I've Missed Call of Duty

By Alex Walker on at

I'd just come home from work, a three-hour train ride, and I'd spent half an hour having a quick Call of Duty scrim with some former Counter-Strike friends. We'd largely abandoned CS competitively by that stage, due to a combination of work, fatigue with the scene or changing lives, and played Call of Duty 4 for fun instead.

It was still organised, but without the divisive thirst for blood. And that environment inadvertently led my Dad to make a passing remark one evening, a comment at the dinner table that I've never forgotten to this day.

"You're laughing a lot more these days," he said.

Having striven to prove my worth - probably to myself, more than anything else - through various competitive games, Call of Duty has been the one that has stood out. Not because it's not a competitive game: Call of Duty has a legacy in this country longer and prouder than most of the biggest esports today, with the scene transitioning and reinventing itself too many times to count.

It's a personal relationship. It's what you sometimes hear referred to as a "side game", the secondary thing you play to unwind from your main game. The terminology might be alien, but the behaviour is fairly common. League of Legends players, for instance, have often dabbled in CS:GO as a "break" or to unwind from a rough patch in ranked. A crossover between Dota and CS:GO is quite common. A lot of Quake Champions players have enjoyed PUBG or Overwatch on the side; a skilled Quake player can often be a nightmarish Pharah main.

If you've ever dedicated time towards climbing the ranks in something, you'll this feeling. And for me, that way to unwind was Call of Duty.

Call of Duty started life as a much slower paced WW2 shooter. Campaigns were stories from the front lines, tales from war diaries. Power fantasies your grandfather or great grandfather might have lived through.

COD4 gave the franchise an injection of adrenaline. Sprinting never use to be a thing in Call of Duty. The maps had a lot more verticality than CS or other team-based shooters of the time. (Battlefield was a different story, but that was a completely different style of play, too.)

Perhaps most importantly, players were more vulnerable. Grenades had a huge radius and could annihilate players in an instant. They were so deadly that the start of competitive rounds were often a mini-waiting game: advance as far forward as you can, don't get blown up by the pre-nades, and then proceed from there. And then there was the wallbanging.

It was a hit at LANs too. Modded zombie servers, old ex-infantry blokes playing hardcore, TDM to get the day started and the occasional FFA when everyone's off having pizza. Every LAN in the country, you can bet COD 4 was there.

The "modern" era of Call of Duty - COD4, the original Black OpsModern Warfare 2Modern Warfare 3 - was like a sugar high. The pace of matches, the window between firefights, was perhaps the closest thing to Quake in the modern era.

Quake when it was super popular, anyway.

Call of Duty would become forever defined by that adrenaline rush. It would make missteps along the way. Ghosts trashed too many beloved modes and the maps too large for so similar a formula; Advanced Warfare suffered from some atrocious balancing; and Infinite Warfarehad too many launch issues out of the gate, not to mention one of the more distasteful microtransaction systems for the series.

But that cornerstone of constant movement, the anxiety of knowing another engagement is only seconds away, never changed. And after dabbling with various ways to spice that up through movement, the series came back to earth a little.

Black Ops 4 reminds me of what COD games used to be like. Sliding remains, a legacy from Ghosts, but the jet packs, wallrunning, grappling hooks and other futuristic-powered elements have been turfed. The scorestreak list reads like a blast from the past. Health that doesn't automatically regenerate is a godsend, especially if you're chasing one of those arseholes that sprints around the map trying to knife everyone.

Body armour is a blessing for that too.

Manna from heaven for casual COD players: rolling stats, so you can constantly chase those numbers.

Another major reason why I've missed Call of Duty is because PC players, more or less, have largely been abandoned.

It was a trend that started with Modern Warfare 2. Switching to player-hosted lobbies over dedicated servers was a sensible concession for matchmaking and how consoles function. It was a gut punch to those who had grown up with Call of Duty as a PC-only game, those who had stuck with the series from day dot.

The Black Ops series offered some hope. After working on Call of Duty: World at War, Treyarch turned their hand to a more shadowy tale of mercenaries in the first Black Ops. It was ambitious, perhaps a little too much for its own good, but entertaining nonetheless.

It was the multiplayer where the game shined, though. The gunplay borrowed judiciously from how COD 4, particularly the movement speed and the recoil. Dedicated servers returned, a blessing for the competitive PC community back then. And there was an excellent selection of maps. Not as good as some of the classics from COD 2 or COD 4(Carentan, Backlot, and Crash have stood the test of time for a reason). But they were loved enough for Jungle, Summit, Nuketown and Firing Range to make a return (with Nuketown being patched in soon).

Roaming around those maps again, tracking bodies as they spring around a corner, that's what Black Ops 4 reminds me of most. There's too many modern inclusions to hark back to the real classic Call of Duty games. But the different specialists also don't feel like a dominant factor in gameplay either.

Sure, I'd love to see the rifle-mounted grenade launcher launched into orbit. But Call of Duty wouldn't be Call of Duty if there wasn't one tosser running around, aiming at people's feet for 90% of the match. It's part of the game's spirit.

2018 is a very different landscape. Genres have changed, expectations have evolved. But the pace of a game is a quality that transcends general trends or mechanics.

It's really why so many have stuck with Call of Duty for so long. Everything else around it is more of a container to deliver that constant surge of energy, the thrill of battle. It gets tiring eventually - and there's a physical toll in constantly flinging your mouse around, covering corners and backtracking to keep apace with the spawns.

But it's a definite and absolute thrill. It's what keeps players coming back.

I'd left that out of my gaming life. Not by choice, but because over the last few years it didn't feel like Call of Duty serviced players like me anymore. It was partly the platform. It was partly the broken launches. And it was partly the passage of time.

Other games had caught up. Serviced PC players better. Offered more equitable progression systems.

But nothing quite replicated that pace, the memory of those days at LANs, the neverending firefight that leaves you with just enough time to reload before the next engagement. Other tried. Nothing stuck.

Black Ops 4 reminds me of what Call of Duty was like for me. The laughter, the deathmatch sessions, the shit talking at LANs, the relaxation through exhaustion.

I've missed it.

This story originally appeared on Kotaku Australia.