The Battlefield series is known for pushing the boundaries of team-based, vehicular multiplayer with each title since the year 2002. In 2011, Battlefield 3 proved to be a generational leap over its predecessor, Bad Company 2, introducing the inherent Battlelog browser system while maintaining its position as the premiere, flag-capturing first-person shooter. It wasn’t perfect, however, with some questionable map design in the vanilla game along with the absence of the popular Commander Mode from Battlefield 2.
Battlefield 4 received mixed reactions upon its announcement, merely nine months after Battlefield 3’s release. Did the community really need a sequel so soon and set once again within the confines of modern war? With the return of Commander Mode and the Chinese faction, new features like dynamic maps and the Obliteration game mode all of which are wrapped up in a revamped engine, is it worth revisiting the battlefield once again?
Before we go any further, it’s worth stopping and pointing out that the game has a singleplayer campaign. Not content with simply giving up after the criticisms of Battlefield 3’s campaign, DICE has tried yet again to create a modern war narrative featuring everything on the linear FPS lunch menu. Battlefield 3 had a grounded, plausible narrative which ultimately proved to be its downfall when so many of us expected a more exciting affair. Taking the cue of other modern war games, Battlefield 4 goes a few notches higher.
Beginning with a group of American special forces once again on foreign soil, it becomes known that a Chinese Admiral is planning a coup d’etat by blaming the United States on the assassination of the Chinese President. The twist? For some reason the Russian Federation backs Admiral Chang entirely, potentially dragging the world into another world war. While illogical in today’s geopolitical landscape, it’s a logical way of including all of the game’s factions into one coherent story.
Rather than jumping around different servicemen, the player controls only one, Recker, from beginning to end in a roller coaster of cliches. You’re dragged from one set piece to the next, methodically ticking off all the hallmarks of the genre. A helicopter car chase, a daring VIP rescue mission, a grizzly Russian comrade, a prison break and even a beach assault.
What’s worse is that you’re forced to slowdown your pace and listen to your arguing team mates. DICE has attempted to inject personality and character development into some of the members. But this ends up being awkwardly unnatural when two of them put aside their differences after being at each others throats in every mission. You feel like burying your face in your hands when the token black male is overly aggressive, disobeys orders and drops F-bombs in each line of his script. Finally, the ending is too abrupt and hardly fleshed out leaving you, quite literally, hanging. It will all be over too quickly in any case, topping out at under 5 hours with 7 missions.
What is interesting, though, is the naval focus. A good part of the levels are set on a ship or on the water, showcasing the Frostbite 3 engine’s new water rendering capabilities. Which is what the Campaign is all about really, it’s still a great tech demo for what is one of the nicest looking first-person shooters out there. It’s just a huge shame knowing a lot of money went into a campaign to make it more appealing on the store shelves, rather than improving the core Battlefield experience.
Now, onto the meat and potatoes; the online multiplayer. For anyone starting out on the Battlefield, it’s a daunting experience. Two teams of up to 64 players (24 on X360 and PS3), 3 factions, 8 game modes, 10 initial maps and a plethora of ground, sea and air vehicles all vying for control. For anyone moving on from Battlefield 3, it’s a familiar affair but with noticeable differences.
The spawn screen has been radically improved, giving you a more detailed view and including a first-person camera on squad members. Kit customisation has been greatly expanded on and even vehicles have unlockable camouflage. Learning from how easy it was to gain rank and unlocks in Battlefield 3, DICE has made the long crawl to the top just a little more time consuming thanks to more challenging awards and slower experience gains.
The return of the Commander Mode puts a new spin on matches, where an overseer on each team drops supplies, gives orders and calls in missile strikes. DICE has restricted this mode to players over Rank 10 and you must join as Commander, meaning no swapping to a regular player whenever you feel like it. You join as a Spectator much the same and it’s designed for competitive play where players are limited to just observe the match with a ton of viewing options.
In a welcome move, vehicles now have essential unlocks available by default such as zoom optics, smoke grenades and coaxial machine guns. All aspects to the interface, be it HUD or vehicle cockpits, have been tweaked for the better. My only complaint is that it’s almost impossible to see your aiming reticule in jets when you face the sun. Surely pilots have some form of sun visors?
Speaking of jets, DICE has made the skies more exciting with the inclusion of stealth planes. The F-35 makes another return, joined by the new prototype Russian PAK-FA T-50 (confusingly named SU-50) and Chinese J-20 planes. Along with fighters, ground attack aircraft and helicopters, you’re spoiled for choice when it comes to air superiority. Interestingly, runways have been given the chop with all jets spawning in the air instead.
It’s been 8 years since we last saw China in a Battlefield game, and her inclusion here adds much-needed variety with both vehicles and exotic map locations. New weapons are included in-line with reality, such as the latest AK-12 rifle about to be incorporated with Russian ground forces and anti-vehicles launchers have been given a complete gameplay overhaul.
It’s clear that DICE has tried to make the maps more exciting in Battlefield 4, rather than going for more of the same. Each map has some kind of dynamic element, be it a changing environment or interactive buttons like elevators and raised vehicle barriers, making your typical online match feel more alive. Changes can be subtle, like a night map transitioning to day and having to deal with a blinding sunrise, or catastrophic like a typhoon raising waves and hampering vision.
One of the major problems with BF3 was that a lot of vanilla maps ended up being dropped from server lists completely because they favoured infantry too much (Grand Bazaar) or were simply bad (Tehran Highway), leaving a small core of playable vehicle maps. BF4 is much more rounded and consistent across the board, meaning you don’t have to rely on expansion packs to keep things fun. At least not from the get-go. Most players will make large Conquest servers their port-of-call, but the new highlight is the frenetic Obliteration mode where teams fight over a bomb which in turn must be carried to a detonation target. The catch is that the bomb’s location is visible to everyone in the server, as well as anyone around it on the minimap.
Obviously there will be balancing and gameplay changes in the future as DICE irons out the game post-launch. It’s currently not without its flaws as many experience rubber-banding lag across all servers, something which is acknowledged and being fixed as I write this review. The other major bug is crashing to the desktop, which I’m almost certain has been an issue following the launch of every Battlefield title. But given the horrendous state of the Beta, where I experienced frame rate drops down to the 20’s on a high-end rig, the army of network developers at DICE have done fairly admirably since.
Judging by screenshots alone, you’d be forgiven for thinking this looks identical to its predecessor. It was a fair complaint when we first saw the game and its new engine, branded as Frostbite 3, but the more you play the more you realise its upgrades aren’t just skin deep. The look and feel is very much in the style of Battlefield 3, but new bits and pieces alter the gameplay considerably.
A proper water engine gives naval warfare a whole new element as the waves impede your aim, vegetation moves more realistically and the lighting is far less static. One of the biggest complaints in BF3 was the destruction; there was hardly any in it. BF4 brings it back with rubble flying everywhere, chimneys toppling and with simply more stuff on the screen at any given moment. Gone is the cold blue tint that made visibility so poor in BF3, replaced with warmer grading and lush colours to make the whole thing more pleasing to look at.
On the PC, which is what we reviewed this on, the visuals truly shine. Bump everything up to Ultra and add 4x anti-aliasing to really see the difference, if your PC can handle it. If it can, just increase the Resolution Scale % to add super sampling and see those frames drop like a stone in exchange for an eye-melting picture. DICE has also added far more tuning options. In addition to Field of View there is a HUD Size option to make everything smaller and neater on higher resolutions.
While the jump from Bad Company 2 to Battlefield 3 was a far bigger deal, all of the improvements here make this one of the prettiest and visually busiest shooters on the market. That’s the main distinction; there is just so much going on at this level of detail.
One aspect of the Battlefield games that rarely fails to put a smile on your face is the spectacular sound. Battlefield 4 maintains that quality and has tweaked the audio slightly for a punchier and deeper sound. It’s in a class of its own among the crowded FPS genre, with booming explosions, distant rumbling and the constant screeching of aircraft over your head combined with team mates crying out according to the situation.
Unfortunately I encountered a known bug several times where most of the sound cuts out server wide, affecting all players. It’s a pretty big deal and a shame that QC team didn’t come across or fix it in time for launch. Here’s hoping it gets fixed ASAP.
Battlefield 4 does enough to warrant a return to the field with plenty of new content for fans to dabble in, and with returning features and assets all refined for a more entertaining Battlefield experience. It’s all too likely that some hardcore Battlefield 3 players will lament “gimmicks” like Levolution and prefer the traditional static maps. But the improved destruction and level changes add a new layer of fun to a formula that remains at the top of its class in multiplayer FPS.
It still suffers from a forgettable campaign that simply doesn’t have to exist and various online bugs, which are thankfully fast disappearing as DICE shifts to post-launch maintenance mode. As the next generation takes off with new and exciting IPs, DICE will have to do a lot more and work harder to keep things fresh next time. In the meantime, Battlefield 4 is once again your go-to FPS for spectacular, vehicular multiplayer.
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