This weekend we attended Call of Duty XP, hosted in Los Angeles. You may as well call it the first “CoD Convention”. Two days (three for journalists) of nothing but Modern Warfare 3 multiplayer, strange thematic events (sumo?) and the ability to earn real-life achievement badges. Read on for the strange tales involved in getting there, and what happened once we finally made it.

It was supposed to be, like all my trips, a simple affair. Get to the airport, get on a plane, fly somewhere, attend, get back the same way. For the last three years, things had gone exactly to such specifications. But for CoD:XP, things did not go as planned. If you follow my Twitter, you know what comes next.

Getting There

Get up at 3am, rush out to the waiting taxi, two hour drive to airport. Two hour wait for flight, 4 hour flight to Phoenix, Arizona. One hour layover, board the plane. Taxi to runway. The short 45 minute flight to Los Angeles never happens.

Plane turns around. PA system issues. Deboard plane. Reboard one hour later after system is fixed. Taxi to runway. Plane turns around. Undercarriage is “acting up”. Deboard plane. Reboard one hour later after mechanical issues are fixed. Never even started to taxi to runway. Plane was sitting in the sun too long, the “fuel was too hot in the wings”. Deboard for safety reasons.

While all this is happening, US Airways refuses to make alternate flight plans for anyone. “Call customer support and reclaim your money later, but if you leave the gate you forfeit the flight”. It looked like I’d be sleeping in the airport. Flight never happened anyway. Screw this, I told myself. I’m taking the bus.

Had some friends in the area, stayed with them. Arranged a Greyhound ticket for 8am, which would get me to LA by 3pm. Event starts at 6pm. Plenty of time.

Get to the Greyhound 8am the next day. Bus is running three hours late, they tell me. Two hours later, board the bus. Deboard the bus, as the air-conditioning system isn’t working. The heat that day was, incidentally, the highest it had been for that State in forever. Nearly 50 degrees celcius. Reboard on to a new bus an hour later, start driving towards Los Angeles. Air-conditioning didn’t work on the new bus either.

It was a long seven hours on that bus. There may have been heatstroke-induced hallucinations, driving through the Arizona desert, which consists of nothing but cactus and sand.

Made It

Arrived in LA at 5:30, caught a taxi to the hotel. Half an hour later, drive up to the hotel just in time to run after the shuttlebus going to the event. Got on that bus, and 8 minutes later I’m walking into a giant aircraft hanger adorned with Call of Duty artwork.

There is a presentation, the CEO of Activision said a lot of stuff about how awesome Call of Duty is. They show the Multiplayer Reveal Trailer (this is a day before that trailer hit the net, and this site, due to embargo). The fan-film “Operation Kingfish” (by the guys that made Find Marakov) is shown, with its production budget having been picked up by Activision this time. Key figures from Infinity Ward and Sledgehammer games talk about the new multiplayer mode, Kill Confirm. (Check out our interviews in the upcoming month’s NAG).

Stuff about CoD branded Jeeps, a special-edition Xbox 360 with headset (that looks gritty in a way that scream “I was dragged behind a truck for an hour”), and talks about how Elite is gonna be the new defacto standard in online matchmaking stat tracking Facebook integrating stuff and things.

Then we played some Modern Warfare 3 multiplayer.

The Next Two Days

Outside the aircraft hanger were various military vehicles to oogle at. A paintball course, recreating the Scrapyard level from Modern Warfare 2, had a two hour wait in line. The line for Burger Town was even longer. The line to ride in a real Jeep, was four hours long. When CoD:XP opened that morning for the public that paid $150 per ticket to get in, their line stretched around four city blocks. That’s a lot of CoD fans.

There was a zipline you could ride, if you wanted to wait two hours. We focused on instead on the various events taking place inside the aircraft hangers, out of the scorching LA sun. The most entertaining for me personally (as it avoided the rabid, highly competitive fans), was the Modern Warfare 3 Spec-Ops area. My press VIP badge got me to the front of the line, much to the dismay of smelly fans standing in wait for up to three hours. The new Spec Ops changes are stellar – enemies are smart, every MP map can be played in Spec Ops mode, the restock/purchase points of various types dotted around the map keeps you mobile, heavy solders in riot shields take a thousand bullets before they go down. Tons of fun, looks great, no big surprise there.

Before the event, qualifiers were held for the $1 million dollar tournament. Many teams entered, they all played Serious Business, high-level competitive play. 32 four-man teams entered, one walked away a winner, each member $250,000 richer. Taking into account the recent DotA 2 tournament where each member of the winning 5-man team took a million a piece, competitive gaming is becoming quite lucrative. There were places to compete in more low-level fare, like a team-deathmatch gauntlet where you try to be the winning team in a series of matches. The winners get a Prestige Badge.

Each of the events at the show had the chance to win little material badges. Get to wave 18 in Spec Ops, get the Prestige Spec Ops badge. Survive the zipline, get a Zip Line badge. Visit the Armory, get the Armory badge. As silly as it was, it did add a nice flavour to proceedings.

The Armory itself was a series of rooms filled with real guns on the walls, rocket launchers, guys in ghilli suits standing in fake bushes, and this guy:

Pretty serious. Looks like something that eats your skin on the microscopic level, all the time, even right now. Makes you feel itchy, doesn’t it.

While all the bros and dudes and serious, super-serious CoD fans crammed every walkway and every corner of the event, standing in multi-hour lines just so they could get another 10 minute suck at the Modern Warfare 3 teet (mother’s milk), there was one event that seemed to predominantly attract all the neglected girlfriends, wives and girl-gamers who didn’t want to do all that waiting. Dressing up in a big fatsuit and slamming into each other, the Sumo event always had a short line, but was never short on fun. The commentator was bombastic and energetic, goading the girls on (who were by the final day quite vicious in trying to body-slam each other). Bystanders couldn’t take their eyes off the ginormous girls belly-bashing each other until one fell out of the ring. It could be a TV show.

Two days of lots of people all excited for one thing and one thing only: Modern Warfare 3. It’s pretty crazy, when you think about it. Attendees also walked away with a special code for receiving a free copy of the Hardened Edition of MW3 when it comes out (which gives you a free year of Elite, Founder Status for some special camo and guns, and other random junk).

Amazingly, the event kept cool, giant pipes feeding gale-force cool air into the aircraft hanger all day, which is something Activision deserves credit for. In fact, the entire event was handled with remarkable aplomb and sophistication: RFID armbracelets for attendees, colour-coded wristbands for the various strata of press, support and maintenance, Customization Areas for putting custom words on your free Modern Warfare 3 shirt, like your clan name or personal Xbox Live tag, and a merchandise store with everything from shirts to water-bottles to nappies. Okay, not nappies, but even that wouldn’t have surprised me.

The stations set up for gaming were all top-notch gear, pro-level headsets (MLG-branded) all hooked up for voicecomms so you could clearly hear your team, as well as the people running the sessions, fantastic monitors, plenty of lighting in all the right places, and lots to do at any given moment. Provided you didn’t mind waiting in line.

The lines were an issue though. Three hours to get an expensive burger (no cards, only cash, and the ATMs were either out of money or charged insane fees) is too much. But the fans didn’t seem to mind. To give you an idea of just how large the aircraft hangers were, here is a high-up shot showing one half into the distance.

Overall, the event was a success, if you go by the general excitement of those in attendance. I’m not sure how many tickets were sold, but I’d guess at least thousand people, if not more, walked the halls. “Welcome to the first CoD:XP”, the CEO of Activision said on opening day. The first, eh? While they’ve not confirmed that this will be an annual thing, like Blizzcon or QuakeCon, with over 30 million online players, the CoD franchise has reached a point where a convention like this could be sustained quite easily, if Activision so chooses.

Be sure to check out our full coverage of the event in the October issue of NAG, along with interviews and first-impressions of Modern Warfare 3’s multiplayer.