Los Angeles has its fair share of amusement parks, but until this weekend, none of them were game-themed.
Activision's attempt to provide a central point for fans to worship Call of Duty spoke more to the machinations of a certain Mr Disney than the creative team behind the multi-billion dollar franchise. But then, it doesn't cost USD $150 to get into Disneyland, nor are you likely to be physically hauled from a Jeep by Navy Seals, or accused of cowardice in the face of battle by failing to scream "yes sir" at an annoyingly loud volume.
The location, a valley once owned by legendary aviator and all-round mentalist Howard Hughes, houses a series of hangers once used to build the Spruce Goose. The massive aircraft has long since been relocated to Oregon, however Hughes' touches remain: a toilet block with a foot-activated water fountain and spring-loaded detergent dispensers created by the notoriously germophobic recluse himself. Naturally, this was befouled by the 8000-or-so Call of Duty fans, many likely unaware of the historical connection. Hughes would have had an aneurysm.
The Call of Duty XP event could have been predicted. There are few worldwide gaming franchises large enough to support dedicated gatherings on this scale, and most of them tend to end in "craft". XP however differs in the physicality of the events on offer. Due to the subject matter, the strength of the gaming community and Activision's close ties with American servicemen and women, an event on this scale featuring military-inspired activities interspersed with gaming just makes sense. Plus, all profits are to be donated to a US charity to help returned soldiers find work, so one can hardly accuse Activision of naked profiteering.
An Armoury containing dozens of weapons included in the Call of Duty series sat between the main soundstage and the gaming area. Volunteer servicepeople from the US Army guarded these weapons, and the strictly hands-off demonstration of firepower provided a thoughtful interlude in the proceedings.
The interior of the hanger structure contained the gaming area, featuring principal sponsor Microsoft's hundreds of Xbox 360 consoles connected to gaming LCD screens, and crucially, each other. Modern Warfare 2, Black Ops and Modern Warfare 3 were all available as multiplayer titles to the public, Activision revealing the latter for the first time.
Competitors in the Million Dollar Challenge fought for supremacy on the makeshift gaming pedestals constructed at one end of the hanger. The USA's Team Optic finally took home $400,000 after defeating UK team Infinity in the finals.
Daring individuals also went head-to-head in the Sumo Juggernaut by donning large padded suits and attempting to knock each other out of the ring. Spread throughout the event were developer panels designed to reveal more about the making of the Call of Duty franchise, the audience invited to pose questions and glean more of an insight into their title of choice.
Additional major attractions included in the ticket price consisted of opening act Dropkick Murphys, as well as Kanye West at the closing of the event. The announcement of West's impending performance went down about as well as can be expected in front of a hardcore gaming crowd; one portly sun-deprived attendee was heard to state, "As soon as he comes on, I'm f**king out of here man."
Outside in the glare of the sun, attendees could choose from a number of activities. The appropriately titled Zip Line stretched from a solidly constructed scaffold tower to a landing area some hundred or so metres away, and allowed those with a shallow respect for gravity the opportunity to slide down the line at around 60 kilometres per hour and ungracefully plow into the padded stoppers at the end. The howls of laugher could frequently be heard resonating across the event from on high.
The extremely popular and hugely demanding Scrapyard featured a recreation of the eponymous map from Modern Warfare 2, albeit slightly smaller in layout, and really only thematically similar in execution. Nevertheless, once it became filled with 16-per-side players all armed with a paintball gun and 140 paintballs, the outcome was predictable. With scant appreciation for the "no shooting within three metres" rule, the seven-minute long domination games produced battle-scarred fans staggering out of the enclosure covered in sweat, paintball goop and ear-to-ear grins. Many of those who had mere minutes before been prepared to talk the vilest of smack were gunned down in their prime, and hobbled from the place of battle with thousand-yard stares and smurf-coloured hair.
The Pit, another paintball-themed event, attempted to recreate in spirit the training mission from Modern Warfare 2. Upon entering an enclosure, the participant was presented with 29 targets one after another whilst moving around a short range. Some targets were pneumatically powered, others static, but at least 25 had to be hit to beat the "game" and gain prestige. Some presumably spider-limbed combatants managed to do this in 17 seconds, most normal people averaged over 30, but all appeared to have immense fun in the process.
Jeep Experience was undoubtedly the most ambitious, and carefully structured activity at the show. Groups of six, separated three-per-vehicle into Jeeps were taken away from the event to a nearby dirt bowl where various manoeuvrability demonstrations were given. Jeep being a principal sponsor of the Call of Duty series, after all. Without much delay however, the situation turned dire, insurgents taking the opportunity to duck from cover and fire off rounds in the general direction of the party.
Happily the US Military is in town, and offered to escort each group away from the battle. The catch being that the escape route runs through a warehouse full of terrorists, so it's necessary to storm the complex and clear the path, which the actors did with surprisingly accurate efficiency. Loud blanks are fired, flashbangs thrown, and each member of the civilian party are frog-marched through the complex to await pickup on the other side.
The pickup driver takes great delight in advising that the "actors" were actually real Navy Seals. This mock-up, then, presumably much like a paid holiday for them.
Finally, attendees tired or perhaps too overweight to participate were encouraged to eat at a faithfully recreated Burger Town restaurant in the middle of the complex. The food was edible, although quickly assembled and the staff appeared to be overwhelmed by the huge queues.
In fact, the queues were prohibitively long for many, some choosing to stand in the hot sun for several hours to participate in Jeep Experience, with similar wait times experienced by those picking up their complimentary Hardened Edition voucher, or even queuing to play Modern Warfare 3 itself. It's difficult to say exactly what part of the proceedings caused such long wait times, although as each event was either of relatively long duration or required resetting by changing equipment or safety gear, such wait times should have been expected by those in charge. Perhaps next year this will be ironed out.
It seems certain Activision intend the XP event to continue on an annual basis to match the release of Call of Duty in whatever form that might take. Despite a few hurdles in the creation of the inaugural XP, it seems certain to join BlizzCon, QuakeCon et al in the realms of hugely popular public events.