A little over a week ago, thousands of gamers from around the world descended on Los Angeles to attend Call of Duty XP, a celebration of one of the world’s biggest entertainment franchises. Under the Californian sun, fans were treated to two days of gaming, entertainment and outdoor activities inspired by military shooter Call of Duty.
One of those fans was a Kiwi named Chris who won an expenses-paid trip to the event through a competition on Gameplanet.
Chris has played all seven games since the first Call of Duty debuted in 2003. He’s watched the series develop across platforms, settings and stories: from the hedgerows of Normandy in World War II, forward to the former Soviet bloc and the Middle East, then backwards to the canopy of Vietnam and beyond in the height of the Cold War. Now, Chris is one of just a handful of Kiwis to have played the globetrotting Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3.
No one will argue that Chris is a truly dedicated fan of Call of Duty then. However, with more than four years of service in the New Zealand Army, Chris can bring another equally interesting perspective to the series and the event. Chris is better able to judge the authenticity of these games and the events at XP than any of the soft-palmed attendant press.
With that in mind, we caught up with Chris on Friday – after the dust has settled and lasting memories have coalesced – to get his impressions of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Now a member of the Territorial Forces, Chris was formerly a gunner stationed in Linton, outside of New Plymouth. In addition to aiding in the aftermath of Christchurch earthquake, Chris undertook a peacekeeping tour in East Timor. There, he rotated between three forward operating bases: “We were pretty much like cops over there because the police force is quite dodgy, they’d beat up people,” says Chris. “Their military chased a guy into the ocean and shot him. We had to deal with that.”
“Call of Duty is one of the most-played games in the military,” states Chris. “In New Zealand we don’t do a lot of the ‘action’ stuff. There’s not one person in the Army who doesn’t want to do it – everyone wants to do it – so everyone plays it just to get that sort of feeling.”
John Casey famously said a soldier’s life is 90 per cent boredom and 10 per cent sheer terror – not exactly the DNA for a best-selling game. Naturally the experiences outlined in Call of Duty games are radically extreme. Instead, Chris reckons Call of Duty offers “a good military experience without the fear of getting shot at. It’s a bit different when your life is actually on the line.”
Featuring team-based paintball matches, off-road racing and Navy Seals simulating intense combat, Call of Duty XP certainly exercised adrenaline glands but ultimately presented attendees with lines of a different sort:
“We arrived at eight and got in at one o’clockish,” says Chris of simply trying to enter the event on the first day. After playing some elimination Black Ops, Chris decided to grab his complementary goodie bag, “but that was another four hour wait in line.”
Queuing for lunch at Burger Town – a fictional fast-food chain that appears in the Modern Warfare series and recreated to scale inside XP – also took about three hours, estimates Chris.
Logistically, Call of Duty XP sounds like it was a unmitigated disaster but the easy-going Chris casually shrugs it off, surmising, “I feel like they weren’t expecting many people, because there was something like 8,000 people and only about 12 different things to do.”
When asked what he would change, Chris suggests nixing Black Ops. “I would’ve just cut [it] out and dedicated more room to Modern Warfare 3. That’s what everyone was there for. So if they’d had everything just focused on Modern Warfare 3 it would’ve been a lot better and a lot more people would’ve been able to have a go.”
Queues happen and teething pains aside, what matters are the activities themselves. Chris began by enthusing about The Pit, a life-size recreation of the Special Ops level in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2:
“It’s set up just like in the game,” explains Chris: “You come in from the left, you’ve got a guy – a Marine – who is following you around telling you what to do. You’ve got stationary targets, and then pop-up targets that [appear] as you’re walking along. You’ve got 50 rounds and 29 targets, so you’ve gotta be pretty good, one-shot each target to get through.”
“You had a minute to pass but if you beat 35 seconds and got 25 targets they’d give you a Prestige Badge. They had a scoreboard as well and the top time was something like 18.8 seconds. That’s pretty much running through one-hand firing.” That’s no small feat, especially as the weapon in question is a replica M16A4 that fires paintballs. “They didn’t skimp on those,” understates Chris.
Similarly, Call of Duty XP attendees were able to play a round of paintball on a course designed to resemble Modern Warfare 2’s map, Scrapyard. “They had the tunnels and stuff but it was nothing like the actual multiplayer level. But it was still fun. It was still 16 on 16, so you got quite a few people in there.”
But if the map was only inspired by its digital counterpart, Activision’s dedication to faithfully recreating the Call of Duty multiplayer experience shines elsewhere: “They tell you to talk smack in the beginning,” says Chris, “but that’s not really a good idea because you get picked on.”
“This one guy said to aim at Julie [Activision’s representative in New Zealand] because she was little, saying, ‘we’ll all smash her!’
“Everyone just started smashing that guy. He had a bandana on so he was real easy to pick out. He got wasted.”
Each round of Scrapyard lasted for seven minutes: five minutes wherein players were able to “respawn” by returning to their starting point, followed by two minutes of sudden death.
“I took a lot of skin off my leg because the ground was rocks, so you couldn’t really do any dives or slides but I tried anyway and it didn’t really end up too well!”
A bit of collateral sunburn aside, “it was fun,” says Chris, “Probably the best thing there besides the Jeep event,” – or at least he’s told. The Jeep experience was a surprise inclusion at Call of Duty XP. In it attendees were treated to an off-road romp though a combat zone before actual US Navy Seals performed a simulation of an escort through an enemy-occupied building.
Pointing out that he’d spent the better part of four years performing combat simulations, Chris chose instead to play the main attraction, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3.
“Spec Ops is just awesome,” says Chris of Modern Warfare 3’s Spec Ops Survival mode. “It’s probably the best Modern Warfare experience I’ve had to date.” In the mode, players fight off waves of increasingly difficult enemies. “The guy explaining it said the whole point to Call of Duty is that you’re supposed to be on the edge of your seat with adrenaline all the time, and Spec Ops was just like that, really.”
As to Modern Warfare 3’s multiplayer, Chris played a round in Downtown, a “solid map” that benefits greatly from upper and lower level vantage points. “The controls are a lot more refined, a lot smoother, it’s easier to aim,” he concludes. As to features he was left uncertain about, Chris says, he didn’t get to use the sniper rifle, but that “there were a lot of problems with them in Modern Warfare 2.”
Nonetheless, “If Battlefield 3 wants to take them off the pedestal they’re going to have to do really, really well.”
“I know a lot of people are expecting it to bomb, but I don’t think it’s going to,” concludes Chris. “It was really good.”