It seems the universe has a sense of irony.
Way back when dinosaurs roamed the earth (i.e. 2011) I wrote a review of Battlefield 3’s single player campaign. It was, to put it mildly, not a very good game – and I even got to questioning whether it was a game at all, being as it was an almost totally creatively bankrupt experience that alternated between a barely-interactive theme park where you occasionally shot people (or not, since your involvement in the game was entirely optional and the thing would happily play itself without you lifting a finger) and braindead turret sections that were very thinly disguised as vehicle combat. It made almost no use of the destructible buildings provided by DICE’s Frostbite engine outside of scripted cutscenes, had writing and dialogue that was offensively stupid, and in general was just a black hole of awfulness that ranks somewhere in the top five worst games I’ve played in the last decade.
Now, one day DICE is hopefully going to realise that very few people buy Battlefield for its CoD-knockoff single-player, and they’re going to just cut the whole thing entirely and plough the vast numbers of man-hours they waste on it back into making the series’ excellent multiplayer as good as it can be, and the gaming world will be a much better place for it. Sadly that day has not yet arrived, and so I find myself in the rather unfortunate position of having to review yet another Battlefield single player campaign. To say that I wasn’t looking forward to it would be something of an understatement, but with the multiplayer being yet another shining example of a botched, premature game launch I had little else to do this weekend. So I gritted my teeth, girded my loins, and ventured forth into what I fully expected to be another five hours of sheer hell.
This is why I was quite surprised to find that Battlefield 4 isn’t quite the unmitigated disaster that I was expecting. Sure, my first impressions were not favourable; the story starts with a flashback sequence again – always a reliable sign of a hack writer – and my prodding of the first mission’s scripted helicopter attack revealed that it would sit off in the middle distance twiddling its rotor blades if I stopped the car and refused to participate in the thrilling chase sequence. You get promoted to squad leader after that first mission, yet your supposed subordinates spend the next few missions telling you what to do and making your decisions for you (while naturally relying on you to do everything that’s not sitting behind a piece of cover taking occasional ineffective potshots at the enemy). A typical combat encounter will consist of enemies running in from off map or deploying from helicopters and immediately crouching down behind cover with their heads conveniently sticking out so that you can headshot them. On the face of it Battlefield 4 is as shooter by the numbers that’s just as restrictive and on-rails as its predecessor, with the only real difference in the structure and layout of the levels being that it’s slightly better at camouflaging that fact this time around. A paragon of good game design this most definitely is not.
And yet despite my rock-bottom expectations, despite the awful Tom Clancy-esque plot and clichéd dialogue and formulaic structure of the game, despite every fibre of my being screaming at me that this was just a slightly prettier version of the un-game that was Battlefield 3, I found myself having fun. Only occasionally at first, and with a certain resentfulness that it meant I couldn’t outright hate the game, but while I would hardly call the first half of Battlefield’s 4 single player campaign a compelling reason to pick up the game it’s probably still worth playing if you’ve bought it anyway. The reasons for this are almost entirely down to the improvements that have been made both in the technical capabilites of the Frostbite engine and how the campaign uses it; the scripted destruction now more directly involves the player and there’s more opportunity for you to perpetrate your own mayhem by destroying the structure the bad guys happen to be standing on, but this is small fry compared to Frostbite 3’s new innovation: the weather effects.
Battlefield 4 is an extremely good looking game. That goes without saying. It’s even good-looking running at 1440×900 on my jalopy hodge-podge of a computer. Even so, Battlefield 4’s weather effects honestly have to be seen to be believed. They’re incredible, going far beyond just having a rain filter plastered over the players vision and actually simulating wind and waves during a storm. When you’re in a boat it bounces from wave crest to wave crest; when you’re on land there’s so much crap blowing past your field of vision that it makes it very difficult to pick out targets. The fourth level of the campaign is a beach assault during one of these storms, and even though I’ve done beach assaults in a dozen other shooters the storm made it seem fresh and new again, trying to spot enemy soldiers through the murk of wind-swept detritus and beating rain. I couldn’t help myself. I started to have fun, and I continued to have fun even though the level later transitioned to yet another mobile turret section. Battlefield 4 is the last game I expected to do this, but it showed me something refreshing and novel and I’m prepared to forgive it quite a lot because of this.
Unfortunately my newfound forbearance didn’t last long. I’d already had to put up with a lift door that opened to reveal a soldier standing in mid-air because the level geometry hadn’t loaded, and a tank that was supposedly hunting me that I was able to climb on top of and dance a merry jig on without the tank AI reacting, and the same tank subsequently getting immobilised with its barrel stuck through a window, and a helicopter battle where the helicopter cheated by diving beneath the surface of the ocean to evade my gunfire. I’d resigned myself to having to bulldoze my way through to the end of what is a thoroughly buggy game, but there’s a reason why I only talk about the first half of Battlefield 4’s single player, and that’s because I was hit with a series of crashes to desktop halfway through the game during mission four. It locked up when firing guns, when running to cover, after I died and clicked the button to reload – I couldn’t play for more than a couple of minutes without the whole thing spluttering to a halt and sending me back to the last checkpoint. It had hardly been well-behaved up until this point, but after having a few glimmers of unexpected fun with the game I wasn’t counting on Battlefield 4 almost immediately slamming the shutters down and physically preventing me from carrying on any further.
In some ways this is a relief – while the stunning weather effects almost single-handedly lift the single player out of the chasm that Battlefield 3 fell into and into the vicinity of “interesting curio”, it’s still not something you play because it’s good, but rather because you bought the game anyway and it at least does something that (as yet) no other game has really attempted. I made five or six attempts to carry on with the campaign, but I’m secretly quite happy to have an excuse to not have to sit through the interminable loading screens and cutscenes any more. I still find it quite ironic, though; not only that the game did manage to clear that low, low bar my expectations had set for it, but that it then pulled a Madagascar and refused to let me carry on rather than allow that fun element to infect the rest of the game. DICE are renowned for buggy launches but even so I find Battlefield 4 to be exceptionally bad in this regard1, and judging from various web forums I’m hardly the only one.
DICE are a top-flight developer with the full backing of EA who are supposedly market leaders in their genre, so why is the game so bug-ridden when I’ve played FPSes from Eastern European developers made with a fraction of the budget that were almost completely bug-free? I have no doubt they’ll eventually patch it – they did with Battlefield 3’s horrendously broken multiplayer netcode – but it’s yet another example of a premiere PC franchise that has been pushed out the door early in order to hit a particular market window, with the publisher trusting that it’ll sell copies based on its name alone. In a way I’m part of the problem; I knew it would be a buggy mess at launch but I preordered it anyway, but this is another one of those games that’s so bad it’s going to make me swear off the next iteration of the series unless I see something that’ll make me think it’ll turn out differently – and when Battlefield 4 can largely be described as “Battlefield 3, except with weather”, I think that it’s a series that’s highly unlikely to surprise me again.
- The multiplayer is even worse, with so many server crashes that it makes trying to play for more than fifteen minutes without losing all your progress an extremely risky business. ↩