Examining Call of Duty: Black Ops on PC

Although it has sold a record amount of units since launching on November 9, Treyarch's latest stab at the Call of Duty franchise came with its fair share of technical complications.

Of particular note was the game's performance on PC. As our review was focused on the console version of Call of Duty: Black Ops, we felt it was important to examine the PC version and note any issues with the game.

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My primary focus is on the online component included in the PC version of the game, which has received the brunt of complaints but I also played some of the game's single-player mode to examine some of the issues users are experiencing there.

For the PC testing, I decided to approach gameplay from two sources: my current, high-end PC and my previous, aged system. This should give you a good indication of how the game plays on both min and max specifications.

Also, because a patch was just released to correct some of the game's online hiccups, I spent a good chunk of the morning playing the game on both machines again. I should also clarify that this is only basic testing to give people a general idea what the experience was like before the patch and today. It isn't a science and is not meant to be a complete technical breakdown.

High Spec Machine Min Spec Machine
Intel Core i7 950 @ 3.07GHz Intel Core 2 Duo @ 2.66GHz
ASUS Rampage III Formula ASUS P5LP-LE
6GB DDR3 3GB DDR2
Radeon HD 6870 Radeon HD 4890
Windows 7 Professional 64bit Windows 7 Professional 32bit

Note: Due to previous complications, the min spec machine was reformatted and Windows 7 was reinstalled.

For the test I decided to stick to the same server, replaying Domination on the map Nuketown. Since the map is so small, and Domination is so frantic--with a ton of explosions and kill-streaks being activated--this seems like the best controlled environment. (Note: Server location - Dallas, TX / Ping Av: 53)

Pre-Patch Testing
Framerates on the high spec machine during online play were fairly stellar, with very few hiccups. However--much like Brian mentioned in his feature yesterday--the game had trouble registering some of my shots. Often, kill cams would show me missing shots while the game noted them as landing when I was alive.

On the minimum spec machine, the game was nothing short of nightmarish. Constant lag spikes spoiled any chance of my getting enjoyment out of online play.

To get a sense of context for how the minimum spec machine stacked up, I loaded up other games I had in my collection. On minimum specs, shooters of similar visual quality ran smoothly. With Black Ops, though, CPU and GPU temps were extremely high as the system struggled to keep pace with the game. For the barest settings that seemed to indicate something not quite right by comparison.

Also notable was my kill/death ratio: on the min spec machine it was abysmal, while on the high spec box it was much more respectable. Admittedly, I'm not an expert player, so take from that what you can.

Single-player was a different nightmare. This "stutter" problem many report noticing appears to be directly tied to the CPU being maxed out--one of the core issues the game had at launch with dual and some quad processors--resulting in a freeze in the action.

While this test was specific to one server it should be noted that actually connecting to games before the patch was extremely difficult.

Post Patch Testing
The best thing I can say about Black Ops after the patch is that the server browser now functions correctly and connections actually hold. This was the same on both machines.

The max spec machine still ran smoothly after the patch geared toward dual and quad core systems. I saw less questionable replays from the kill cam. Single-player continued to perform well on my new system.

The min spec machine performed slightly better in some cases during online matches; however, the game tended to slow to a crawl as the game progressed and more action was thrown onto the screen. It's not as bad as a slideshow anymore but sometimes kicks into a weird flip-book cycle, which basically translates to a faster slideshow in some spots.

Single-player, however, still hangs for me on my old machine. Issues are reduced as I'm playing, but when the game takes control of the camera (and still in cinematics) frequent pauses occurred.

On the subject of lag spikes, a poster on the FPS Admin forums claims that the game continues to have some issues due to real-time stat streaming. The solution, according to the poster, is to set your game's priority to high in Task Manager. Also, it is noted that a high upstream helps. I'm connected to cable internet with a 50 Mbps downstream and a 2 Mbps upstream.

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What Others Are Saying
Before the patch, I asked the Shack community about their bad experiences. In one thread, we had a number of users mention problems. On the Steam forums, things were far worse.

The core complaint is that no amount of adjusting the settings seems to keep the game from pushing the CPU to its max on hardware that meets the requirements, causing stutters in framerate. The online component also drew fire, particularly for dedicated servers that would see lag spikes even with very low ping. As performance of the game engine was improved with the patch, it appears that these issues are directly tied to the game's net code.

As the problems were happening, it was pretty quiet at Activision and Treyarch. We asked for a comment but received no word back; however, the patch was probably the response they were prepping.

Final Thoughts
It's become increasingly apparent that multiplatform games, when released on PC, get scaled back to match the console version. As I'm speaking specifically to the game's launch, a lot of the PC-centric content that found its way back into Black Ops after having been omitted in its predecessor, Modern Warfare 2, didn't work. Server lists wouldn't update correctly, for example, and the game didn't scale well for a variety of PCs; though, many people running i5 or i7 processor-based systems say they have no issue at all.

I should also note that, for me, the Theater mode does not work at all (pre or post patch); however, Brian says that the feature works just fine on his machine. According to both machines I used for this test, I had no recent games to pull video from. I'm not entirely sure what the issue is, as it works fine for me on console. Additionally, and this has nothing to do with any particular version or the game itself, the Call of Duty website is broken. This is why I could not provide any detailed per game breakdown--I wasn't aware it was broken until after I had played the games.

Having played Black Ops on PC and Xbox 360, I will say that I feel more comfortable playing it on PC. There are a few reasons for this, but primarily the game just looks better on PC. On console, the single-player component looks great but the multiplayer looks so washed out. Playing the game on the same monitor on console and then on PC using max settings, I just find myself performing better with the clarity the PC version provides.

Now that a fix exists, it's possible that your experience will be much better. My aging machine, though, still had issues with the game--issues which relative to the stated system requirements didn't seem like they should be happening.

As stated in the beginning of this article, this is not meant to be a technical breakdown of the issues Black Ops faces on PC; however, we felt that it was imperative that our community--a PC loving community, mind you--be given some indication of our thoughts on the game's PC version.

It was broken and a supposed fix was released. Your experiences may vary. Now it's just a matter of deciding whether or not that bad taste in your mouth can be cleared away so you can play a $60 game and not a $60 beta test.

Let us know how Call of Duty: Black Ops is working for you after the patch on the PC and consoles in the comments.

[Ed. Note: Originally we incorrectly listed the min spec machine as featuring a PentiumD chipset; however, the rig had been previously upgraded to a Core 2 Duo E6700 Processor at 2.66Ghz. The original listing was based on the PC's default specifications from HP--used to ensure motherboard model accuracy--and accidentally disregarded the upgrade. We apologize for the error.]


Disclosure: This test was completed on a PC version of Call of Duty: Black Ops provided by Activision via Steam.