EA’s attempt at gaining a share of the shooter market has always been a struggle, considering the overwhelming popularity of Call of Duty. Medal of Honor has been taken out of yearly rotation, after last year’s underwhelming offering with Warfighter. This year it’s DICE’s turn to fill your screen with bullets and guns with the release of Battlefield 4. How does it stack up as a shooter? And how does it compare to its previous entry Battlefield 3? I’ve shot all the dudes I could see and lined up the shell casings, so how does Battlefield 4 fare? Let’s find out, shall we?
Battlefield 4’s story is a huge step up from last time around. That is to say, it’s somewhere around mediocre. Typical and predictable beats draw you along from set piece to set piece, shooting all the dudes on the way through. Set six years after Battlefield 3, you’ll be commanding Sergeant Recker (yes, really), leader of the hapless team of US Marines known as Tombstone squad. There’s something about an assassination and a civil war and a Chinese Ghandi and the US being blamed for everything, but it’s all so much background noise. It’s not bad background noise, though – it’s completely inoffensive compared to Battlefield 3’s garbled mess. It’s not the most cerebral of plots, but it does its job to get you through the game and works well enough.
Particularly strong is the characterisation, which actually had me empathising with the (entirely contrived) ordeals they endure. Pac, Irish, and Hannah all have arcs and flaws and motivations and development, putting them squarely above the majority of milshoot characters. This is partly due to their writing – although they can be appropriately cliché and sweary at times. Mostly, it’s to do with the performances. The cast, made up of some well-known television actors, deliver vocal and mocap performances that carry serious weight. While the narrative plods along, the characters live in it and carry you through the experience.
Along with the improved story, Battlefield 4 introduces a number of substantial gameplay improvements. First up is the spotting and squad command system. As squad leader, Recker is able to direct the rest of his team to attack various targets on command. A quick tap of the Q key will highlight a number of enemies in the direction you’re looking, and the rest of your team will open fire. Sometimes they take the targets out, sometimes they offer valuable suppressing fire that allows you to off them yourself. It’s not an I Win button either, as it is on a short recharge, and enemies generally keep you as the primary target anyway. It’s a nice touch that comes in handy periodically, but is far from necessary for successful completion.
A point system has been introduced into single player, which earns players medals that unlock guns. Kills, headshots, killstreaks, and rapid kills add to your point total, with a pretty little notification popping up every single time you earn points. Thankfully you can turn off the more obtrusive HUD elements if you so choose. Each stage has a gold, silver, and bronze medal to be awarded by reaching certain point milestones, and each medal will unlock a gun.
As for unlocked guns, they feed into a new system that allows players to customise their loadouts to a certain extent. Picking up a weapon from an enemy, earning medals, or finding one hidden in the level will unlock that weapon for use at your weapon crate. These crates are scattered around the levels, enabling you to swap out your primary and secondary weapons for any that you have access to. Unfortunately you can’t customise the attachments or camo of these weapons, but there are a decent amount to choose from with their own stats and abilities that should keep anyone entertained.
Suppression has become a much more significant gameplay element this time around. Instead of reducing your weapon’s accuracy, it instead adds rather severe scope sway. You can still shoot straight, but it just might not be in the direction you’re intending. It feels a lot fairer, as a skilled player can still shoot effectively while being suppressed.
An automatic leaning function has been introduced, allowing players to peek around and over cover with a tap of the aim button. I usually find automatic leaning incredibly intrusive and annoying. Battlefield 4’s system was tolerable. It’s subtle enough not to ruin your control, but it’s occasionally a little fickle – not always kicking in when you want it to. Coupled with the more extensive environmental destruction, leaning comes in handy occasionally, although I would have preferred a manual option for it.
Also new to the franchise is a personal favourite feature of mine – sniper scope zeroing. Weapons equipped with certain scopes, like an ACOG or 8x scopes and the like, allow for players to adjust for the simulated bullet drop over distance. Previously, players would have to guess the drop based on the distance and hope for the best. With zeroing, your crosshairs adjust for drop based on the zeroed distance. There’s nothing quite like setting your scope to 400 metres and popping some heads a whole map away.
While the improvements to single player have really tightened up the campaign experience, Battlefield has always been known for its best in class multiplayer. Battlefield 4 takes that and raises it to a new high water mark.
All the core gameplay enhancements from the campaign exist in the multiplayer, from improved suppression, leaning, zeroing, point system, and spotting, to much increased environmental destruction – it’s all there in multiplayer, plus a few extras.
Battlefield 4 continues its class-based and squad-based combat, tweaking a few small things here and there. It’s five players to a squad now, with a leader in command. Engineers now have PDW’s as their exclusive weapons, while carbines, shotguns, and DMR’s are unlockable for all classes eventually. Guns are fully customisable, choosing an optic, accessory, barrel, and underbarrel attachments, as well as a huge number of camo patterns. Knifing can now be countered, providing the attack comes from the front. Unlocks are handled through a hybrid system of overall player experience, weapon experience, class experience, and a new system called Battlepacks, which are crates of random unlocks that you earn through achieving various milestones. I’m not yet won over by the Battlepack system, finding that they’re too far between unlocks, but I’m only in the lower levels so far and I might change my mind.
On top of the ever-popular Conquest and Rush game modes, some new modes have been added to keep Battlefield 4 interesting. The first is the Obliteration game mode, which sees two teams contesting for control of a randomly spawning bomb so that enemy objectives can be destroyed. It’s an interesting mode, one that adds a nice variation on the traditional item retrieval game mode. Next is Commander mode, which allows a player to observe the entire map, sending supplies and support to the troops on the ground. The best one, however, is the test range. Here is a free map where you can test out your vehicles and loadouts in complete safety, without the fear of someone joining your server and wiping the floor with you. The downside is that there is only one map available for the test range, and it’s missing customisation features. For example, there is only one shooting range, and it only extends to about 120 metres. There are four moving targets, and they move predictably. Not all obstacles can be reset, and there’s no simple way of changing kit. Also, there is no option for AI-controlled bots for target practice. That aside, the test range is a helpful and very welcome addition to test out your loadouts.
Battlefield 4’s most vaunted feature is the multiplayer maps’ ability to shift and change during play. The abhorrently termed “Levolution” is actually pretty neat. The aim is to offer a handful of massive structures that can be destroyed or altered to completely change the way the map operates. For example, the Siege of Shanghai map has a tall skyscraper in the centre of the map that is enterable. Hit the base with enough explosives and the entire building collapses, removing a valuable sniper post and reducing the ground around it to a rubbly mess perfect for close combat. It’s a great way of mixing things up, changing gameplay conditions, altering available strategies, and creating points of contention and focus. General destruction is improved across the board, with more walls and barriers capable of being blasted away to subtly change the map.
Battlefield 4 is still wrapped in the relatively annoying browser-based launcher known as Battlelog. While Battlelog offers some nifty persistent features for multiplayer, having to launch your single player campaign through your web browser is never not frustrating. I wouldn’t have minded the Battlelog intrusion if it was multiplayer only, since the features it offers are useful, but tying it to single player yet again is disappointing.
The experience is not without its bumps, though. There are quite a few bugs that need squishing, from destruction glitches, to a multitude of audio bugs, to full blown crashes. Most of these can be put down to launch jitters and will probably be fixed in due course. But if you’re planning to get Battlefield 4 on PC right around launch, be prepared for a bunch of bugs. And they’re not confined to multiplayer, either – although most of them run rampant in multi. Some destroyed cover regenerates spontaneously, and there are a number of annoying audio hiccups that you’ll probably encounter in the campaign. Crashes are generally reserved for multiplayer, with servers going down without warning, or random boots, or freezes. All I can say is keep everything up to date and wait for the inevitable incoming bug fixes.
When it comes to shinies, the Battlefield series sets the benchmark. Using the new and improved Frostbite 3 engine, Battlefield 4 delivers a spectacular visual buffet. Shadows, particles, ambient occlusion, lighting effects, post processing – they’re all there times a hundred. Particularly noticeable is the detail and quality of the character models, which excel – especially in conjunction with the full performance capture process used. It retains the familiar aesthetic from Battlefield 3, with stylised hyperrealism and JJ Abrams level lens flare.
Performance is also surprisingly good. I was able to run everything on high at a near constant 50fps with my single (BIOS-modded) HD 6950 and I5 2500K. Boosting a few settings up to ultra hit performance a bit, but not nearly as spectacularly as I thought it would. I can only imagine the next-gen console performance, but I imagine it would be comparable to what I experienced on high.
Battlefield’s trademark phenomenal sound returns, as good as ever. Audio design is top notch. Guns crack and pop in a truly beautiful way. Vehicles rumble, and explosions positively roar. Every source of sound is perfectly positioned, and a decent sound setup will really help the audio let loose. There is nothing more adrenaline stimulating than the sharp crack of a sniper’s bullet whizzing past your ear, except perhaps catching the glint of their scope in the distance and counter-sniping them. Music is appropriately electronic and wubalicious, thumping away unobtrusively. It’s not the most diverse of soundtracks, but it gets the job done.
Battlefield 4 is a sleek package. It improves on much of the shortcomings of Battlefield 3 and introduces a few new features that work well. It’s a quality shooting experience that feels heavy and slick in all the right places. Despite its emphasis on multiplayer, the team at DICE still manage to deliver a decent single player campaign with well-fleshed-out characters and entertaining shooting sequences. The multiplayer truly shines, delivering a first class experience for those who want to shoot players online. To top it off, all of it is wrapped in the beauty of Frostbite 3’s top rate engine.
Battlefield 4 is bold. Battlefield 4 is ballsy. Battlefield 4 is a shooter’s shooter, and it revels in its shooteryness. And you will too.
(Reviewed on PC. Review code supplied by EA Australia. Thank you.)
ONLY SINGLE PLAYER SCORE
Story – 6/10
Gameplay/Design – 9/10
Visuals – 10/10
Sound – 10/10
Lasting Appeal – 8/10
Overall – 8.5/10
(Not an average)
Platforms: PS3, Xbox 360, PC, PS4, Xbox One
Ratings: M 17+ ESRB, 18+ PEGI, MA15+ ACB