Platforms: PC, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PS3 and PS4
Reviewed On: Xbox 360
As I stagger through the rubble of a building that I just collapsed on myself in the hopes of crushing the numerous enemy soldiers within, I spy two jets collide in mid-air. One pilot ejects, lands behind a tank and immediately pulls out C4 and blows the machine to pieces. He’s a foe, so I gun him down as my team mates voice comes over the speakers informing me that he’s got a chopper and he’s coming to pick me up. Once he arrives I leap aboard and mere moments later we’re taking fire from RPG, but somehow he gets me close enough to the objective and I leap out, parachuting to the ground and opening fire. It’s exhilarating. It’s fun. And it’s not some scripted scene in singleplayer. No, I’m playing multiplayer. Somehow, amidst the mayhem, I feel at home. I feel at peace. I’ve missed this.
But before we get to the good we first have to talk about the bad, and I struggle to remember a game where there was such a chasm between the quality of the singleplayer campaign and that of the multiplayer. When it comes the Battlefield series this is developer DICE’s fourth attempt at crafting an enjoyable campaign, and it’s their fourth failure to do.
You play as one Recker, silent protagonist extraordinaire, who together with PAC, Irish and Hannah form Tombstone squad. The general gist is that you find yourself in Shanghai as a rogue general is laying siege to it for reasons that are never really explained, and must protect a Chinese V.I.P. There is of course a backstory to all of this, but frankly it’s rather vague at times, even feeling like the writer’s themselves were only including it because they had too and didn’t really want to draw your attention. For most of the game your squad is separated from the American aircraft carrier which from which you were deployed, and likewise the carrier is separated from the rest of the American forces, leaving you completely isolated and caught up in the middle of a shitstorm. On paper it’s the perfect premise for a story with a more personal focus on a single squad trapped in enemy territory, a welcome change of pace from the norm. On paper. In reality poor writing lets the story down at just about every turn, attempting to get us invested in the story but ultimately doing nothing more creating an instantly forgettable storyline. Seriously, I just finished it two days ago and I can barely remember what happened.
There are at least some areas of the campaign in which DICE get things right. They take the time to occasionally slow down the pace and attempt to build both tension and their characters, and while the terrible writing omits any possibility of decent development of either DICE manage to succeed in giving their soldiers more personality than the likes of Call of Duty: Ghost’s uninspired idiots, but of course that’s not high praise considering said idiots have all the personality of a rubber duck. Irish, Pac and Hannah do exhibit some slight signs of being actual people, and a mixture of decent facial animations and good voice acting help with that, but it’s still not enough to render any of the story twists, revelations or “emotional” moments effective. I didn’t find myself caring about my squad and whether they’d make it out alive. There only purpose in life was to act as a bullet sponge so that I could flank the enemy. The dialogue is regularly awful to the point of almost being funny, and the plot itself is poorly penned idiocy which barely holds together under even the lightest scrutiny.
There’s a scene in the game which sums almost everything wrong with the script which I want to briefly describe while keeping spoilers to a minimum: a character thought dead returns, and his startling reappearance is haphazardly swept under the rug with this ingenious explanation as to how he got out of the hairy situation: “They had me fucked, and then I got unfucked.” Wow. What’s more is that his miraculous survival is absolutely pointless in the overall narrative, ruining any initial impact his death may have had and adding nothing of worth as he appears for just a few minutes in order to do something which any other member of the cast could have done. That right there, my friends, is shit writing.
Having seemingly listened to some of the many, many criticisms levelled at Battlefield 3’s underwhelming singleplayer campaign DICE have attempted to meld elements of what the franchise is best known for into the experience, crafting large combat areas that help break up the standard corridor shooting. These more open areas provide freedom of movement which, while still not huge, is a welcome change from most shooters intent on inducing claustrophobia, and when coupled with the return of the Bad Company 2 style of destruction of the environment it creates a sensation of genuine player skill that often feels missing in the genre. You can hang back with a sniper rifle, blow through the walls of buildings with an RPG, get up close and some instances can even use stealthy knife-kills to thin the ranks, although some more silenced weapons would have been much appreciated as I’m fairly sure I could have gotten through entire areas using a sneaky approach.
Battlefield also never forgets that it’s a game with points for killing enemies and headshots popping up on-screen as you blitz your way through the levels. Score enough points and not only will you earn the right to feel a tad smug but you’ll also unlock bonus guns to play with, which can in turn be accessed from any of weapon crates strewn around the place. Realistic? Nope. But it lets you experiment with the armory you’ve acquired at your leisure and gear up properly for what you think might be coming next, and by Christ are there a lot of guns to choose from! However, to my dismay you can’t customise the weapons, you’ve just got to use whatever they come with.
Ultimately the singleplayer highlights the fact that when you get right down to it Battlefield 4’s core gunplay just isn’t very good. This may be a comment bound to create irate Battlefield fans, but I feel it’s true. Make no mistake: the gunplay doesn’t feel bad, but compared to its peers the controls and shooting lacks the same level of fluidity and response. During the hectic mayhem of multiplayer this slightly lackluster gunplay is absorbed by the scope of the game. Titles like Call of Duty: Ghosts rely almost solely on their gunplay for the multiplayer, but Battlefield doesn’t, placing the emphasis on scale, carnage and emergent gameplay, therefore weaker gunplay is far less of a problem. Without the player-created insanity of the multiplayer these larger combat areas in the campaign feel hollow and lifeless, relying on the core shooting mechanics to keep you invested which are just not good enough to make the experience much fun. The corridor shooting, of course, feels even duller.
The AI also leave a lot to be desired, generally sticking to a single piece of cover and almost always poking enough of their head out that you can pop out and deliver a headshot with little effort. They’ll break cover in order to charge into open terrain where you can pick them off at your leisure, fail to react to your flanking position and even run right past your squad, who in turn completely won’t open fire because they’ve suddenly become pacifists.
In other areas the game fares better. The love of set-pieces from Battlefield 3 has not been lost, but DICE have paced them right. I just criticised Call of Duty: Ghosts days ago for having a continuous barrage of epic set-pieces that ultimately bled them dry of any amazement. On the other hand Battlefield 4 uses its big moments far more sparingly, and while they many not have the same level of polish their sporadic usage makes them feel special. Battling down a sinking carrier was a particular highlight of mine.
As is becoming a worrying trend the singleplayer experience will barely last you four hours. I’m an advocate of quality over quantity. Obviously I’d like to have both, but from a shooter aiming for intensity that’s a tough thing to do, so should I have to choose I’ll take quality, preferring to play a short but well crafted campaign over a long but dull one. However, in the case of Battlefield this is neither a long nor good campaign, and after four hours of playing I was sadly left feeling completely ambivalent to what I had just experienced: nothing stood out in my memory, and while I enjoyed some of the encounters for the most part combat felt mundane. It wasn’t that long ago that DICE admitted they simply weren’t good at singleplayer, and frankly they’re right, although I commend them for their honesty. This is a poor attempt, one that is lifeless in both its combat and story. Having said that it does also stand as an improvement over Battlefield 3’s pitiful attempt. So there’s that.
But then who amongst you has ever bought a Battlefield game in order to experience a well crafted story or expertly constructed singleplayer campaign? Nah, you buy it for the almost legendary multiplayer, which I’m happy to report is as good as it has ever been.
T0 anyone new to the franchise attempting to describe the multiplayer is a surprisingly difficult task. It is pure energetic carnage scattered over a selection of 10 vast landscapes which serve to allow for tanks, jeeps, helicopters, jets and boats to be a part of the action, while also letting snipers actually be snipers, something I am ever grateful for perched atop my boulder miles away from the enemy base patiently sending bullets through people’s skulls. The sheer scope of the game allows for emergent gameplay as each side finds more and more ways to achieve victory. You’ll engage in pitched sniper battles across the length of the map, assault the enemy in close quarters combat, drop off your squad by piloting a helicopter under enemy fire, decimate the foe with a tank, watch jets scream overhead as they dogfight, dodge a mini-gun attack from a boat and sneak through enemy lines, all in the same match. It’s this variety of gameplay and the many fantastic memories forged from it that just keeps you coming back for more. Battlefield 4 continues the series legacy of being one of the most ambitious, all-encompassing and fun multiplayer experiences out there. It also remains a game that slower, more thoughtful players can really dig in to, constantly finding new ways to tackle a problem and learning different tactics. With so much going on Battlefield rewards intelligent play over simple run and gun tactics, favoring those who can adept to any situation and keep a careful eye on the horizon, as death can come from anywhere. It’s a game focused on teamwork, because while a lone-wolf can certainly help out its ultimately squads who communicate, think and co-ordinate with the rest of the team that have the biggest impact.
But perhaps what truly defines the game is the Battlefield Moments, a phrase you’ve probably heard before being batted around the forums. These unique stories are forged from the fires of Battlefield’s many mechanics coming together, and are the kind of tales you recite to your friends or chat about on forums. Maybe it’s something simple like how you lured three enemy soldiers into a C4 ambush, or maybe it’s that time you rammed a jet into a tank, ejecting to safety at the last second. Perhaps it’s when you rescued your trapped squad using a helicopter while taking RPG fire, or when you leap from the top of a building, parachuted down on to an enemy vehicle and blew it to pieces with explosives. These moments are what Battlefield really is, and it’s amazing how many hours you’ll put into the game to earn these little stories, how late you’ll stay up playing for just one more awesome moment when everything comes together.
A few small tweaks have been made to game’s central mechanics that are worth talking about briefly, the first coming in the form of being able to peek over and around cover by holding down the left-trigger. When it works it works well, letting you take better advantage of terrain, but it can be more than a little finicky to use. More often than not I’d hug a wall, pull the trigger and end up staring at concrete. Second a slide move has been thrown into mix, but it’s pretty much useless, although I have no doubt some inventive players will probably find something cool to do with it. Parachutes can also be opened earlier during a fall, so it’s possible to leap from second-floor buildings and take no damage, opening up a few new ways to get around. Melee kills can now be countered, but the window in which you can do so is overly generous and as a result I found that almost all of my own melee attempts would get countered. Finally the user interface has had a general tidy up and now displays information in a far nicer format.
Apart from being a phrase no human being should ever be forced to utter, the much touted “Levolutions,” actually had very little impact on the game in my personal experience. After putting about ten hours into the game I only ever saw Levolutions take place a couple of times, and that’s ultimately because the biggest of them require players to go out of their way to activate them, such as firing piles of missiles into a dam or destroying ten cables to bring down a radar dish. These things just don’t occur naturally during play. But when they are activated they’re dramatic moments which punctuate the action beautifully. At one point during a match I was in both teams stopped shooting at each other to watch a huge warship smash into land. You’ll most likely have seen the now famous collapsing Skyscraper in numerous videos, but it’s even more awesome when you’re actually playing the game and witness the devastation before venturing forth to see how the landscape has been changed. However, the Levolutions lose their luster fairly quickly due to feeling scripted, and while some do alter the landscape in a significant way it simply doesn’t feel like it’s worth trying to use them. They take too much co-ordination and timing to use them strategically, either, although it possible. Other Levolutions work better because they occur naturally, like the deadly snow-storm that can grow in Operation Locker, making it hard to see enemies and frosting up scopes. There’s also a few examples of Levolution where it really just doesn’t work: Seige of Shanghai is less fun to play with tower collapsed, so much so that I encountered several teams that agreed to not activate it, while Flood Zone can become more about swimming than shooting.
There’s a massive amount of potential in Levolutions, but at the moment they’re honestly a little underwhelming. Dramatic at first, no doubt, but they need to occur more naturally during gameplay, requiring less effort from players to activate, which in turn would perhaps make them easier to use in a tactical manner.
What makes far more of a difference to how you play and how the match unfolds is the return of destroyable buildings, a feature absent since the brilliant Battlefield: Bad Company 2. Using any form of explosive, or even the weight of a vehicle travelling at speed, you can blast your way through the walls of houses, allowing you to create new routes and catch your enemies off-guard. There’s some initial confusion to be had as you learn exactly which walls or other pieces of the environment can be blown into tiny little pieces, but once you’ve got that knowledge safely tucked away you’ll be cackling from glee as you burst through walls.
Meanwhile maps feature little interactive spots that let you do things like raise bollards to stop vehicles, drop shutters to give you extra cover and ride elevators to the top of massive buildings. These are a pleasing addition to the formula that can shift a match dynamic in subtle ways, and I hope to see them expanded upon either in future map packs or in the next game.
Rather than simply throw handfuls of new modes into the mix DICE have opted to include just two very well designed new additions to the roster whose inclusion slips seamlessly into the game. The first is Obliteration in which both teams via for control of a bomb that they must deliver into enemy territory and detonate, making for a frantic tug of war as both sides manage to halt the bomb’s explosion at the last second, grab it and make a run for the objective. It’s fast, frantic and great fun. The second is Defuse which follows the same principle as Obliteration but on a much smaller scale, limiting you to a small map and infantry play only with no respawns available. Again, this does show up the less than stellar gunplay more, but because you’ve got an objective and each round is played very quickly you won’t notice too much. Compared to the massive warfare that Battlefield 4 is known for this mode, along with , feels a little strange and may not be to everyone’s taste, but provides a fun change of pace nonetheless.
The maps which star in Battlefield 4 are perhaps the finest collection to yet grace the series, although as with all bold claims there’s plenty of room for argument, but as a whole the level of quality is more consistent, offering up environments with pleasing variety and balance which channel the great design style of Bad Company 2. There’s considerably more verticality on show as well, making for some pretty intense battles, while plenty of buildings let you really sink your teeth into the destruction. However, as with previous entries in the franchise not every mode works well on every map, with some, for example, feeling like it favors one team or the other more. And of course the age-old problem of finding yourself having to jog for several minutes to reach the action also remains, but this is just the nature of the beast and something we need to put up with in order to maintain the scale that Battlefield is known for.
Commander mode returns for the first time since Battlefield 2142, with one member of each team taking on the role of a Commander able to view the entire map and issue orders, although you’ll have to have achieved at least rank 10 to be able to do so. From this mode there’s a few things you’re able to do, the first of which is to update your team with enemy locations. You can also issue orders to squads, telling them where they should be heading in order to be most effective, with squad’s getting extra points awarded to them for obeying. Finally a Commander can also supply a team with ammo and vehicle drops and rain down terror on the enemy by calling in AC130 gunships, missile strikes and more. Exactly what tools you have at your disposal is based upon the performance of your team, so in order to get access to more powerful toys you need to make sure you’re being the best Commander you can be. At first commanding a battle can feel like the impact your having is negligible, but in truth a skilled commander combined can exert a subtle but useful influence, and with a team willing to work together and take orders can be a powerful asset capable of swinging the tide of battle dramatically, especially against a less skilled opponent.
However, as a soldier on the ground Commander’s can also be a source of frustration as they rain down missiles and use UAV scanners to highlight you for the enemy, especially if your team has no Commander, leaving you at the mercy of the enemy Commander. Getting killed by a random missile or other such thing completely out of your control feels a little too like being annihilated by one of Call of Duty’s Killstreak rewards.
It’s also a shame that there’s no way to get to grips with Commander mode and interface outside of competitive matches, so for someone just hitting rank 10 being shoved into the hotseat can be a tad daunting as you desperately try to figure out what the hell you’re doing.
A smart new inclusion is the Testing Range where you can play around with any unlocked weapon or gadget, allowing you to get to grips with its handling and learn the drop off rates for bullets. Far more importantly, however, it lets you pilot helicopters and jets free of the pressure of learning in a competitive atmosphere. As those familiar with the franchise know both the helicopters and the jets take considerable time and skill to master, and attempting to learn how to fly when your team are counting on you isn’t exactly conducive to becoming a good pilot, so the Range gives you that opportunity. I thereby expect to see a significant increase in the amount of skilled pilots. The downside is that without any bots to play against newcomers to the series are still going to find the transition to the chaotic multiplayer an eye-widening experience. Perhaps in the future DICE will consider adding bot support, although I’m sure this would be a major challenge given the sheer size of the maps.
Battlefield’s progression system remains a point of contention for me, as unlike many other games it’s sticking rigidly to a linear levelling up mechanic rather than allowing players to unlock which weapons and gear they want. While for many this is not a problem, if you’re like me and dislike most of the starting equipment then it can sap some of the fun out of the initial few hours or days as you grind away to unlock something you actually like using. As somebody who plays as the Assault class a lot I was stuck with an Ak12 that I didn’t really find appealing, and then when I got a second gun in the form of a SCAR I had zero attachments for it, and found myself loathing the idea of using it long enough just to get a scope for the damn thing in order to make it useful. Meanwhile DMRs (Designated Marksman Rifle) don’t come with any scopes by default, leaving you to muddle through with iron sights for the first while and completely defeating the purpose of the rifle. Levelling up should feel rewarding, and I’m advocating that Battlefield 4’s linear system isn’t as it sticks you with poor weapons until you’ve sunk a chunk of your life into the game. I can’t fault the sheer amount of weapons, gadgets and attachments on offer, though.
A new system called Battlepacks has also been added into the game. Earned when you hit certain levels these packs contain a selection of weapon attachments and other things. DICE claim that these packs only ever contain decorational items. This is technically true, but via the Battlepack system it’s possible to unlock a scope for a gun you’ve not actually put any time into yet, which feels almost unfair when others have to rack up some kills with the same weapon just to get ride of the iron sights. You can also end up unlocking items for a weapon you don’t actually have yet. Frankly it’s a pointless system that adds nothing to the game.
A couple of old problems still exist within the game. There were numerous times when I was able to unload half a clip of ammo into an enemy only for them to spin around and kill me with the regular amount of rounds. I also encountered moments when the reload button refused to respond properly, and other times when my iron sights appeared as a solid mass so I couldn’t aim. There were also a variety of other, smaller things that irked me, such as how the bipod for sniper rifles refuses to deploy when it should, and then automatically deploys when you don’t want it to.
Another old complaint that I wish to address is the ability for the enemy team to linger in your base during certain modes and decimate people as they spawn. While I don’t have a problem with enemies being able to stay in your HQ when you take it over, allowing their squad mates to spawn on them is frustrating. I can’t count how many times a lone foe would hide himself away in order for his squad to continuously spawn at our HQ, cutting down troops as they attempted to make their way to the battle. Allow players to remain in bases, yes, but disable squad spawning when they’re in their in order to avoid such annoying circumstances, DICE.
It’s worth mentioning that on both the next-gen consoles and PC Battlefield 4 supports 32 vs 32 multiplayer running at a smooth 60FPS, while the current generation version of the game, which I tested, only supports 12 vs 12. On this basis I must recommend that if you’re picking up a next-gen console or own a PC capable of running it then purchase Battlefield 4 for that, rather than the current generation of consoles.
Visually Battlefield isn’t a pretty game, to be honest. In the singleplayer levels are often bland, colorless places to shoot your way through. Meanwhile the multiplayer side brings in far more color, but the textures are quite weak in areas, a problem also noticeable in the campaign. On a technical level what DICE have pulled off on current-gen consoles is still impressive, though, managing a level of realistic destruction that is awesome to behold.
This past few weeks I’ve criticised two games for being largely similar to their predecessors, perhaps offering new features but ultimately playing exactly the same and thus it would be unfair to allow Battlefield 4 to sail through without mentioning that the core of the experience is almost exactly the same as it was in Battlefield 3. Commander mode and Levolution are both interesting new features, and the quality of the maps is certainly notably improved, but pick up the controller and play the game for a few hours and you’d easily be fooled into thinking you playing an expansion pack for Battlefield 4. Movement and gunplay handle exactly the same as they did in the previous game. In truth I’m dubious to even call this a full sequel, much like how each new Call of Duty feels these days. Thus the question of where DICE are going to go next with the franchise is inevitable, because much like the Call of Duty series Battlefield is standing at a critical juncture as we move into the next-generation, and the next title needs to do something different in order to remain at the top of the FPS pile.
For those simply wanting more Battlefield action Battlefield 4 certainly fits the bill, but if you were hoping for something more for your money then you may feel disappointed that DICE’s latest offering doesn’t do much in the way of new stuff, favoring instead to simply refine and polish up what came before while adding in a couple of interesting, if flawed, ideas. Well, technically Commander Mode isn’t new, but you get my point.
In some regards reviewing Battlefield 4 is like talking about two very different games. The singleplayer is incredibly poor, hardly warranting the mere four hours it will take you to complete it, but the multiplayer remains as spectacular and entertaining as ever. Had DICE perhaps released this solely as a multiplayer game, focusing all their efforts on crafting the very experience they could, then there’s a very good chance that you would have seen a 5/5 adorning the bottom of this page, probably along with a hand-written note confessing my undying love for Battlefield 4, regardless of how similiar it is to Battlefield 3. But they didn’t, and the score must reflect the package as a whole.
+ Epic multiplayer.
+ Great maps.
+ This one time, in Battlefield 4…
– The campaign. All of it.
– feels pretty much like Battlefield 3.
– Getting spawn raped.
The Verdict: 4/5 – Great
DICE continue to do multiplayer like so few can, and while little has changed this remains one of, if not the best, multiplayer experience you can get on consoles. The game is only truly hampered by a poor campaign.