There’s something evergreen about Battlefield’s brand of online warfare. The combination of breakneck infantry fighting and explosive vehicular warfare breeds conflicts that are exciting, tense, and, perhaps most importantly, diverse. With weapons, gadgets, and upgrades tailored to create a wealth of combat roles, it can often seem like there’s no end to the gratifying ways you can contribute to the war effort. This variety has enticed players into Battlefield games for years, and in Battlefield 4, it’s alive and well. The online multiplayer is an absolute blast.
But Battlefield is about more than just multiplayer these days, and the single-player campaign in BF4 also has some exciting moments. These are sequences that channel the freedom and variety of multiplayer; the levels spent mostly in corridors and in close-quarters combat are more frequent, however, and not nearly as enjoyable. The characters that drive the story show flashes of appealing personality, but these are drowned out by cliche relationships and boilerplate dialogue. Though BF4 outdoes its predecessor, the series has a long way to go before the campaign is more than a sideshow diversion.
No landlubber is safe from my naval wrath!
Fortunately, the online stage is expertly set for some exhilarating moments. One of the best new things about BF4 is Obliteration mode, in which two teams fight to gain control of a bomb and use it to blow up three enemy positions. Unlike returning standby Conquest mode, in which the battle ebbs and flows between a handful of set positions, Obliteration boasts conflict zones that can change in a flash with the timely use of land, air, and sea vehicles. Motorized transport has always been a pillar of combat in the Battlefield series, and Obliteration mode makes mobility more important than ever. (Thank goodness for the new test range that allows you to practice piloting every vehicle!) A skilled helicopter pilot can swoop in to pick up the bomb carrier and then zip off to an objective point, leaving enemy infantry in the dust. Escaping the chaos to grab a personal watercraft can turn the tide, but perhaps it’s better to blow it up so your enemies don’t grab it for themselves. Plotting your own dramatic maneuvers while defending against the enemies’ is a lively challenge that takes on new urgency in Obliteration.
Matches without vehicles, however, have a different pace. Victory comes from solid squad support and sharp shooting. Battling for bomb possession in winding prison tunnels is a brutal close-quarters affair, and well-balanced matches run the risk of devolving into lengthy scrums in which neither team can make headway. Keeping your squad alive is crucial here, not just as mobile spawn points but also to preserve your field upgrades. These are new attribute bonuses that you gain through squad-related actions, bestowing you with resistance to suppressing fire or better flak protection, for example.
Being able to shoot a little straighter or survive a nearby grenade blast can make a difference in these fast-paced, infantry-heavy matches of Obliteration, as well as in small, speedy matches of Domination (small-scale Conquest) and Team Deathmatch. The other new mode also involves bomb-carrying, but because it has bite-size maps and no respawning, Defuse demands a more careful kind of infantry combat. Weapon choice and enemy detection are key in these short, fraught encounters, and while the heightened tension can result in some very satisfying wins, smaller arenas are not where Battlefield 4 is at its best.
The standout action comes in large-scale conflicts that take advantage of the 10 large, well-designed maps. Richer color saturation makes them a pleasure to look at, from the lush alpine fields surrounding a massive satellite dish to the sparkling neon lights of a coastal city. Buildings frequently have stairs or elevators that allow access to upper stories, giving snipers long sight lines and providing parachutists with jumping-off points to better traverse the map. This increased verticality adds some strategic options, but the bigger change is the greater prevalence of water. Marine combat is a much bigger factor in Battlefield 4, whether you’re zipping down the narrow canals of a seaside resort while your passenger mows down infantry or patrolling the lanes of a small archipelago and shooting helicopters out of the sky with a fully crewed attack boat.
Naval dominance can help you control a match, but water-based mobility is another huge consideration, as anyone who has trudged across a large empty field instead of hitching a ride knows. Swimming leaves you vulnerable, though you can at least pull out your sidearm, so it’s best to secure transport when you can. This much is obvious when fighting in a stormy island chain, but until someone blows the levee on the slightly waterlogged urban map, you can do just fine scurrying around on foot. When the water does rush in, the whole place gets submerged beneath ten feet of water and things change significantly. If you don’t stick to the rooftops or hop in one of the newly spawned boats, you’re in trouble.
This deluge is the most drastic of the marquee environmental events that you can trigger on each map. Some of these occurrences bring significant change, like the destruction of a skyscraper, while others are more subtle, like closing jail doors to shut off a hallway or raising bollards to block a road. These special events are complemented by the wide range of destructible structures and deformable terrain. Blown-out walls and collapsed buildings have a hard time hiding enemies, and roads pitted by bomb craters are more difficult to navigate smoothly. Destructibility has been amped up from Battlefield 3, and being able to blast your way through certain obstructions is a liberating and empowering experience.
In most cases, you must supply the ordnance to take advantage of this destructibility (some maps have large triggered bombs that do the job on their own). Among the weapons and gadgets for each class are a number of explosive options tailored to take down threats on land, at sea, and in the sky. There are also items that support your allies in a variety of ways, from keeping them alive to alerting them to nearby enemies. Thanks to some loadout shuffling and the presence of weapon classes that unlock for every soldier type, there are more ways than ever to customize the four basic archetypes to fill a multitude of combat roles. Of particular note is the new ability to zero your scope, a trick that lets you quickly set the distance at which your bullet will hit the center of your sight, providing a valuable aid for long-range sniping.
Between vehicle and soldier customization, there are a ton of ways to be effective on the battlefield and rack up the points that increase your rank and unlock new stuff. You can intermittently earn battlepacks that provide small rewards, and new map-specific battle pickups like sniper rifles, automatic shotguns, and grenade launchers give you powerful ways to adapt your strategy on the fly. If you prefer to take a broader strategic view, you can join a match as a commander once you hit the requisite level. With a bird’s-eye view and a chat line to every squad leader, this mode lets you set objectives for troops, scan for enemies, and reinforce your team in a few other ways. Vehicle and supply drops can conceivably be a great boon to your grunts, but the tools that become available to you depend largely on how well those grunts accept and follow your orders. Oblivious players can make Commander mode drag, so it’s a hit-or-miss experience.
The single-player campaign has its ups and downs as well, though alas, more of the latter than the former. It’s good when you’re fighting your way through a village, using scattered weapons and the odd vehicle to carve a path to your allies. Sections like these approximate the combat diversity of multiplayer and are genuinely fun, while other sequences aren’t as successful. Fighting through streets and buildings evokes nothing more than the dozens of other shooter campaigns in the same mold, and though the gunplay is competent, it lacks a spark to sustain it. A difficult tank battle and some dramatic moments might manage to get your blood pumping, but on the whole, the action feels lifeless.
Though the plot chronicles a high-stakes conflict, Battlefield 4 invests its storytelling energy in its characters. Unfortunately, they all-too-often act as soldiers who have character, rather than characters who are soldiers.
The characters in your squad could have enhanced the experience, as they did in the excellent Bad Company 2. Indeed, your squad’s idle discussion of fortune cookie messages and the prospect of eating pigeon channel some of the great character writing from that game, but these highlights are few and far between. Most of the character development focuses on cliche roles such as “gruff dude who doesn’t trust newcomers” and “earnest guy who follows orders.” Though the plot chronicles a high-stakes conflict, Battlefield 4 invests its storytelling energy in its characters. Unfortunately, they all-too-often act as soldiers who have character, rather than characters who are soldiers. And the results are drab.
So with five versions of the game spread across two generations of consoles, which is the best Battlefield? Unsurprisingly, the PC version remains on top with excellent visuals and sprawling 64-player matches that make the most of the great maps and incredible combat diversity. The PlayStation 4 version joins the PC in the top tier, with comparable visuals and 64-player matches to boot. The Xbox One version, however, remains under review embargo for another two weeks, so we can’t evaluate it until then. The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions still deliver solid visuals and exciting online play, but with matches limited to 24 players at the most, current gen already feels like last gen. Texture pop-in delays are much more noticeable in the PS3 version, making it the least appealing of the bunch.
Regardless of platform, Battlefield 4 multiplayer is a blast and definitely the best reason to return to this hallowed franchise or dive in for the first time. Though the campaign makes strides in the right direction, it remains a sideshow to the main event. Expansive and exciting, challenging and empowering, Battlefield 4 multiplayer is a thrilling endeavor in this generation or the next.