Opinion: Battlefield 4 Reaches for Emotion, Hits a Dog in the Face
If a multi-billion dollar corporation acts like something is a big deal, does that make it a big deal? EA and DICE put this question to the test at GDC 2013, with a Battlefield 4 reveal event that ticked all the boxes of opulence. Journalists shuffled down a hallway made to look like an exclusive nightclub, curtained and carpeted to evoke the game’s distinctive blue/orange color scheme. Instead of a nightclub, they emerged into a rented movie theater, where a reputedly state-of-the-art projection system was showing the game, sixty frames per second, at something like 4000p.
Marshawn Lynch was there, in the company of several other NFL stars whose proportions stretched credibility almost as hard as their biceps did their shirt-sleeves. Teleprompted producer Patrick Soderlund promised a “new era of interactive entertainment.” The hors d’ouevres afterwards were really, really tasty.
But then there was the game, whose innovations were so conventional and expected that they made the whole experience feel like a non-event. You could almost feel the frustration of the assembled press spread through the room as they realized that the only thing the single-player focused demo had to offer was prettier visuals and bigger explosions.
There was one initial surprise — the game faded in from black to the strains of a saccharine pop song — completely out of place in the blood-and-thunder world of Battlefield. Ingeniously, the song is coming from a car radio. The car is sinking into the Caspian Sea, as four soldiers struggle to escape.
Then a rapid flash backwards, some minutes before, as the player character picks his way methodically through a destroyed building in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. The textures, the dust motes glistening in the light, the flooded hallways — all rendered with the kind of state-of-the art graphical fidelity you’d expect from a new Battlefield game. Suddenly, a break in the tension: “K. Magnus has a new high score on ‘Prologue.’” Say hello to the game’s new social features.
Bursting through a door, we meet the squadmates: Pac, fresh-faced, jumpy and nervous; Dunn, the grizzled commander, all business. Finally Irish (voiced by Wire alum Michael K. Williams), who bursts through a window and punches an attack dog in the face as the player provides covering fire from across the street.
The action that follows is a classic “get to da choppa” exfiltration, a rolling gunfight through Baku’s post-Soviet squalor and petro-splendor — staggering draw-distance, check — that shows off just how well developers DICE can blow things up. The player character is named “Recker,” and it’s an apt choice. A well-placed shotgun blast opened a flanking route; two more put paid to the crew of an enemy technical, which was then commandeered. Battlefield 4 will feature more tactical choice during the campaign than its predecessor; players will direct squad-mate fire and pilot vehicles at will. The latter feature, borrowed from multiplayer, should prove quite satisfying.
Men in beige continued to murder other men, in different beige. A sneaky, brutal knife kill brought an audible gasp out of the man in the seat in front of me, who apparently hasn’t played a video game in the last decade.
Later in the demo, one scene in particular was clearly calculated to make an impression. Judging from today’s press response, it has. Dunn, the squad leader, is pinned by the leg under a piece of rubble. The player is asked to press “F” to amputate it just below the knee. It’s a gruesome sight, amplified by sound design, and increasingly panicky voice acting.
DICE insists that it wants to focus on the “human drama” in Battlefield 4. As producer Soderland put it, the game is “not about the geopolitics — it’s about the the people inside this war.” It’s a nice idea, but will Battlefield players care? The series sells millions, but does anyone buy it for the story?
Soderland’s claims feel familiar, in the sense that the burgeoning military shooter genre is constantly inviting us to walk an emotional mile in the combat boots of America’s put-upon servicemen. It’s a welcome effort, but also disingenuous one; it often feels as if developers are trying to convince the public (and, perhaps subconsciously, themselves) that they are creating something with more social value than a $60 orgy of violence with incrementally improved visuals.
Occasionally, it really is convincing. Trapped in the sinking car, Pac, Irish, and Recker are forced to abandon the one-legged Dunn, who is stuck in his seat. The scene is intimate; the drama, wrenching. You almost forget that just minutes before, the player was shooting at a helicopter from the driver’s seat of a stolen car with an underslung grenade launcher, in slow-motion. Even when it’s not hilariously hyperbolic, the attempt to accurately depict the soldiering life often feels like it’s trying way too hard. When Irish steals the car from a cowering Azerbaijani security guard (who has terrible taste in music, apparently), he spits the phrase “f*ckin’ civilians” out of corner of his mouth. Is the player, veteran of a thousand virtual battles, meant to empathize with his frustration? How can you make grand claims about emotional storytelling, then end your demo with a sexy female soldier who coos “you’ve got my back, right?” directly into the camera?
There’s no doubt that Battlefield 4 will deliver the goods, in terms of action, graphics, fast-boat assaults on aircraft carriers, and a villain named Admiral Chang that no doubt wants to take over the world. But it should stop pretending that by doing this, it’s doing anything other than what everyone — journalists, players, shareholders — expect it to do. And it should stop pretending to be something it’s not, because nobody wants it to be that thing.
Here’s another look at the 17 minute trailer shown off last night.