Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Review: Battlefield 4 (PC)

Diagram 1
Battlefield 4 is really difficult to peg with a numerical score because it's a constantly moving target. The game leaps up and down radically over time, which is something the series has suffered from since the start.

Upon its release, Battlefield 4's multiplayer -- the main draw for the series -- featured server instability, inexplicable crashes and lock-ups, bizarre sound issues, and very short stretches of fun. The early going sparked a rant from this writer about how anyone could possibly review Battlefield 4 (at launch) with any honesty because, although it wasn't unplayable, it was close enough that any writer should have had second thoughts about slapping a score on the game and calling it a day.

In my experience, even the single-player campaign featured a plethora of random lock-ups until a few weeks had passed since the launch. Since the single-player campaign is so inconsequential and acts as a training ground for multiplayer -- glimpses of the gadgets, the scope of the conflict, etc. -- the last time it crashed out was the last time I spent any time with it. As much as the campaign is a cool graphical showcase the story is limp with almost no charm and characters I couldn't care less about.

Online -- as awful as my early experience was after the honeymoon period (see Diagram 1) -- has been slowly picking up steam. Stability is much better, disconnects don't happen as often, and the game has started to deliver on the large scale mayhem that marks the series.

There are still hills and valleys as we get further from the original launch date (the PlayStation 4 version notwithstanding), and right now there's a real issue with automatic team balancing between rounds and regular encounters with players that would appear to be utilizing hacks of some kind.

It's not uncommon to get steam-rolled by a stacked team of Level 50 - 70 players against a roster of beginners up to about Level 20 round after round, across any of the different modes with no hint that the game is going to make an attempt at spreading the skill out over two teams. It's definitely a frustrating experience being on McDonald's Fun Land side of things, getting hammered, but it's rage inducing to get laid out time and again by some guy halfway across the map and through an entire building. This has happened to me too many times to be a random hiccup, where lines of code overlapped in a confluence of chance and ping-based data transfer. Developer DICE is constantly updating and tweaking things for a better experience -- and they've made some good strides lately -- but it's still not in a state where I'd wholeheartedly recommend Battlefield 4.

That said, I'll be the first to admit that when the game is fired up and you're working with a squad across a map to plant a charge or grab a control point, Battlefield 4 is phenomenal!

Those times when you knife and opponent that just landed a helicopter, take the controls of the whirly-bird, take it straight up while your squad spawns on your position and shoot rooftop snipers, then leap out of the machine with three guys, pulling the parachute rip cord moments before landing on a building awning, obliterating three opponents that didn't expect anyone in that position, planting a charge, then defending the objective from being defused -- that's phenomenal. Situations like that happen far more often now that the game is more stable.

It also lends itself to playing around with the character classes and levelling them up along the way, earning new gear, and combat options since you're not constantly on the edge of your seat that any experience points you've earned during a match will vanish if the game disconnects. (I would let out an audible sigh of relief when the end of round stats screen appeared -- it meant I got to keep all my hard-earned experience points.)

Like previous Battlefield games, I've spent almost all my time playing as an Engineer for the simple fact that they get access to the really heavy ordinance, like Stinger missiles, the old standby rocket-propelled grenade, and anti-vehicle mines. I'm also attracted to being able to earn experience points (XP) by repairing vehicles. I'm not the best shot in the world so the chance to earn XP by being Mr. Fixit and blowing out huge sections of buildings with a rocket launcher to expose enemy positions makes the game more fun for me.

If you don't want to take the slow route to levelling-up, for real money players have the option to purchase "Battlepacks." The Battlepacks can also be earned by crossing various XP milestones. The contents of these packs appear to be random for the most part. Gun skins, XP bonuses, equipment, and so on, are the rewards.

The game fumbles when it comes to telling the player how to activate the XP bonuses, for example, bumping XP earned in an hour by 50%. I had to turn to an outside source to figure it out. Why do I have to turn to YouTube for this? If the information could be gleaned from the various menus and options in the web interface -- the game's front end is a window in your web browser -- I wasn't able to locate it. For something you can spend actual money on, it's odd that DICE didn't make it clear how to activate the XP bonuses.

From some corners, Battlefield 4 has come under fire for showcasing a "mere" 10 maps (14 if you include the recently released "China Rising" pack) but with more than half a dozen modes, I have yet to feel like the maps have grown tiresome. (That is, unless Flood Zone comes up. I loathe that map.) I do like the new "Obliteration" mode, where each team fights over a bomb which is the only way to take out the enemy base. There's a lot of back and forth and teamwork required in this mode, which really plays to the game's strengths.

I found myself gravitating toward the old standbys of "Rush" and "Conquest" because they're so familiar. And maybe because of that I haven't even given "CR Air Superiority" a whirl because I can't fathom how anyone would eke out any enjoyment capturing and holding objectives with only aircraft.

At this moment in time, Battlefield 4 is less of a work in progress than it was at launch. It's enjoyable for long stretches, which is a lot more than I could say for it a few weeks ago. It has yet to reach its final form but at least Battlefield 4 isn't a train wreck any longer (at least on PC).

I'll have to revisit Battlefield 4 a month or two from now to see how things move forward but as it is right at this very moment I'm having quite a bit of fun with it.

- Aaron Simmer

The Good:
- Looks so, so good
- When everything's working right, it's a great multiplayer experience
- Lots of carrots in the form of upgrades

The Bad:
- What a horrible, horrible launch
- Single player was stab in the right direction but still flat and unappealing
- Why do I need to consult YouTube to figure out how to use some of the basic features?
- Still amazes me how much offensive language a shooter can produce

Score: 8.0 / 10*

* The score at this very moment