It rings out from the rooftops, across vast swaths of the Net - Call of Duty is in trouble. Yes, after rocketing past the drone-choked skies of its "near-future" into the same bleak vacuum of military-fetishist sci-fi occupied by its rival, Titanfall 2, COD finds itself desperately jamming on the eject button as it falls back down to Earth.
Set upon by the encroaching tide of so-called "hero shooters" brimming with colour and vibrancy, steward Sledgehammer Games has retreated to the closest thing the megaseries ever had to a coherent identity - the beaches of Normandy, set in sepia like an insect in amber, where soldiers were soldiers, Nazis were Nazis and those heavy boots stayed planted firmly in the sand.
But even as the ludicrously-named Call of Duty: WW2 creeps ever-closer to its 3rd November release date, if the bumpy reception of last week's open beta is anything to go by, Sledgehammer still has a ways to go - even as the studio head recently announced the end of creative work on the project.
This giant project WWII is done creatively. 3 years of research, design, writing, etc is over. Im a bit empty. In the hands of the fans now.— Glen Schofield (@GlenSchofield) October 5, 2017
To be clear, most would agree that the point of such an open beta is to smooth out technical wrinkles before final release, especially in terms of the pesky calculus of performance and server load. Still, the number of players complaining of frequent hitching, framerate drops and outright crashes far exceeded those generous standards, with weary fanatics pointing to faulty Nvidia drivers or screen-capture software such as Shadowplay for the hiccups.
Though I experienced no game-ending bugs, the experience teetered from merely unpleasant to borderline unplayable on my moderate-spec gaming rig, with framerates ping-ponging from 120 down to the single-digits every few moments for no apparent reason. Updating the drivers on my GTX 970 seemed to mitigate matters somewhat, but my CPU usage would spike without fail at least once or twice per round, almost always resulting in my immediate demise.
I wasn't alone - in an (obviously non-scientific) survey conducted on the Call of Duty: WW2 subreddit, 45.8 per cent of players reported frame-rate drops as one of the significant demerits of the beta, and threads noting subpar performance dotted gaming forums and subreddits alike.
For those who could run the game at an acceptable clip, the experience was mostly what they expected - that is, until the cheaters showed up. Over the years, COD has garnered somewhat of a dismal reputation for its legions of hackers, with one frustrated fan going so far as to call it "the most hacked game in the history of the gaming industry". While that might be slightly hyperbolic, various exploits were particularly rampant on the previous generation of consoles, where cheating was as easy as modifying your controller. Since this beta required no buy-in other than a Steam account, cheaters descended on the beta in droves, wallhacking and aimbotting from dawn 'til dusk.
When forums were set alight by reports of these shenanigans, Sledgehammer was quick to note in a separate update the normal anti-cheating concoctions that gird a game of this scale weren't active during the beta, and hackers will be suitably punished once the game actually comes out. Though this helped assuage some of the concerns - with some noting DICE's open beta for Battlefield 1 suffered from similar malfeasance - cheaters still registered on the survey as the subreddit's top concern, with 73 per cent of users marking it as a significant issue.
Beyond these two top-line items, the reported concerns of the populace at large descend into a constellation of odd omissions many PC gamers take as given these days, such as numbers that correspond to the mouse sensitivity setting bar, or field-of-view that scales with the actual weapon model. While some of these are more substantive than others - why a PC game would neglect to include a numbered latency in the year 2017 is beyond me - if Sledgehammer is to be believed, a barrage of post-launch updates will surely iron most of these out.
Chief among these charges is the use of peer-to-peer connections with a player host rather than dedicated servers. Currently, though details are sketchy, it appears WW2 uses a so-called "hybrid system" of dedi/P2P, depending on your location. An apparent supermajority (80 per cent) of the userbase decries this as an unacceptable half-measure; if the player hosting a P2P match leaves during a game, the dreaded "host migration" system stops the match and attempts to reconnect to a new host, with decidedly-mixed results. Considering the previous games in the franchise have run off this hybrid-system for years now, the chances of such a stark reversal seems dubious, but not altogether impossible.
But beyond all the forum-flailing and belly-aching, if the redditors are to be believed, the whole of the beta was solid, if unspectacular. When reached for comment, the response was surprisingly consistent, with a few outliers: though few were convinced by the five days of carnage, most felt Call of Duty: WW2 represents a firm step forward for the franchise. Even with the vast unpopularity of the sci-fi nonsense employed by the last few entries well in mind, the universal usage of the phrase "boots on the ground" - sometimes abbreviated to BotG - surprised even me.
"I played with a bunch of my friends and the classic boots on the ground feel, the overall game design itself and playing with all my friends together really brought me back to the days when we were young and we used to just play COD all the time," redditor xZombieMike said.
JP_76 echoed this sentiment, but with less enthusiasm: "I'm still unsure about the future of COD. So this year we get a nice, traditional BotG style game, but what about next year? Are we going to get another space themed COD game with jet packs and see the advanced movement system make a return? I hope not."
Scanning through these posts, I can't help but remember the snide comment made by a friend who I cajoled into trying the beta with me: "it's COD, but with worse guns." While you can certainly call it a reductive view of things, there's no denying there's some kernel of truth there. As the monster of money known as Call of Duty enters the second half of its second decade of existence, we cannot help but silently observe the creature munch on its own delectable tail.
It's never too early to mine for nostalgia these days, but by returning to WW2, Call of Duty abandons the pretence of novelty and goes where the real money is: a true revival act, complete with the righteous commandos and nasty Nazis you've come to expect. They say you never go broke playing to the cheap seats, and I suspect Activision will take that adage all the way to the bank for as long as Activision can. Let's hope they don't go for the can-can, though - after all, they need to keep those boots planted firmly to the stage.