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Hands-on preview: Battlefield 4: Naval Strike brings war to the high seas

It feels weird writing about downloadable content for Battlefield 4. After arguably one of the worst launches in recent memory (aside from the SimCity debacle), it's still a bit strange to think of people putting more money into the game.

But beyond the server issues and bugs, the core Battlefield 4 experience is a blast, and EA's scratching the itch of diehard fans with Battlefield 4: Naval Strike. This is the third piece of DLC for Battlefield 4, and the first in the history of the franchise to focus on naval combat. I played about four hours of the expansion last week at EA's offices in Redwood City to see how it stacks up. (Hint: The new Carrier Assault mode is amazing.)

Great fun somewhat subdued by great distances

There's a pattern to the notes I took at the hands-on event: "Archipelago," "island," "sandbar." As you'd expect from a naval-focused piece of content, there's a lot of water on these maps.

The Nansha Strike map is an island chain covered mostly in fishing shanties and military bases. Lost Islands is an archipelago with a wrecked plane on the central island. Operation Mortar centers around an island with a Spanish colonial-looking brick fort and bunker built into the center. (You can even fire the black powder-cannons dotting the walls!) Wave Breaker's key landmark is an enormous submarine bay hidden underneath—you guessed it—an island. Every single map features abundant water and boats a-plenty.

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The problem with this sort of island-based warfare is that these maps are heavily reliant on vehicle warfare—even more than the base game. If you're fond of boat combat, then this is right in your wheelhouse. Loading an entire crew into an armored boat and taking out helicopters or storming an enemy base was immensely satisfying.

But even if you're the saltiest of sailors, water-heavy maps have drawbacks, primarily when you're stranded without a vehicle. The only thing worse than sprinting across empty areas to get back into battle because everyone took all the vehicles? Swimming across empty areas. The times when I got stranded away from a vehicle—and there were quite a few occasions—were incredibly dull.

Rarely will you fight anyone on foot in Naval Strike, though—it's just too damn hard to find people except in specific chokepoints. At one point I got so tired of swimming towards the battle that I just killed myself and respawned at a vehicle-ready hub. It's especially tedious in Obliteration (a BF4-specific mode that combines Capture the Flag and Rush), where if you're stuck without a vehicle the entire match can play out before you've really made it back to somewhere important.

Titans all over, these days

That being said, Naval Strike's reimagining of Battlefield 2142's Titan Mode—now known as Carrier Assault—makes a strong case for the new maps. In Carrier Assault, both teams start on an aircraft carrier. The first half of the match plays a bit like Conquest, where you're capturing points on the map. Each captured point directs a missile launcher at the enemy's aircraft carrier, slowly damaging its armor.

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Reduce the enemy carrier's armor to half and it becomes available to breach. At this point you can either continue focusing on the capture points and reduce the enemy carrier's armor to zero (at which point you win) or you can full-on assault the carrier itself.

If you choose the latter, the game turns into a mini-Rush match. You have to board the aircraft carrier and then arm/detonate two bombs on the ship to win. The aircraft carrier is basically an entire level-in-a-level—it's enormous, with multiple floors, sealable doors, and narrow corridors for the enemy to set up chokepoints.

Of course, while you're assaulting the enemy's carrier they're very likely assaulting yours, leaving teams to coordinate who stays behind to defend and who goes on the offensive. Oh, and don't forget about those capture points. If the other team captures them all, there's a fair chance they'll lower your carrier's health to zero before you even detonate your own objectives.

Carrier Assault is a well-implemented reinvention of Battlefield 2142's futuristic sci-fi theme for a modern warfare setting, and the tight balance between two different win/loss conditions makes for intense corridor firefights and spectacular comebacks. It's easily the most compelling reason to pick up this pack.

Trinkets

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Naval Strike adds five new weapons and a couple new gadgets to Battlefield 4's already-crowded arsenal. The new guns feel... like guns. At this point Battlefield 4 has so many weapons options it's easy to get lost. Suffice it to say, if you felt like there was any significant hole in your weapons choices before (though I'd be surprised if anyone felt that way) the hole has probably been patched.

The biggest gadget addition is the Anti-Air Mine, which—as you'd expect—takes out aircraft similar to the way a landmine takes out vehicles and personnel. It's a missile launcher tied to a radar system, so when aircraft get close it automatically fires. The mine only fires one missile before disappearing, and the damage is low, but it's a useful tool to supplement a real anti-air weapon.

Bottom line

It's more Battlefield 4. If you're still playing, Naval Strike is a decent expansion. The graphics are gorgeous, Carrier Assault mode is a ton of fun, and it's great to have a few maps where assembling a crack boat crew is actually useful. But if you find yourself on an island without a paddle...

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