Battlefield 4, or Shrink-Wrap is Your Friend

4 11 2013

Many years ago, I worked at Electronics Boutique. How many years ago? Enough years that Electronics Boutique still existed. We had a store policy that any product could be returned for a full refund, even if opened, within a certain period. I think it was two weeks. This wasn’t an uncommon policy – I think all of the software vendors used to do it. A customer would bring back an open game and tell us it was terrible. We’d make sure all of the inserts were there and the cartridge (yes, that long ago) was intact, and send the customer on their way with a full refund or a different game. We’d shrink-wrap the box and put it back on the shelf, good as new. I may be wrong about this, but I remember hearing that this practice was nixed because it was illegal to sell products as “new” if they’d been used before. Of course, its demise was concurrent with the rise of easy and cheap duplication of CDs, as well as stores hitting upon the money-printing operation that is Used Games sales. Whatever the reason, it’s been a long time since you could return a game for being lousy and expect anything other than a pittance or a blank stare in return.

I wish it weren’t so.

And that’s the review right there, isn’t it? If you’d like a bit more detail, read on.I never played much of the original Battlefield 1942, but I played (and really liked) Battlefield 2 and Battlefield 2142. I own Battlefield 3 and was generally pleased with it, but I really only spent time in the single-player. My usual online gaming cohort (more on him in a moment) didn’t like it, so I didn’t spend enough time in the multiplayer to get a feel for it. The minutes I did spend had clear echoes of BF2 and 2142, and that’s a good thing. I can’t say that BF4 doesn’t have those echoes, but they seem more distant and dissolute. Taken with a host of other serious issues, they’re far too little to sustain the game.

I mentioned my usual gaming cohort. He’s a devotee of the Call of Duty series, as am I. Of late, we’ve become a little less enthusiastic about the CoD games, though we’ll be buying Ghosts and almost certainly playing a lot of multiplayer. Our enthusiasm has waned because of the increasing number of little niggling flaws that populate the CoD  series – too many invisible walls, stories full of sound and fury signifying nothing, samey-samey gameplay, and, to his mind, the baffling omission of vehicles. If you haven’t played a CoD title since the emergence of Modern Warfare, you might not know that the series used to feature vehicular combat, and it was usually a lot of fun. My buddy loved spending an almost alarming amount of time zipping around multiplayer maps on a motorcycle with someone in his sidecar. He didn’t even need combat – just give him a motorcycle and he’d stay amused for quite a while.

The other night, we were playing Zombies mode in Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 – specifically the “Origins” level, which features a tank. It’s a far cry from the vehicles of CoD past (and, for that matter, of Far Cry). You don’t drive it – you ride it as it follows a preset track. As we enjoyed this bit of rail shooting, he asked “Why do you think they got rid of vehicles?”

I rattled off a handful of reasons – to work properly, vehicles require very large, primarily open maps, which goes against the run-and-gun style of CoD multiplayer. In earlier games that included vehicles, they were scarce, leading to frustration as players grabbed them and failed to pick up passengers or quickly got them destroyed. If a team had a competent vehicle driver, they would often completely dominate, making it frustrating to oppose them. They just wouldn’t work well without serious changes to the gameplay. But hey, Battlefield 4 was coming, and it has vehicles aplenty! He was unmoved. After all, he hadn’t enjoyed BF3 – why would this be any different?

In multiplayer, every issue I described as reasons for the lack of vehicles in CoD was readily apparent. The maps are large and open, meaning snipers and vehicle crews make short work of those unfortunate enough to have to hoof it across the map. Making one’s way to a target almost invariably means running a gauntlet of well positioned and fortified enemies, leading to frequent respawns at great distance from the target. Lather, rinse,  repeat. All of this is evidence of the need for coordination and teamwork, which is terrific in theory, but becomes unpleasant in the vulgar wilds of Xbox Live. The dream of a well planned and flawlessly executed air/land offensive is very enticing, but if I have to hear 9 year olds spewing racism and homophobia on the off chance of getting a solid squad action together, it’s not going to happen.

The usual method of avoiding the unpleasantness of an open channel on Xbox Live is to set up a party of like-minded players beforehand and communicate exclusively with them. Obviously, this undercuts the ability of that group to communicate with the outside world, but it should mean that a four person team can work together to score some success. That would be great, but Battlefield 4 doesn’t seem to honor Xbox Live parties. It acknowledges that you’re in a party, but it doesn’t let you join games as a party (or at least makes it very difficult to do so – I never found an option to do it). Inviting friends to join your session is also difficult.

The multiplayer server browser also feels lifted from the PC, which theoretically offers a lot of options not typically found in Xbox Live, but in practice is just overwhelming and frustrating. The server list shows seemingly hundreds of active games, but they’re all full. Adding simple filters, like a specific game type and 1-10 free slots, usually results in no servers found. Trying to end up in a match with a friend is an exercise in annoyance, especially when plenty of other games (including Battlefield‘s main competitor, the CoD series) have been doing it effortlessly for years now.

In BF3, I at least enjoyed the single player campaign. It wasn’t perfect, but it was at least entertaining, with a few standout moments – the F-18 mission was gorgeous and a great break from the standard FPS fare, for example. The writing wasn’t great, but it wasn’t awful, either. It wasn’t terribly long, but it wasn’t so short that I felt like I hadn’t gotten a decent return on my investment.

None of these things can be said about the campaign in BF4. It’s extremely short. I blew through it on the hardest difficulty in two days of not very intensive play, maybe five or six hours at best. The character interactions are bog-standard video game nonsense, like the one member of the team who reflexively doesn’t trust outsiders, despite being the same one who brought four hundred or so refugees onto the warship that serves as home base without batting an eye. His constant angry bickering with a Chinese operative who joins the team builds and builds, growing more and more irritating, until finally it’s all resolved behind a loading screen. I’m not exaggerating when I say that you end a mission with them at each others’ throats, watch a static loading screen with no dialogue, and come out the other side to find them friends, genuinely concerned about each others’ well being. From that point on, it seems like they’re building to a romance. It makes no sense. Other characters include a shipboard doctor who seems as though she’ll be important only to disappear halfway through the story, a gruff and combative special forces (or maybe CIA?) operator who gets into shouting matches with your squad and then makes a similarly unceremonious exit, the crew of a Marine listening post that appears and disappears in a matter of seconds, and a tough-talking Marine unit commander who spouts some of the most nonsensical expletives I’ve ever heard. I found other nits to pick in the writing, like a US Navy character called the Titan – maybe that’s meant as a nod to Respawn Entertainment’s upcoming Titanfall, but the Navy just doesn’t name ships that way. With the exception of the Enterprise, every carrier since the USS John F. Kennedy was commissioned in 1968 has been named after a person. That’s a minor gripe, but people who play these games are often military buffs, and they’re the type to notice that kind of error.

The game offers three endings based on a pair of related last-second choices the player has to make. As yet, I’ve only seen one, since you have to play through the entire final level again to make the choices, and it wasn’t enjoyable enough the first time around to warrant doing twice more (though I probably will at some point, as there are a couple of easy achievements for doing so). The ending I got didn’t actually make much sense. Going into it, the US and China are already at war, with the player in possession of information that can presumably cause the Chinese to stop backing their side of the fight. That information is lost in one of the three endings, the one I chose. The scanty end sequence I got, primarily voices over scrolling credits, certainly didn’t seem like it was set in a world where the only hope of avoiding an all-out war between superpowers had just gone up in smoke. What’s worse, the poor writing up to that point made the choices feel weightless and silly. In fact, the whole story felt fairly pointless and poorly connected, with little sense of any importance behind the goings-on. Put it all together and you’ve got something that certainly doesn’t seem like the work of a high-end studio with the resources one has to assume EA put up for a game this big. I have some hope (tempered with a lot of skepticism) for the involvement of Stephen Gaghan with Call of Duty: Ghosts. His involvement seems to mark some recognition that people are getting fed up with the ridiculous stories and storytelling of recent military FPS games. Of course, BF4 and the similarly muddled and empty-headed Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 (and the original Black Ops while we’re at it) have sold very well, so that recognition probably won’t amount to much.

There are things I haven’t seen in Battlefield 4. For instance, there’s a Team Deathmatch mode with no vehicles, which might prove more enjoyable (at the cost of one of the game’s main differentiators). There are those two other endings. There’s the outside chance that something will sway my opinion, but it just doesn’t seem likely, and the road between here and there is paved with terrible writing, an annoying server browser, and far too little actual enjoyment. If I could, I’d walk into GameStop, slap it down on the counter, and tell the good shopkeep “This was terrible.” I’d get my money, and they’d shrink-wrap it and put it back on the shelf for some other poor sap to regret. Instead, I’ll trade it in for a fraction of what I paid for it mere days ago, and I’ll spin the roulette wheel on another military FPS. At some point, I should probably think long and hard on that “definition of insanity” people so love to kick around, or maybe just “Fool me once…”

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One response

5 11 2013
MissRhiosace

Although I have different opinions to you, I really enjoyed reading this post. I used to be a big CoD fan, but with the troubles I had with Black Ops 2, too many to even list, I gave up with it, and Ghosts is the first CoD I haven’t bought. I am enjoying Battlefield 4, however, I’m rather in a lucky position. I’m a member of a gaming community and we all squad up and play together. They buy their own servers so we all play on that, there’s too many of us to use an xbox live party anyway.
I just hope they fix the problems I’m experiencing with multiplayer, although I went to midnight release of Black Ops 2, and multiplayer was actually unplayable for about two weeks. It seemed to be a problem with the game not understanding that some of us don’t have the best connection. I’m from the UK, and the internet I have is the best in my area, but it wasn’t good enough. Activision blamed us publicly for not having good internet until a patch came out. My die hard CoD fan friends ended up having to pay for fibre broadband, which is really expensive to play on it with less problems.

Anyway, I’m not here to convert you, or to bash you for playing CoD, so long as you’re enjoying the game, you’re on the right game. I think that’s why I enjoyed your post so much. Sometimes it’s just nice to talk about our experiences in games without being shouted at by fundamental fan boys.

All the best.

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