In my review of Battlefield 4's Second Assault map pack, I described its online service as patchy, but fighting its way back to full health. Well, in the interim, two consoles have launched globally and it seems like DICE's game has experienced an entirely different kind of levolution: its servers crumbling into dust under the mortar fire of people actually trying to play the thing.
Yes, despite multiple patches and updates, Battlefield 4 is a mess on every platform - a litany of crashes, misfires and save bugs. So will its map pack China Rising, free to those who pre-ordered the game and available to Premium players today, be enough to sate those who've spent hours screaming at black screens and menu locks in futile rage?
Three of the four included maps are genuinely new, with only Dragon Pass a remake - in this case of the Battlefield 2 classic, Dragon Valley. And what better place to start? Imposing mountains, golden-hued skies and lush greenery surround Dragon Pass. It looks like you're waging war on the fourth disc of Shenmue 2. Those mountains don't actually have an impact on the action, which is largely fought on and around a long, twisting road that naturally undulates through the valley, allowing just enough cover for infantry combat without the whole affair turning into a massacre.
Being a large map, Dragon Valley supports vehicles, but does little to accentuate their inclusion. You simply attack in tanks or do not, depending on your play style. It's a nondescript space - a blood bowl of sorts - and anyone experienced in DICE's world will feel pangs of over-familiarity as you sprint through one-storey huts and crouch in lightly swaying foliage.
Still, it's a perfectly acceptable host for games of Rush and Conquest - the minimum requirements for any Battlefield map - with a nice variety of scenery around capture points and a pleasing through-line when progressing from one end of its dogleg geometry to the other. Serviceable, if not special.
Even more vegetated is Guilin Peaks, another mountainous space coated in verdant next-gen shrubbery. While a pretty map, Guilin Peaks will likely find infamy thanks to its cavernous choke points. An arched tunnel sits atop a raised mound, and passing through this is the most direct and viable way to reach distant capture points or the next section of a Rush onslaught. It's the most ostentatious (and if you're on the wrong team, as I so often seem to be, nightmarish) killzone since Operation Metro's ticket gates, and our play time at EA's offices was punctuated by elongated stretches of instant death upon spawning - the only time when you actively hope the game does hard crash your system.
Thankfully, Guilin Peaks is also a fantastic place to charge around on the newly reinstated dirt bikes, barrelling through the low-hanging mist as you bypass the carnage on the way to a distant capture point or bomb in Obliteration mode. It'll take time to adjust to the map's idiosyncrasies, but once teams figure out that it's best to leave that central tunnel well alone, this should blossom into a solid jungle map, something this version of Battlefield has been lacking.
Less exciting is Silk Road, a bizarre level that sees glistening sand dunes surround a flat-packed military base straight from the Call Of Duty cutting room floor. The dunes themselves are a pleasure - perfect for surreptitious sniping and unsurprisingly joyous dirt-bike scrambles through the sand - but the moment-to-moment action is conspicuous by its complete lack of personality. When stuck in the military base, with its sandbagged walls and tin-roofed hangars, the game bogs down into gun-on-gun tedium: COD without the snap or precision. Those who enjoy spending their time grinding specific weapons (particularly shotguns) will likely shriek with glee as they mow down another unsuspecting medic in a haphazard spray of buckshot, but if you're in camp Battlefield for the drama, the mayhem and the stories, then Silk Road is a purgatorial trudge.
The final arena in this quartet is the snowy, elevated clime of Altai Range, the most specialised of China Rising's selection. Here, a vast peak towers over capture points below, majestic like the Throat Of The World looming over the frozen fields of Skyrim (although not as tall, of course). Unchallenged snipers will dominate from the summit, picking off unsuspecting ground troops like fish in a particularly icy barrel. Success comes, then, from maintaining control of this peak while dominating at least two points below. This turns a game of Conquest into a two-pronged affair, with protracted battles on lower ground entirely dependent on trusted teammates carrying out their duties at the top of the mountain. An interesting and very welcome dichotomy.
As always, DICE has thrown in a handful of extras with the maps, including five new weapons (none of which is hugely significant, unless you're the obsessive type), the dirt bikes, and the return of Battlefield 3: End Game's Air Superiority mode, which lets you pilot jets in dogfights and do little else. A fun aside, no doubt, but not something you'd expect to spend more than an hour mucking about with. China Rising doesn't have the same personality as Battlefield 3's themed packs; there's no central gameplay conceit here, just a selection of places to shoot, heal and explode one another.
Disappointingly, too, there's no levolution (yes, it's that word again) in this offering, meaning the maps feel indistinct. They could have appeared in any recent Battlefield game.
This add-on is free to those who pre-ordered, and it's true that the worth of a Battlefield map takes weeks and even months to evaluate as players naturally morph its frontlines. Even so, it's hard to shake the feeling that China Rising is Battlefield 4 by numbers - maps for the sake of maps. That's enough for most. That is, if they can get the bloody game to work.