Battlefield 4, tablets, and a way forward for gaming

It's not just a redeployment. Kevin Pocock sees a bright glint, and it's more than just another sniper scope

The coming of new platforms is no big thing in gaming. New systems, new generations come and take the headlines at seemingly pre-ordained intervals. And while the arrival of the Nintendo Entertainment System arguably marked the last proper revolution in gaming, the industry hardly stands still.

Progress has been relatively slow of late though. For a while now PC and console gamers have co-existed like aged, rankled neighbours of a thousand disputes. Ever-irritated by the other party, but cosy enough with their go-to rival. In gaming, both the PC and console persist. They do so in spite of exaggerated death rumours, and heckles of elitism and supposedly lacking sophistication.

Probably both are here to stay for some while yet, but as next-gen consoles are required for now-gen PC performance, it’s the tablet which could be bringing a sea-change unseen since Duck Hunt. For the diminutive form-factor taking command of a prosperous position in the gaming market, we can think of paid-for or free apps casually tickled at home or on trains. We can think of the cross-platform ports of old classics, or recently released and re-optimised titles. Perhaps though we should be thinking of cross-platform interactivity and incredible enhancements in the gaming experience.

Taking command

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Electronic Arts and Dice are clearly well-ahead of me here. But their choice to reintroduce ‘Commander Mode’ in Battlefield 4 (indeed the tablet’s potential role in delivering it) is less gimmick more sheer ingenuity. It’s the appreciation of the capabilities of a platform which, according to BI Intelligence, is now owned by one in 17 people on the planet. And it’s an appreciation that tablets offer increasingly powerful compute capabilities, high-definition graphics and immediate interactioon.

Plus… well, they can be played practically anywhere with an available data connection. Oh, and they’re not just a gaming device.

Let’s be honest, the latter fact is pretty crucial. Tablets have the very real potential to change the way we game and interact with cross-platform game worlds, and yet that is just one of the things they can do. Considering that for a moment, we’re now lightyears beyond the realm of Gameboys and Game Gears, while the 3Dses and Vitas of this world are part of a retreating tundra – one consisting of three figure price tags for items offering a single predefined use. They’re very good at delivering those predefined uses of course, but tablets are only just learning their stripes, and offer uncountable riches besides.

Let’s return to Battlefield here. The commander mode will take advantage of rather expensive iPads, this is true. But a 2012 released Nexus 7 now costs just £50 more than a PS Vita, and yet it can be a critical part of an active Battlefield server and do a thousand other things. Yes, this is a moment for us gamers to take note of. We might even say, “that’s pretty damn special”. And actually, we really really should.

New dog, new tricks

You might be away on business, in a hotel, or just having a lazy day where you don’t fancy sitting at your PC or console. So from your sofa, bed, La-Z-Boy or… elsewhere I don’t want to think of, you might do a bit of reading. You might do a bit of shopping. You might even do some checking of emails. But you can also support your Battlefield team-mates with decisions directly affecting their in-the-map experience. And you can do it right from the tablet held in front of you. When the game is over, there are no ancillary peripherals or programs to worry about closing, putting down or taking off. No Teamspeak, controller or headset re required; you just turn the tablet off and go out for some fresh air.

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It’s not all air-drops and Tomahawk missile support either. In Battlefield 4 tablets can be used to take advantage of the new ‘BattleScreen’ feature. Yep, we gamers can actually play on our console or PC while having our tablets on hand as a real-time battle map. Or, if we want a tablet experience distinct from the preferred system of choice, we can just use it to change and update our in-game loadouts. When we’re back in front of our keyboard or console everything’s good to go.

New beginnings

This is the added value that tablets alone can, do and should continue to bring to gaming. Imagine a football management game where we can scout for players or devise training programs on the move. Or maybe a role playing game where mini-puzzles available on tablets can unlock specific items or weapons. Those items are then unlocked for later use in the game proper, but can be levelled while you’re on the move. These are the sorts of things tablets can bring to the gaming world, adding a feasible third virtual place.

And not the ‘third place’ Sony spoke about in its David Lynch directed Playstation 2 adverts. A third place unifying console and PC after the decades of tit for tat and non-stop debates about which is better for gamers. Because the answer, clearly, is neither of them. Both consoles and PCs are good at what they offer and, despite Microsoft PC controllers and burgeoning console specs, neither quite completely delivers what the other can with ease.

What the tablet offers is the meeting of two. It is that neutral third place. At once a distraction from the ongoing feud, and a tool which both can take advantage of. The rankled old neighbours’ symmetrical apple tree, if you will. A tree, newly sprung from the Earth, perfectly bordering both gardens and equally welcomed. The tree might actually outlive the rankled neighbours. It may even grow taller than both ever were. But while they’re both around it will bear fruit for their benefit, sustaining a unifying sweetness. And if that tree existed, two things would need thanking. A habitable environment and whosoever planted the seed.

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That seed is about to be planted.