The Playstation 4 and Xbox One? Pish. Leave it to EA’s technical wizards at DICE, a Battlefield game, and a souped-up PC to rip the curtain back from the next generation. You can’t very well watch one of these skyscrapers topple — as carefully scripted as anything in Call of Duty, but with some secret ingredient that actually instills awe — without feeling like you’ve arrived somewhere you haven’t yet been. Unfortunately, the skyscrapers aren’t the only things that topple.
After the jump, next stop wonderland.
These maps are almost all amazing, with stuff that breaks and collapses to lend the battlefield a sense of ruin as the match progresses. The map that comes up at the start is not the map you’ll be playing when the last ticket is depleted. Guess what happens to the smoke stacks on that factory. When the levee breaks, you’re going to be swimming in the streets. That skyscraper. Oh, that skyscraper.
And it’s not all mere spectacle. Some of it is practical. When that little tower collapses in the center of Locker — this is the counterpart to Battlefield 3’s widely reviled rocket-launcher-fight-in-a-phone-booth map, Metro — it’s not just a “whoa, I didn’t know it could do that” moment. It’s a game changer for how you occupy and control that point. We’re still not at the point of Volition’s Red Faction: Guerrilla, but we’re well beyond Bad Company 2 and Company of Heroes. These destructibles aren’t just elaborate ways for geometry to disappear. They’re maps that play differently before and after. Go ahead, stupid tank, bring down this office building. It just gives me a better place to hide.
Water finally gets its due in Battlefield 4. Whether it’s a town that floods or a small chain of islands during a typhoon, these maps know how to make water tactically significant. With new boats folded into the balance, swimming and diving, and some amazing wave technology, it’s a whole new dimension. Sitting on the deck of an attack boat as it rises and falls with the waves, trying to get a line of sight on the targets sitting on a grounded carrier, is something I don’t think I’ve ever done in a shooter before. Now they’re above me. Now they’re below me. Now they’re above me. Again, it’s like arriving somewhere I’ve never been. Who ever thought I’d fight an entirely dynamic firefight on the dramatic swells of a storm churned ocean? And it’s gorgeous, of course. Along with Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, it’s a great time to get wet in videogames.
But the genius of Battlefield 4 is that the next-gen spectacle isn’t the main selling point. It’s the backdrop to something simultaneously familiar and newly refined: that old-time Battlefield gameplay. A proven model further honed to be more proven. Gourmet comfort food. A new car smell but a comfortably worn leather seat. A franchise entry that isn’t phoned in, where nothing was taken for granted, where everything was on the table during the design process. Another Civilization IV, another Guild Wars 2, another Sims 3. Welcome to the thrill of Battlefield 1942 all over again. Here we are, seven or eight Battlefields later, and it feels like 2002 all over again, like that first time you spawned on Wake Island and marveled at this brave new world and its emergent Hollywood war movie set pieces.
You might not even notice some of the nice new touches, like leaning, or the gadget rosetta, or having five people instead of four in your squad, so it’s not nearly so bad when that one dipwad insists on being a sniper who camps at the far end of the map contributing nothing beyond the occasional kill that will just get defibrillated anyway. You might not mind the microbuyable battlepacks and how some of the weapon attachments are only available in battlepacks, which means they’re part of a lottery. And by lottery, I mean a game tax for dumb people. Did I say dumb? I meant dedicated fans who don’t mind tipping EA on top of the $60 retail price. Oh, EA. The more things change.
[Update: It turns out you can't buy the battlepacks. I apologize to EA for assuming Battlefield 4 worked like their other games. Currently, you get battlepacks by actually leveling up. So, in fact, it's more like EA is tipping you.]
You might never even try commander mode. Heck, you might not even realize there’s a commander looking out for you. Who do you think called down those cruise missiles or put that lazily circling C-130 in the sky? Who do you think keeps summoning the recon drones? Do you think your squad earned that promotion just by being awesome? There’s something uniquely satisfying about shepherding your team to victory on a map you’ve played, knowing firsthand what it looks like down in the weeds, remembering what it was like to be able to see through walls because your commander was on the ball and helping you along.
You can’t help but notice the unlocks, and the way experience is doled out by what you’ve been doing. Fly helicopters to fly better helicopters. Snipe to get a better sniper rifle. Grab the tank to get better tanks. Everything has an experience bar waiting to be filled, which scatters the sense of advancement across several areas. Just ride around in a boat for a while to get better at boating. You are what you do in Battlefield 4, without feeling like you have to pay your dues first before you can do it. We’ll see how this shakes out in the long-run, as there seem to be plenty of game-changers lurking at the far end of the advancement system. But in the first two weeks, I have no complaints about the rate of advancement and the associated rewards.
Oh, and it has single-player. I almost forgot. Battlefield 4 is worth comparing to Call of Duty: Ghosts for a number of reasons, including that they both have awful single-player campaigns. The best thing you can say about the Battlefield 4 campaign is that it’s short. You can also say it plays well enough with scripted spectacle to be barely worth a run-through. You might also want one of the unlockable guns you get, so there’s that.
But whereas Ghosts is a big bag of stuff in search of an identity, kicking and struggling like puppies in a sack, Battlefield 4 is a meticulously built stately tower. That happens to have a teensy single-player campaign sticking out of the side. This is the gameplay equivalent of a cathedral, built with an eye for aesthetics and a learned tradition of arches and flying buttresses and other things that make cathedrals majestic. Building on years of Battlefielding, Battlefield 4 strains at something greater than itself. It points towards the best of multiplayer gaming as a carefully engineered experience designed to include rather than exclude. I may not be able to shoot a lot of guys, but by golly I can zoom in and press Q like you wouldn’t believe. I can spawn on my squad and draw fire. I can lob packs of ammo like beads at Mardi Gras. I can ride the hell out of the passenger seat in a scout chopper. Battlefield 4 knows this about me and it recognizes me for it. It singles me out and winks approvingly. Here, kid, have 25 points. Along with Guild Wars 2, this is more than a game. It’s a social experiment in incentivizing helpful interaction. Call of Duty: Ghosts rewards me for teabagging. Battlefield 4 is above that. It is a force for online sportsmanship. Except for the stupid snipers.
There are a couple more spectacular accomplishment worth mentioning. Battlefield 4 is the product of over a decade of experience. Yet it’s an astonishing resource hog. It continually surprises me how EA flagship franchises like Battlefield and The Sims and SimCity are so demanding in terms of hardware, effectively shutting out huge swathes of people without seriously upgraded and maintained PCs, and even taxing those of us who do have nice computers with fancy videocards. Is it really supposed to take this long to load a map? Am I really supposed to wait this long to play? I suppose you get what you pay for when it comes to visual flair. Personally, I’d prefer more optimization and less latest gen. Why can’t EA’s games run as well as Grand Theft Auto V or Tomb Raider or even just Just Cause 2?
But Battlefield 4’s most spectacular failing is its lack of technical stability. I literally cannot play for more than two or three matches without something failing catastrophically and either locking up my computer or booting me from the server. This would be bad enough in a game based on a series of quick fixes of tactical combat. But Battlefield 4 is a game that takes a long time to load, and a long time to establish a tactical flow on the map, and an even longer time to get into your groove. It takes me two or three matches to warm up. But there won’t be any warming up or grooving at this rate. And it’s particularly disheartening when you lose whatever progress you made during a hard-fought battle. Battlefield 4 is nothing if not technically ambitious, and unfortunately, the ambitions often topple it as dramatically as its collapsing skyscrapers. I look forward to enjoying Battlefield 4 when it can reliably provide the experience it was designed to provide. After a lengthy open beta and a few patches in its first two weeks of release, that time still isn’t here.