Before the release of either BF4 or Ghosts, I wrote an article asking which of the two games you chose to play. Reactions were mixed, opinions shared politely, and it’s only now, after both Battlefield 4 and Call of Duty: Ghosts are out in the public, that we see how each utterly failed. Both games were poised to help define what it means to be “next-generation titles,” and both, for vastly different reasons, missed the mark.
I’m here to tell you why. I’m not here to tell you what will actually define next gen. I think you already know: Titalfall and Destiny, among many other deserving names.
There are a myriad of reasons why Call of Duty Ghosts isn’t the genre defining title Activision wanted, and some might say needed to be. At its core, I think the game is a solid one. It offers more than any Infinity Ward game to date and makes bold attempts to move the series forward. And like any bold move, IW’s had a chance for spectacular failure. Of the many missteps made, there are three that I single out as killers.
Work where it matters, not where it looks good: Say what you will, but one of CoD’s strengths has always been its consistency. Smaller maps, frenetic gameplay, tight controls, fun ways to kill your enemy. This year, Infinity Ward missed the mark on three of those four points. The maps are too large, even for Ground War, and contain too many dead zones. Having designed MP maps myself, I have a feeling IW worked too hard on certain areas and ran out of time to fully iterate their maps. From new, and unneeded, animations to an over-full perk selection that required massive amounts of balance testing, Infinity Ward bogged themselves down with so much extra work that they could fully optimize their maps. Black Ops 2 suffered from a similar malady, I think, but to a lesser extent than Ghosts. I hardly have to mention Extinction mode or a grandiose single-player component to justify why Ghosts shipped with 14 multiplayer maps as opposed to the IW default of 16.
The maps: There was a move away from the three lane map design model. Certainly a move that took spine, but one that falls flat on its face in practice. The “best” maps in Ghosts — Warhawk, Strikezone, Octane, among others — still follow that philosophy to some degree or other. These maps are also on the smaller side, keeping the action fast and the threat of combat constant. The worst maps — Siege, Stonehaven, Whiteout — are large with areas where players have no reason to ever go. Siege is the worst offender in that regard, but most Ghosts maps have no way to condense troop movement, offering long sight lines with little in the way of cover or means of escape.
No emphasis on objective play: Black Ops 2 was a flawed game for many reasons, but it got the score issue right. If everything you actively do in-game rewards you with the means to earn your next streak, you are more likely to be active in actively seeking those actions. If nothing else, it made people move a little, maybe to pick up tags or capture points, flags, or plant bombs. Were there campers? Sure, but in Ghosts, a Kill Confirmed tag gives you nothing beyond experience points. A domination flag earns you a kill towards your streak, an equal reward for just sitting in a house and camping said flag. The same could not be said for BO2, and despite its many failings, it succeeds there where Ghosts steps backwards.
Battlefield 4’s failures
Between the two of them, BF4 is by far the supererior title, both from a design and mechanical standpoint. The maps look and, for the most part, play far better. The guns are more satisfying to use, the destruction more rewarding to pull off, the vehicle play satisfying without overpowering the infantry. There are two main issues that hold BF4 back, one of which you’re probably all too aware of, the other you might not have considered.
Stability and too early a release: Early on, I was quick to dismiss the crashing, the glitches, bad hit detection, etc. I said to myself and to others that these were early launch troubles, the likes of which we’ve seen time and time again. Now, despite a month and a half of patching and fixing, the game is no better off, but for reasons other than those it started with. Thousands still deal with game breaking bugs, stat-losing glitches, and a number of people simply can’t play the game. I can no more explain why I don’t have issues as I can my friends’ numerous ones. But I can say that BF4 was a game released well in advanced of a realistic ship date. EA wanted a genre defining title, and knew DICE could deliver. They didn’t consider that genre defining games worked out of the box for the greatest number of people. Without an understanding of the coding of the Frostbite Engine, I can’t say what exactly is so wrong right now, but there were some changes made that seriously broke something. DICE knew it, EA knew it, but the money spoke, and the publisher listened. And here we are, trying to sort out the debris.
Battlefield is a dying franchise: I think it’s been dying since the end of Bad Company 2. Like CoD, BF is no longer a series about the gameplay, the players, or even the developers themselves. I know DICE loves their game with all their heart, and if some of them are reading this, do not mistake me. While I can’t fully comprehend the amount of effort you put into your game, nor how much personally you’re tied to it, I can say that it’s a relic of the past. I love your game for its simplicity disguised as complexity, for its defiance of the Quake style gameplay so popular in the shooter’s heyday, for the beauty of your sound and your Battlefield moments. But as soon as you started developing for more than one platform, devoting yourself to a single means of delivery, DICE, you lost. Locked between the technically inferior consoles, now-last and now-current gen both, you pigeonholed what you could do with your game. PC isn’t inherently superior to consoles for most of the reasons often cited, but when it’s all you had to work with, the sky was the limit. Now there are stringent restrictions you have to cater to, and that harms everyone. Plus, the whole Levolution concept was kind of a dud.
The failure of both
I’ve outlined my biggest issues above, but I think the main thing I want to get across about the whole idea of “generation defining” is, it doesn’t happen at generation launch. When I think about the titles that defined the 360 and PS3, I think CoD4, Halo 3, Assassin’s Creed, Gears of War, Oblivion. These are not games that came pre-packaged with the start of the new generation — the Xbox 360’s launch. The earliest on the list was Oblivion, which came out around the same time of year Titanfall is set to: March following the new generation’s beginning. And the shooter craze that CoD4 started and Halo 3 helped perpetuate didn’t start until late 2007.
What I’m saying then is, Ghosts and Battlefield 4 ultimately failed to do was use the full potential of the consoles they were created for. I don’t think any developer knows the full bounds of what the Xbox One and PS4 are capable of, and won’t for a couple years. The problem is, EA tried to defy this convention and, predictably, lost the race before it began. Activision might be in a slightly better position, as both they and their customers know what they deliver every November, and they knew Ghosts was something of a flop. The prepared for it in Destiny. Yes, I know EA has TItanfall, and that it’s going for a much smaller platform grouping, but EA is in a bind now with the legal battles and a complete in-house halt on all development to fix BF4.
Now, both EA and Activision will come out of this dark tunnel with enough money to swim in. I don’t think DICE or Infinity Ward will be able to say the same. Their reputations are sullied, and for different reasons. Their games couldn’t do what they were meant to, and now someone has to pay the price. You could say customers have already paid some of it, and I think you’d be right. How much more trouble is there to come? For DICE and IW, a lot. For people like Respawn and Bungie, the fields are ripe for harvesting, and we’ll see how well they’ve sowed their seeds.