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September 15, 2014

ShootStravaganza!! Battlefield 4

“The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always chide, nor will He keep His anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His steadfast love toward those who fear Him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does He remove our transgressions from us.”
--Psalm 103:8-12


So.  You knew this one was coming, didn’t you?

The way things are now, there’s no bigger whipping boy out there than the big-budget, modern-military, brown-and-gray bro-fests that make the most noise and (typically) garner the biggest sales.  They have the power, even if it’s not exactly well-deserved.  And while there are legitimate causes for concern and ridicule, even at this stage it’s important to keep an open mind.  That is to say, you can’t really complain about a modern-military shooter unless you’ve at least tried to get in deep with one.  Otherwise you’re just doing stupid stereotyping.

If you’re familiar with this blog, you may remember that once upon a time I played Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 with the sole intention of seeing if it -- “it” being the campaign, because it deserves to be judged fairly -- was really as bad as the hate and scorn suggested.  And I can tell you right now that yes, it IS as bad as the hate and scorn suggested.  It is astounding that a game with so much money, prestige, and talent behind it can’t turn out a game that’s even remotely competent.  I compared it to a mushroom once before, and it still stands.  It’s a baffling, incomprehensible mass…which may or may not be lethal to others.

I haven’t played a CoD game since.  But CoD didn’t need me to sing its praises.  It still doesn’t.  If I wanted quality, I would just have to look elsewhere.  And I have, and I’ve found it (#GoodGuyNintendo…for any number of reasons).  Even so, the MMS genre as a whole doesn’t need me.  It may be fractured, and it may be infecting countless other franchises and genres, but there’s still at least one constant out there, one rival to the CoD behemoth: Battlefield.  And just like before, I can’t take shots at Battlefield without playing Battlefield.  So I did.


I know what you’re thinking.  You’re expecting me to flip out and rage at Battlefield 4.  You think I’m doing this post to pick it apart, or scribble down inlaid fury for a reader’s cathartic release.  But no.  I’m not going to do that -- not on purpose.  Don’t get me wrong, Battlefield 4 makes me angry, because it’s stupid and I hate it.  But this is about more than rage.  This is about more than just whining about how there are too many MMSs out there.  This is about my honest-to-goodness reaction to the game.  This is about more than just anger; it’s about the abject terror it instilled in me.

CoDBlops2 is a mushroom.  But Battlefield 4 is an abyss.  The abyss.

Battlefield 4 is a whirling, howling nexus of emptiness and despair.  I feel nothing from it.  I gain nothing.  It only takes -- pulls out a piece of you, and drags it into its blackened, spiraling folds.  Its abyssal song fills the world with atonal wails of the soulless, of sinners scraping at coalesced nothingness in a desperate, futile attempt to escape.  To even dare a venture -- to draw within even miles of its unholy maelstrom -- is to sacrifice one’s heart, mind, and soul in a single stroke.

…It’s not very good, is what I’m trying to say here.

I’ve never played a game like this one.  Like…okay, sure, I have my biases, but surely we can all agree that the average triple-A MMS campaign is not as good as it could be?  I know that the draw for these things is supposed to be the multiplayer, but the devs keep throwing them in for a reason.  They think it’s something to be proud of.  Something that people will actually enjoy.  But…no.  No, that’s not the case.  The comparison that I use is that I’ve got a buddy who steers clear of games like Dragon’s Crown, the Tales games, and other games that put an emphasis on cooperation (and color, on occasion) and de-emphasize competition (and guns, on occasion).  So there’s the possibility that making him sit through something like Tales of Xillia 2 is as painful as me sitting through Battlefield 4.

But I doubt it, and here’s why: those other games have merit.  BF4 does not.  That’s a bold statement, I know, but…well, let’s just start talking about the game and see what happens.

All right.  So you remember how in the last ShootStravaganza post, I was talking about Ground Zeroes going all in medias res on players?  That is also the case here, only more so.  You start out in some vehicle, submerged underwater with three of your fellow squad mates -- who at that point are mostly indistinguishable from one another, save for the one black guy -- and you’re all out of options.  So you take a gun and shoot out one of the windows, and…you flash back to thirteen minutes and thirty-seven seconds before that point.  (Well, it’s more like 13:38, but the screen cuts to black just before it hits that point, and it’s pretty obvious what the devs were going for.  In which case, subtle.)

So you’d think that it’s time to gain a little context as to who you are and what you’re doing there.  You’d be wrong.  The next thing you know, you’re in some dilapidated set of gray corridors, doing…something and going…somewhere so you can do…something even if that means beating…someone.  I played for a while after that (for as long as I could, at least), but even then I’m on shaky ground as to the big five questions: who, what, where, when, and why.  One of your squad mates mentions Russians at some point, so I guess that’s who we’re up against…for some reason…but everything else is just a blur.  Are the Not-Russians a threat to America?  To an allied country?  Are we in America?  Have they invaded America?

It’s not often when I find myself wishing for the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it expositional context of Blops2.  But here we are.

It’s not long after entering whatever building that was supposed to be before you have your first firefight.  Apparently, one of your comrades got separated from the rest of the group, so it’s up to the three of you to give him safe passage for rappelling while Not-Russians open fire.  It’s here that, presumably, you get your first good glimpse of the action: half-heartedly shooting at non-Americans in the distance.  Except, believe it or not, they can’t even get that right.

The aesthetics -- and DEM GRAFFECS that so many are proud of -- really don’t help the gameplay.  At times, they hinder it; the lack of color combined with the shadows and details make it much harder than it should be to spot enemies, if not for their muzzle flashes.  And sometimes, you can’t even count on that.  Thankfully, you don’t have to do nearly as much work as you’d expect; your squad mates will do a lot of the shooting for you, to the point where I hung tight beside a window and let them clear a firefight for me.  In all fairness, the game warned me that by playing on the Normal difficulty (itself bearing a warning that it was more “casual” than anything, which you’d expect from EASY instead of NORMAL, but whatever), but I’m baffled.  When did we reach a point where “gameplay” was synonymous with “let the game do everything for you”?

I only ask this because you pretty much have an instant-win button.

As far as I can tell, this is a central mechanic of the game -- something that the devs were proud to include.  Here’s how it works: if you’ve got the meter stocked (or whatever measure they used), you can take aim at an enemy and hit R1 to have your squad attack on your behalf.  Now, in order to get the full effect, you have to understand my thought processes here.  You have to follow along here.

Before I pressed the button, my squad made it onto an upper floor, and had a clear shot at a patrolling enemy when the tutorial popped up.  “Oh, I see,” I said to myself.  “So this must be a way to add a more tactical approach to the game.  I can command my squad t move into position and flank the enemy -- have them gain advantageous positions and whatnot.”  So I pressed the button, believing that it would let me give orders and tell my squad where to go.

It didn’t.  The squad just opened fire, and killed the guy -- and presumably, several others -- for me.

And I had to fight to keep myself from turning the game off right there.

I’ve already talked before about how I take issue with instant-kill, special execution moves thanks to seeing them firsthand in Splinter Cell: Blacklist.  I don’t approve of them, obviously.  But at least there, you could argue that Sam Fisher was the one doing the executing.  In BF4, the ability to have someone else win a firefight for you is treated like a good thing because…why, exactly? 

What about player agency?  What about character agency?  What about giving them a chance to explore and indulge in the mechanics -- the craft of the medium, and the rendering offered up by a product almost entirely free from financial limits? 

But even setting that aside, there’s a really negative effect to having that instant-kill feature built into the game.  As you’d expect, the player character has zero presence -- no face or persona made clear from the outset, and likely none in the hours to come.  That’s to be expected from a first-person shooter, when you’re more likely to know the sights of a gun better than the man you’re playing as.  But when you go all instant-kill, you get to watch someone else do the killing for you. 

What this means is that, if you make a simple ninety-degree turn, you get to watch three faceless soldiers unload bullet after bullet into a soldier you can only assume is “a bad guy”.  You’re given the luxury of watching three grown men, rendered in absurd levels of detail in a world desperately trying and triumphantly failing to be photorealistic, gun down any number of men.  I say “any number” because the alternative is that they all unloaded assault rifle rounds into a single unsuspecting man. 

Battlefield 4 doesn’t want you to play.  It wants you to murder -- and be all right with murdering.

It wants to make death a reward in itself.

All right, look.  Let’s be real here.  Video games -- the best and worst alike -- have you killing on a regular basis.  Something as innocuous as Super Mario Bros. has you stomping all sorts of wildlife into oblivion (and coins, fairly regularly).  And just a few weeks ago, I didn’t raise a single red flag over Wolfenstein: The New Order and the fact that you’re killing Nazis left and right.  But there’s a difference here.  With games like Mario, they’re not rendering their murder as realistically as possible; there’s a divorce between the fantasy and the reality, and -- like countless other games -- the focus is not just on killing whatever enemy gets in your way. 

Conversely, The New Order gets away with it because there’s actually context as to who you are, what you’re up against, and what your enemies can and will do if given the chance.  Its action is rendered lavishly, but there’s enough thought and context to add a sense of weight.  And beyond those, even a game like Metal Gear Rising gets it right -- offering up its own surprisingly-deep thoughts on violence in spite of you playing as a cyborg ninja feasting on enemy spines.  Style, substance, or even a mix of the two can make combat and conflict less grisly.  Taking a life in the real world is (under all but the most extreme circumstances) an unthinkable evil, so games have to find ways to reduce that evil or else they would be unplayable -- if not outright deplorable.

Battlefield 4 doesn’t do that.

It wants to make the player buy into the soldier lifestyle without understanding what it means to be a soldier -- without paying respect to the weight of life.  By trying to be realistic, it ends up becoming less realistic -- but instead of trying to bridge that gap, it offers nothing more but excess.  Routines.  Actions and mechanics and elements added in without thought, precisely because it doesn’t want the player to think.  Because if anyone playing takes that ninety-degree turn and watches three men gun down one man, it ceases to be fun, or cathartic, or anything like that.  It ventures into some dark territory. 

And I don’t want to go any further in than I have to.  And no amount of multiplayer action -- the chance to show virtual dominance for borderline-arbitrary reasons -- can change that.  So it might as well not even try.

On second thought, maybe it should try.  Because when it doesn’t, we get this game.

I’m under the impression that MMSs exist for a sole reason: to make the player feel like a hero.  To make them feel like they matter -- like they can make a difference in the world.  But I don’t get that with BF4.  That’s a given, considering that the game is content with letting three other faceless gunmen do the work for you.  But I have my doubts that anyone could feel like a hero.  You just go in and kill guys, and move on and kill more guys. 

The player has no attachment to the character, the team, the country, or even a cause; they’re just sent on the warpath, and told to shoot anyone who isn’t on your side.  So one the one hand, it’s boiling down the complexity and gravitas of war into something no more intricate than playing Cops and Robbers with water guns.  On the other hand, it’s devaluing everything to the basic, most mechanical interpretation of warfare: go here, kill this guy, and move on.

And we’re supposed to be okay with that.

I’m done with this game.  I’m done playing it, and I’m done talking about it.  I only played after that point for the sake of some sense of completion.  But there’s nothing of merit.  Nothing.  Besides, what do you want me to say?  You want me to confirm the obvious?  That all the money that could have gone toward making a brilliant world got turned into a dusty, desaturated shooting gallery?  That you’re invited to order your comrades to do more killing on your behalf?  That the AI is borderline broken, you’re supposed to go gaga over caches full of guns barely differentiated from one another, and the only mechanic of “interest” is the ability to destroy pieces of the level -- which means you’re effectively killing the environment instead of people?

Forget it.  I don’t care anymore.  You don’t care, either.  Battlefield 4 is a void of potential and merit.  Hell, it probably sucks up and erases merit rather than gains it.  I can’t do anything more from this game, and I’m about five seconds away from saying that even if it has that famous multiplayer suite -- and ONLY that multiplayer suite, and even that’s on shaky ground -- it’s utterly worthless.  It’s something to be avoided by everyone, whether they’re looking to be disproven on its lack of quality, are curious thanks to a passing interest, or are even diehard fans.

So goodbye, Battlefield 4.  Thanks for proving all the naysayers right.  Man, I’ll sleep well tonight.

And that’s the end of it.  The ShootStravaganza is officially over -- or at least, it’s gone as far as I want to go.  I’ve seen enough to come to a final conclusion, and while I’ve picked up on some stuff along the way, I can’t say I’m exactly in a good position.  Chalk it up to tastes and biases, but right now, if I had to sum up my thoughts in a single line, it would be

Oh, what?  What is this?  Wait, hold on -- Smash 4 is coming to the 3DS soon, so this can only be good, right?  Man, I’m so hyped for it.  I can’t wait for the Wii U version to come out; I need to play Palutena so I can do some sick goddess combos and

I hate it when I set up crushing disappointments.

1 comment:

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