Zen Of Design

The design and business of gaming from the perspective of an experienced developer

My Review(s) of Call of Duty 4 and Battlefield 4 Single-Player

It’s my own fault, I suppose.

CoD4 and BF4 both came out in Autumn of last year, but in both cases, I deferred my purchase of them to the Winter, in order to have a couple of other games to play on my XBone, therefore attempting to justify my decision to be an early adopter.  As a result, I played the two games’ single-player campaigns back-to-back.  There were two problems with this plan.

1) I believe, as many of my generation does, that the only proper way to play a first person shooter is with a mouse-and-keyboard.  Hell, I’m an athiest, but I’m pretty sure if there’s a God, he would have included ‘thou wilt play FPS games with mouselook’ as the eleventh commandment.  There are some exceptions – I loved Splinter Cell, but that’s a game where if you shoot your gun, you’re likely doing it wrong anyway.

2) I know, I know, gamemakers have a lot to say on the horrors of war, and hoo-rah and all that, but I kind of like it when my games, including my first person shooters, are, you know, FUN.  I vastly preferred the old Doom and Serious Sam mentalities of ‘mow down comical amounts of very silly enemies’ to what has become the de facto standard for shooters nowadays, which is gameplay that is more akin to the shooting gallery at the county fair.  But even the tone helps – I loved Far Cry: Blood Dragon, and would heartily recommend it to anyone who likes their games to be — you know– FUN.  I was completely able to get into the Bad Company offshoots of Battlefield, largely because they did such a good job making an entertaining band of misfits as your adventuring partners.

By contrast, I pretty much hated both Call of Duty and BF4.  In fact, my favorite part of both games was the loading screen sequences in Call of Duty, which were wonderfully Reznor-on-Acidesque in execution.

Now, I know that these games are really about multiplayer – which is unfortunate, since as an old geezer, I’m going to pretty much refuse to play these on multiplayer.  On a mouse and keyboard, maybe I could hold my own, but I’m pretty sure with a controller, 90% of my time will be spent trying to line up a shot while cursing, and the other 10% of the time will be spent dead.  While still cursing.

So I’m only judging the single-player experience.  Which in both cases, was kind of wretched.

Call of Duty 4’s was so easy and vapid that one hesitates to call it ‘gameplay’.  You simply lurch from shooting gallery to shooting gallery, trivially lining up shots on ineffectual bad guys, then moving to the next set piece.  Most deaths come from world designers being overly cute – spawning a guy behind you.  There was only one mission that I thought was particularly tough – a fight on an oil derrick that seemed to go on forever and that I never could seem to win – but it turns out that it, too, was easy, the mission was just bugged and wouldn’t trigger it’s ending cinematic sequence.

By contrast, BF4 actually had moments that required strategy, planning and tactics, so I guess it gets the nod for actually being a better game.  That being said, a lot of that difficulty comes from the Worldbuilders apparently being allergic to placing save points on levels, and then attempting to lure you into using vehicles halfway through that have all of the durability of a wet paper bag.  Also, their AI is so simplistically psychic that the difficulty is artificially inflated.  There is no sneaking and flanking enemies while your squad holds their fire.  Once shooting starts, all AI will apparently focus on you, which makes most of the gameplay ‘find a corner of the building so that you can edge around it in such a way that only one enemy will have line of sight on you at a time’.  Of particular note, the world is full of rooftop turrets which lure you in, but if you attempt to use them, you will be shredded faster than Richard Nixon’s secret files.

The story in Call of Duty can be charitably described as ‘powerfully stupid’.  Our gigantic space gun is captured by an undetectable small army of astronauts with machine guns that work in space, which results in us being attacked and pretty much conquered by South America.  And by ‘conquered’, I mean that they managed to capture San Diego, but not LA.  But the end result of this is that we have nothing – no army left.  Except for a rag tag group of soldiers including yourself.  And, you know, an aircraft wing.  Also, a column of tanks.  And some high-tech air strike capabilities.  And a dog, who happens to be the single deadliest thing on the whole goddamned battlefield.

Your dad spent his whole life telling you how awesome ‘Ghosts’ were, and coming up with ‘tests’ to prepare you.  These are just described to you – who knows what the hell that means.  Ten years later, he sends you off to rescue a Ghost.  At some point, you are rescued by a Ghost.  Who turns out to be dad.  Surprise!

The bad guy is also a Ghost.  He apparently holds a grudge because dad had the audacity to leave him for dead when, you know, a reservoir was dumped on him.  Yes, in this reality, governments destroy dams and flood their own cities in order to kill 3 special forces units.

In most games, you get angry when it turns out to be only 3 hours long.  With Call of Duty 4, there was instead a sense of palpable relief that I no longer had to endure that so-called ‘narrative’.

Battlefield, by contrast, is a much more believable story, if you can disregard the preposterous level of badassitude that you apparently have compared to the rest of the army.  Entire US military actions are stalled until your 3-man squad come and save the day.  Humorously, every time you leave the battleship your squad calls home, you’ll return to find that it’s been taken, and your squad has to retake it.  And when I say, ‘your squad’, I mean ‘you’, as if you ever put your controller and watch for five minutes, you’ll quickly discover that your squad is about as lethal as a declawed kitten.

Call of Duty has all of the cast diversity of a klan rally.  If you see a woman or a black man, you can rest assured that they’ll die before the end of the mission you’re in.  Even the primary enemy, the former ghost, is white, assuring homogeniety in cutscenes even as you cut down swaths of South Americans in normal combat.

Battlefield 4 is much more diverse, with the second half of the game putting both a black man AND a woman in your squad!  Of course, they hate each other, and spend most of the time reminding each other – and you – that they don’t like or trust each other.  Despite the fact that you are ostensibly squad leader, there is no hotkey for ‘please, you two, shut the fuck up, we’re STEALTHING here’.  But don’t worry, at some point they’ll suddenly have a whiplash-enducing change of heart so sudden that you’ll be somewhat surprised they don’t pull the jeep over and start dry-humping on the spot.

Both games have the beautiful set pieces you’ve come to expect, but I guess I’m no longer impressed by these, especially since both games had the SAME SET PIECES.  Destroyed dam?  Check.  Enduring an attack on an Aircraft Carrier?  Yep.  Call of Duty does get points for having more LUDICROUS set piece fights, so there’s that (I’m talking about you, airplane rescue scene).

Both games also have the mechanic of ‘hit X to do something cool, special-forces-like and scripted’.  Hit X to rappel on the side of the building, hit X to activate the pumps, hit X to play tiddlywinks, you get the idea.  I get what they’re trying to go, I guess, but the net result is a sense that these moments were designed by people who felt like Quick Time Events would be too complicated.  X OR Y?  Fuck that!  Just X!

Both games also have ‘stealth’ missions, and in both cases, they’re impossible to stealth through.  Battlefield, in particular, has a mission where your boss warns you, for the LOVE of GOD, DON’T SHOOT OR KILL ANYONE.  This mission forces you into a gunfight within 60 seconds of starting, and ends with you blowing up a battalion of tanks before you’re allowed to escape.  Somehow, on your return, your commanding officer neglects to admonish you for apparently kickstarting World War III into gear.

Special mention should be given to ‘the fucking Dog level’ in Call of Duty.  Your dog gets shot in the leg, and you get tasked with carrying the dog for the rest of the mission.  Needless to say, you can’t carry a dog and a gun at the same time, so the whole mission is ‘haul the dog 30 feet, put the dog down, and then attempt to kill all the bad guys, rinse, repeat’.  Note that everytime you put the dog down, your teammates will shout at you to pick it up again, despite the fact that there are still bad guys shooting at you, and that your squadmates seem about as effective on their own as a toddler with a potato gun.

Call of Duty’s saving grace, I suppose, is the ending sequence, which is a triumphant climax involving a well-done tank battle and a moderately well-done train chase, which has a fulfilling and satisfying ending – which immediately after the credits, they torpedo in order to set up the inevitable sequel.

Battlefield 4’s ending, by contrast, is utterly befuddling.  Not to give away any spoilers or anything, but the last 60 seconds involve you choosing which one of your squadmates to sacrifice for the greater good, you pressing the button to blow them up, and then the credits rolling.  Try not to think too hard about that final mission, because if you do, you’ll come to the inevitable conclusion that you have no idea how what you did should really resolve anything.

If I had to play one game again, I would beg you to reconsider what you’re doing to me, but if a gun was involved, I would hesitantly reach for Battlefield 4.  There was just more actual fun and interesting challenge there.  Call of Duty’s terrible single-player is well-documented, enough so that Zero Punctuation named it the worst game of 2013, something I considered to be hyperbole at the time and, while I don’t know if I’d go that far, I definitely see how it merits being in that discussion.

Meanwhile, if you want to play a GOOD single-player shooter-like experience on the console, go play Splinter Cell: Blacklist.

1 Comment

  1. Cod Ghosts, not Cod4. Cod4 is actually a good game, even though it is an linear game.

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