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Editorial: How the Concessions Stand in Battlefield 4


EA seized an entire movie theater in San Francisco in the midst of GDC 2013 to demonstrate nearly 20 minutes of Battlefield 4, which is also a video game. The venue was large and loud enough to encapsulate the shooter's cinematic aspirations, and flaunt every extravagant detail manifested in the weapons, soldiers, lighting and urban environments – right down to the cracking, withered paint on a door. Battlefield 4 belonged on every inch of that big screen.

And that's fine. I enjoy shooters, I adore movies, and I think there's a valid convergence to be found between the two. It's rarely a shortcut for superior storytelling, but the medium is malleable and fit for many authors. Some strive for realism, others seek expression in the abstract, and some guys prefer to make a crazy game about shipping soup to other planets.

None of those, however, have claimed responsibility for a "new era of interactive entertainment." That would be Battlefield 4, according to EA Games Vice President Patrick Söderlund. "Revealing the game to you all today is a big deal for us," he said in epilogue to the game's exquisitely rendered destruction. "It signals a new era of Battlefield and, frankly, a new era of interactive entertainment."

Gallery: Battlefield 4 (Fishing in Baku) | 6 Photos

His frank statement, made within earshot of this week's Game Developers Conference, seemed to oscillate between deleterious and delirious. The content of the presentation – the objective of which is to showcase the game's technology and intent – seemed incongruous with Söderlund's mantra of "redefining what gaming can be," and later became harmful to it.

Here's some of what I saw: a slow, linear walk through a dilapidated school, followed by a cutscene and a shootout; a crashing helicopter; an escape from a building as it crumbled right on cue; the protagonist, Recker, helped up by a fellow soldier after briefly losing consciousness. Is Battlefield 4 "redefining" gaming or looking it up in the thesaurus?

Though Battlefield 4 is obviously the product of many talented programmers, artists and sound designers, the rich imagery couldn't obscure the rails. Battlefield 3's single-player campaign was lambasted for its intrusive scripting, so to see it again and so prevalent is disappointing. The feeling is exacerbated when you consider Battlefield's multiplayer origins, and the personalized stories that emerged from the car chases and plane crashes instigated by players themselves.

Editorial How the Concessions Stand in Battlefield 4
As the speech went on, the subject became more and more hollow. It was the melon ball scoop of speeches.

"We have built the Frostbite 3 game engine to be state of the art," Söderlund said. "It is a world-class engine that is more powerful than anything we have ever built. It is a piece of technology that really challenges us to come up with new ideas, new innovations, new ways to entertain people. The power of Frostbite leaves us with no excuses. There's nothing really holding us back anymore."

If Frostbite eradicated excuses and restraints, and the results aren't obviously distinguishable from older games, then ... what was holding Battlefield back? The demonstration suggested EA and DICE are chasing after fidelity (again: fine!), but Söderlund said they're chasing storytelling. Even if you adopt a reductionist approach and simply consider Battlefield 4 a movie of sorts – and this presentation its trailer – it's fair to say that it looks like a lousy movie. I'm not saying the game won't be fun to play regardless; I'd just love it if a kitsch neck-stab at cinema was on the low end of aspirations in our Battlefield-induced new era of interactive entertainment.

After trumpeting the power of Frostbite, Söderlund scooped this one out: "As we all know, the best games out there are not really about polygons, or shaders; it's the emotional connection that we make with players. The DICE studio has evolved into world-class entertainers and storytellers. We are strongly driven by the desire to craft new worlds, new gameplay experiences, and fill them with gripping stories, unique characters and spectacular moments." Nobody in the audience disagreed with this, which was nice, but all of the Battlefield 4 footage just did. In the broad range of emotions that might be explored in a shooter – tension, fear, panic, excitement – where does yet another exploding helicopter fall?

Finally, Söderlund suggested that DICE and EA "are creating experiences that touch us emotionally – experiences that are human, dramatic and believable."

Editorial How the Concessions Stand in Battlefield 4
The Example of DICE's attempts at inciting emotion, and not simply recreating it in the faces of their virtual actors, came later in the show. After tumbling through several floors of a collapsing building, the player found a fellow soldier injured and pinned beneath heavy debris. The only way to extract him in time was to cut off his leg.

The frantic argument and distress was not poorly acted, but the scenario felt generic and insincerely contrived; its execution shallow and tactless. Press F to Cut Leg, and the scene continues. Frostbite 3 made the wound seem realistic, and painted a tortured expression on the leg's squirming owner, but it couldn't impart the severity or trauma of the act. This is not a problem solved by better technology, though Söderlund's presentation was hinged on the idea that it was.

The last time I spent a good deal of time cutting off a limb (in a game) was in Telltale's The Walking Dead. It was harrowing, justified, and memorable. Though Telltale's engine is undoubtedly lacking the technological finesse of Frostbite 3, it is far better at acknowledging the player's participation in a dramatic scene, and relied on good writing just as much as its character models and animation.

It's too early and unfair to discuss dilution of agency in Battlefield 4, so I'm expressly focusing on the quality and conviction of the presentation I saw in a movie theater. For better or worse, the venue was appropriate - big, brash and capable of blasting out what little remains of the classic Battlefield theme. It used to be so energetic and melodic, and now it sounds like a dubstep song played through a Geiger counter.

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