2013 hasn’t been a massive year for shooters, and with the majority released in the first quarter and no Halo to weigh in, the big throw-down carrying us into the next generation is to be waged entirely between two old enemies: Battlefield and Call of Duty. The fourth instalment of EA and DICE’s military shooter hit the stores first, but will it be racing across the finish line ahead of CoD where sales are concerned?
Going straight in with an open mind, I have to say it’s unlikely. Where Sledgehammer / Infinity Ward have fallen into their stride in recent years and look set to break yet more records with Ghosts, Battlefield still feels like it’s experimenting with modes and mechanics. It’s an incredibly accomplished shooter, but – at least on this generation – it’s not going to set the world on fire the way EA must have been hoping it would.
The main problems stem from the almost redundant campaign. While the opening mission was primed and polished to within an inch of its life to take our breath away in that exceptionally cinematic “Fishing in Baku” trailer, the narrative quickly runs out of steam, chugging to a crawl in the mid-section and ramping up the explosive set-pieces for the finale a little too late.
Following Tombstone squad – Dunn, Recker, Pac and Irish – as they spearhead the UN’s retaliation against an aggressive China, Battlefield 4’s single player campaign is riddled with cliché, almost to the point of exhaustion. Every mission involves player character Recker getting knocked out, blown up, trapped under or in something, or crashing some form of vehicle. The plot is recycled action movie tosh and never feels in the slightest bit believable, despite a decent script and A-1 delivery from the cast. There are moments when DICE want you to see and lament the brutal realities of war, but it’s all off-set by bombastic silliness that undermines the seriousness of the subject matter.
Double-crosses and heartbreaking farewells abound throughout, and there are moments where the camaraderie and ooh-rahness of it all genuinely raises the blood, but on the whole, Battlefield 4’s narrative suffers from one very simple malaise: it’s boring. It’s just not original enough to be surprising and not exciting enough to be compelling. It’s adequately fit for purpose, nothing more or less than that.
Thankfully, the level design is imaginative and confident (something the Battlefield games always excel at), offering wide open levels with multiple approaches that stand shoulder to shoulder with Halo at its finest. The opening mission in particular features a great shootout in a huge industrial area, as you fight your way towards an abandoned building while your evac chopper provides air support to help you reach the extraction point in one piece. When Battlefield gives you an arena and lets you go nuts (playing tag with tanks and anti-vehicle mines in the pouring rain is another excellent example), it’s second to none – and of course, the destructible scenery only adds to the atmosphere. Sheltering from a tank in a building that would be rendered totally impenetrable in another game means something altogether different in Battlefield 4. In Battlefield 4, if your quarry goes to ground, you leave no ground to go to.
Unfortunately, DICE don’t do enough with the campaign. Enemies are far too cautious, sometimes clinging to cover like they’ve never spent a day in the field, and some of the shootouts seem to go on forever. No sooner do you clear an area of enemies than two more trucks pull up and start ejecting cannon fodder, or another damn helicopter arrives to be blown out of the sky with a conveniently-placed Stinger launcher. The over-reliance on helos to provide mid-mission exhilaration is tiresome, and once you’ve shot one down you’ve shot them all down. You’re tasked now and then with piloting something (cars, boats, etc…) or manning mounted guns as an AI partner drives you around in the path of enemy bullets, but it’s never quite enough to tick all the happy boxes. The oddest thing is that Battlefield 4 should be incredible, but isn’t. The simplest explanation is that its campaign just lacks soul, and never really gets going.
As fans of the franchise will attest, though, the campaign really is a secondary concern. Tellingly, the single player is on Disc 2 of the Xbox 360 version, and featured second on the main menu below Multiplayer. It’s almost as if DICE tacked it on for something to show in the trailers and please the small percentage of franchise aficionados who don’t have an internet connection. Quite frankly, the campaign can be as tongue-draggingly dull as it wants to be, because online is where it’s at.
Whether the changes and tweaks made this year, minor or major, are for the better will only be decided in time, but there are enough additions to the already impressive online component to make a real difference to how you approach the game. The biggest change is the addition of “Levolution” events, in-game occurrences that transform each map part way through a match. From flooding a city to toppling a skyscraper, these moments take Battlefield’s trademark destructibility to its cinematic peak.
The new class and advancement system is on-point but doesn’t feel fully fleshed-out yet. You’ll still begin Battlefield 4’s multiplayer with four classes, each outfitted with basic equipment, but the blanket customisation options may lead to imbalance later on. Every action you complete with a class, from kills to objectives to dropping in-the-field support packages, will increase your affinity with it, unlocking weapons, gadgets and modifications as you go – and many are the same across all four classes. It’s possible to have a heavily-armoured medic if you want one, but such choices feel at odds with Battlefield’s tactical requirements. Still, you can switch between classes and loadouts before each respawn, giving you the opportunity to provide exactly what your team needs at any given point in the match. While it’s great for mid to high level players, newcomers will struggle to find their place on the battlefield. This is not a game designed for the uninitiated, and DICE make no excuses for that.
Battle Packs go some way to levelling things out, but they take a while to unlock. Bought with points earned, Battle Packs come in Bronze, Silver and Gold colours and contain random unlocks to improve your arsenal. Once you reach Level 10 you can put yourself forward for election as Squad Commander, and enter Commander Mode to provide eye-in-the-sky support for your teammates. In this mode, you’re off the deck completely, but the pay-off is that you can provide upgrades, promotions and vital intel that could tip the balance of a match. It’s a great system and, if implemented well by clever teams, has the potential to elevate the action way beyond the norm.
Joining Conquest and Rush, several new modes have made the cut this year. They’re all variants of things we’ve seen before, but here they’re leant a certain amount of gravitas by the Levolution events and the exceptional map design. Obliteration sees you taking out three enemy objectives, placing the emphasis on teamwork and planning. Domination is a Hardpoint-style mode last seen in Battlefield 3 as part of the Close Quarters expansion and makes much more sense on a smaller map; it’s a mode built for shotguns and sprinting, where kills are less important than staying alive and holding your objective. On some of the larger, more expansive maps, there just aren’t enough players to effectively cover the flags. They capture fast compared to Conquest, and the result is either a frantic frag-fest or a lot of trudging from one point to another, depending on the map. Finally, Defuse is a small-scale game mode built around aggressive attacking and defending, as both teams attempt to defend and destroy significant targets. As with Domination, larger maps are too big to trudge across, although the inclusion of vehicles is a boon. The most important change is that you can’t respawn – you have to be defibbed if you die, or wait for the next round to start. As a result, this is a fast-paced mode that stands out from the crowd and offers a tactical, focused alternative to Conquest.
With new modes come new maps, and some of the arenas featured in Battlefield 4 outstrip anything you’ve ever seen in and outside of the franchise. Flood Zone is a great example, featuring a submerged city dripping with war-torn atmosphere. When the Levolution moment hits, foot-soldiers will find themselves swimming in neck-high water and hopping onto boats for a vehicular advantage. Rogue Transmission takes place around and atop an enormous satellite dish, providing high points for snipers and letting you get down and dirty with tanks, helos, quad bikes and jets. Spotting targets is never more important than when there are snipers and heavily armoured units on the field, and Rogue Transmission’s wide open spaces allow for some seriously tense sprints.
By far my favourite map is Paracel Storm. Taking place on a military base during a raging monsoon, the tightly-packed buildings make for some worryingly tight spaces, while rooftops provide perilous vantage points for reckless snipers relying on the weather to conceal them. It’s one of the most atmospheric and immersive maps on offer, even if it can be frustrating to enter into against seasoned, twitch-fingered players. Battlefield 4’s multiplayer component is comprehensive and involving, compensating for the shortcomings of the campaign and offering a ton of content to keep you coming back for more.
Having only seen Battlefield 4 on current gen machines, it’s hard to be entirely objective. The next-gen version may well look absolutely exceptional, but it has to be said that the Frostbite 3 engine struggles on lower spec machines. By the fourth mission into the campaign I’d suffered five crashes that required a hard reset – if not for a forgiving checkpoint system, it would be nigh unplayable.
Visual bugs and glitches abound, including texture pop-in, inconsistent shadows and proximity issues that see bodies and NPCs floating in mid-air. In multiplayer, I witnessed a lack of sound several times that required me to quit back to the dashboard to fix. It’s a shame to say it, but Battlefield 4 feels like it was built for next gen in every way and then forcibly printed onto current gen discs. The bigger maps are custom made for the larger 64-player dust-ups promised on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, and the graphical concessions made for the current gen consoles mean you’re just not getting the Battlefield 4 experience you deserve.
VERDICT: Battlefield 4’s multiplayer is as bombastic as ever, featuring that exceptional mix of infantry tactics, vehicular warfare and big-budget destruction, and the tweaks to the class system and character progression are welcome (but yet to be fully field-tested). The flipside of the coin is that the campaign is soulless and uninspired, the graphics take a knock in fidelity for the sake of prettiness and the overall package comes out as slightly imbalanced.
It might be the year’s best military shooter so far from a technical standpoint, and it’s certainly the year’s best multiplayer package, but unfortunately for DICE and EA, the year ain’t done with yet.
VERY GOOD. An 8/10 is only awarded to a game we consider truly worthy of your hard-earned cash. This game is only held back by a smattering of minor or middling issues and comes highly recommended.