Let's get this out of the way right now before anyone gets too hysterical. Multiplayer as you know it is still free. You will not have to pay to play online. As sieve-like embargo busting has already suggested, new service Call of Duty: Elite will have standard and premium features, but that won't affect the way you play at the moment. Promise. Keep your hair on...for the moment.
So what the hell is COD: Elite? What is this 'future of connected entertainment' that Beachhead's Chacko Sonny is wafting before our eyes? How will this service 'enrich the multiplayer experience' as he says?
The answer is centralisation, and it's a process that's a bit late if we're all being honest. Call of Duty has been an annual blockbuster series for a while now, and we're only just talking about centralising profiles and stats. But better late than never, one supposes. The premise is this: Elite provides a central hub for players not unlike the one Halo fans have been enjoying for years over at Bungie.net that offers a single profile under which all games across all platforms are logged.
There are three main pillars to Elite - the mantras of 'connect, compete and improve' as Sonny tells us - all under the umbrella of the unification of one's career. One suspects that calling it Call of Duty: Unity might have made more sense, but...ah...never mind.
The Career tab at the top is pretty self-explanatory. Here you can find all of the stats you'd ever need. Weapon stats, kill/death ratios, details on recent matches, stuffed full of graphs, charts and numbers to pore over, compare with others and analyse accordingly. All of your personal bests are here, and you can see how you stack up against anyone and everyone else. Elite is permanently updating in real-time, and fairly speedily too as we got to see data uploading mere minutes after our games of Black Ops had reached their violent conclusions. The Theatre mode will be fully integrated into Elite, itself being built from the ground up around Modern Warfare 3, providing the fullest experience for the new title this November, although it will support previous games.
As for the rest of those buzzwords, well, let's start with connect.The Connect tab looks to expand the social aspects of multiplayer gaming beyond basic search criteria, attempting to bring a sense of community to consoles as well as PC. Your friends list is now integrated fully into the game and you can search for, join and create new groups to play with based on...well...anything, from classical music to underwater basket weaving. From Agatha Christie novels to cheese. From sniper fans to Yeovil Town supporters. And if the group doesn't exist, you can just create one yourself.
Find a Group you play with regularly and you can create Clans, something relatively unheard of on consoles, at least not in any official capacity. It's long-been a staple of PC FPS gaming and it's good to see Activision pushing to create dedicated console communities too and offering up easy-to-use tools to keep track of things.
Of course, getting friendly is only half of it. These are games all about shooting one another in the face. after all. The second pillar is Compete, and Elite looks to offer a far greater matchmaking experience than before. More than that, though, is the real desire to tap into the vast community and start running regular competitions and events spanning the whole spectrum of gameplay styles. There'll be Clan specific competitions, particularly for the larger collectives, Group-oriented challenges and team-based competitions designed to appeal to those who avoid maverick play as well as regular tourneys to reward ace shots. The programme guide reveals itself as an enormous calendar, constantly updating, to show players what competitions are coming up well in advance so they can get their preparations in early.
But it's not just crack shots who play these games. I'm a middling FPS player at best (although not for want of trying!), but I love shooters, and for those of us looking to get better, whether you're a noob who can't stop dying or an expert yearning for tips and tricks pertaining to a particular map, this is where the third and final pillar - Improve - comes in. Checking out the lowdown on my previous game of Team Deathmatch, I was able to nose around a top-down view of the map and view heatmaps not only for the previous game, but logged global averages as well. Not just kill/death info, but exact times and weapons used.
The Improve tab let's you see where you are going wrong, but it also allows you to check out community information too and, excitingly, ask for advice. The maps give away weapon locations and objective placements, they highlight the spots where most people die and camping nests, but they also allow for feedback from top players. Every weapon is detailed, every territory mapped out, but the possibilities were laid out in our preview that would see top community players handing out advice, guides being written for specific game types and maps and integrated into the Elite platform. There'll be readable, encyclopaedic pieces on the tools of war and video guides on how to make the best of your situation or weapon. Exactly how deep this will run remains to be seen, but it's an exciting prospect nonetheless.
Cue Jamie Berger - Activision's VP of Digital - as the room burbles a little with appreciation, to tell us about how this will all come about. The answer is across four platforms: web, mobile, TV and in-game, the idea being that wherever you are, Elite is available to you. Then came the crunch: monetisation. We were assured that everything we'd seen that day would be free - all of the features we'd seen as a part of the centralised hub, involving those three pillars - would be free to use. But there will be the option for premium membership, not unlike, one suspects, Bungie Pro.
'Many key features of Call of Duty Elite will be available to Call of Duty players free of charge,' read today's press release. 'Additionally, for players who want to up their game, Call of Duty Elite will offer a premium membership with a wide range of state-of-the-art services, exclusive entertainment programming and all-inclusive game content for less than the cost of any comparable online entertainment service currently in the market.'
That's purposefully vague, and only time will really tell just how much free content fans can expect and exactly how the subscription will worked. We were told during the preview that subscribers will enjoy free access to all DLC and map packs and that the prices will be a 'no-brainer', that mathematically-speaking, the subscription will more than make up for the prices of the map packs. Considering that COD map packs tend to be the most expensive things on the market, though, that's not necessarily saying much. Berger was adamant, though, that core multiplayer will remain untouched by monetisation and that 'Call of Duty does not, and will not, charge for multiplayer'.
It must be said, that Elite looks fantastic, it really does. It's a travesty really that it hasn't happened sooner, but let's not look a gift horse of sorts in the mouth. It's precisely what the series needs to evolve and series fans will go utterly nuts for it. As for the subscription stuff, well, the only response is to wait and see exactly how the pricing and content go hand in hand. Activision has a record of being rather extortionate with its DLC, and if this truly balances it out and offers value, I can see hardcore fans really getting stuck in. Time will tell.