Our Abrams tank had just cleared out a nest of enemy fighters with a well-placed shell and now we were on the move. As we rumbled through the city streets, I swiveled the .50 cal, searching for new threats. An RPG streaked from a nearby rooftop and detonated against our armor. We were shaken but unharmed. I opened fire on the attacker, watching through a greenish lens as my heavy-weapons fire pulverized the concrete barrier between us.
Bam! Another rocket, this time from behind us. Warning lights and klaxons. We had to decide quickly: stay with our crippled tank or make a run for it? Operating on pure instinct, I—
Dagnabit. I was having fun, too.
Battlefield 4 is tremendous fun when it works, but it can’t be counted on to work for any appreciable duration. Boy, did it crash. It crashed in the middle of matches and between rounds. It crashed on startup. It crashed in multiplayer. It crashed in single-player. Sometimes it crashed to the desktop, and sometimes it hanged and had to be manually closed. Once, it crashed when I adjusted the audio settings. When it crashed three times in about a twenty minute span, I felt like it was time to seriously reconsider my life choices.
Besides the obvious problem of the game not working, the stability problems also affect the metagame. Battlefield 4 is big on player progression. Players earn XP for most actions they perform on the battlefield, not just enemy kills but supporting teammates and helping achieve objectives. Playing as one of four classes, you’ll earn upgrades and unlocks that allow you to develop your character along a specific path. Kill a lot of people with a light machine gun, and you’ll be able to unlock more powerful weapons and more helpful accessories. That is, if your progress isn’t frequently lost to crashes.
It’s hard to say how much progress I lost to crashes. Sometimes my stats seemed to be recorded, and sometimes not. More than once, I received notice that I had been promoted to a rank I’d already attained, or that I’d unlocked an accessory for a second time. Other times, my stats would trickle into Battlelog, Battlefield 4’s horrible web-based front-end, well after I’d given up hope. (Unfortunately for you, guy I ran over on a quad bike, that shit is on record for all time.)
Believe me, I’d love nothing more than to be spending this review discussing only Battlefield 4’s gameplay. Not that anyone who’s played previous games in the series will be surprised, but at its best this game offers big, insane, player-driver action sequences that deliver the goods. The game creates a sense of scale that feels at once empowering and terrifying, with 64 players piloting choppers, driving battletanks and laying down withering machine gun fire against opposing infantry in large, wide-open maps. And it’s all unscripted. Something about knowing an actual human being was flying the helicopter that plunged in a fiery wreck into the trees in front of you just makes you to want to use the word frisson in a game review.
Still, it’s not a major leap forward from the previous Battlefield game. “Conquest” is still the meat and potatoes, a game of territorial control that ebbs and flows like a real-life campaign. A faster-paced variant called “Rush” makes a welcome return, tasking one team with defending a series of hard points against a relentless tide of attackers. A new mode called “Obliteration” is a clever twist on Capture the Flag rules, in which both teams scrum over a bomb, and then endeavor to plant it in opposing territory. In all cases, the objective-based gameplay provides variety and a chance for players to contribute in ways besides having the fastest trigger finger.
While every mode has its place, many of them succeed or fail depending on the map. Playing Obliteration in a close-quarters map like the claustrophobic “Operation Locker” ends up feeling like an insane game of hot potato; nobody can hold onto the bomb for more than a split second without getting shredded. It’s funny, but it also makes the round interminable. On the other hand, this sort of level design is exactly what the doctor ordered for Rush.
No matter the mode, each level has dynamic elements that add unpredictability. Besides the much-touted “Levolution” events, which allow players to alter the map in one spectacular set-piece, there are persistent environmental effects that can build over time. Waters rise, storms blow in, dust settles—and all of it has a real impact on gameplay. It looks pretty, too.
DICE has already rolled out several fixes for the problems that have been plaguing Battlefield 4 since its launch. It’s easy to imagine that within weeks, or even sooner, a lot of the worst bugginess will have been resolved and we’ll be able to focus on what works so well. Even understanding the challenges of game development, it’s still frustrating as a player to buy a game that is weeks away from being finished. The game that shipped does not work reliably. And it’s a shame, because when you’re screaming across a field in a buggy with your bomb-carrier riding shotgun, verging on the enemy objective whose destruction will guarantee your team’s victory, you feel a sense of freedom and excitement that you’ll never—
Oh, screw this.
Mitch Krpata is a freelance writer based in Boston. His work has also appeared in the Boston Phoenix, Slate, Joystiq and the book 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die. Follow him on Twitter @mkrpata and on his blog Insult Swordfighting.