Before they would let us play EA’s wildly impressive 64-player Battlefield 4 set-up on PC, we watched a video demonstrating what could be seen as “optimum play” for the level we were all about to try — Siege of Shanghai, definitely the most ambitious scenario that DICE have attempted yet.
With the US facing off against China for control of a series of control points across a massive map — including one vital point on the top of a wobbly skyscraper — the entire thing looked bloody amazing. Huge battles across the map. A player trapped underground who destroys a load bearing pillar that disables a tank sitting on the road above. Commandos parachuting from the top of the skyscraper right before the entire thing came down, changing the battlefield completely.
It was an amazing demonstration of possibility. And it completely ruined the reality of playing Battlefield 4.
In retrospect, that video of Battlefield 4 at its imagined best was probably not the perfect set-up for subsequently enjoying E3 gameplay with a group of players who could be considered a completely disorganized, hopelessly confused bunch of lunatics. I’d hoped for a rag-tag bunch of go-getters, and I got a group who were quite happy to spend most of their time trying to work out how to do a three-point turn with a tank in a small alley rather than, you know, do anything useful with it.
So, it’s immediately apparent that despite the valuable re-introduction of the commander, who is intended to guide and support on-the-ground troops with everything from waypoints to missile strikes, Battlefield 4 isn’t going to solve the poor quality of pickup games.
Worse than that, however, for all of Siege of Shanghai’s astonishing pyrotechnics when played optimally, in my entire game I never saw anything that interesting happen. Even with the full set of 64 players, Siege of Shanghai just felt too large. Weird, blustery and often empty, if I managed to run to a control point and get involved in a little back and forth combat (usually, and unfortunately, at a distance), the moment I died, I was in for a tiresome hike from the spawn point. With less than 64 players, God knows how empty it’ll feel.
That’s not to say Battlefield 4 feels like a total failure, however. Shanghai was still stunningly realistic running on the mega PCs that EA were packing. The sound design was incredible (and it was competing with the non-stop white noise of E3, too.) And the team are clearly doing things to try and mitigate some of the more obvious problems: if you follow your commanders commands, you’ll receive bonus experience, for example. That kind of thing won’t really pay off until the full multiplayer experience is on offer. The problem is that when you really get down to it, it all feels pretty much like Battlefield 3.
So if Battlefield 4 is shaping up to be Battlefield 3, only “bigger” and “more”, is it really what we need or deserve right now? Siege of Shanghai might only one level, but it has that worrying sense of offering that clichéd “EA update” that serves no one but the bottom line. Unless, of course, you’ve got your heart set on playing the commander, which does offer something genuinely different indeed (especially for those with a touch-screen PC.)
But for the troops? Well, war never changes, eh?