Pretending to Shoot People in the Next Generation: Battlefield 4

I have never been big on playing video games on my PC. Sure, there are certain games–Civilization, Crusader Kings, and Baseball Mogul come to mind–that wouldn’t work and aren’t available on consoles that I’ll play on my laptop. But I’ve never had any interest in building a high end gaming PC. I’ve heard the arguments of the PC evangelists: better graphics, mods, and we swear it’s totally accessible now because the drivers just update themselves. But as far as I can tell, the PC doesn’t like me any more than I like it.

Earlier this year, I updated Civ V with the Brave New World expansion, promptly breaking Civ V on my computer, causing it to crash 5-10 turns into a game. I spent over an hour trying to figure out what was wrong, but the expansion was new enough that most of the Google results were actually people talking about how the previous expansion, Gods and Kings, did something similar. Gods and Kings had never given me trouble. I eventually fixed it–apparently, at least–by raising the texture quality in the graphics settings, which I had defaulted to the lowest specs because I was running the game on my laptop. I didn’t have any more crashes.  It worked.  But who the fuck knows why it worked. That’s just one example, but it sums up why I’ve never made any effort to go through the hassle and expense of upgrading a computer to be able to run big budget 3d games, and chose to play worse-looking, unmoddable versions.

Brave New World included a the Venetian City State but did not include drugging my citizens with Soma, so the title was entirely misleading.

Brave New World included a the Venetian City State but did not include drugging my citizens with Soma, so the title was entirely misleading.

This is the reason I’ve never really played a Battlefield game. Sure, I tried out the downloadable Battlefield 1943 and I bought the PS3 port of Battlefield 3, but all along I’ve been aware that I was only getting a shadow of the true experience. Sure, the maps were big. The guns were loud. There was a tank, and I could run up to it and plant C4 and detonate it too soon, killing us both. But it was obvious that the large maps were designed for something else. Something bigger. PC Battlefield was about jamming as many players as possible onto a server and seeing just how fucked up it could get before it either crashed or one team won the game.

I don't care what anyone tells me or if giant satellite dishes are real, this level is based off of "Cradle" in Goldeneye for the N64.

I don’t care what anyone tells me or if giant satellite dishes are real, this level is based off of “Cradle” in Goldeneye for the N64.

Despite all the noise that Electronic Arts has made about Battlefield becoming a direct competitor to Call of Duty, they are entirely different beasts.  Sure, they’re both first person shooters with modern/future weaponry, gritty aesthetics, and grown men earnestly yelling parts of the NATO (NOVEMBER! ALFA! TANGO! OSCAR!) phonetic alphabet.  PS3/360 console versions felt a little closer to the CoD formula, with a smaller number of vehicles, less wide-open maps, and lower player counts.  But it was still a slower game that somehow concurrently had more potential for tactics and silliness.

With the PS4/Xbox One version of Battlefield 4, that experience finally comes to consoles, warts and all. And yes, I am aware that I still can’t use a mouse and keyboard to play so there are people who think the game is still watered down. But as someone who has been using a controller for FPS games forever, the idea of moving with the WASD (WHISKY! ALPHA! SIERRA! DELTA!) keys sounds just as crazy to me as the idea of aiming with an analog stick must sound to a PC gamer.  Control method notwithstanding, PS4/XBone Battlefield manages to pull off 64 player servers complete with expanded maps and plenty of vehicles.

battlefieldjetstorm

Battlefield 4 includes all sorts of aircraft that I can’t pilot for shit.

I’ll start out with a confession: it’s pretty goddamn awesome.  The smaller levels (Operation Locker) devolve into pure insanity that’s almost–but just almost–unplayable.  The larger levels (Rogue Transmission) are filled out. But, fuck, the 64 player Conquest mode didn’t work at all for the first week of the PS4.  My single player campaign saved data was deleted twice, which has literally never happened to me since the days of defective memory cards.  That wouldn’t be a big deal–the campaign is low rent Tom Clancy at best–but a few multiplayer weapons are locked behind beating the campaign.  I don’t think I’ll ever be getting those, since I can’t see myself ever going through the first half of the shooting gallery campaign again.  It’s a huge mess, though at least now (on PS4) all the multiplayer modes seem to be working reliably and I haven’t had a crash since the latest update.

I don't even want to admit how many times I've died because of an irrational desire to get kills with the repair tool.

I don’t even want to admit how many times I’ve died because of an irrational desire to get kills with the repair tool.

Battlefield 4 introduces a new concept into the mix with “battlepacks”.  Unlike Call of Duty, or Battlefield 3, most upgrades to weapons–as well as camouflage and gun colors–are not tied to experience points, number of kills, or accomplishing specific challenges.  Instead, they are unlocked randomly.  Every two character levels, you earn a bronze battlepack which contains a random selection of three items–unlocks and experience bonuses.  Every ten character levels, there are gold battlepacks with rarer items.  This means that, early on, you’re often earning upgrades to weapons you don’t even have.

Battlepacks

This system is almost directly ported over from EA’s Mass Effect multiplayer, and resembles the in-game purchases in free-to-play titles like DOTA (DELTA! OSCAR! TANGO! ALFA!) 2, which randomizes aesthetic drops.  It’s gambling, and Electronic Arts thinks that it’s the new big thing.

Six years ago, Infinity Ward revolutionized the multiplayer shooter with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare by shoehorning in RPG elements.  Experience points, weapon unlocks, challenges, and cheesy guitar riffs created a steady dopamine drip of excitement and achievement.  Even if you were terrible at the game–and I was pretty terrible–every few matches meant a level up, new weapons, and new abilities.  The game was balanced enough that a good player could still dominate with the starting loadout and a bad player would still fail with everything unlocked.  Every game under the sun proceeded to rip off this system of experience points in multiplayer play, and people wondered what would replace it.

I have no idea why this hotel would be a strategic point in any modern conflict.

I have no idea why this hotel would be a strategic point in any modern conflict.

EA and Battlefield 4 want to replace it with gambling.  Rather than unlocking new items, earning experience points now unlocks a lottery ticket.  You receive the battlepack, then you have to go and virtually “open” the battlepack, revealing the items inside.  They pop up on the screen like powerball numbers.  If there’s a specific item you’re waiting for–and there never is for me, but I’m not very good at the game–this can be an exciting process.  From what little I played of the Mass Effect 3 mutliplayer, I can see how the whole process is effective.  ME3 gated weapons behind the lottery, something BF4 seems to resist for now.

Just as long as they don't make dramatic skyboxes into random drops.

Just as long as they don’t make dramatic skyboxes into random drops.

If BF4 didn’t have such an atrocious launch, I might be willing to go out on a limb and say that it would help usher in an era of gambling-as-advancement in multiplayer games.  This year saw easily the weakest release for Call of Duty yet.  Ghosts didn’t have the momentum of the Modern Warfare series or the relative innovation of the Black Ops titles.  It was a step back in a ton of ways, and left a vacuum that Battlefield 4 could have filled.  Except Battlefield 4 so far has stumbled so hard that it might not grab the chance EA has been looking for since the Medal of Honor reboot.  The technical issues have been so terrible that, without significant improvement, I can’t see BF surpassing CoD this time around (though, anecdotally, the two games have similar playercounts on PS4).

Maybe we should give up on both games and play Killzone, right?  We should give in to Sony’s years and years of effort to make Killzone into the next big thing.  It’s a gorgeous game, runs better than either of the other options, and unlike DICE or Infinity Ward, its developers haven’t become notorious for all the wrong reasons.

The only problem is that it is still fucking Killzone.

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