I've never been a fan of the Battlefield games, not in the committed, consuming way that games tend to motivate me. I'd play my brother's copy of Battlefield: 1942 in high school, but, absent a single player storyline (beyond World War II) and a compulsion to play on the internet (a daunting prospect for a 14 year old in the late 90s) I didn't really get into it beyond re-enacting the Normandy landing time and time again. Even when I started playing Battlefield: Bad Company 2, with its charming, goofy single player campaign, there was a layer of abstraction. Something about the game, its bombast, its strangeness, and its cartoonish means of engaging with war, personhood and survival, matted with healthy shares of drama, was compelling, but at the same time, repellent and, to some extent, unsustainable. I never played Battlefield 2142 or Battlefield 2 or Battlefield: Vietnam. All of these seminal titles, many of which came out during my strange college gaming days, never graced my hard drive. My relationship with the series has always been tenuous, if respectful: people seem absolutely captivated by Battlefield games, I've never been particularly drawn to them, no worries, no bad blood.
Enter Battlefield 4. Rave reviews outstripping Call of Duty: Ghosts, the perennial competitor for Battlefield games marked its release, didn't compel me to pick up a copy and rip into it. I was glad to hear that EA was doing well (I think they do some really interesting stuff) and I was happy to hear that they were outperforming Call of Duty in some arenas (I think Activision's business practices, particularly with regard to that franchise, are pretty iffy) but none of that translated to me buying Battlefield 4 until a friend asked me to, and another friend told me that I could buy a copy for $20 through a combination of holiday promotion and sale discounts. Once I had BF4, it took a little less than a day for me to play it.
My first Battlefield 4 experience was, in a sense, ideal. I went to an old friend's home and played it on one computer while he, across the room, played it on another computer. It wasn't a "native" experience for me in any way: I wasn't on my usual computer, or in my usual setting. I was playing it with sound off. I was using an unfamiliar keyboard and mouse (a strangely influential factor in gaming). I was, in just about every way, out of my element when I sat down to try Battlefield 4. Even getting it to work on my friend's computer took nearly two hours of work. So when I say "Battlefield 4 has been dominating my brain for the last week," I want you to understand that it's coming from a place without any artifice or consideration of products that have come before. I don't know Battlefield games from horse assholes, I played BF4 for the first time in a room where every single thing should've made playing, or getting into playing, difficult. But the play, and the teamwork involved in play, was so compelling: I couldn't help myself. I fell for Battlefield 4. Hard.
What sets Battlefield, as a game type, aside from other games is that it really does focus on team play and coordination. A good Call of Duty team works together, but individual twitch-shooter-skill is still critical, and the game, removed from the team dynamic, still more or less works. Not the case with Battlefield games. In a Battlefield game, there are situations where your ability to accurately fire your assault rifle at a rapidly approaching target will have absolutely fuckall to do with your ability to play the game well. My ability to run and gun and think tactically has never made me capable of piloting those god damn helicopters, which are apparently just there for me to crash after I bank even mildly. Likewise, even the worst shot in the game might be an absolutely crackerjack pilot who can thread a needle with a fully loaded helo. Or they might be perfect in the backseat of an APC with a welding torch, repairing the fucking thing from the inside. That's a great place to be in Battlefield if you can't shoot straight, and you'll be just as useful, potentially even more useful, than someone running around with an extra rifle.
There's also some teamplay stuff relating to the way specific roles work in the game. Battlefield's classes interact in a way that reminds me of Brink, where particular abilities are absolutely critical for team survival. People throw out ammo, heal allies, damage vehicles, or highlight targets for munitions and map data based on class, and all of these roles, while apparently separate from the others, is actually totally necessary. Without a good Assault guy dropping a well placed medic bag, or a good Support guy dropping a well placed ammo bag, you'll have a lot of trouble holding a given defensive point against enemies. But if you want to fight armored vehicles, those classes are going to be totally worthless, even if they're carrying an explosive weapon. Realistically, only Recon and Engineer players can do anything to tanks and planes, but in a stand up fight, they'll lose to the more run and gunny classes. A well balanced squad is a must, and a coordinated squad can hold out against a much larger disorganized force.
The end result is a take on first person shooter play that eschews the importance of the shooting - rather, there's a lot of stuff going on, and shooting is a central mechanic, but the mechanics surrounding shooting are just as important, both to consider, and participate in. In terms of kills, my rank is abysmal. I'm just above someone who hasn't played the game at all. But my ability to advance my team's interests is actually pretty solid - I'm in the middle of the global pack on that front, respectably winning games and earning "points," Battlefield 4's experience system and way of letting you know you're doing alright by it at any given moment. It's a very different multiplayer experience, which is frenetic without being monomaniacal. There's something about that conceit of play, and coordination, that makes the game feel fresh for me, even if it's old hat for veterans of the series, and presents a counterpoint to the other games I play.
Of course, it's not perfect. Battlefield 4 has some pretty serious balance issues. Tanks are... Well, tanks. A good tank driver can ruin the game for everyone, effectively running the map on their own. A bad tank driver can ruin the game for his team by removing a critical resource from his team's arsenal at an inopportune moment. You will, as a rule, only be on teams with bad tank drivers. Heck, you might BE a bad tank driver. Ditto for helicopters, especially attack choppers and "Little Bird" recon helos. In the hands of a skilled pilot, those toys simply shred ground resistance, but if I hop into them, they just become very expensive missiles that I launch at the ground unintentionally. This balances out with progression, as players gain access to toys that render vehicles useless (the Stinger missile is particularly adept at leveling the playing field against air, at east in my experience) but, particularly for new players, the prospect of facing an enemy in an armored vehicle on foot will be frustrating. Not daunting, just frustrating. You'll die, a lot. And then, with the tables turned, you'll be knocked out just as quickly inside your own vehicle. The learning curve is harsh, and you have to suffer quite a bit to get past it.
And the tech just isn't up to snuff. Battlefield 4 looks gorgeous, really gorgeous, but it comes at the cost of stability. Nowadays I spend my time playing Battlefield 4 until I get a fatal error related to DirectX 11 or my video card or something - fatal crash errors I haven't encountered in years. It could be that Steam has spoiled me, with its careful calibration of software and hardware, or it could be that people have just become better at coding in general. I don't know. I can tell you that the tech issues I encounter with Battlefield 4, a game that can be purchased in a store for fifty dollars, are more severe than the tech issues I encounter with Mechwarrior: Online, which I downloaded for free. I chose MWO as a counterpoint because it has quite a few bugs as well, but it's rare that MWO locks up my entire computer (at least, it's been rare of late - check the archives for more on that).
The end result is a singular, spectacular multiplayer experience occluded by some scaffolding issues (which will never be addressed) and some tech issues (which are theoretically going to be addressed soon). Is it forgivable? Of course, it's a great game. Is it frustrating? Also of course - it's a great game, and when it shuts down in the middle of an "OH FUCK" moment (which Dice wisely capitalized on for their marketing campaign) it's infuriating. I'm praying for a patch that will address the issues, but I have a feeling it'll be a while - the tech issues appear to be rooted in the way the game's impressive visuals interact with video drivers, infamously persnickity critters those.
You'll notice I haven't even touched the single player campaign, which I'm still sorting out myself - more on that next week, though it is worth noting that Michael Kenneth Williams from The Wire features prominently in it.