequel. But, as with any game, it’s those design decisions you hadn’t considered – overhauls you didn’t even think were necessary – that most impress. If you’re making a new Uncharted, clearly you’re going to want to throw in some spectacular, Hollywood-shaming set-pieces. If you’re working on the next Gran Turismo, get meticulously reproducing the interiors of another thousand cars. And for the team producing Kane & Lynch 3, be sure to research the most prominent instances of human douchebaggery so you can further develop gaming’s two least-likeable heroes. But with your audience expecting crisper graphics, refined gameplay, more modes, guns, characters, outfits, maps, teams, stadia, collectible badger carcasses – whatever it may be – what you don’t have time for is fiddling with systems that already work perfectly well.

Well, if you’re working on one of the most-played multiplayer games of all time you do. “We actually went back through all the systems – Create A Class, killstreaks, weapons, perks and guns – and really thought through at a philosophical level: what was good about those systems? Why do we have them work the way we do? Is that still the right thing to do?” Speaking to us is David Vonderhaar, Treyarch’s game design director and a man who dreams in COD multiplayer. “With all of our collective wisdom after making five Call Of Duty games, what would we do now? In some cases we started from where we left off, and in others we went right back to the drawing board – literally with a blank sheet of paper.” And that clean-slate approach, which even spawned a functioning boardgame, led to one of those refinements we hadn’t seen coming.

Hands up if you thought the Create A Class system in Black Ops was broken. Those of you with your arms in the air: you’re either liars, or you need to be excused to go to the toilet. Well it turns out it was, and once you go Black Ops 2, you’ll never go back. Like the best changes tend to be, it’s now far more simple and intuitive – but in a way that also allows far greater freedom. There’s little more to it than ‘pick ten’. You have a limit of ten pieces of content, which you can mix and match as you please. There are limitations – you’re not Arnie in Commando, so you can’t carry ten sub-machine guns – but by and large you’re the boss. It’s handled via an incredibly slick new visual interface: scroll back and forth within a subcategory and you’re presented with guns’ appearances, along with all of their attributes.

The new menu system makes Create A Class an enjoyable place to be, and you don’t need to spend much time there to see the opportunities available. Don’t want to carry a secondary weapon? Keep that slot blank, leaving you an extra pick to use elsewhere. Want to go hardcore and ditch the perks? Your call, tough guy. And what makes leaving those slots open worthwhile is the new wildcard system. These (which also take up one of your ten picks) alter the balance of your playstyle by offering you an extra slot in various areas. So you might want to take an extra tier-one perk, three attachments for your rifle, or even carry a primary weapon in your secondary slot.

Like all the changes in Black Ops 2’s multiplayer, it’s designed to enhance the experience of both the old-timer and the newcomer. “If you’re a long-term veteran I think it’ll help you play your own style better – you’ll find a new combination of things that enhance it,” says Vonderhaar. “What I also think it’ll do is get you to create specific variants of the class for the type of role that you’re playing in a given scenario. You might need something specific for playing Domination, but then you might edit it up a little bit if you’re playing a support role for a particular team. So for players who are familiar with the game and have a particular style that they like to fulfil, we’re going to let them fulfil that fantasy even better. For players who aren’t as hardcore about it, there’ll definitely be a lot more experimentation and they’ll find things that they’ve not been able to do before – because it’s just fun to be in those support roles.”

Call of Duty Black Ops 2 screens

Ah, support roles. The black sheep of FPS team modes. The perennial understudy. The engineering Andrew Ridgeley to the 40-kills George Michael haring around behind enemy lines. Well, Treyarch wants to level the playing field. As in Modern Warfare 3, killstreaks are a thing of the past. In their place: scorestreaks. “This was absolutely a ‘duh’ moment for us,” tells Vonderhaar. “That’s just how they’d worked for so long that, unless you get a chance to take a breath and step back, you just don’t realise that there’s an obviously better way to deal with this. Even though this is a sequel, we didn’t just do what we did last time, we went back and we thought, ‘Oh duh, this is so much better!’ The granularity that this gives us – as long as it can make sense to people and we can communicate it very well, and as long as you understand that we worked pretty hard to find out what that looked like and what the scoring events would be and how the meter would work – isn’t it much better to reward the players this way?”

It turns out it is. Much better. And as nice as it is flicking through the Create A Class menus and weighing up the pros and cons of various assault rifles (and, as far as menu screens go, it’s bloody nice), running about with gun in hand is why I’m really here. Stepping out into the first of four new maps I get to play things are instantly familiar in the very best of ways. The uncompromised slickness that comes with 60fps, the constant stream of information from those familiar HUD icons and, before long, the oft-heard announcement of “first blood”. Then some poor sap wanders unsuspectingly past my red dot sight and that happy feeling of the familiar is even more intense, like slipping into an old, murderous pair of pyjamas. There is still no FPS that gives you a better feeling of feedback when you pull the trigger, with that glorious audio design (not to mention those satisfying numbers that pop up) letting you know exactly what you’ve hit.

The scorestreak system means that all those lovely numbers, not just the ones that result in death, let you build towards much-coveted rewards. So if you shoot an enemy, get a UAV assist and then defuse a bomb, that’s a streak. This fills up a meter in the bottom-right corner, which builds to the top and then resets. Generously, you then get access to all of the rewards that can be afforded by that points tally, rather than just one of them. So if your 750-point streak is enough to afford a UAV, a care package and a turret, you get all the above, as opposed to one at the expense of the others. What this change has also allowed Treyarch to do is weight the scoring events: not all good deeds are equal to others. So a flag-carry kill might be worth more than a bomb plant, which in turn might be worth more than taking a Domination point.

It’s about rewarding you for actions that help your team win, whatever that requires. As studio head Mark Lamia says: “We saw people were playing objective game modes and, by not coming out as high as other people in terms of kills, they didn’t have the opportunity to get some of these rewards. But we don’t want to penalise the guy who’s out there being a slayer, so why not reward these other people for their contribution?”