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I remember the day that Battlefield 1942 helped change multiplayer in first-person shooters. The internet cafe, filled rank and file with few familiar faces had taken on an entirely new entourage. Rather than small groups of people playing four to five man Counter-Strike matches among the 40 to 50 computers, half of the room raised the rising sun banner of the Empire of Japan while the others waved the American flag in a battle royale fighting amongst the sand and palms of the digital South Pacific. These eleven years later that Saturday is burned within my memory, for gamers core to casual alike finally had an FPS title that offered the combined arms scale of military simulators in an accessible package like never before with two teams of 32 players clashing against each other on a single server; almost doubling the player count of a Ghost Recon match, another popular multiplayer shooter title of the time.
From the beginning the Battlefield series existed as a simple multiplayer FPS platform similar to Quake in the sense that its single player mode reflected its multiplayer mode by adding bots to both teams; in short, there was no campaign and we didn't care. This format continued across four Battlefield titles (including the well-worn and beloved Battlefield 2) until the fabled development of Battlefield: Bad Company featuring the first story-driven single-player campaign of the series.
Enter the campaign era of Battlefield.
At a glance DICE has made two serious mistakes since Bad Company, it has continued to involve a campaign in each title since; all the while failing to care or understand that the vast majority of Battlefield players across the platforms it is offered on play the game for multiplayer, not for a campaign. These campaigns require a vast amount of additional resources on top of developing the gameplay most players will partake in. You need writers to craft a storyline and dialogue, you need voice actors to bring that dialogue to life along with animators that motion-capture and craft the scripted character events and cut-scenes; all of which require time, effort, and money. Of which effort and money could be better spent polishing the game prior to release reducing the necessity, let alone amount, of post-release patching. Furthermore, even though downloadable post-release content has become an industry standard practice, DICE could provide a more wholesome vanilla release with greater variety in Battlefield titles to come while providing DLC that brings additions to an already layered base game, rather than providing new layers to a single planar base game as was seen with Battlefield 3. All they would have to do, along with EA, is cut the campaign.
The other mistake DICE has continued to make with these campaigns is that of creating a highly scripted and choreographed cinematic passengers' experience of a video game that suffers from poorly written or borrowed and uninspired plots. Though I personally found the storyline of Bad Company interesting and entertaining, I’d rather watch Kelly’s Heroes than play through a modern re-dressing of the Clint Eastwood movie; where as Battlefield 3 borrowed heavily from the Tom Clancy thriller, The Sum of All Fears (the film more than the novel) which took that plot concept to remarkable heights of absurdity.
Which leads us to the latest in the series, Battlefield 4.
However, the failures of the campaign in Battlefield 4 are manifestations of the latter mistake by DICE rather than the former. As a storyline, Battlefield 4 has an interesting backdrop of a plot, a rogue Chinese admiral seeks to usurp political power by playing the murder of a former Chinese military leader turned people’s politician against the United States to both solidify his right to assume political control while providing a common enemy for the Chinese people to galvanize against; but this is where the Tom Clancy intrigue ends and where absurdity begins.
Overdramatized and Absurd Scripted Events
Throughout the highly scripted and choreographed campaign of Battlefield 4, many overdramatized cinematic events or outright absurd occurrences take place with an annoying frequency. Random explosions dot the scripted gameplay moments akin to a Bruckheimer or Bay film coming from literally nowhere as they too were scripted into the scene, which have little to no effect on your character nor the objects around the explosion as if magical phantasm ordinance erupted in front of you just for show like a fireworks display. The campaign is littered with these phantasmal explosions creating a grand yet gaudy visual spectacle to enjoy but add little if anything to the overall experience of gameplay. it is the scripted dialogue-driven cinematic events that truly crown the absurd moments found throughout the campaign.
From blowing up a Mi-28 Havoc with a 40mm grenade launcher that has been chasing you as you vainly attempt to flee the attack helicopter in a mid-sized SUV (which should have blown you up well before you almost fall out of the drivers seat only to have a fractionated second to fire the grenade launcher thrown to you saving the squad from imminent doom), to being trapped between a car and railing on a small two-lane bridge during tropical depression (that more resembles a full-fledged typhoon) as a cargo ship is blown into the bridge smashing it and flinging, falling hundreds of feet in a gondola after a small helicopter raked the tin-foil contraption with minigun fire only to survive the fall, and about a dozen more silly sequences.
The campaign takes these visually spectacular moments inflating their events with absurd death-defying outcomes that leads one to drop their forehead into their palm shaking their head side-to-side while asking oneself, what the hell is going on here? Am I watching a juvenile pipe-dream inspired by the worst parts of the Rambo movies or am I playing a video game?
During the scripted gameplay events, NPCs with scripted dialogue and movements will turn to a specific place to address you, even if you aren't standing in that place. One of the more comical moments occurs on your posted ship, the USS Valkyrie, when a disgruntled marine gives you a spirited line about the Chinese refugees on the ship whom begins his spiel once you walk into the room, the punch-line coming when you walk past him and he continues to look forward spewing out the scripted audio file completely unaware that you have walked beyond him and out of the room.
These choreographed moments furthermore bleed into combat. Introducing a new mechanic to the Battlefield campaigns, DICE implemented an “Engage Mode” that gives you a small mechanic of command-and-control over your squad members. Using “Tactical binoculars” which are actually white-hot infrared binoculars, small orange boxes will ring targets down field, after you have spotted targets you can order your squad members to engage them. In theory the mechanic gives you the cover fire necessary to freely move throughout the area picking off enemies, but your squad members exist in a duality of scripted cues while following a choreographed path throughout the missions causing them to remain far behind you and well out of their effective range if you move forward quickly. To fight best with your squad in the campaign you have to stick with them, yet in order to stick with them due to their slow and scripted progress throughout the mission areas you have to stay behind them shadowing their own choreographed movements.
Nor do choreographed moments stop there. They also affect your own gameplay which takes you out of your character’s driver seat, placing you once again in the passengers’ seat. Press Space Bar to climb out of the flooded hall you are in, press Space Bar to crawl into the collapsed shaft, press Space Bar to vault to the next scaffolding, move forward off the broken end of the carrier and our scripted movement will vault your character onto the submerging carrier deck below for you, move forward on the submerging carrier deck until a F-18 slides loose fallen upon and crushing half the enemies you were aiming at to shoot... you can see where I’m going with this. These choreographed events of gameplay which you are controlling require no skill to accomplish as they remove skill from the game under these circumstances. In one sense it allows a game developer to make a more cinematic experience as they can make your character do some stylized and scripted maneuver which doesn't exist in the game’s core mechanic; yet for a gamer these moments are belittling as parts of the game become void of a challenge, leaving you to ask yourself why not simply have the game script my character vaulting up, over, or across this obstacle because the developer clearly doesn't want to challenge me right now as if they are working the pedals of a car and all I have to do is steer.
In the end, the campaign to Battlefield 4 was both short and disappointing. Though a few moments of moral dilemma are present, when your squad member Irish corrals a fleet of Chinese refugees fleeing a civil outbreak in Shanghai by river to the USS Valkyrie, or leaving behind sailors trapped underneath a grating in a flooding compartment on board the sinking USS Titan; these emotional and suspenseful moments that are put to good use during the game are diminished by the overall absurdity of the plot circumstances and the gaudiness of the overdramatized and choreographed passenger’s experience the campaign offers.
Once Battlefield offered a stellar experience of action with no fuss. A fast-paced yet more open game than its competition with a much greater variety of weapon systems than small arms on a large-scale for a multiplayer first-person shooter that came with a bot-filled single-player mode where you could hone your skills against simulated adversaries. Today however, DICE and EA have seen fit to expand the Battlefield experience into one that rivals Call of Duty by shamelessly copying Activision’s formula through a choreographed and cinematic campaign. Though most of the people that have Battlefield 4 today and will play it for years to come until the next release and won’t bother with the campaign, the series as a whole has lost the personality which established its fanbase with these poorly written and uninspired campaigns, of which the latest is no stranger.