I historically spend about 90 percent of my time in Conquest mode when I play a Battlefield game, but Commander mode in Battlefield 4 has me approaching 100 percent. Nothing beats the satisfaction of jumping into a Conquest match as a Commander when the game is halfway over and my team is losing badly, and then watching my team pull out a decisive victory once I start feeding them intel and issuing attack and defend orders.
Victory in Conquest isn't about kill/death ratios. You win by coordinating with your squad tactically and with your team strategically, keeping each other healed and supplied during individual engagements, and smartly attacking and defending capture points as the conditions of the battle dictate. When one side has a Commander feeding them real-time intelligence on where the enemy is, and blinding the enemy's sensors to their positions, and dropping them supply crates so they can change classes to fit the situation, it's almost unfair if the other side doesn't have a Commander.
Not that that prevents me from enjoying the experience of being a Commander in those cases, because for every time I take command for a team that plays to objectives and runs together in squads such that I can effectively help them, there's another team where almost everyone is running solo, and instead of attacking or defending capture points, I see them sitting in the hills at the edge of the map, and I know damned well what they're doing.
They're playing the game wrong. They're sniping, working on their kill counts and doing absolutely nothing to help their teammates who are getting slaughtered at the capture points because they're outmanned and outgunned because half their team is sitting in the hills and effectively playing single-player instead of helping everyone else.
And every time I have to sit, frustrated, and watch my team get screwed because those snipers aren't playing to the objectives, I think about DICE and how frustrating it is that what seem to me like misplaced priorities as a developer are screwing the millions of gamers who paid $60 for a copy of Battlefield 4 and can't play it right now because the servers don't work.
Even when the Quake and Unreal franchises moved first-person shooters beyond the single-player campaigns of Wolfenstein 3D and Doom by popularizing multiplayer, their online or LAN modes were still mostly about the individual. Whatever cooperation was involved was rudimentary, at best, and sometimes nothing more than just staying out of the way of the more skilled players on your team so they could get the killing done more efficiently than you could.
They're playing the game wrong
Battlefield 1942 changed all that in 2002 by introducing large maps, combined-arms warfare and Conquest mode as the default style of play. It was decidedly something new, a bona fide evolution in first-person shooters, that required its players to rewrite their FPS instincts. The closest it came to a single-player mode was the ability to play the multiplayer game versus AI bots instead of against other human beings.
Before Battlefield: Bad Company, no Battlefield games had single-player campaigns, and I never heard anyone complaining. If I had, I would have suggested that they go play something else, because Battlefield wasn't about single-player. Battlefield provided something special, big maps with big teams and jeeps and tanks and planes and all hell breaking loose and no one else did it better, and I still don't think anyone does. Bad Company's campaign had quirky, potentially lovable characters, but couldn't hold a candle to the frenetic Tom Clancy-esque storylines featured by its closest competitor, the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare series.
This unfavorable comparison held true for both Battlefield: Bad Company 2 and Battlefield 3. So when DICE announced Battlefield 4 at GDC this year and decided not to talk about multiplayer at all — and instead focused on the new Frostbite 3 engine, and how its power would lead to more emotional experiences and characters you could really care about — I could feel the unspoken groan and "give it a rest, will you?" from the assembled journalists in the room.
Today, I can confirm the Battlefield 4 campaign is a hot mess.
I'm playing multiplayer on Xbox 360. The server browser is cumbersome, and no matter how I tweak the search parameters, reliably 95 percent of the servers that come up on my list are full of players. Sorry, no vacancies! And so by the time I scroll to the bottom of the list and find the servers that show as having free space, they are actually full because it took me so long to scroll to the bottom.
I eventually get into a game, and when I do my console may only lock up once or twice over the course of an evening and require a restart. That this currently serves as praise for the Xbox 360 version of Battlefield 4 ought to tell you something about how broken the game has been for so many players on other platforms. I'm made to understand that the game is virtually unplayable on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 between console lockups, server instability, lost multiplayer progression and one-hit kills, just to name some of the problems, and I'm not sure whether the recent patch for the PC version fixed anything. [Ed. note: As someone who switched from PC to PS4 to Xbox One in search of some stability, I can confirm that currently all are poor options.]
I can confirm the Battlefield 4 campaign is a hot mess
Dec. 5 was the end of an extended "double XP" period in Battlefield 4, which DICE offered by way of apologizing for these continuing launch issues. Considering how many players weren't able to play the game in a stable state and take advantage of double XP, one has to wonder if a "quadruple XP" period that runs for twice as long is in the works to apologize for the apology.
How ironic that I continue to see ads on Xbox Live for Battlefield Premium, which costs $49.99 and whose biggest draw is early access to each of the five expansions for Battlefield 4 — expansions that DICE just announced it's suspending work on in order to try and get the base game that customers already paid for working properly.
What if DICE had decided to forget about a single-player campaign for this iteration of the Battlefield franchise, and been less concerned about developing the additional products they were going to feed us months from now, and had instead spent that budget and time on whatever they needed to make sure they had a stable, high-quality base multiplayer experience from the day the game was released?
DICE is like one of those snipers posted up on the hill, focused on entirely the wrong things and screwing up the game experience for everyone else.
The shame of it, beyond the miserable experience so many consumers are having with Battlefield 4, is that DICE could have delivered the killer app that became the current argument for why anyone ought to upgrade to an eighth-generation console instead of waiting for the release of Titanfall in March for the Xbox One, or whenever the first truly exciting exclusive for the PlayStation 4 is released.
The most next-gen thing about the Xbox One is currently the new Kinect camera, which has almost nothing to do with playing video games, and the Twitch streaming on the PS4 has generated more interest than any of the launch titles. Neither of the eighth-gen consoles are blowing anyone away with their improved visuals, and it's generally-understood that it will take developers up to a year to get a handle on and coax out the potential of the new hardware.
The shame of it is that DICE could have delivered the killer app
Battlefield 4 could have been the most cogent, inescapable demonstration of an experience that eighth-gen consoles could provide but seventh-gen consoles decidedly could not. Some of the maps in Battlefield 4 seem explicitly designed for 32-vs.-32 warfare — huge, sprawling maps where matches on the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 can be insanely intense firefights on one end, and a ghost town complete with rolling dust balls on the other, because there are only 12 players per team.
Even if the demonstration was only that dedicated consoles had mostly caught up with their gaming PC cousins for the time being, Battlefield 4 on the Xbox One and PS4 could have been shining beacons and clarion calls for why gamers really needed to upgrade to the next generation. Now DICE's offer of trading in your Xbox 360 or PS3 version of Battlefield 4 and, for only another $10, upgrading to the next-gen version of the game, feels like something between wishful thinking and a joke.
The multiplayer on the Xbox 360 version can be flat-out ugly. Some levels barely look like they have textures at all. Running water splashes around a rock and you see wispy white lines instead of particle effects. When Engineers repair vehicles the sparks are literally bright, orange squares. It is painfully obvious that the game was back-ported from a higher-res version.
Sometimes the audio takes a good 10 seconds to load in. It's pretty strange when you spawn into the driver's seat of a main battle tank at the beginning of a match and fire the main gun, and while your controller rumbles you hear nothing whatsoever out of the speakers.
I forgive all of this because Battlefield is not defined by the Frostbite engine and cutting-edge technology. Again, by and large, the multiplayer on the Xbox 360 version of the game works. I can get into matches with my friends. I get to enjoy the teamwork and camaraderie that defines the Battlefield franchise against all its FPS brethren. I get to play in Commander mode and help lead us to victory.
I'll keep wishing that I could yell in the ears of all those snipers who sit back and fail to recognize what Conquest mode is all about, and I'll keep wondering when the right people at DICE will remember what makes the Battlefield franchise special and devote the time and resources to make it the best-in-class multiplayer experience it ought to be from the day the game is released, not months later when all the bugs get patched out.
Dennis Scimeca is a Boston-based freelancer who writes for Salon, NPR, Ars Technica, and Paste among others. Follow him on Twitter: @DennisScimeca.