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Sunday, January 05, 2014

PS4 Shooter Shootout: Ghosts VS Shadow Fall VS Battlefield 4

Shooters are probably one of my most consistently favorite genres of gaming.  Both Wolfenstein and Doom were big influences on my early PC gamer habit and I played nearly every possible shooter that ever came out for the Amiga, so while I haven't played every shooter ever made - I've played the vast majority released for the PC, Nintendo 64 and every flavor of the PlayStation produced ... and the Amiga.

Thankfully for me, FPS has become something of the summer blockbuster of gaming genres.  They're the easiest to make the translation from "big budget movie" to "big budget game with movie-like sequences in first person".  As such, the games have gone from being a way to show off technical prowess in gaming (remember that Doom was a 2D world made to look 3D, which is why it was particularly awesome) to single and multiplayer experiences with huge cinematic potential.  They've also become what once the sole domain of the mouse and keyboard set to hugely popular on consoles.

For PlayStation 4 launch titles - FPS fans get Call of Duty: Ghosts, Killzone: Shadow Fall and Battlefield 4: Battlefield 4 has no subtitle.  As was inevitable, I've had a chance to put all three through their paces and these are my thoughts on them.

Call of Duty: Ghosts

I've had a pretty uneven relationship with the entire Call of Duty franchise, I'll admit.  I've generally bought them because the titles guarantee a large online audience which makes it easy to jump into a game.  And there's no doubting that at its core ... these are good games, very solid shooters.

They also feature just absolutely terrible writing and online mechanics which while popular - are also just not very good.  Unsurprisingly, Ghosts doesn't stray far from this heritage - however I will say it feels better at both of those issues than most.  The writing in Ghosts feels like something from a Bond movie - approaching more spy fi than military fiction.  You'll need to suspend your disbelief when it comes to both science and basic character development.  However this title doesn't have anything nearly as disturbing as No Russian and the chapters feel less like awkward excuses to change from a desert level to a snow level and more like a cohesive narrative.

Likewise, a little more care is given to balancing my least favorite multiplayer mechanic of all time: kill streaks.  It's easier to get better kill streaks earlier, there are support kill streaks which culminate over time instead of one life, and in general it just feels like while occasionally you might get attacked by random dogs ... it's unlikely that someone is going to just camp over the map in a gunship and kill waves of people for a massive score.

The mechanic is more fair here, and while still not my favorite - seems less likely to disrupt the game in general with a couple of high level players being able to dominate an entire map.

My biggest complaint about Ghosts is that the multiplayer maps feel small and overly tuned to deathmatch to me.  The game actually ships with 14 maps, but while they offer a lot of different textures - there's a overwhelming feeling of sameness for me that makes you wish for even more right out of the gate.  This is compounded by the voting system which seems to keep a rotation of about 4 or 5 maps in heavy rotation.

Verdict: It's Call of Duty.  Ghosts is slightly better than many in the franchise, but it stays true to the core and pulls of a solid, even if somewhat campy, single player and strong mulitplayer offering.

Killzone: Shadow Fall

Killzone is one those "other" shooter franchises that only PlayStation users really care about (it being an exclusive and all).  I've generally enjoyed the titles and Killzone 3's multiplayer was a routine of mine for some time.  The games always felt like a little bit of Halo blended in with Battlefield.

Shadow Fall has been publicly stated to be a "reboot" for the franchise.  You can tell.  While the game sports some pretty impressive eye candy, gone are the squad level mechanics / narrative and the maps have changed from relatively linear maps with large combat areas to smaller maps with multiple routes (the closest equivalent I can think of design wise would be Deus Ex: Human Revolution but on a much, much smaller scale).

While very pretty, the single player suffers from both writing and mechanic decisions that would make even the worst chapter from Call of Duty blush.  Let's start with the fact that the premise is that after nearly killing every Helghast on Helghan the ISA decide to house the refugees on their home planet.  However, they also realize what a volatile and dangerous idea this is they erect a wall around the entire planet in what I'm pretty certain was a political decision stolen from a Brady Bunch episode.

Then after committing near genocide and parking the survivors next door (behind a massive wall) - they apparently decide it is OK for the Helghans to keep their guns.  And kill people as they see fit.

Years later, this all goes to hell.  Nobody can imagine why.  It was only like the worst idea ever to begin with.  And that's just the game's premise.  More implausible moments follow.  Seriously, this story makes Black Ops II look a bit like Moby Dick.

There is some fun to be had in the single player, if you tune out the storyline.  The level design will occasionally let you think about your approach and there are little twists like following instructions to avoid guards or pointing out sniping targets.  But then there are these abysmal moments like the "free fall" scenes - where you can mysteriously maneuver in both air and space and shoot an unlimited number of rockets (which oddly disappear once you land).  The free fall moments are all about showing off the PS4's GPU and nothing about actually having fun.  Then there are odd tradeoffs.  For instance, your floating robot OWL companion is often fun - but Killzone also seems to really want to force you to use the default gun, including enemies which most effectively taken down using one mode of the gun.  It's pretty much the opposite of fun gun design mechanics.

As for multiplayer - Killzone has also clearly taken the Call of Duty blueprint and walked backwards from the larger, more open levels to smaller and tighter levels.  While this keeps the shooting frantic, it also makes the previously interesting objective based moments feel like just a bunch more deathmatch.  

Verdict: Fun, but as a "reboot" I would say Shadow Fall is actually a step backwards for the franchise.  Instead of proving itself, it's taken the Call of Duty formula wholesale and managed to make a sci fi alternative that feels less than Ghosts at nearly every level.

Battlefield 4

If I was being fair, I would probably give BF4 its own article complaining about EA's moronic installation concepts - similar to my A Realm Reborn review, which was mostly about how the beta was nearly unusable.  I bought BF4 online and then proceeded to download it - which took about 4 hours total, and then downloaded the patch, and then installed all of that and then .... still could not play the game because the game told me it still had some installing to do.

For some reason, EA decided this next generation of installing had to be done by the game itself, despite nearly every other game on a console letting the system OS handle it.  The result was having to let the game run and fix itself for another four or six hours (I actually don't know how long it took - I went to bed).  After like two hours I could play one mission of the single player, and then just had to watch a progress bar (so much for that "play while it downloads" next gen concept).

Sadly, Battlefield's technical issues don't stop there.  The remarkably short single player campaign crashed a few times.  Sometimes servers just seem to stop communicating with sessions, I've had to quit while joining one several times.  Client side prediction occasionally goes wonky in multiplayer, creating that weird jerky movement while running.  There's this one great bug where if you press the wrong button at the wrong time, the deploy screen goes black (hard to tell where to deploy that way).

And for one game, all of my progression was forgotten.  Thankfully it returned after quitting and returning to a new server.

Thankfully, once you get past the idiotic installation scheme these bugs are generally minor (this is post several patches, my understanding is that the bugs were worse at launch).  The game behind the bugs is actually very good.  While the single player felt like the shortest of the three, it also offered a decent storyline which felt like an actual military action narrative and lacked any serious need for suspending your disbelief.  It also kept Battlefield's trademark large map design which helped the levels feel more like combat areas than linear maps with conveniently placed guards everywhere.

BF4's multiplayer has a strong emphasis on squads and teams working together and while it can be annoying to get sniped by that guy with a 40x scope - there's very little in the progression design which keeps new players from enjoying a game against veterans.  The veterans will probably still win, but they aren't winning by chaining one ridiculous kill streak after another one.

Verdict: Technically frustrating and while the single player campaign is arguably the most solid of the three - it's also not quite as fun as Ghosts and is shorter than Shadow Fall (though not by much).  Multiplayer is top notch, especially the level of destruction that can be applied to maps and watching jets crash into tanks.

Final Verdict

Which is the best?  I think that depends on one question: do you like smaller maps with more of a focus on deathmatch or larger maps with a wide variety of tactical options?  Ghosts and Battlefield feel nearly on par with each other, even with BF4's technical problems.  Personally, even with those issues the game I keep going back to play is Battlefield 4 - because I like that feeling of a vast combat landscape as opposed to small deathmatch arena.  

The clear third of the bunch is Shadow Fall, because while not a bad shooter - it's basically a Call of Duty clone with a sci fi outfit tossed on it.  The single player is a symphony of highs and lows, moments where you're having a lot of fun followed by doing nothing but literally falling out of the sky.  Killzone's new multiplayer is basically just Call of Duty's old mulitplayer with a couple of twists ... but nothing which is really an improvement.