For a brief few days last week when the Call of Duty: WW2 PC beta was available, I caught myself actually enjoying multiplayer in a Call of Duty game for the first time in a long while.
I first tried out Call of Duty: WW2 back in August during the console beta. I didn’t come away with any particular feelings one way or another, outside of my annual ‘Yep, that’s Call of Duty alright’ smirk. I usually reach this realisation every year at roughly the same point; an hour and change in. When that happens, it’s probably safe to assume I won’t be clicking the multiplayer option on that menu ever again.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the single-player campaigns and wait patiently every year to play them. They’re always entertaining, and I am especially excited for a Sledgehammer Games’ campaign this year because Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare impressed me so much. Multiplayer, though, has always eluded me.
Ever since I stopped playing Call of Duty on PC following the travesty that was the launch of Modern Warfare 2, the series became my console shooter. Something I check out every year before I quickly move on.
Unfortunately for me, I could never get any feeling of satisfaction playing Call of Duty multiplayer on a controller. The series’ signature low time-to-kill coupled with my mediocre controller skills is a solid combination for a terrible time online.
Whenever I try a new Call of Duty game, there's always this feeling that I would be doing so much better on a mouse and keyboard. I feel much more at home with mouse and keyboard than I do with a controller, and it's forever shaped how I perceive the series. Let's not forget that Call of Duty started out as a PC shooter.
Whether for lack of a PC beta, fear of an unoptimised launch version or some other reason, I never actually get to play the PC versions at launch, leaving me with the console version for a bit of campaign fun before I forget about it.
This year, something changed. I am not sure if it’s the return to boots on the ground, the clear weapon characteristics, the quasi-class system, or the fact that it ran beautifully that made gameplay feel this good. It’s likely a combination of all four, but I didn’t expect my cynical outlook to change in the first few minutes.
For the first time, multiplayer in a Call of Duty game ran at an unlocked frame-rate, with proper frame-pacing and no noticeable stuttering. The character movement, mouse feel and general responsiveness of controls were all equal to other great shooters on PC.
I distinctly remember some form of mouse problems for my first few moments with every new Call of Duty install. Be it mouse acceleration, a sensitivity that scales poorly with frame-rate or something equally horrid. After a bit of googling and tweaking, I would either get rid of the effect somewhat, or learn to live with it. Yet none of that was in the Call of Duty: WW2 beta, it played perfect out of the box.
The small maps, fast and fluid movement and short time-to-kill made for frantic and exhilarating battles. They weren’t frustrating anymore, and I definitely wasn’t raging like I do when I play Call of Duty on a controller. I realise the game is still built for controllers first, but does it really matter if it plays just fine on a mouse?
In all my years of picking up and quickly dropping Call of Duty games, I learned that a good experience with multiplayer in those games hinges a fair bit on the quality of your connection to the server. This is where the beta’s biggest problem was.
Once again, peer-to-peer is used to host multiplayer matches. Even something as high as three bars out of four (around 150ms ping) will have you shooting an entire magazine into enemies and seeing them one-shot you. 150ms ping is not ideal, but it’s far from unplayable. I dread to think what a ping higher than this would cause, but I can tell you that my worst moments in the beta came in rounds where my connection had less than four green bars. I even got the infamous host migration thing Call of Duty players are all too familiar with, several times.
I was in plenty of matches with a solid, four-bar connection, but I can’t say if it was the result of actual dedicated servers or some player in the lobby with a good connection. This uncertainty is what ultimately needs to go away.
There is just no place for anything less than dedicated servers for a twitchy shooter on PC. Almost every other shooter serious about PC has them. From smaller ones like LawBreakers, and Paladins, to mega hits like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, Rainbow Six: Siege and the rest. In fact, if you look at the top most played shooters on Steam, you’ll find that all of them have one thing in common: dedicated servers.
Call of Duty games rarely break into the top ten, and right now, Black Ops 3 is the only Call of Duty game in the top 100. It doesn’t make sense for one of the biggest shooters in the world to have such a poor representation on the biggest PC platform in the world. Activision probably doesn't like this, and it’s evident by releases like the $15, multiplayer-only version of Black Ops 3.
It's definitely not a good look when one of the largest publishers in the business still can’t guarantee dedicated servers for every match – in one of its biggest franchises. This might be tolerated on consoles, where there aren’t that many competitors big or popular enough, but on PC, players will drop it without a second thought. For better or worse, console players don’t perceive peer-to-peer in the same light PC players do.
Maybe it has something to do with poor connections being a constant in many countries where PC is often dominant. Or maybe PC players are spoilt by choice. I could go on about the benefits of dedicated servers for a game like Call of Duty, but everyone reading already knows them.
I play a lot of Battlefield. You could say that Battlefield is my Call of Duty. I get every one of them at launch, play every beta or alpha I can get my hands on, and buy the season passes. Call of Duty hasn’t been my go-to shooter since the days of Modern Warfare Promod, and Call of Duty: WW2 probably won’t change that.
But, I am suddenly looking forward to playing that game on day one - on PC. I am looking forward to the trademark Call of Duty multiplayer fun, confident that I won’t be fighting controls or optimisation issues. I was not expecting anywhere close to that impression going in.