Battlefield 4: The redefinition of Early Access
One year on - how the new patch impacts DICE's troubled shooter.
Battlefield 4 might be the strangest high profile video game release I've ever come across. An odd state of affairs, considering it's about nothing more leftfield than shooting people, blowing stuff up and working out what attachment to slap onto your newest, shiniest gun, but Battlefield 4 is strange for reasons that go beyond its premise. A year after its release, it has finally exited its own Early Access period.
It's been well documented how dreadful Battlefield 4's early days were. For months it fundamentally did not work - endless crashes, hangs, blue screens and level resets. Then, after a series of patches and promises, it got itself into a playable but still frustrating state - issues were less frequent but never entirely absent.
While it no longer kicked you to the curb on a whim, it was plagued by rubber-banding - the type of latency issue that makes your player character appear to be running forward then yanked back a few paces. Now, after 12 months, DICE has dropped a patch that fundamentally changes how the game plays - its final form, you could say - fixing its final few issues, and dropping in fundamental gameplay changes that hover somewhere in between progression and apology.
These aren't changes that non-players would ever notice, but anyone who has suffered through the past Battlefield year will instantly feel the difference in how guns recoil. In that they no longer do. This small alteration in combat makes a big difference - shooting is sharper and more accurate, and less 'realistic' (whatever that means in a game where death is little more than an inconvenience). It's also far more reminiscent of Battlefield 3.
DICE's own patch notes suggest that the character movement is now the same as Battlefield 3's too - bar some additional animation - and your player is slightly tougher than before, meaning it'll take an extra shot with an assault rifle to drop an enemy in a firefight. Unlike most update patches that make near-imperceptible changes, these instantly feel significant in the hands. Battlefield 4 feels tighter, it feels like you are in far more control, and it's a much better game for it.
The other major change in an ocean of patch notes is the shift to 100 respawn tickets in Rush mode, as well as the relocation of the MCom stations in some of the maps. Rush has always been a bit of a disappointment in Battlefield 4, over-long, and vastly in favour of the attacking team. Here it is both quicker and more dramatic, and the shifts of MCom positions freshens up the game for even the most battle-hardy of troopers.
The patch comes at an unusual time in Battlefield 4's life, although any point in the past year could be labelled 'unusual'. Pseudo-sequel Battlefield Hardline was due for release around now - prior to its delay - meaning DICE would have initially expected a large chunk of its audience to have moved on by now. The change in release date for Hardline likely prompted such a large overhaul. By traditional standards, dropping such a game-changing patch this late into a game's life is pretty out of character.
Odder still is the fact that Battlefield 4 now exists in an odd multi-faceted plane. Its inclusion in the Xbox One's EA Access programme (still only twenty quid a year, less than half the price Battlefield 4 launched at) means it is, basically, a Free To Play game, or at most a subscription-based affair. If Sony had accepted EA Access on PS4, it's fair to assume Battlefield 4 would have followed, meaning it would have been a game that is now largely supported by Access' own price plan.
Yet on PC and PS4, it is still a full-priced game, with full-price DLC - that is until, later this month, a Premium 'GOTY' style edition appears (it would have been a stretch to actually write Game Of The Year on the box), which includes all of that DLC.
Battlefield 4 is certainly a more tantalising prospect now, whether you're a new player looking to jump in (via EA Access, or through the new Premium retail pack) or the more likely option, you're thinking about heading back in. At the end of these 12 months of torment lies a game that is finally finished. In my 15-20 games over both PS4 and Xbox One since the patch, I have had no disconnects, almost no rubber-banding, and no noticeable performance issues.
I also had a stark reminder of why this game fostered such a huge audience in the first place. The new, hyper-accurate combat does some work in levelling the playing field, especially for those entering the fray at the base level (as I did on Xbox One). It's still an uphill battle against high-level players, but patience and accuracy are more meaningful than before. And when this game is good, it is so, so good. It's the consistent argument; that Battlefield creates moments of chaos, drama and emergent madness that other shooters simply cannot. It's a game of small stories, of individual heroics and glorious teamwork. There's a reason thousands still play every day, and saw it through its darkest periods.
Quite how much damage Battlefield 4 has done to this brand will only become clear when Hardline eventually arrives, but this is a series that no longer feels like the genuine Call Of Duty challenger it was once positioned to be. Yet, after all this misery, Battlefield 4 is finally easy for me to recommend. The most unacceptable of messes, the strangest high-profile release I've ever come across, but at last a game I feel comfortable suggesting that other people play.
It only took a year.