With the launch of a new generation of console hardware, DICE was finally afforded an opportunity it had long lacked when trying to translate its popular multiplayer series to PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 – the sheer sense of scale that the series is known for. While both Battlefield 3 and Battlefield: Bad Company 2 were competent shooters that adhered to the Battlefield formula, they felt watered down on console thanks to the technical limitations of the hardware. PC players had been enjoying intense 64-player online warfare for almost a decade, but console players were stuck with a measly 32. With the launch of Battlefield 4 on the PS4 and Xbox One, however, that’s all changed. While the PS3 and 360 players are still stuck in the 32-player dark ages, the new generation of console players are finally being treated to the full Battlefield experience – and it’s great.
Before we get to the meat and potatoes of the multiplayer however, let’s discuss the campaign. Battlefield first introduced a single player campaign with the release of Battlefield: Bad Company back in June 2008, with a lighthearted, almost comedic take on the subject of war. DICE followed that same formula with its sequel Battlefield: Bad Company 2 in 2010. But it wasn’t until Battlefield 3 that a single player campaign was added to the main franchise entry. A very by-the-numbers military story, Battlefield 3’s single player was met with criticism. Many found it repetitive, uninspired and worst of all, boring. Unfortunately, Battlefield 4′s campaign is more of the same. If you’re expecting an epic and lengthy campaign with a well-written story, you’re in for something of a disappointment.
The story picks up six years after the events of Battlefield 3, following Sargent Recker and his team through different locals in an effort to ease tensions between the United States and Russia. To make matters worse, China is on the brink of war and they have Russia’s full support.
All of this seems like it could make for an interesting political thriller, but it doesn’t. Despite the superb shooting mechanics, surprise return of previous characters, and impressive set pieces, the game feels hollow. You never connect with any of the characters in a meaningful way so the story’s ‘tough choices’ lack emotional weight. Some might try to argue that ‘connecting with characters’ and ’emotional resonance’ aren’t important for a shooter, but they’d be wrong. When single player was introduced in Battlefield 3, it was held to higher standard but for no other reason than to justify its inclusion. It didn’t meet those standards, and neither does BF4. It’s disappointing that after so many attempts, DICE’s singleplayer campaigns still feel like something of an afterthought. There’s certainly some impressive setpieces (though nothing to rival the over-the-top bombast seen in its closes rival, Call of Duty), but that’s about it. Rather than feeling cohesive and satisfying, it simply feels like a series of set pieces stitched together and padded out with a bare-bones plot and a cast of steretypes to tick a box on a marketing department’s checklist. It’s not awful – at least, not in the way that Battlefield 3‘s campaign was – but it never feels as though its inclusion is justified and we wouldn’t be surprised if most players skip it completely and go straight to the multiplayer.
Of course, it’s the multiplayer that most people will be buying Battlefield for and thankfully it doesn’t face nearly the same problems as the singleplayer mode. Anyone familiar with previous Battlefield games will feel right at home, and playing with 64 players feels instantly more engaging and natural than previous console versions of the series, with the maps benefiting from the increased populations so that rather than the action being isolated to small areas with big empty stretches, now every map feels a lot more alive and fluid. The shooting itself is as strong as ever and the weapons are well balanced and weighty. Vehicle combat remains largely unchanged, except for the addition of a control scheme that is supposed to be intuitive but is actually more difficult than the default. And whether you’re on foot, on wheels, or in the air or at sea, the next precious unlock is never far away. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel then, but it remains just as satisfying as ever.
That isn’t to say it’s lacking new features however. A new focus on naval combat brings with it new mechanics: players can dive beneath the water when swimming, as well as use their sidearm to defend themselves at the surface. New attack boats offer some impressive firepower, but the dynamic ocean waves can make aiming a bit tricky.
Perhaps the most welcome addition – or at least, the most-hyped – is the ridiculously-named Levolution technology, which builds on the already-destructible environments that set the series apart. Each level has a major event that changes up the environment mid-match, closing off some routes while opening up others, and forcing players to adapt on the fly. Sometimes, these changes are player controlled – such as the collapse of a giant office tower, which is arguably the most visually impressive of the lot. For many of the maps, Levolution plays a major role in affecting gameplay; but in a few it only affects a small area, or might not happen at all. Regardless, it definitely adds a nice change of pace to the middle of a long match, and as a proof of concept it works. We’re sure that DICE will continue to evolve the system, as it has plenty of potential.
It’s not all sunshine and daises, however. Whatever way you look at it, Battlefield 4 feels rushed, shoved out the door to meet the launch day of the new consoles when it could have benefited with extra development time. The problems with the game’s online performance are well documented, and though admittedly the game has come a long way in the 8 months since launch, many issues remain. There are problems with pop-in, especially at the beginning of a match or level as the engine desperately attempts to stream in geometry and textures, and there are issues with sound effects not playing at the right time. In a genre in which players rely on sound cues to warn of them of incoming danger, this problem in particular is unfortunate and can lead to more than a few unnecessary deaths.
On top of this, not all maps are created equal, and some feel they would be more at home in a Call of Duty game; Operation Locker is a particular example of a map which simply doesn’t feel like it really belongs in a Battlefield game, lacking the scale and size that players have come to expect, opting for a more traditional infantry-based shootout inside a prison. While closing off doors allows you to force players to change their routes through its tightly-packed and claustrophobic corridors, and the central tower can be destroyed, it still feels as though something is missing from what you’d expect from Battlefield.
Other maps, however, are superb. Siege of Shanghai features a good mix of naval, air and land battles, with its central eye-opening feature being the vast skyscraper that can be brought tumbling down. Paracel Storm takes place on a chain of islands, with the match interrupted by a raging tropical storm which can see a ship being run aground. And Zavod 11 takes place in a beautiful forest dominated by an abandoned Tank manufacturing plant. Battlefield 4 works best when it focuses on scale and and spectacle over intimacy and infantry, and most of the maps only come into their own in Conquest mode. Commander mode also makes a return after a long absence, allowing players to direct teams to certain hotspots on a map or highlight enemies via the use of an overhead tactical view. It’s certainly not for everyone, and you need a well-organized team of players to make the most of it, but in the right hands it can be a definite advantage.
A couple of new modes, meanwhile, have been introduced. Obliteration sees a bomb dropped into the map at random, with both teams fighting to get their hands on it, take it into enemy territory and set it off. Defuse, meanwhile, sticks with the bomb mechanic, but shakes things up by having one team attack and the other defend. Both are certainly fun modes, but are also chaotic, fast and small-scale affairs.
While the PC version of a Battlefield game will always be the best option, the current generation of hardware allows players to have a much closer experience to their computer counterparts. Colors are crisp and clean, generally avoiding the muddied greys and browns that plagued the last generation. Explosions look as great as ever, and the massive destruction and weather effects of the Levolutions are impressive. The occasional low-res texture is visible, but does little to affect the overall visual quality. The audio is equally impressive, cementing DICE’s status as masters of the epic war soundscape. With a decent pair of headphones or a meaty surround sound system, the game’s audio really comes into its own with thunderous explosions, the sharp barking of gunfire and a bass-heavy soundtrack. War is loud, and it’s something that DICE has always understood well; Battlefield 4 is no exception to this rule, with the result being that matches sound as destructive as they look.
If not for the clearly rushed launch, Battlefield 4 would have likely been among the best the genre has to offer. Unfortunately, the subpar single player campaign and continued problems with the multiplayer experience mean that it’s likely to be remembered far more for its failings than its successes. That’s a shame, because beneath all of the issues is an expertly crafted first-person shooter experience, with some interesting new ideas and superb map design.
Hopefully, with the inevitable next installment DICE will take the opportunity to fix those issues and further develop on some of the new ideas introduced here. But Battlefield 4 remains an extremely enjoyable, if not essential, purchase.