Another year, another Call of Duty.
Following on from the controversy surrounding the PC release of Infinity Ward's Modern Warfare 2, Treyarch has stepped up to face the fan onslaught from the most vociferous of all non-Blizzard gaming groups: PC first-person-shooter aficionados.
We've already covered the laboured campaign mode in our Xbox 360 Black Ops review, so if you'd like to be reminded why the Call of Duty franchise has well and truly abandoned any pretence towards presenting a compelling narrative you should check that out before proceeding. There are no relevant differences between the Xbox 360 and PC versions inherent in the campaign, and our Xbox 360 review also covers the range of new multiplayer additions Treyarch has added. From this point on, it's a console-free zone.
PC FPS fans aren't exactly short on options. Battlefield: Bad Company 2, Modern Warfare 2, Medal of Honor and even the original Modern Warfare have extensive online populations, and arguably little difference in core gameplay. Black Ops isn't a revelation in this regard either, it's really a matter of keeping the standard action intact, and adding layers of complexity to an otherwise familiar multiplayer.
Fortunately, Treyarch haven't followed Infinity Ward into the abyss of peer-based matchmaking. Kiwis picking up a copy of Black Ops will instead play on licensed servers hosted by Gameservers.com in Australia secured by Steam's VAC. This presents two separate yet equally valid conundrums; what sort of latency annoyances will you need to tolerate, and do Activision really care that little about Kiwi players that they can't be bothered hosting anything locally?
By not ascribing malice to that which can adequately be explained by incompetence, we can answer the second question. The first question requires fairly extensive playtime followed by careful examination of anecdotal evidence presented by various online communities. In addition, your experience will vary based on your method of connection, your ISP, your interleave settings, and your flatmate's penchant for adding to his rather dubious "video art" collection during peak hours, so it's necessary to understand that deciding to host the servers in Australia is but one factor likely to ruin your afternoon. It is a significant factor, however.
During testing on the DSL connection at GPHQ, our latency varied between 35-150msec, setting down to a tolerable 70msec in most circumstances. The overall round-trip time, whilst high for ultra-competitive gaming isn't likely to cause too many problems for casual gamers, although facing off in ANZAC challenges will no doubt put kiwi players at a tangible disadvantage over their Aussie brethren.
Infinitely more disturbing are the random lag spikes thrown into the game that cause significant disruption to the action. These don't appear to be entirely network related - wanting to test this on a low-spec machine, our initial install utilized a Core 2 E6700 with 6GB RAM and a GTS 250 video card, running Windows 7 64-bit. Despite turning off anti-aliasing, shadows, dropping the resolution to 1280x720 and essentially putting all graphics settings to the lowest specifications possible, there's still an extremely noticeable spike in performance, particularly during intense combat.
Telling, then, that a player occupying one server I encountered had adopted the nickname "fix the lag". Perhaps understandable from the perspective of a newcomer who hadn't managed to tweak their rig, but this player had clearly managed to make it to level 31 without resolving the issue.
Our second install on a Core i7-920 machine with 6GB RAM and an identical GTS 250 had no appreciable framerate problems. Strangely enough too, the server list populated much faster and showed a full compliment of Australian servers, as opposed to an abridged list on the Core 2 machine.
The community appears to be split on this topic too, several posters in our catch-all Black Ops forum thread have indicated that their experience has been trouble-free to date. Whatever the cause of the problem, we can only hope Treyarch find a workaround, presumably by either optimising the game for lower-spec machines, or changing the server rates. It's only made more frustrating by the knowledge that even our low-spec machine plays Modern Warfare 2 and World at War with no graphical or network problems.
Continuing the trend introduced with v1.6 of World at War, connect/reconnect commands have been banished from the console, no doubt in an attempt to prevent non-sanctioned servers from accepting direct connection requests from clients. Relying entirely on the in-game server browser isn't an entirely pleasant experience either, the server listings have been limited to a few hundred, and in many cases you'll need to refresh the list to find all of the Australian servers currently in action. Ranked Wager games haven't been implemented either, so at the time of writing if you want to play a Wager game online you'll need to do so in a location outside of Australasia.
As if the general technical problems plaguing certainly our first impressions of the multiplayer component weren't enough, there's some design concerns that may or may not cause headaches for those looking to migrate to this new shooter. I'm not a fan of the mouse sensitivity. It's difficult to identify exactly what has changed between World at War and Black Ops, but whatever it is, the mouse input feels dull and unresponsive. No amount of tweaking the sensitivity settings seems to make a difference, and most of the time it's as if you're attempting to steer a truck with one hand. Again, your results may (and almost certainly will) vary, mouse sensitivity is very much a personal preference.
Software stability is an ongoing concern. The initial installation failed (according to Windows 7) however the game proceeded to install itself. In addition, I've seen numerous lockups and CTD's, particularly when attempting to change the screen resolution in multiplayer. Network disconnections from multiplayer servers, along with a general inability to even connect to the servers are worryingly commonplace.
Remarkably, too, for a title designed to surpass World at War and Modern Warfare 2 as Activision's defining FPS, the graphics aren't anything in advance of what we've seen from either Treyarch or Infinity Ward over the past few years. Those with impressive rigs will no doubt delight in maxing out 16xAA and sliding the AF bar all the way to the right, but the vast majority of midrange PC owners aren't about to be blown away by any advanced engine optimisation. It really seems as if Treyarch have been content to build on the same foundations and work towards providing variability in the multiplayer maps and modes rather than issuing any sort of a challenge to Crytek.
The PC release of Black Ops is really a reflection on the inability to provide polished gameplay out of the box when so much hype comes pre-packed. Speculating wildly, I have no doubt that Treyarch would have preferred an extensive beta period for this title, which would be difficult to reconcile with Activision's determination to stir the media into a frenzy every November. This year's Call of Duty is therefore a victim of its own success. In an ironic twist that would have Kotick prepping yet another poorly worded missive, removing the Call of Duty designation from Black Ops would have almost certainly resulted in a better experience for PC users.
Scoring Modern Warfare 2 last year was easy, because it lacked structural elements crucial to the spirit of PC FPS gaming. It was a cut-down title that had immeasurable potential to really stick a knife in the side of the PC gaming fraternity that had so carefully nurtured the franchise from its inception. At the time, it wasn't unreasonable to conclude that the next Call of Duty release would be console-only.
Black Ops, on the other hand, is much harder to rate. As a single-player experience it falls flat, no question. It's uninspired, poorly constructed, hugely unrealistic and manages to trot out more clichés than a nervous sportscaster. The Nazi Zombie mode is essentially the same as the original variant, although with only three maps on hand you can't but think Treyarch haven't really committed to the concept, and modders will most likely have to pick up the pieces once again.
In its current buggy state, the multiplayer is causing nothing but frustration for a huge number of users, and yet for the briefest of moments, when the spikes stop, the sun comes out and everything works as it should, it's a genuinely fun experience. If you're one of the lucky players who suffer no framerate issues, you might want to check out this video to understand why this problem has enraged so many.
Sadly, in it's current form, there are simply too many issues to recommend Black Ops as a viable new platform for those who have heavily invested in other franchises lately. We're taking the liberty of assuming Treyarch can get a handle on the problems with a patch, but until that time, be warned.