Review: Battlefield 4
Friday, December 13, 2013 at 12:48PM
Chris in Review, Video Review, Xbox One

With the Fall release season comes our annual allotment of modern military shooters trying to thrill us with rollercoaster singleplayer campaigns and multiplayer suites with tons of DLC on the way.  And, like any Fall season, it’s the usual suspects.  Activision’s multi-studio, cyclical juggernaut series continued its annual early November onslaught this year but EA, always desperate to challenge Call of Duty to a backstreet brawl, released the fourth numbered entry in DICE’s rather great Battlefield series.

With a numbered title coming so soon after their last entry in the series though, does DICE’s latest and greatest create and innovate or is this new title more focused on refining the current formula of bang bang shoot’em up gameplay?

Click to read the full written review

What Would You Like on Your Tombstone?
Six years after a failed Russian separatist plot to ignite World War 3, US Special Forces squad Tombstone is ordered into Azerbaijan to retrieve intelligence confirming that a rogue Chinese Admiral plans to lead a coup d’état against the current government that will earn him the support of Russia.  Shortly thereafter, Admiral Chang is able to convince the Chinese people that the US is responsible for the death of newly elected president Jin Jié.  During a rescue mission Shanghai, an EMP device is detonated which affects much of the region, including Tombstone’s own homebase located on the USS Valkyrie.  Crippled, blind and without direction from above, the men and women of the Valkyrie must do what they can to stop Chang before the conflict escalates out of control.

If you read that last paragraph and groaned over how generic it sounds, you are not alone.  Battlefield 4’s story hits on all the major points of any commonplace military technothriller these days and, for almost all aspects of the singleplayer experience, has been done far better elsewhere.  Across this 4-5 hour campaign, every twist and turn is neither surprising nor exhilarating with a cast of characters just as equally boring.  It doesn’t even feature a proper ending or a final confrontation with the bad guy in question and with levels that feel overly long, the entire experience feels like a drag.

Considering DICE’s pedigree and the talent they have on hand, it’s a wonder why they haven’t been able to generate a good singleplayer story since 2008.  The characters of Tombstone squad fit all the cliques one would expect from a soldier drama: the focused, on-mission warrior; the vain ‘save everyone or die trying’ emotional annoyance; the ‘I’m going to betray you but really not’ trust case the others will have petty arguments with.  It has all been done before and almost all of the dialog present does nothing to break new ground.  In fact, it feels as if DICE had plans for something far greater but didn’t have a tenth of the budget to make it as some of the dialog feels either unnecessarily without context or relayed in a tone unbefitting the moment in which it is said.  Or it could just be bad writing, who knows.

I also find it strange that DICE felt the need to establish a continuity between Battlefield 3 and 4.  To do so, our intrepid designers decided to throw in two characters from the 2011 singleplayer romp and, subsequently, kill them off.  If you find yourself upset about that little spoiler then you clearly are more interested in the story than you should be.  Neither of these characters were interesting or memorable to begin with and while I can appreciate why DICE would do this, what I really don’t understand is why they would go about it in this way.  This might be another symptom of their eyes being bigger than their stomachs but it just doesn’t make any sense to me to bring back characters only to kill them shortly thereafter.  This is not how you establish memorable protagonists and antagonists, DICE.  I’ll remember characters like Reznov, Makarov, Price and Soap for a long time to come because they were pretty good in their own right.  Kovic and Dima do not fit that bill.

Gameplay-wise, the campaign features little to be excited for.  A squad order mechanic is implemented wherein the player presses a button and your squadmates fire upon a set amount of enemies in a given direction.  The use of the order system is finicky at best both in targeting the enemies you actually want them to attack as well as the accuracy of the AI in question.  What’s more confusing is the fact that your friendly AI is atrociously stupid at times and will, more often than not, walk within feet of an enemy and either miss with every shot or will simply ignore them entirely.  It’s clear that DICE wants you to be the one to take out the vast majority of those who dare to point their weapons in your direction but you would figure that, since you are a part of an elite team of covert ops marines, they’d be able to help you out.  And they will, albeit when it suits them.

What is clear however is that EA is once again pushing to grab the attention of the Call of Duty crowd while ignoring many of the selling points and attributes that make the Battlefield series far different from its competition.  The singleplayer campaign is the victim of this drive to grab that audience’s attention and it is a sad attempt at best.  Rather than focus on full spectrum warfare encompassing multiple roles in an overall greater conflict as Battlefield 3 attempted and the Battlefield series’ multiplayer as a whole achieves, this story is entirely focused on one character in a single set path with no real attention given to the greater effort at all.  You do not get to see the weight of the implied conflict on the region nor the circumstances for which it matters.  You go where you need to go and do as you are told.  Once your role in the story is over nothing else happens.  Nothing more.

What is the Battlefield 4 singleplayer experience like then?  A boring, unnecessary slog that doesn’t warrant any attention.  Next time, DICE, stick to your guns and ignore the competition.

Gonna Light ‘Em Up
Let’s be honest with ourselves here though: you don’t come to play a Battlefield game for the singleplayer.  With this newest entry only coming two years after Battlefield 4, one should definitely ground their expectations of this title to being more of an expansion and refinement of Battlefield 3’s mechanics than a completely new, unique take.  Happily, DICE took notice of Battlefield 3’s multiplayer being as good as it was and seems to be doing right by players by making it even better.

Happily, apart from the overall singleplayer experience, the multiplayer’s character class customization system is the only thing grafted from the Call of Duty series and adapted for the Battlefield formula and the results are graciously accepted.  Each class still feels unique as far as their role on the field of play but this time around you have far more options as to class, weapon, and character customization.  Though each class starts out with access to their own unique type of weapon (assault class to assault rifles, support class to LMGs and so on) each one eventually shares access to three additional weapon types: carbine rifles, shotguns and designated marksman rifles (DMRs).  This frees up the player to customize their own ideal classes to an almost perfect degree and create the characters they want to fight as in just the right situations or, perhaps, in all types of firefights.

Customization also extends to your weapons in a rather great way.  The previous title only had a handful of customization options and, even then, it was pretty spartan as to what you could add to firearms.  Thankfully, DICE has increased the amount you can make weapons your own this time around by a strong magnitude.  Weapons now have many, many more options available to them from grips to scopes, specialized sights to camouflage designs.  Want to build a weapon built for medium to long range combat but still want to be covered when it comes to close encounters?  Equip your rifle with a scope and canted ironsights.  DICE has thrown in dozens (and I do mean dozens) of new camo designs as well.

The existing database of weapons and tools, in addition to receiving new ones, has also seen some strong and noticeable rebalancing.  Sniper rifles now feel more set for their long range purpose with some of them being reclassified as DMRs befitting more short and medium-ranged focuses.  Rocket launchers no longer feel useless in the face of a skilled pilot as some have the capability of reacquiring the target after they have deployed their countermeasures.  Shotguns have been made far more powerful than they were in the previous iteration.  Many more balance changes have been made to the multiplayer to make the weapons not only feel good but actually worthwhile to those who don’t switch to a new firearm immediately after unlocking a new one and you won’t find a single complaint in this regard.

A rather nice feature DICE has decided to throw into the mix is the inclusion of super weapons that are littered throughout each map.  Ranging from a semi-automatic shotgun with explosive ammunition to a tri-rocket launcher, each is thoughtfully placed in locations where they would be the most useful and, to my confusion, very few people take advantage of them despite their inherent power.  It doesn’t necessarily have a significant impact like a killstreak would in a Call of Duty title but they definitely can be useful at just the right moment.

Combat in Battlefield 4’s multiplayer component is both strong and satisfying.  The PC and current gen versions of the game are far more fleshed out than their PS3 and 360 brethren with full 64 player matches in Conquest mode compared to the last gen’s much more humble 24 player limit.  This, in turn, yields a much more frantic and, consequently, a match-to-match experience that feels far more involved and alive.  Whereas I felt like a valued member of my team in the last gen versions, though my role in diminished somewhat with a near tripling of the player count, I still feel like a can be a critical squadmate.  Nowhere throughout my dozens of hours of play across the various modes of the game did I feel fatigued or stressed to the point of quitting in a huff.  I have enjoyed my time immensely and will continue to do so in the months to come.

Objectively I have to say that the map design in Battlefield 4 feels like a hit or miss depending on the mode selected.  Across the ten maps that ship with the game (eight additional maps are now available through DLC depending on your platform of choice) you will find interesting ones very befitting to most of the gametypes like Siege of Shanghai, Paracel Storm and Operation Locker while others are definitely more geared toward the series’ most popular gametype Conquest.  At this current point in time DICE is still working on spawn times and vehicle placement on some maps such as Hainan Resort’s Rush progression but it is clear that they want to make the experience better.

One big point that DICE and EA have been quick to talk up is their concept of ‘Levelution’ in which player actions can change the way a map is played.  Sadly though, other than Siege of Shanghai’s famous skyscraper takedown, most of the other maps either feature a much weaker map event.  Paracel Storm gives us pretty if somewhat ineffectual typhoon and Flood Zone takes out most of the ground level traversal save for those who have the patience to swim but not many others hold the same excitement or dynamic changing event that alters the way you have to play.  Some don’t even feature one such as Golmud Railway or are so mundane that they happen and you simply go back to what you were doing ten seconds later.  This large scale, gameplay shifting destruction sounds great on paper but, thus far, is not indicative of what players would expect or want to see in a level.

One very welcome returning feature of the game is the Commander mode, an RTS-like gameplay element that was last seen in Battlefield 2142 back in 2006.  Rather than taking to the field, the commander get a top-down view of the entire map and has the capacity to send and receive orders as well as send support to players on the ground by way of radar-enhancing UAV drones and resupply drops.  Based on the progress of your team in certain modes such as Conquest, additional offensive powers could be granted to you such as the ability to deploy a gunship or launch a cruise missile strike.  The player has to be wary and anticipate the actions of the enemy commander though as balance tweaks allow opposing players to block out each other’s commands or warn their troops of other shenanigans their opponent may be doing.  It’s very nice to see this feature finally return is perfect for those who want to participate but don’t actually want to do any shooting at the moment.  Of all the tablet-friendly second screen apps and modes available to consumers at the moment, Battlefield 4’s commander mode seems to be the best of the bunch.

All in all, where the singleplayer fails, the multiplayer makes up for in strides.

In The Pipe, 5x5
As a transitional title designed to bridge the gap between last generation and this new one, Battlefield 4 definitely makes it as one of the visual standouts as to the potential of what our new systems are capable of.  Whereas the last gen versions demonstrate muddy textures, questionable lighting schemes and foliage that can look like a cardboard cutout at times, the PC and next gen versions are visually outstanding.  There are some subtle signs unconformity between the PS4, PC and Xbox One versions (with the Xbox One version depicted here) but the end result is a rather nice 60fps game with very few framerate drops, great foliage and particle effects that will get you killed in a firefight for staring in awe for too long.

As a transition title though, beyond the visual design, it is also a primer for what the systems can really support in terms of gameplay.  Last gen versions of the games limit matches to, at most, 24 players whereas the PC and current gen versions allow you a proper 64-players, something rarely achieved let alone balanced properly on the console scene up until now.  The transition one can observe in one game between whole generations is quite startling and Battlefield 4 does an outstanding job of telling us just what we can expect going forward.

Baring the decidedly phoned-in voice acting for the singleplayer, Battlefield 4’s sound design is just as fantastic as the visual presentation.  Localized sound is great and the audioscaping for the variety of environments you will encounter are quite splendid.  While it can be a bit hard from a distance to get a sense for the weapons that are being fired, no two weapons seem to depict a uniform sound effect set when you are pulling the trigger.  Hearing a jet go whizzing past you overhead as the tank that’s been chasing you explodes into fiery shrapnel is intense and really lends to sell the fact that this game isn’t about just localized deathmatchs: you are part of a larger, overall effort that won’t be over in ten minutes.  It’s not a question of fights between squads: it is a battle between whole armies.  And this is why Battlefield is such a good series.

With all this being said however, Battlefield 4 has seen one of the most turbulent launches in recent memory.  Fraught with bugs, server issues and crashes across all platforms, it is quite clear that Battlefield 4 wasn’t meant to be released on October 29th.  Given another two to three months of work DICE clearly could have put together a stellar multiplayer suite but, when a game outright refuses to connect you to a match and the server browser is completely broken, you should know you have a problem that needs to be addressed immediately.  That being said, over a month now after release, DICE is still combating problems on all fronts.  New waves of patches seem to be coming weekly but this doesn’t help the millions of people who have bought the game expecting greatness only to constantly receive time out error messages.  DICE will most certainly fixes these problems over the next few weeks now that all versions of the game are now available at retail but that hasn’t helped the stigma Battlefield 4 has endured and will continue to plague it for some time to come.

The War at Home
As much as I love Battlefield 4 it is certainly a game that wasn’t ready to be released.  Its singleplayer component lacks any sort of excitement or emotional punch to make it anything but a drag to play through thanks to a poorly written story and even worse characters.  Its multiplayer makes up for much of that problem and when it wants to work it is a tremendously satisfying experience.  However, games should work when we want to play, not the other way around and thanks to a bug-laden launch, it has been a disappointment.

Battlefield 4 is not the impressive leap forward that it was between the second and third numbered titles.  Instead, this is Battlefield 3.5, a refinement of the basics that we got in 2011 with some impressive scripted destruction and gameplay balancing that changes the way you play.  Its campaign is crap and a waste of your time but, when it works, the multiplayer is some of the best on the market.

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