The only problem with writing a Battlefield review is prying yourself away from the game to actually getting around to writing the thing. The biggest issue here is whether Battlefield 4 Is just more of the same, seeing as it’s only two years on from the release of also creatively titled, Battlefield 3. This iteration features a new coat of paint in terms of the Frostbite 3 engine and new game features, but is this enough to differentiate itself from its predecessor?
Let’s be honest though, single-player campaigns and the Battlefield series have never really mixed very well, generally speaking. Like shy wallflowers, they eyed each other across the dance floor and quickly stare at their shoes if the other noticed, all the while Call of Duty and Medal of Honor slow-danced with their single-player campaigns to Blue Moon. The Bad Company franchise made Battlefield’s first steps into a story campaign, and did a great job in doing so. The narratives play out like comedy-adventure films from the 80s with a focus on your goof-ball squadmates and the ridiculous situations they’d be thrown into. Battlefield 3 decided to wander down to Call of Duty territory by introducing a serious, multi-character-perspective, globe-trotting story in the vein of a Tom Clancy novel, but unfortunately was mostly forgettable and lacked the charm of the Bad Company series.
Battlefield 4 is set six years after the events of it’s predecessor, with US-Russian tensions near breaking point and China’s military attempting to take control of their government. There’s little in the way of flow-on from 3’s narrative, aside from a few brief call-backs, and is explored purely from the perspective of Sgt. Daniel Recker and his squad Tombstone. After a disastrous mission in Baku, Tombstone return to the USS Valkyrie to find China’s Admiral Chang has assassinated a beloved Chinese presidential candidate and laid the blame on the US to secure Russia’s support. The game is primarily set in China over a short period of time, showcasing various landscapes such as modern cities to rugged mountains and the open ocean. DICE obviously wanted to develop characters the player could become attached to by delivering a boots-on-the-ground account of the escalating war.
The narrower scope keeps you focused on the plot developments, and more time is given to the character development of your squadmates Pac and Irish (played by The Wire’s Michael K. Williams). However, it’s character development where things get a bit patchy. The biggest elephant in the room is the use of a silent protagonist for player-character Recker. He’s the squad leader, yet most of the time his subordinates are telling him what to do or making the decisions for him. It’s also jarring when characters talk to or ask Recker something, and all you can do is mutely stare back like a stunned mullet. If there’s one thing I’d like to see jettisoned from games forever it’s the damned silent protagonist. It’s lazy, outdated, and a poor way to immerse the player in a game-world. The members of Tombstone are likable and interact with each other well, which only makes the player feel more left out as there’s no way to interact with them. Williams’ performance as Irish is solid, but his character’s motivations and actions aren’t developed well as he flips from trusting to untrusting for seemingly no reason or explanation.
Battlefield 4 is as Battlefield has always been: clashes of land, sea and air forces on huge maps full of those uniquely Battlefield moments. In the campaign core, gameplay is largely unchanged from Battlefield 3 with most of your time spent running around shooting the waves of enemies flung at you. As squad leader Recker is given a tactical visor used to spot enemies and then give out orders to Tombstone to attack. Unfortunately, “attack” is the only order available, so it’s not overly helpful if you take the stealthy route when available. Not that it really matters, your squad mates couldn’t hit the broadside of a very, very large barn, and the enemy has eyes only for you. There are a few vehicle sections to break up the gunfights, but they’re nothing exceptional. At least there are no fixed turret turkey-shoot sections featured in most military shooters. As you collect and unlock weapons they become available at weapon caches littered through each level so it’s easy to swap out inventory and take different strategies. However, the biggest changes in Battlefield 4 are saved for the main show – the multiplayer.
New and returning features in multiplayer add new dimensions to combat without completely changing the dynamics of gameplay the series is known for. The most significant feature is the return of Commanders, last seen in Battlefield 2. This time commanders are kept out of combat and instead make their actions entirely through a real-time map. Commanders can call up UAV spotting and EMP drones, drop supplies, issue orders and buff squads, disrupt the opposing commander and scan for enemies. Some of the actions are dependent on capturing certain points, so things can really pile against a team already losing badly. My personal favourite is the cruise missile action, perfect for taking out that anti-aircraft vehicle camping out on the opposite side of the map.
A lot of the features introduced in Battlefield 3’s DLC have made their way into Battlefield 4, such as quad bikes and the AC-130U gunship, although the latter is less devastating as it once was. Sea combat is now an important part of gameplay, especially on the Parcel Storm map and Flood Zone as boats become the best method of getting around and defending capture points. DICE also thankfully fixed a major imbalance issue from Battlefield 3 with the aircraft where you started off without any equipment, leaving you at the mercy of absolutely everyone on the map; not friendly for a pilot starting out. Now you start off loaded up with rockets, countermeasures and even stability control. There’s also a test-range to try out every vehicle and weapon at your own leisure. The big-ticket feature of each map is “Levolution,” otherwise known as “a thing to blow up that somewhat changes the dynamic of the map.” In Flood Zone, the map starts out as a condensed urban setting, but if the levee is destroyed, the map floods and suddenly rooftops become an infantry priority while boats and amphibious vehicles start patrolling the flooded streets. The most spectacular event is the destruction of the skyscraper on The Siege of Shanghai, but each map also has interactive elements such as raisable bollards and elevators.
This might not come as much of a surprise, but Battlefield 4 is a drop-dead gorgeous game. DICE came armed with the new Frostbite 3 engine for extra destruction, highly detail textures, and some of the best modelled oceans seen in videogames. Weather and water effects are used constantly throughout the campaign mostly for aesthetic purposes, but the occasions you get to battle it out on the seas are exhilarating. The character models in the campaign are highly detailed, and the new motion capture work makes their animations flow smoother than ever. There’s still that touch of uncanny-valley with the character model faces, but it’s a step in the right direction. Downtime between firefights isn’t all that common, but there are sections where you get to listen to some NPC conversations or look around the USS Valkyrie that are a nice touch. Again, you don’t get to really interact with anything, so it’s more a sightseeing tour than anything else. There isn’t a huge amount of set-piece moments through the campaign, but the amphibious assault on Singapore is a thrilling experience. The locations are varied from modern cities to snow-capped mountains, which mostly funnel you through a restricted path with less emphasis on wide-open battlefields. You’re given plenty opportunities to see the Frostbite 3 engine in action as enemies destroy the cover around you or getting stuck in the middle of an aircraft carrier breaking up.
In multiplayer, the differences can mostly be found in the finer details. Player models have changed, and you physically point at targets you spot, which is a nice touch. So far the maps released are a little on the generic side and feel smaller than maps such as Caspian Border on BF3. The Parcel Storm map utilises water effects the most as it’s set on a group of islands surrounded by sea and features a storm that rolls in through the duration of the round, altering sea conditions and visibility. As nice as it is that DICE is at least trying to provide a decent single-player experience, multi-player still remains the marquee event. Matches are once again found on the Battlelog browser whereas before you can find stats, customise your profile, change class loadouts and check your unlock progression. The progression system has had an overhaul broadening the way players gain experience for basically every piece of equipment they use. Classes receive class specific equipment as they level up while you unlock more weapons of a specific type and their attachments the more you use them. A new addition are the battlepacks that are unlocked at specific points, which provide random rewards and experience boosters.
With that being said, there’s a fair bit of grinding involved to completely unlock every attachment for a weapon, the system is rewarding if you put the time into it. Finding servers through Battlelog is still as awkward as it was in BF3 as the search function seems to make up its own mind as to what you were actually searching for. Classic game modes such as Conquest, Rush and Deathmatch return while Obliteration and Defuse make their debut. Obliteration is a frantic scramble to bomb the other team’s objectives with the single bomb that spawns on the map. It’s made more intense as the bomb is visible to everyone on the map, so teamwork is required to escape the crosshairs of the entire other team when going for the bomb. Defuse is a quick, zero-respawn mode where each team has to detonate a bomb in each other’s base (I wasn’t able to find an active game to try it out).
In some ways, Battlefield 4 is more of the same: dynamic team-focused multiplayer and a forgettable single-player campaign. However, the visuals are stunning, and nothing can beat those intense 64 player battles with tank shells flying and jets buzzing overhead. Battlefield 4 will also once-again feature five DLC packs rolled out over the next 12 months with new (and remastered) maps, vehicles and weapons. It feels like Battlefield 4 is taking a step back, only with a plan to step forward again in the future so long as you cough up the dough. There are a few bugs needing to be ironed out as players are reporting crashes, losing save files, and poor net-code impacting play. One can imagine these issues will be patched out in the future. Levolution is a nice feature that adds new dynamics to maps and gives players more agency in terms of affecting the layout of maps. The 10 maps available at release are a bit on the small side and aren’t graphically diverse, but are still fun to play on. There’s also a Battlelog app for tablets allowing players to enter Commander mode remotely, but I was not able to get my hands on a tablet for review. For the tactically minded armchair general (with a computer beastly enough to run it), Battlefield 4 has the intense fire-fights, team-based gameplay and explosive action to satiate their needs.