Back On The Frontlines

by Jeff Marchiafava on Jan 04, 2014 at 01:00 PM

Like many gamers, I'm susceptible to the occasional bout of shooter fatigue. Thanks in large part to the indie scene, there is an ever-expanding scope of different gameplay experiences to try – always interacting with a virtual world via bullets can get old. This year, however, the next-gen consoles renewed my interest in gaming's two biggest military shooter franchises. It was time to step back on the battlefield and see if war really never changes.

I've always preferred Battlefield to Call of Duty, but have fallen off both series recently. I played through the campaign for Modern Warfare 3 back in 2011, but didn't play much multiplayer and skipped Black Ops and Black Ops II completely. I played about half of Battlefield 3's single-player campaign in 2011 as well, and spent a couple of weeks playing online after launch before dropping off and never returning.

After making a rather impulsive launch-day decision to buy a PlayStation 4, however, I was looking forward to checking out a bunch of different games. I spent a weekend with Call of Duty: Ghosts and Battlefield 4 recently, and walked away impressed by both.

Call of Duty gets a lot of grief for always being more of the same, and although the gameplay does feel similar year after year, I still think the criticisms are unwarranted. For one, that gameplay still features the most polished and satisfying shooting mechanics of any series – I don't see how you improve on it, and I'm glad Infinity Ward and company aren't just tweaking it for the sake of doing something different.

Secondly, Infinity Ward genuinely tried to do something different with Ghosts' story, and even though the narrative is absurd, it still provides a fun ride. While I found the underwater and space segments frustrating, running through a flooding city and infiltrating the enemy's headquarters were some of the cooler moments I've had with the series. I still don't know why you could remote-control Riley, but having him chomp on enemies during slow-motion breaches made me never want to go into battle without a canine companion again.

I also had a lot of fun on the online front as well. Given the server problems publishers have faced this year, Activision doesn't get enough credit for how stable Ghosts has been (then again, I was playing the PS4 version, so they had extra time to prepare...though that hasn't helped EA much). Some have complained about Infinity Ward forgoing the Pick Ten system that people liked so much in Black Ops, but I was intrigued by the ability to level up different squad members. I've never been a huge fan of COD's twitch-based multiplayer, but I found Ghosts' maps to be more forgiving, and really enjoy modes like Kill Confirmed and Infected. I definitely plan on going back to Ghosts' multiplayer, even if I'll never manage to unlock and level up a full squad, which seems balanced for hardcore players who are used to prestiging multiple times.

I've always been fond of the Battlefield series, but found myself disappointed with Battlefield 3. I resented DICE's approach to the single-player campaign, which traded the wide-open warzones and vehicular combat of the Bad Company series for a linear, scripted campaign that simply couldn't compete with Call of Duty's bombastic setpiece moments.

That said, I have so far found Battlefield 4's campaign more intriguing (I'm about halfway through). The story frequently falls flat even with the talented Michael Kenneth Williams fighting at your side, and there are some dumb detours, such as wandering below deck on an aircraft carrier. However, the gunplay is still great and skirmishes feel less scripted than in Battlefield 3.

Battlefield's real draw is still its multiplayer, though, which has been plagued by bugs and server problems. Fortunately, my experience on PS4 has been great. Granted, I've only played a couple of times, but I was able to hop into some 64-player matches without any problems. Playing on such huge maps is less intimidating, and DICE is still king at giving you ways to contribute to your team even if you aren't racking up kills. I also plan on playing more of Battlefield 4's multiplayer, and have once again been swayed back into DICE's camp.

One dumb aspect I was surprised to see in both games was the incorporation of a silent protagonist in the single-player campaign, presumably to make you feel like the star of the show. In both cases, it fails miserably. Aside from the fact that not everyone who plays Call of Duty and Battlefield is a white male (as your hand clearly indicates), both games have their share of immersion-breaking moments due to their mute leading men. During one mission in Ghosts, you become separated from your squad and – despite having a functioning radio – don't respond to the calls of your allies because...well, you can't. In Battlefield 4, you spend most of the game as the leader of your squad, which creates uncomfortable situations where your teammates call out the orders you would have presumably given them, and then carry them out. Does this really make anyone feel more immersed in the game? Are gamers that bad at roleplaying that a character's voice would ruin the experience? I don't know about you, but I'd rather play as a fully realized character than a gun-toting mime.

Thankfully, my biggest fear – that both games would be less impressive due to their cross-gen status – was unfounded. Both games look terrific and have reaffirmed my satisfaction with taking the next-gen plunge. I still look forward to what a next-gen only Call of Duty or Battlefield might entail one day, but I don't feel shortchanged by this year's offerings.

Ultimately, both shooters did indeed feel familiar to what I remembered of the series, but I guess I don't see why that's supposed to be a bad thing. Both games feature new stories, a host of multiplayer modes and new maps, and more replayability than virtually any other game on the market. If the military shooter formula doesn't appeal to you, I certainly understand – but I for one am happy to be on the frontlines again.