Action Games Are About Escalation, Not Reduction

Battlefield: Hardline opens with a brief shootout in a tiny room, and a frantic car chase that ends when the fleeing suspect crashes his car. Battlefield 4 opens with your team jumping/falling out of a building as a helicopter shoots it to pieces, and a frantic car chase that ends with you hanging out an open door and blowing up said helicopter with a grenade launcher before the car flips off the crashing wreckage and into the ocean.

One of these openings feels like an introduction, a brief tease of action that leaves plenty of room for escalation throughout the rest of the game. The other feels like a climax within itself.

Action games are often about escalation. You start small and then gradually build the scale and stakes. This is how the ending action scene achieves a greater dramatic impact than the opening action scene, and this a concept Battlefield 4 never quite understands.

The game’s pacing issues are most obvious in the first level. Battlefield 4 opens in medias res, a technique that allows a story to begin in the middle of some dramatic action, hopefully grabbing the audience’s interest, before going back in time to build up to that action scene. It’s a means of starting the story with action, even when the story doesn’t actually start with action.

You and your squad are trapped in a sinking car, your commanding officer stuck beneath a seat, water leaking in, and everyone is yelling conflicting orders. Do you shoot out the window and sacrifice your commanding officer, or stay and try to detach him from the car? Your hands shakily hold the gun, aim it at the windshield, and then everything cuts to black.

It’s a good scene on its own, but the game wastes this intense tease. We only flashback 13 minutes (in-game, which is really about 30-40 minutes in the real world; time moves just as slow in games as it does in movies, apparently), just enough for one level’s worth of action before we catch up to the opening scene. Battlefield 4 is so eager to get to its climactic moments that it refuses to let its narrative build naturally. This is a shooter, so you’ll inevitably find yourself in the middle of a firefight within two minutes of starting the campaign, yet the game still feels the need to jump ahead and open with something even more attention-grabbing than a gunfight.

That eagerness hurts it later on, as all of the truly memorable moments are clustered at the beginning of the game. After the third level in which we race across the bow of a sinking battleship, dodging fighter jets as they slide into the ocean, there are no more big actions scenes until the ending, which is still oddly subdued considering what came before. The middle and end of the campaign blend together as a series of shooting galleries with the only differentiating factor being the visuals of the environment. Thus a large part of the Battlefield 4 campaign is rendered unmemorable, in large part due to the spectacle that came before.

(Though I will concede, considering how few players probably play the campaign, and how even fewer finish it, maybe D.I.C.E. has the right idea clustering the good stuff early on. It’s only a weirdly paced campaign if you play all of it. But I did play all of it.)

In comparison, Hardline knows how to hold things back. It also starts in medias res, with us and our partner about to break into an apartment and bust up a drug operation, but rather than flashback 13 minutes to explain what we’re doing here, the game trusts its audience to recognize that we’re cops, they’re criminals, and the ensuing action doesn’t need any explanation beyond that. Hardline isn’t interested in putting on a big show every 30 seconds; it’s willing to start small, which gives it room to grow.

The prologue ends with a simple car chase, as explained previously, and even subsequent chases don’t involve grenade launchers or helicopters, just good old fashioned cars. For the first half of the game the bombast increases around you, but you’re never directly a part of it (other than the chases, that is). For example, a hurricane rips apart a mall around you; this is not your fault, you can’t be held responsible for the destruction caused by a natural disaster. This is the game effectively having it both ways: It gives us a spectacle of destruction, but avoids casting the cop as the agent of that destruction.

However, we players do like being the agent of destruction. We’re playing a game called “battlefield” after all. So midway through the game we stop being a cop, which allows us to participate in that bombastic action more directly. When we take control of a tank in Hardline, it comes after a long build of escalating action. In the next level we flood an elevator shaft so that we can swim to the top of a skyscraper, break open a vault, then zipline down to a pier; and of course our zipline gets caught on a helicopter, which swings us back into the building. Finally, the last level of the game has our protagonist infiltrating a heavily armed compound by himself.

We start the game as a responsible member of the police force (car chases notwithstanding, of course). Then we get to be a cop in a disaster movie. Then we join a criminal ensemble, upping our capacity for spectacle. Then we go to war with a militia, take part in a heist, and we end the game as a classic one man wrecking crew. We grow over the course of the game, not so much as a character, but as a performer.

Both of these games value performance over narrative, and that’s quite alright, but only one of them knows how to structure a performance in a way that feels consistently satisfying.