While it’s still a little early in the life of Battlefield 4 to hold a postmortem, you can certainly consider this a pre-postmortem. What I have assembled below is a condensed history of Battlefield 4 up to this point, the first week of March 2014. I have striven to provide a balanced look at some of the promises that were made by DICE, some of the major issues that befell Battlefield 4, and attempt to offer a look forward for not only the remaining life of Battlefield 4, but future DICE projects.
There was a running joke late last year surrounding the release of DICE’s Battlefield 4, wherein folks would jokingly refer to the upcoming title as “Battlefield 3.5″. From early impressions and marketing videos, the game looked to be firmly rooted in the foundations that its older brother had laid. Graphics were improved in 4, of course, but overall gameplay seemed to be largely intact, and many graphical and sound assets were being reused. DICE promised that Battlefield 4 would have an amazing new feature called “levolution”, where players could directly and dramatically change the course of the gameplay by doing certain actions. Destruction was touted as being enhanced and more granular than in BF3, including more buildings that you could completely level, ala Battlefield Bad Company 2. DICE heard the criticism from Battlefield 3′s lead up to launch, and made sure to release multiplayer gameplay videos ahead of BF4′s release. However, it was obvious that DICE still had grand ambitions for their single player mode, widely reviled in Battlefield 3, with the release of a 17 minute long trailer titled “Fishing in Baku”.
After long clamoring from fans, DICE teased that it would be including women in the game. Many feared that this was just lip service, but DICE went so far as to include viral teases of Hanna, who we would eventually find out was a non-playable story character. After many complaints from the e-sports scene about the viability of Battlefield 3 in competition settings, DICE aggressively reassured players that e-sports was a top priority for them, and with the addition of a true spectator mode and smaller gameplay modes, DICE obviously felt confident that they had included the necessary tools to capture interest from e-sports competitors.
Battlepacks were another highly touted new feature, one that was meant to drive traffic to Battlelog, DICE’s browser based management tool for your solider. In addition to earning items through conventional means (using guns, completing assignments), Battlepacks would grant a player a set number of unlockables, boosting the rate at which the player would receive add-ons. In an effort to sell their Premium subscription, DICE tied Battlepacks to the service fairly deeply, granting “Premium Battlepacks” at regular intervals, as well as additional double XP weekends for Premium members. As well as receiving all of the expansion packs early, Premium members would supposedly find obvious value in these Battlepack extras.
Battlefield launched on October 29th in the US on PC, followed by the PS4 release roughly 2 weeks later, and the Xbox One 2 weeks after that. To call it a rough launch would be an understatement; on PC, crashes to desktop were a disappointingly frequent occurrence, and the Playstation 4 version was rendered nearly unplayable thanks to “blue screen” crashes. In November, about a month after the console releases, Destructoid posted their impressions of the console versions; remember, this was 6 weeks after the PS4 version had been released.
“But all that glitters isn’t gold, as users have been reporting widespread issues with both the Xbox One and PS4 versions of the game, including single-player save corruption problems, crashes, audio drops, and latency issues — a few of which I encountered myself. To be blunt, EA needs to fix these issues sooner than later, as they’ve inexcusably sold an unfinished product for a full retail price…On PS4, I encountered more problems than I could count. If you’re going to jump into either one of them, note that DICE still has some kinks to work out.”
If DICE had a QA team working on Battlefield 4, it wasn’t obvious. On November 21st, DICE created a special section on their forums called the Control Room. The purpose of this page was to open a direct communication channel with the players, and to provide a space where DICE could post news on bugs, patch progress, and upcoming improvements. After releasing their first DLC, China Rising, DICE was flooded with bug reports and complaints about game-breaking issues. Players became increasingly frustrated that DICE seemed more concerned about making money than providing a quality, functioning game. On December 4th, DICE issued the following statement:
“We know we still have a ways to go with fixing the game — it is absolutely our No. 1 priority. The team at DICE is working non-stop to update the game. Since Battlefield 4 China Rising expansion pack was already in the final stages of development by the time issues began with Battlefield 4, we decided to fulfill our promise to deliver it this week, but we’re not moving onto future projects or expansions until we sort out all the issues with Battlefield 4.”
In an attempt to quickly patch up relations with the community, Karl Magnus Troedsson announced the “Battlefield 4 Player Appreciation” award, in which all players would be given a 3x scope for their 1911 pistol and an additional double XP weekend. This was meant to be a peace offering for the extended trouble the community had endured, but players quickly turned on Troedsson, expressing their disbelief that time and resources were going towards this small item instead of fixing bigger issues. The top reply to Troedsson’s post is below in its entirety, which received over 3600 “hooahs” on Battlelog:
“I personally find it insulting that EA/DICE think a week of double XP and a pistol scope is some kind of token of appreciation. Many of us paid over a hundred dollars for a game that was so clearly not ready for release and while I truly believe some DICE devs are sorry, I don’t see flipping a few switches to give players extra experience as anything but DAMAGE CONTROL. If EA/DICE are truly sorry, then they can show it through action. More developer-player interaction, involve the community in balance decisions, constant updates on patch progress, FULL patch notes, premium content that isn’t camo. I don’t want to be so negative. I’d like to see this double EXP as a start. I sincerely hope that EA/DICE to follows through.”
As December crawled on, DICE continued having major issues with both clients and their own servers. Many players were reporting that even starting the single player campaign would wipe our their save files, and since some guns are tied to the campaign, players were unable to unlock certain items. Premium members were promised a double XP event during the Christmas holiday, well timed with many gamers’ vacations, but that was not to be.
As January opened up, DICE’s community-manger-turned-producer Daniel Matros tweeted the following:
The explosion from the community could have been seen from space with the naked eye. As a person with one of DICE’s most forward-facing jobs, Matros essentially spit in the face of a group of players that had been having major, legitimate issues for the better part of 3 months. In my estimation, this was the turning point of the community against DICE; up until January, the prevailing voices tended towards “let’s give DICE a little time to iron these kinks out”, but beyond Matros’ tweet, vitriol rapidly seeped into the conversation and talk of lost consumer confidence took hold.
EA and DICE haven’t simply released a broken game. They have cracked the foundation of the brand and driven a wedge between themselves and a loyal fan base.
EA continues to cash in on a la carte DLC, fails to fulfill the promise made that pre-order bonuses would carry over across generations, and willingly takes in money for Premium ($50 above the $60 retail purchase price) despite a broken core product.
In this time frame, it became painfully evident that DICE had farmed out the China Rising DLC to another developer, and that to meet their deadlines, content had been cut from the DLC.
As February approached, DICE announced their plans for their “Battlefield 4 Player Appreciation Month”. Troedsson was back, and apparently had learned a harsh lesson from his last post, and unveiled a month long program that would reward all players with double XP events, daily Battlepacks, and community challenges for unique items. This, in large part, managed to settle down a very riled up group of gamers, and during February, Battlefield 4 settled into relative stability across its multiple platforms. The conversation turned from bug fixes to balance patches, which most people agreed were needed desperately. DICE pushed out their “Second Assault” DLC to the PC and PS4 in February with no major issues affecting the release. On March 4th, DICE pushed a patch to prepare the game for the upcoming Naval Strike DLC, which created many new bugs not seen before, and reintroduced some PS4 “blue screen” crashes.
Some of us have now owned Battlefield 4 for 127 days. Some of us have purchased Premium for our game. Some of us have double dipped and bought BF4 for both console and PC. We have dressed up for Halloween, eaten dinner with our families on Thanksgiving, opened our Christmas gifts, wrapped arms around friends and lovers and sung Auld Lang Syne, and watched the Winter Olympics in Sochi. In this time frame, can we say that DICE has delivered with their continued support of Battlefield 4? In my opinion, the answer is a resounding “no”.
While many new pieces continue to work very well, such as mobile integration with Battlelog, commander mode, spectating, and beyond, many more basic issues persist. Player models still get stuck on simple ground clutter geometry like broken cardboard boxes, kill cam issues (from wrong health displays to even showing the wrong player and weapon) still abound, and the ever-talked-about “netcode” continues to be a significant downgrade from Battlefield 3. Many servers are consistently suffering from rubber-banding and many players have uploaded GIFs of emptying entire clips into enemies without so much as a hit marker.
Whatever goodwill DICE bought with their statement that all efforts would go to bug squashing before proceeding with future DLC or projects has vanished. It is clear, and continues to get clearer with every patch, that DICE is not invested in quality assurance to any degree. There are multiple reasons for this, not the least of which is that DICE released 5 versions of Battlefield 4. The work required to release regular, bug free updates is Herculean, and DICE is obviously not up to the task. The fact that the PS4 version has gone from stable to blue screens in March is a damning indictment of DICE’s ability to do basic housekeeping on their products.
Because of persistent “netcode” issues, as well as game-breaking bugs, the BF4 e-sports conversation is all but over. By the time DICE has enough bugs ironed out for e-sports teams to take notice, the game will be at the end of its lifespan, and support will become non-existent.
On the topic of including women in the game, Hanna turned out to be just as feared: lip service. Prominently teasing a non-playable NPC is at best confusing, and at worst a malicious false advertisement. Why DICE chose to aggressively market Hanna is up for discussion, but I think it turned out to be a little disingenuous.
While DICE has addressed the single player save game bug in numerous patches, it is still an ongoing issue, and people are still advised by the community to not play the campaign. Given that the campaign was heavily marketed as a selling point for this title, this is extremely frustrating and disappointing.
Battlepacks have proven a somewhat contentious topic, as their contents are generally useless at higher ranks, and the inclusion of items such as emblem shapes and soldier portraits are downright pointless. There is also some discontentment that certain gun add-ons are only obtainable through Battlepacks, whose contents are completely randomized.
Some good news for future DLC is that DICE Los Angeles, the team responsible for the Second Assault DLC, will be at the helm. After the disaster that was China Rising, it’s good to see DICE learning their lesson and developing DLC in-house.
Beyond bugs, one of my chief complaints with DICE’s approach to DLC are their isolated servers. If you want to play the new Second Assault maps, you must play on a server that exclusively rotates those 4 maps over and over. This would be immediately alleviated by bringing private servers to the consoles, but 4 months in, this is still not a feature on the Xbox One or PS4. Releasing DLC in this format is devastating to the community in terms of fragmentation, as older map packs will be abandoned by players in favor of newer packs.
After the last 4 months, it’s hard to have much faith in DICE’s future projects, let alone their long term support of Battlefield 4. It’s clear that EA is driving the ship, and DICE is getting the whip cracked over their backs and being told to row harder. With news that the Battlefield franchise will have a new entry yearly, with DICE and Visceral Games alternating years, it’s easy to glean what EA sees in the Battlefield franchise: a field full of suckers eager to throw their money at broken products. Star Wars Battlefront 3 and Mirror’s Edge 2, once much begged for titles, now have the taint of Battlefield 4 attached to their names. DICE has arrived at a crucial moment in their operation, and to me, this is the make or break time for them. To restore consumer faith in DICE as a competent developer that deserves our money in the future, they have to first resolve the lingering issues with Battlefield 4. The seeming inability for DICE to take two steps forward without taking a hop, skip, or jump backwards continues to be a perplexing problem and signals core leadership failures within their ranks. You can only blame a publisher to a point…while EA might be pushing unrealistic deadlines, they aren’t the ones writing bad code and tolerating mediocrity.
At this point, it is hard to suggest voting with one’s wallet, as most of us have already sunk $60-$110 into Battlefield 4. What I will suggest, though, is seriously considering not pre-ordering the next DICE title you’re interested in. Let the reviews come out, read some feedback from early adopters and wait to see if the verse is the same, even if the song is new. Continuing to throw money at a company after they perform so poorly is not only damaging to the industry, but irresponsible as a consumer.
Is all this to say I haven’t enjoyed Battlefield 4? On the contrary. When the game isn’t crashing or lagging, there is tremendous fun to be had. I think it could be DICE’s best entry in a long and varied franchise, but as it stands today, 127 days later, it is simply not. DICE has increasingly come around to listening and engaging the community, but I’m worried it might be too late. By time we get the Battlefield we paid for, we’ll be on to the next big thing, and what a damn shame that is.