The Battlefield series is back after taking two years off to re-tool and rebuild. It’s nice to see one modern shooter franchise that isn’t afraid to take some time off, and the time in development has allowed for some significant jumps forward in technology and gameplay.
It’s also allowed the developers at DICE some time to fix the biggest problem with Battlefield 3: the single-player campaign. I’m still not entirely sure why Battlefield games need a single-player campaign; it’s as if someone in marketing felt like they wanted to check a big box off on a spreadsheet somewhere, but here we are again.
The good news is that the single-player campaign for BF4 is significantly better than the one in BF3. The plot is much tighter, much more cohesive, and it’s actually a decent yarn. While it is not quite on par with the Bad Company series, it is in the same ballpark as the the last few Call of Duty games. The ending leaves a bit to be desired but it does pave the way for a continuation in the inevitable Battlefield 5.
As Recker, a member of Tombstone squad, you lead your elite squad as they are thrust into the center of a plot by a Chinese admiral to overthrow the Chinese government. To do this, the admiral convinces the Chinese people that the U.S. has assassinated a progressive Chinese candidate who was leading the Chinese away from military rule. This doesn’t really make a lot of sense when you consider how intertwined the economies of the two countries are but it still makes more sense than Homefront.
As you play through the six to seven-hour campaign, you will visit places like the dark depths of an aircraft carrier to the dark depths of an underground prison. You will even run into a few characters from BF3 as you try to stop the world from descending into total war. There are some excellent signature moments including a battle through a war-torn Shanghai which shows off new levels of destruction in the game and a fairly epic battle on the bow of a slowly sinking aircraft carrier.
As a tutorial for the multiplayer portion, the single-player campaign excels. You learn the basic combat mechanics of the game, drive some vehicles, and, most importantly, you’re introduced to the spotting mechanic. That’s right, Battlefield 4 forces you to use the spotting command (Q key) if you want your non-player characters/vehicles to engage enemy forces. This is one of the most critical and under-utilized features of the multiplayer portion of the game and I was overjoyed to see it featured so prominently in the single-player.
There are a few other twists to the single-player game. You earn points for completing actions (killing enemies, destroying vehicles, squad kills, etc.), and each level has score-based objectives that unlock new weapons for you to use in the single-player. These unlocks are then added to the various weapons crates scattered throughout the level and can be immediately brought into combat. In addition to these unlocks, you’ll also be able to pick up weapons from fallen enemies to add to your armory. This adds a bit of replay value, but I’m not sure it’s something I personally would go back for as none of these unlocks carry over the the multiplayer side.
That aside, the single-player campaign doesn’t really advance the field in any measurable way other than increasing the spectacle of destruction and making huge strides on the campaign from the previous game. There’s not a lot of nuance in the campaign and the plot takes a lot of predictable bounces.
Of course you don’t judge Battlefield games by their single-player campaigns but by their multiplayer component, and this is where Battlefield 4 leaves its peers behind. The folks at DICE have been perfecting the art of large-scale shooters for over a decade and this mastery of the First-Person Shooter is imbued in every piece of the game’s DNA.
The game includes the same four classes (assault, engineer, supply, sniper) that were present in BF3. The assault acts as your assault-rifle-toting medic, the engineer is a decent field soldier who can damage/heal vehicles in the game, supply is there to re-arm your troops and lay down suppressing fire, and the recon soldier is the sniper class that kills you after you’ve spent five minutes walking across the map. Recon is also responsible for spotting enemies and providing some level of intelligence to your team.
DICE has re-jiggered some of the class progression and pace of the unlocks a bit but veterans of the last game will feel right at home.
Battlefield 4 introduces a few new game modes in addition to the old favorites like conquest and the various deathmatch formats and the Rush mode that was introduced in the Bad Company games.
In Obliteration teams attempt to take out three enemy targets with a bomb that spawns randomly on the map. This does a nice job of rotating the focus around the map as teams try to capture the bomb and then either defend/attack one of the map's targets.
Defuse has two small teams either trying to blow up targets or defend targets. It’s a much smaller, more compact experience than the rest of the game modes and is a bit akin to the old bomb mode from Counter-Strike
Finally there’s Domination which is a small scale version of Conquest where teams attempt to control three flags and bleed off the tickets from the opposing team. The smaller maps force much more intense combat and much shorter rounds.
The new modes are nice but outside of Obliteration I found myself struggling to gain the interest to play them or find servers that supported them. Conquest is where the Battlefield games live and breath for me, and the large scale combat that mode offers is something that no other FPS can touch.
The commander mode from BF2 also makes a return in BF4 with a few tweaks. The mode was a bit overpowered in its previous incarnation and DICE has tweaked it significantly so it’s more about supporting your troops on the ground rather than killing enemies. Sure you can launch missiles on some of the maps to take out opposing troops but the missile takes awhile to get there and it’s not the instant death that the artillery strike was in BF2. Instead Commanders are about assigning tasks, supporting squads through intelligence (UAVs), hiding their presence (EMP UAV’s), supplies, light vehicle drops, and squad promotions.
In my experience with the game, bad commanders (or no commander at all) rarely hurt you too much whereas a good commander (and squads who listen to them) will help win a game. It’s a solid experience and it’s nice to see DICE bring it back. The fact that you can command games from an iPad app is also pretty cool as you can earn points while you are away from your computer.
The maps in the game are mostly excellent but special recognition has to go to the Paracel Storm level which starts off calmly enough before a giant storm starts to ravage the islands. As the game progresses the boats on the water start to experience more and more chop until they water causes them to surge up and down upwards of six to ten feet. I’ve never gotten motion sickness from a game but watching these boats move up and down like that caused a small pit to form in my stomach.
The other big feature when it comes to BF4 is the "Levolution" system which introduces large scale destruction in all of the multipayer maps. It’s a cool gimmick and the result is that each map essentially gets an alternate version of the map that you have to adjust to. While the Levolution system gets all of the PR and media buzz, the big destruction in BF4 is the return of the Bad Company 2-style destruction of the other buildings. The Levolution stuff is cool but limited to big sections of the map, though the real fun comes in how you can level other parts of the map which is what dramatically alters the shape and flow of the game.
Of course the big issue with any Battlefield game is the fact that they almost always release with a one star hotel’s supply of bugs. The good news is that the launch of BF4 on the PC was significantly better than the launch of BF3. That said, there were still a ton of issues, some of which have been fixed by the writing of this review but several that haven’t. The game will still occasionally crash after a few matches and there are still some wonky moments in the game.
As of this writing (over a month after launch), the game is as unstable as most of my ex-girlfriends and that’s a shame as the game is nearly perfect when it works. There are tons of little touches scattered through the game. I love that players can create custom logos for themselves and then those logos show up on your weapons and vehicles.
For the most part my experiences with Battlefield 4 have been amazing. The graphics are what I would point to as true next generation and the game is a ton of fun when it works. I just wish it worked more often and that it had worked well when it was released.
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* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company for review.
Battlefield 4 moves the franchise forward significantly but is held back by technical issues.