How Battlefield carved its own FPS niche

In a very crowded genre, with Activision's Call of Duty reigning supreme, how has EA's Battlefield survived?

EA’s Battlefield 4 is out now, and it’s striving to become the next best thing in terms of online multiplayer military action, even when it has to go up against stiff competition from its arch nemesis, Activision’s Call of Duty.

Call of Duty: Ghosts is out on November 5, which gives Battlefield 4 a mere week to get the sales in before the battle lines are drawn. In past confrontations, commercial success has always favoured Call of Duty, regardless of the individual games’ overall quality. Still, although Activision may win out on the sales front, EA and DICE consistently pump out great titles, and there’s a distinct niche in the market for the major alternative to CoD, and the series continues to do well, despite its nigh-on impossible task of slaying Activision’s cash cow.

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How has Battlefield managed this, though? How has EA and DICE set about carving out a portion of the market, in turn making Battlefield appeal to a totally different audience? Let’s take a look.

Carving a niche

Regardless of you own opinion of the series, there’s simply no ignoring the sheer financial clout and mass market appeal of Call of Duty. It’s one of the single most successful game series of all time, and the yearly releases never fail to make a ton of hard cash. You may criticise the series for lack of originality, and the increasingly stale formula, but it’s the most popular online title around. This makes any form of competition difficult, as the CoD series is so established now, any challenger will have a hard time knocking it from its perch.

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EA and DICE know this, and although with every release both companies surely have the goal of doing better than their rival, at the same time they’re aware that such a feat is a very tall order, and different tactics other than direct competition are needed. Instead of trying to best CoD at its own game, Battlefield goes a different route.

This different direction allows Battlefield to co-exist in the games market with CoD, and although both games have many similarities, and often even sit happily in the same games collection, there are legions of loyal fans on both sides that keep the two titles at war. Battlefield‘s different tack takes many forms, including variety.

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Although Battlefield isn’t quite the same annual event as CoD (not including expansions and DLC), it’s had its fair share of releases, often with a year’s hiatus between them, and sometimes with more than one in the same annual cycle. However, even with such a number of outings EA has kept things interesting by changing up the formula somewhat, and daring to be a little different with each release.

The original Battlefield title, Battlefield 1942, released in 2002 and focused on World War II, and instead of repeating this with the next major release, the next title shifted the conflict and period, with Battlefield: Vietnam in 2004.

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Battlefield 2 in 2005 them moved to modern day, Middle East conflicts, and the series then began to fluctuate, going back and forth in time. Battlefield 2142 took a stab at futuristic sci-fi combat, and the series returned to WWII-era combat with Battlefield 1943. Battlefield 3 and now, Battlefield 4 return to modern day warfare.

Then there are the Bad Company titles. These were also modern day conflicts, but took a decidedly different approach, with a stronger story and characterisation. They were still heavily multiplayer focused (with the first being console-only), but had a less serious tone, thanks to the camaraderie of the protagonists.

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Battlefield Heroes was another very different release. This was a free-to-play game that had a cartoon-theme instead of a realistic military aesthetic. Far from serious, it was a fun, casual variant on the Battlefield style.

This constant changing-up of themes and styles helped to keep the series fresh, avoiding the majority of the flak that Call of Duty constantly faces when it’s accused of being the same game every year.

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To be fair, CoD also varies settings and themes, but the series took a lot longer to leave World War II behind, and even after the switch, it’s many releases still look and feel very much the same, even if they attempt sci-fi stylings, as in Black Ops II.

Epic scale

Whilst Call of Duty prides itself on fast, twitch-happy gameplay, Battlefield does the opposite. Sure, it has it’s frantic moments, it’s war after all, but for the most part, Battlefield is more about slower-paced tactical play and teamwork.

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It manages this thanks to larger, more open maps, and more of a reliance on character classes, not to mention vehicles. Call of Duty doesn’t really feature vehicles in multiplayer (and in the story they’re usually only in scripted sequences), which gives Battlefield a one up, adding a gameplay mechanic not really seen in its competitor.

As the maps are so large, and the action so tactical, vehicles can make combat far more realistic and enjoyable. Players can zoom around in jeeps and on quad bikes, blast everything in sight with tanks, play the hero rescue chopper pilot, or carpet bomb and area in a jet. It’s impressive, and makes the whole online experience feel more like a real war, and less like a paint ball match, as CoD games often end up feeling.

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Later games in the series also introduced squad-based play, allowing gamers to team up and form fire teams, expanding the scope of the tactical combat even more, and further promoting cooperation and tactics.

All of this means that players of Battlefield are totally different beasts to Call of Duty‘s fans. Activision’s title can encourage team play, sure, but it’s also entirely possible to run of as a lone gun (something that happens all the time). Real teamwork, unless you play in a close group, is scarce, and it’s far more frantic action. What’s more, the game rarely punishes you for this, even if it wants to be tactical, as in some of the objective-based game modes.

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Trying to run off as a loner in Battlefield is usually one of the fastest ways to get yourself killed, and the same gung-ho attitude you may have in CoD simply won’t work here. You have to work together, decide who’s best at what role, and plan your attacks. It’s a thinking man’s FPS to some degree, and that’s one of the reasons why its faithful fan base loves it.

Boom!

Less important, but no less impressive is the destruction element Battlefield has brought to the mix. First featured in Battlefield: Bad Company, the series allows players to destroy parts of the environment, such as buildings and relatively soft cover. This functions as much more than a gimmick, and means that cover isn’t always as simple as finding a brick wall to sit behind, or a corner to poke your nose around. With enough firepower, your foes can still hit you, so you have to keep moving and be aware of your surroundings.

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It’s a feature that’s arguably still waiting to be capitalised on, and Battlefield 4 certainly looks like it’s going to try, with massive skyscrapers and bridges falling foul to destruction, and it’s another feature that sets the series apart from Call of Duty.

As different as the two games are, there have been similarities, good and bad. Notably, Call of Duty‘s online stat-tracking, which has become a big focus of the series, was present in Battlefield 2, long before Activision implemented it.

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When it comes to single-player modes, both titles suffer, usually featuring short, linear and lacking experiences. CoD usually does the better job of the two, with more time and effort put into the solo campaign. Even with the far more solo-friendly Bad Company games, though, Battlefield really is a multiplayer only affair, but the truth is, most people who buy both CoD and Battlefield only really want multiplayer anyway, which is where to two titles differ greatly, and so maintain their own place in the genre.

What’s done well

In the end, Battlefield 4 has little to fear from Call of Duty, and vice versa, and the extra week’s sales will make little difference as both titles occupy their own space in the market, with clear differences in gameplay and theme. Will Call of Duty still sell more? Probably, but Battlefield‘s alternative brand of warfare will continue regardless.

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