We start in the sea, our vehicle, having evidently crashed, quickly taking on water. Desperate for a means to escape and with the squadron leader injured it falls to you to make the decision as to whether to shoot the window out, ensuring the escape of your team but at the expense of your team leader, or to resist orders and hope for the best. It is a life or death decision, a bold start to the narrative. And…it doesn’t matter. Because whatever you decide, that window is getting shot out, your team is escaping and you squad leader is destined to become fish food.
The campaign is full of these juxtapositions of supreme design and bone headed idiocy. Let’s start with some positives though and chief amongst those are the visuals. This is a fantastic looking game. Your mission takes you through towering sky scrapers to war torn streets, from rat-infested prison corridors to snowy peaks and all of it is beautifully realised. Cover is abundant for you to hide behind and line up your shot but the environment is almost entirely destructible so that hardy looking wall you plonked yourself behind to let off a pot shot or two can very quickly turn to rubble as a tank shell comes hurtling in.
Weapon selection ticks all the usual boxes but are no less satisfying to use for their predictability. As with all the best shooters, core weapons feel and handle differently, allowing the player to build an affinity with a personal favourite, perhaps getting close and giving the enemy both barrels with the shot gun, spraying bullets with a heavy-duty machine gun or sitting back and picking off enemies at long range with sniper rifles and projectile weapons.
Level design is understandably linear, given the presence of a defined narrative to follow. There is room for exploration, roaming players rewarded with weapon pick ups and other collectibles but Battlefield isn’t pretending to be anything more than a straight down the line FPS. That isn’t to say there isn’t variety though. Whilst most of the game is based around you and your squad simply pitching up and shooting at the enemy, the introduction of tanks, helicopters and stealth-lite serve to provide a degree of variation across its 10-12 hour running time.
Ultimately though, despite the many positives, I found myself continually frustrated playing through it. At the outset, this was a very personal thing. Starting a new game is always an anxiety trigger, introducing a fear of getting it wrong, that I will not understand the instructions and the detail of what is required. Indeed my eyes began to glaze over as new elements were introduced, such that it took me a few levels to fully grasp the use of the terrain goggles, used to spot enemies, as well as some of the finer points of weapon calibration and C4 placement.
Beyond my self-imposed limitations though, other gears began to grind. Narratively this is as generic as they come. The first scene decision sets the tone with its utter pointlessness. You as the player are then inexplicably assigned as squad leader, despite at this stage of the game being next to useless. Yes I understand it is a plot contrivance to put the player in control, but still. From there, you are saddled with genre 101 squad members, making their way through a B-move action template you’ve seen dozens of times. Your team are entirely forgettable, bordering on unlikable. Appreciating that as a game based around shooting as many people as possible to death until they die from it, concerns around a bit of blue language are perhaps the least of anyone’s worries. But still, f-bombs are dropped with such regularity that it begins to feel cheap, a substitute for the absence of actual character. Not only that but they are utter dolts. As squad leader you have the ability to assign instructions to your team. A nice idea in theory, and something used to good effect in PS2 squad shooter, Freedom Fighters. Here though the range of your instructions is limited to telling them to attack. Er dude, there’s a whole army of people shooting at us, do you really need a written invitation? And for some inexplicable reason, your orders time out, meaning your team might be in the middle of a shootout only to give up halfway through to await further orders. And even when they do shoot, they are almost entirely useless. I witnessed enemies literally run past my squad to get to me as my squaddie stood there picking his nose. Imbeciles.
Enemies meanwhile have no such problems, regularly finding your with sniper fire, bazookas and good old fashioned running up behind you and shooting you before you have a chance to figure out that they are even there, all whilst your team mates shout at you for orders. Cretins. Most of the action seemed to take place at distance too, wasting a lot of the graphical fidelity. There were moments of close quarters combat, usually when you need to sneak up and stab someone on the quiet. But most kills were achieved by identifying targets with my super goggles and then sniping at range, most attempts at a rush kill just resulting in death.
Playing through on normal difficulty, I found the game incredibly hard at certain points, compounded by some harsh restart points. As the campaign progresses there are some real nasty firefights. In one example, I stumble out on to a hill, overlooking a bunch of enemy soldiers taking their positions, tank support rolling through. Grabbing my specs, I identify enemy placement, grab my weapon of choice and plan my assault. My first few attempts end in failure, fair enough, but after a few tries I figure out my gameplan and clear the immediate area before moving on to the next zone. At which point I am shot down and have to start the entire thing again. Could there really not have been a mid-battle check point? I am physically relocating to a new area, I would expect that to be a sensible point to auto save. The sense of unfairness often makes the game frustrating and more than once caused me to walk away, unable to face another painstaking slog without any realistic expectation of a chance to save.
Other niggles annoy too. Despite being graphically glorious, pop up is atrocious. The aforementioned lack of well spaced checkpoints and subsequent replays meant that I often knew the route through the level and would see tanks and soldiers just appear magically out of thin air. Speaking of tanks, I had to stifle a chuckle when one in my own battalion literally drove straight through me without causing so much as a stubbed toe and couldn’t help but laugh as my death machine took incoming fire, let out a warning of imminent explosion and then magically restored its health, just like the player would. And whilst I understand that as a narrative driven experience, a certain amount of linearity is to be expected, this comes with some limits. My badass soldier can single handedly take down a helicopter but he can’t vault a rope stretched across a pathway because the level isn’t designed to let you go that way. I understand the need to make the world look bigger than it is but if you’re going to block off certain sections, put a bit more creative thought into it, not this lazy nonsense.
A tough experience to quantify then. Technically it is superb. Shooting is crisp, weapons feel satisfying and responsive, environments are varied and it certainly provides a challenge. On the other hand, the plot is dishwater dull and characters lack definition, robbing the end-game twist of any emotional heft, whilst some of the design decisions, particularly around difficulty, checkpoints and team mechanics disappoint. Whilst I found parts of it satisfying, as an overall experience it was just too frustrating to truly enjoy.