Battlefield 4

After successfully halting the plans of a rogue Chinese faction hellbent on starting a war with the United States, I found myself wondering why DICE even bothered. The franchise is lauded specifically for its multiplayer element, something that Battlefield 4 continues to do quite well. The campaign in Battlefield 3 wasn’t the best but it was serviceable and engaging. Throughout Battlefield 4’s development, I thought it odd that there was barely any mention regarding the campaign. The reviewer guide that came with my digital review copy dedicates little more than a page to the campaign. Now I know why: it is weak and narratively lazy. Unlike the publisher, I will be talking extensively about the middling campaign in this review before getting into multiplayer. The bottom line? Unless you plan to invest heavily in online play, Battlefield 4 will be a disappointment.

With little to connect the events from the last game, the story places the Chinese as America’s next boogeyman. When a progressive, forward thinking politician makes a move to become China’s next leader, his faceless rival Admiral Chang attempts to assassinate him and seize control during the ensuing chaos. A squad of American soldiers, designated Tombstone, is sent in to rescue VIPs only to find themselves in the middle of yet another global conflict. Comprised of seven levels, the campaign is brief and lacks any real sense of urgency outside of “We have to stop this guy because he’s bad!” The characters are walking war cliches and Hannah’s existence as the Chinese operative feels somewhat obligatory, as if to say “Look! We have a WOMAN soldier in our game! She talks!” The conversations and banter between the characters can get so trite and cringeworthy, making the overpoweringly loud noises from guns and heavy artillery sweet music to my ears. The campaign is very much like a Michael Bay film that relies heavily on action set pieces instead of telling an a good story.

The gameplay itself really isn’t anything wildly different from before. Outside of a few vehicle levels, the structure doesn’t stray too far from the “Go to this checkpoint, shoot guys, go to this checkpoint” formula. The Chinese soldiers are a formidable foe only because they can take a whole lot of damage, soaking up bullets unless you can pull off a headshot. It doesn’t help that the magazine sizes for pistols, machine guns and rifles seem noticeably smaller than other shooters.  That could just be my perception, though. Compounding toughness of combat is the enemy’s almost constant spawning from hidden monster closets. Because the character models blend into the environment so well, spotting targets a la Far Cry through the tactical binoculars will reveal their positions on the mini-map. A good habit to develop is to perform multiple sweeps through the binocs, lest you ignore an unseen enemies trying to flank your position. There are shades of squad-based combat in the campaign, though the potential is ultimately wasted. Squad commands are only available during firefights and limited to getting your teammates to “engage” the enemy by attacking those tagged through the binocs or viewed from your gun’s iron sights.

One of the more interesting elements of the single player experience is the inclusion of multiplayer-style kill points. These points feed into an Assignment/medal system that will unlock weapons for use in campaign replays (why on earth would anyone want to play through it again is beyond me). Thankfully, most gold ranked unlocks can be used in multiplayer so there is incentive to perform well enough to score high marks through headshots, melee and multi-kills. The use of kill points in the campaign is a nice way to introduce the player to core progression system in multiplayer, though it isn’t nearly as meaningful.

Despite what I think about the quality of the single player game, there is one aspect of the game that excels to extreme heights: the graphics. I can’t account for the experience on the PlayStation 3/4 or Xbox 360/One, but PC enthusiasts who spend the time and money upgrading their machines to get the best visual experience possible are going to be absolutely blown away. For full disclosure, my PC isn’t as powerful as it could be. My video card is about four years old and if I had the means to do so, I’d turn it into a beast. That said, even though I had the visuals running on Medium for smooth play, the game still managed to look pretty incredible. Running in Ultra, this is without a doubt the best looking Battlefield game in franchise history. Hell, it may very well be the best looking PC game of the past few years. The lightning, water and particle effects are phenomenal and the widespread, violent destruction make for plenty of eye destroying “wow” moments. The texture work creates a near photorealistic experience, especially where the character’s facial textures and animations are concerned. Screenshots simply do not do the game justice at all. Its a real shame that graphics this good were laid atop a shallow gameplay experience.

Battlefield 4’s campaign, graphics aside, is a feeble attempt to empower the player through an overused, hackneyed adventure fueled by American paranoia and a large military budget. On the other hand, multiplayer - the game’s main selling point - is almost enough to completely rescue the product. Almost.

EA’s Battlelog website once again serves as the PC gamer’s primary informational and social hub for everything relating to online play. I don’t really much care for the service but there is no denying the usefulness in having a wealth of data accessible outside of the game. A new feature within Battlelog is the Missions component. Operating very much like Halo’s challenges, a user can issue 48 hour long tasks, such as getting the most kills with a ground vehicle or earn the highest class score in a round, to other players. It’s a neat idea and a great way to earn more skill points and specialized dogtags.

Before jumping into online proper, the Test Range is a great place for players both new and old to start as it affords the chance to get in some with vehicles and equipment. Test Range is a response to my biggest criticism about multiplayer and its trial by fire approach to piloting planes and helicopters. The only downside to is the assurance that I will be blown out of the sky with increased frequency.

Multiplayer has always benefited from going against human players. Humans don’t rely on programming or AI, resulting in a great deal of unorthodox combat situations and tactics. The multiplayer maps are massive and can support up to 64 players. A player count that high assures that you won’t have to go far to find someone to shoot at. In smaller matches, like the 32 player maps I participated in, combat is a little more sparse, though this is largely due to players on both teams gravity towards various hotspots of activity. Vehicles are especially useful for larger maps and for the most part, players have been really good about sticking around long enough to fill up slots in jeeps and choppers, saving their squad from great distances between objectives.

There are several different multiplayer games available outside the standard deathmatch modes. Rush and Conquest (always my favorite) make a glorious return, requiring players to attack or defend specific targets on a map. Obliteration is a new mode that’s a variant of Rush and Capture the Flag, the flag being replaced by a bomb. Both sides will pick up an explosive randomly dropped on the battlefield and take it to a marked target. Players must defend the area until the bomb goes off, fending off the opposing team trying to kill the bomb carrier or take it away from the target. This game of back and forth continues all three targets are taken out. Additional game modes include Defuse, a 5v5 “one kill you’re done” version of Obliteration, and Battlefield 3’s Domination from the Close Quarters expansion (small scale Conquest, no vehicles). Having all of these different gameplay options spread across ten maps is great, though because I am so partial to Conquest I foresee spending more time on that than anything else.

At the end of the round, kills and individual accomplishments are fed into a ranking system that awards various unlocks including weapons, gadgets, dog tags and camo patterns. When a player reaches the rank of 10, the Commander ability is unlocked. Originally used in Battlefield 2, Commander mode allows a player to get a birds eye view of the battlezone and given the role of directing their team’s movements, coordinating attack targets and deploying a collection of useful tools such as UAVs and devastating cruise missiles. For those who find the fight against human players to be a little chaotic and unfriendly, Commander mode is a nice substitute.

During development, DICE made mention of Levelution, a feature that showed itself during E3 when a large skyscraper came crashing down during the course of a multiplayer engagement. The idea behind Levelution is to allow teams to change the battlefield be setting off an event. In the Flood Zone map, for example, players who blow up a levee will cause the water level in the map to rise significantly, forcing the rest of the players to swim throughout the previously dry map. Next to the Siege of Shanghai skyscraper collapse, the most dramatic instance of Levelution occurred in Lancang Dam with the massive concrete structure bursting in debris, causing large boulders to careen through the streets. Parts of the map were modified for the rest of the match because of the destruction. Levelution is multiplayers most visually distinctive feature and really cool to experience first hand.

Without a doubt, Battlefield 4’s greatness lies within multiplayer and those willing to invest their time towards unlocking content and engaging in Assignments and Missions are going to get the most fun out of the experience. With gorgeous visuals, small and large scale destructible environments, character progression, a wealth of unlocks and engaging team based gameplay, multiplayer will prove to be a lively experience for months to come. At the end of the day, it is largely the same experience as the last game only with new maps plus the additional packs EA can’t wait to sell you. If Battlefield 4 were billed and priced as a multiplayer only affair, I’d give it a higher score. Unfortunately, the quality of the single player campaign really brings the overall experience down. I realize the futility in complaining too much about a campaign element a large segment of the player base will ignore. However, there are gamers out there (myself included) who value the offline experience and a good story. The campaign’s shortcomings comes at a surprise, especially because I know DICE is capable of so much more.

Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.