Oct. 28, 2013 at 6:18 PM ET
Electronic Arts and its Swedish subsidiary Digital Illusions CE (DICE) will fire the first shot Tuesday in the war for dominance over the next generation of video game consoles.
"Battlefield 4" is the latest installment in a long line of militaristic first-person shooters that is set to appear on both current-generation platforms and launch with the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One next month.
Since the series debuted in 2002 with the World War II-themed "Battlefield 1942," DICE has managed to carve out a space in the crowded marketplace for shooters by giving players an unrivaled experience of, well, a battlefield.
Exploring across massive and visually stunning levels, players could do everything from fly warplanes and drive tanks to run around supporting their fellow soldiers as a medic or sniper. As "Battlefield" has grown as a franchise, the games have migrated from its origins as a WWII shooter to different locales. But the core of "Battlefield" has always remained the same—giving players larger and more epic-scaled levels than any of its competitors.
"Battlefield 4" is no exception. The game adds a number of standard features such as new weapons and vehicles to match the new setting, which is a near-future in which Russia, China and the United States are all compelled to duke it out in large destructible cities.
The most exciting new feature is something DICE calls "Levolution," a system by which individual maps will change depending on what players do during a given match. As DICE showed in a trailer that debuted over the summer at the Gamescom convention in Cologne, Germany, these changes can be as small as, say, a car alarm going off when you're trying to sneak up on an opponent. Or they reach Michael Bay levels of bombast, such as when a huge skyscraper topples to the ground, or an entire city is flooded in the middle of a game.
The 'Call of Duty'-sized elephant in the room
These are the kinds of updates to the first-person shooter experience that have left "Battlefield 4" fans chomping at the bit for months now. And judging by the enthusiastic response to 2011's "Battlefield 3," it's doubtful that EA and DICE will disappoint. But when it comes to militaristic shooters, EA faces an ominous specter that has little to do with the quality of "Battlefield 4" or how well it meets the game's high expectations. As Lewis Ward, research manager for gaming at IDC, told NBC News, anything EA puts out now will face steep competition from Activision, which is rolling out the next title in its blockbuster "Call of Duty" franchise on Nov. 5 — just a week after "Battlefield 4" hits the shelves.
"If you had to stack them up in some sort of revenue pecking order, 'Call of Duty' comes out as a clear number one," Ward said of the two franchises.
The last time the two series went head-to-head was in 2011. "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3" sold more than 6.5 million units during its first day on the market, while "Battlefield 3" sold 5 million during the first week.
There's no clear explanation for why "Battlefield" was so dramatically outpaced by "Call of Duty," according to Ward. The two games are remarkably similar aesthetically; both received almost the same rankings on review site metacritic, and when it comes to multiplayer gaming "Battlefield" has always offered larger and more dynamic levels open to a greater number of players.
But for Ward and fellow industry analyst Michael Pachter of Wedbush Securities, none of that matters because "Call of Duty" has inertia on its side.
"The network effect of multiplayer is just too big for ['Call of Duty']," Pachter wrote in an email to NBC News, "and few will be willing to leave their friends behind to play a new game."
Pachter added that while he thinks "Battlefield" has "a small chance" of beating "Call of Duty: Ghosts," he expected Activision's game to outsell it by some 5 million units.
Ward, however, was more upbeat about EA's chances this time around.
"'Call of Duty' is kind of like the 'World of Warcraft' of first-person shooters on the consoles," Ward said. "They've had a great run, but they cannot afford to sit on their hands. So there are absolutely some ways that EA can break through with the right changes."
But what are the right changes, exactly? This summer, DICE delighted its console fans when it announced that, for the first time in the series history, the next-gen console versions would support 64 simultaneous players—the same level that "Battlefield" purists enjoy on the PC. That's a far cry from the 24 supported on current-generation consoles, not to mention "Call of Duty's" 18.
Yannick LeJacq is a contributing writer for NBC News who has also covered technology and games for Kill Screen, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic. You can follow him on Twitter at @YannickLeJacq and reach him by email at: Yannick.LeJacq@nbcuni.com.