Battlefield 4 Preview
Battlefield 3 was a big hit for DICE and EA, but after the first week of playing it online, it just didn't get much playtime in our house. The campaign is a well-documented mess of a game, and while the online modes stayed popular for the most part through four DLC addons, I just couldn't get behind it. For me, Battlefield: Bad Company 2 was the better online game, with a color palette that made it a little easier to see enemies, more of the Frostbite engine's trademark destruction that affected more of a map, and for me, the right balance between solo effectiveness and the power of teamwork - I felt that despite some cool additions, BF3 just couldn't keep up in those areas.
So with the release of the Battlefield 4 online beta, these were points I really wanted to hammer on. Unfortunately, it was difficult to get a feel for one of them because the Siege of Shanghai map that was included in the beta is so unique, but I think I can speak to the other points, and then we can go over DICE's just-released list of things they're fixing in the final version of the game and come up with a pretty decent conclusion for how BF4 will be at launch. Yes, there's a lot more to the game's online mode than just what I'm bringing up here, but I'm already going to be typing enough with just these few things!
First: the color palette. BF3 used a system called "Color Grading" to put extra filters on the image, and the result was an averaging of colors - a reduction of contrast - that made it more difficult to see enemies. I'm sure that this was a subtle thing that was intended more to give the game a more realistic look than to change the balance in online play, but either way it was enough of an issue for some that a mod was made to remove the color grading - and then that turned into bans, which to me is pretty much an admittance from DICE that the effect did make it tougher to see enemies. (It reminded me of back in the Battlefield 2 days when DICE refused to put proper widescreen resolutions into the game because they thought it was cheating!) Well, that color grading effect seems to have been reduced significantly here in BF4, to the point that even when the skyscraper collapses, covering the map in a layer of dust, I still found it pretty easy to spot and target enemies.
Next up is destruction. BF3 was a prettier game than Bad Company 2, but to squeeze the game onto current-gen consoles, they had to change the map design to reduce the amount of destruction possible on a map. The end result was generally tighter maps with fewer options to "open it up" with a well-placed rocket or tank shot, and even the wide-open maps had fewer destructible walls and buildings. It seemed like a step backwards compared to the previous game, where a match that went on long enough would result in nearly every building coming down.
We haven't seen too much of BF4's multiplayer maps, but the other map shown at trade shows, called Paracel Storm, is something I hope to be more of an indicator of what we'll get in the final game than the Siege of Shanghai map that was in Beta. In Siege of Shanghai, only one building can be taken down, and while it's impressively a whole skyscraper (and part of EA's big "Levolution" marketing strategy for the game), it can also only happen with a specific semi-scripted event that is one-of-a-kind on the map. The fun part of Bad Company 2 was that while the buildings were smaller and the destruction of any one wasn't much of a big change on a map, buildings would come down pretty often, simply because people were trying to kill other players inside them. Will at least a good chunk of the ten maps set for release with BF4's launch have that? Unfortunately, we won't know until release, but it certainly seems like there's a better chance of that than in BF3.
One example of a difference in teamwork that I can think of is the tracer dart and rocket launcher combination for Engineers in Bad Company 2 - if you were good and caught an enemy chopper at the right time with the slow-moving dart, you could fire a Carl Gustav rocket guided by the dart and take out an enemy chopper entirely on your own. BF3 and BF4 have unguided rockets and require another person using the Recon class to help with the lock-on using the handheld SOFLAM goggles. The difference with BF4 beta was that the Recon class gets that gear right from the start, and that might make all of the difference right there. I've found players much more likely to just laser-designate a chopper for me to take out with a rocket rather than goofily trying to snipe the pilot - which, while awesome-looking, also has a much lower success rate for the vast majority of players. There are other instances of this, too, like the way that every jet in the released version of BF3 was a one-seater, meaning that those who flew planes were off in their own little world with basically no concerns for the rest of the team at all. Since then, DICE learned their lesson, adding planes via DLC that allow players to get in two-at-a-time to at least communicate and work together with one other person.
I still have concerns, like how jets in BF3 often failed to be a real, integral part of the main game's online action. It was difficult for anyone on the ground to hit a plane without the right anti-air vehicle, and most pilots were too worried about enemy planes and choppers to even spend much time targeting stuff on the ground - with exceptions, of course, where they killed people on the ground with basically no chance for retaliation by a non-pilot (unless he gets in his own plane and leaves the game being played in order to go dogfight on his own). The Siege of Shanghai map doesn't have planes in it at all, and I enjoyed how the tall buildings often put players and choppers on the same level, but will that delicate balance stay active in the rest of the game? Time will tell, but I get the feeling jet pilots will be off in their own little world all over again.
So, here's the thing about the balance of teamwork on a public multiplayer server: players need to be able to be at least somewhat effective alone, and then when they team up, each player's effectiveness needs to go up significantly beyond what each player could do alone - and that doesn't just go for capturing flags, but also for their combat effectiveness. If the game makes your efforts largely ineffectual until you team up, that might not be a fun game to play unless you're a specific class or a play a very specific way, and I'd like to see BF4 stay away from that. Aside from my concerns about jets, there's a good curve going on here, where you can capture flags and kill enemies in nearly anything with one or two people, and adding more working together makes you a real force to be reckoned with. That hasn't always been the case in Battlefield's history. So far, it seems they are doing a pretty good job of that overall here.
I spent all of my time in the beta on the PC version, and I understand the current-gen-console versions of the beta were rough - and frankly, I don't expect that to change much in the final game. But PC had some performance problems that could definitely be improved, like inordinately high CPU usage as well as goofy bugs like getting stuck at the loading screen (with the game eventually crashing) and the like. Those are apparently fixed in the final version, along with the sometimes-unresponsive HUD. There are some balance changes going in, too, like a reduction of power of low-rate-of-fire guns and a couple of small nerfs to automatic fire, a larger muzzle flash for grenade launchers to ensure that people using them can be seen and targeted more appropriately, and more. There will be some nerfs to Engineer anti-aircraft abilities too, with one rocket launcher on the US and China sides going back to being completely dumb-fire without any SOFLAM lock-on capabilities. There'll also be a reduction in damage from all Engineer rockets that bring a hit's damage down from 100% to 90% - this gives the chopper pilot a chance to use his fire extinguisher perk and limp away from a rocket blast with a few percent of chopper health. Fair enough, but if aircraft are ruling the skies on most servers like they did in the early days of BF3 with few options to reduce or eliminate those threats, then I think that'll make for a less-enjoyable game for most players.
Overall I'm hopeful for BF4 and it seems that DICE has moved a little more towards the side of Bad Company 2 in level design, teamwork, and overall fun, and I'm happy about that. Hopefully it stays that way through release, and we've got a big LAN party all lined up to find out for sure. If you don't have anything planned, you've still got time - the October 29th release date is less than two weeks away, but get some friends together and get in there on day 1!