Four months on, does Call of Duty Elite deliver on any of its promises?
March 12, 2012
It's four months since Call of Duty Elite launched in tandem with Modern Warfare 3, and things have changed. For the uninitiated, Elite is best described as a niche online network – it just so happens that the niche is massive. It's a collection of stats, information, video and social features designed to keep COD players immersed in its online experience - for a price.
There's a free option too, of course, but this understandably excludes all of the stuff that makes Elite worthwhile. There are plenty of stats and heatmaps, if that floats your boat, but other benefits are rather oversold: you can join clans, for example, but nothing you do in that clan matters.
Still, you can't complain about something that's free. For Premium members Elite promises much: all the DLC (which makes it an automatic purchase for some players), a daily competitive programme guide with prizes, piles of expert video content, and plenty of bells and whistles like extra video storage. Connect, Compete, and Improve is the tagline, and alongside this are fringe benefits less directly related to playing, like COD TV. Connecting and competing sounds pretty good to me – but four months on, does Elite deliver?
Elite's features are pretty wonderful in theory, but the reality leaves a huge amount to be desired. The most glaring omission, until a fortnight ago, was the absence of Clan Ops, which for me (and many others) was always the biggest attraction. I'd go even further and say that if Elite gets Clan Ops right – in the sense of an accessible competition structure for clan matches for all players – then it will force every other shooter to follow in its wake.
But Elite doesn't get it right. It really, really doesn't. I waited for the launch of Clan Ops in the hope it would fulfil my every dream, and then realised with a mixture of bemusement and rage that Clan Ops doesn't take any account of European players. You can enter competitions, sure, but the playing times are scheduled between 2am and 5am. I love a late night as much as the next man, but come on. After the months spent waiting for Clan Ops, it's so second-class to launch in a way that just ignores the European player base. Beachhead says this will be sorted in the future, but a lot of Elite still seems to depend on the future.
There are further problems with the Clan Ops offering; it's misleading. The name suggests some clan-on-clan action, but sadly Clan Ops is instead a strangely-conceived mixture of asynchronous competition. Clans don't go head-to-head; instead they all play the same gametype and some metric like flag captures or point defences is tallied up over the course of three hours. You could not get further from the instant satisfaction of a headshot, or the cutthroat thrill of competition.
As for the prizes, if you're in a different area of the world from your clan leader then, well, tough luck. Not that that matters, because no-one's able to view the results of Clan Ops competitions until weeks afterwards. I'm not even kidding.
Despite this, every single comments page on the Elite website is the same – people advertising their clans with little lonely hearts adverts. "WANTED K/D of 1.2+ MUST PLAY 3-5 hours / day MIC REQUIRED." This has been the case ever since Elite launched, yet the service still doesn't incorporate something as simple as a general bulletin board for clan ads. From the other side, trying to find a clan is a nightmare, unless you already know the name of the one you're looking for. (My favourite ad thus far was for the clan 'ToMuchSKILL.' The more you look at that name, the better it gets.)
The whole Connect section, in fact, is a bit of a disaster. Clan invites are hidden away in an Elite feed. Groups are pointless at the moment – they're just hashtags tarted up to resemble a feature. Which leads onto the wider problem with Elite: a service like this is a hard sell by its very nature – it's a considerable secondary investment that depends on its user being dedicated enough to get their money's worth out of it. That portion of the fanbase is already COD-ed up to the eyeballs. They know where to go for discussions, or maps, or weapon breakdowns, and they know who they like to play with.
The fundamental problem is that as a network Elite delivers that social framework, just about, but little more. It doesn't over-deliver, and that's what it has to do to be a premium service. Its feature set is nice enough in theory, but in practice the priorities are all wrong – it's stuffed with secondary features, the kind of stats and videos that you browse in idle moments, but Elite itself isn't even integrated into the game.
This is in some way the most incredible aspect of Elite: it launched as a separate 'game' on the 360, and there's no way to move seamlessly between the two. Elite syncs with Black Ops, it's worth remembering, but that seems a poor reason for isolating it from Modern Warfare 3. You can't even enter Clan Ops from the 360 – registration is on the Elite website.
That's not a question of convenience. That's core functionality. Elite divvies up its feature set across devices, and so as a user experience it ends up fragmentary and frustrating. This lets Elite down terribly. The latest update for the app on iOS made it crash on iPads, which took a week to put right. Not that it greatly mattered, because the app only has one bit of interesting functionality (creating a class & syncing it with your online profile, which is a great touch).
None of these individual problems is insurmountable, but together, what do they suggest? It makes me think that Beachhead is severely under-resourced or under-staffed, for a start, because there's no other reason for COD Elite's functionality to be so far from what was promised. And when you look at some isolated sections of Elite, you can see that it's a studio clearly capable of excellence.
There are so many little touches to admire – the Improve section is great, and has been updated to keep pace with new content. Elite-specific playlists quietly solved the old problem of not being able to play DLC maps with any frequency. The photo challenges are brilliant, and show a much funnier side of COD. The iterative nature of Elite means that all of these good things are getting just that little bit smoother and slicker all the time.
COD TV is genuinely promising, offering matches, interviews, strategies, and sneak peeks at future content drops. The match programming's not to my personal taste, with each week's 'Friday Night Fights' showmatch smothered in a fug of braying try-hards, but the fact that Elite is regularly broadcasting well-produced shows around a match of COD has to be admired. No other shooter integrates its competitive scene into the software, so to speak, and you can see that Elite is capable of taking that step. Then you watch the episode where Michelle Rodriguez is playing, and her style is characterised as 'sneaky bitch' in an on-screen menu. It's a lame attempt at humour rather than anything nasty, but you still cringe.
And we've barely mentioned those incredibly detailed and structured stats, which turn up gem after gem when you really start digging – comparison tables between you and your mates, painstaking weapon and map breakdowns, and head-spinning looks at the top of the leaderboards. The only thing is, some of its numbers are dodgy: on my Clan page it says I've played Modern Warfare 3 for 32,403 hours, which is both untrue and impossible.
How does an error like that get into a piece of software as important as this? Well, Beachhead is under extreme pressure from both sides. Every update post they make attracts a tonne of rants about either the game's balance (which of course they have nothing to do with) or how they're a bunch of scumbags who hate the community and are trying to screw them. Things are a tiny bit more civil in the Elite forums, but not by much.
On the other side is the internal pressure of building a network from the disparate userbases of Activision's biggest franchise. In an earnings call on 9 February, the company confirmed that Elite 2.0 would launch with the next entry in the series, which Beachhead is clearly having to produce whilst concurrently trying to get Elite 1.0 up to scratch.
The people missing from this equation are the folks who've already signed up – the people who actually handed over their money, and got a product that's just about started delivering on its promises four months after launch. They're entitled to feel a little like guinea pigs.
COD's fans are what Elite is built for. Yet while Activision obviously wants to engage this massive fanbase and retain them as year-round players, Elite seems wary of embracing the community. This is designed as a top-down network, with very little room for player-authored activities of any kind – even something as simple as setting up a custom league or tournament with your buddies isn't catered for. The whole structure feels restrictive, and very short on functionality.
Connect, Compete, and Improve. I give Elite's tagline one out of three. The most frustrating thing about it is that the concept – and what Activision and developer Beachhead intend to build around it – gets so much right. But in practice, since its launch in November last year, Elite hasn't delivered – it's peripheral to playing COD, rather than central.
I play COD regularly, but if Elite disappeared tomorrow it wouldn't make much difference to me. I'd miss the idea more, the hope that it could set a new gold standard for premium game services. The idea it can build a network around one of the world's finest multiplayer experiences, in a way that actually enriches it. But it doesn't. For now, at least, Elite is a wonderful promise, left unfulfilled.