It doesn’t seem like so long ago that scores of critics were crowded into a San Franciscan cinema watching a 4K-resolution live play-through of what would later turn out to be the opening level of Battlefield 4. This was the first look at the next game in the longstanding series and, as with Battlefield 3 before it, EA Digital Illusions CE (DICE) chose to make the first look a single-player affair. As fans of the series will know, single-player is often received, at best, as a humorous distraction—as with the Bad Company games—and, at worst, as an attempt to mimic what Call of Duty does in its campaign formula, or distract from how Medal of Honor was cloning the juggernaut shooters approach.
(Yup, I’m going to start by talking about the campaign. Skip ahead if you just want to read about how multiplayer fares.)
But this time was supposed to be different. At least, that’s what the united front of Patrick Bach (executive producer) and Patrick Söderlund (CEO of DICE and EA Studio General Manager) would have the gaming world believe at this initial unveiling. They threw around DICE-related adjectives such as “world-class storytellers”, which I didn’t personally believe were ratified: after all, a couple of entertaining Bad Company campaigns and Mirrors Edge does not a world-class storyteller make. But I sure as hell wanted to believe in this vision of a Frostbite 3-powered campaign that would expand upon the nuggets of promise evident in Battlefield 3’s single-player fight.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t my experience with the Battlefield 4 campaign. While there were more instances that felt a whole lot more Battlefield than trying to replicate the Call of Duty formula, there’s an overall lack of coherency to the plot, while the storyline is littered with mostly average dialogue, odd characterisation and oodles of scripted sequences. There are an overwhelming abundance of invisible triggers you need to activate as the voiceless Daniel “Reck” Recker protagonist, while your squad-mates regularly break the limited immersion you build up by insisting you open almost every door, or barge in front of you and block your way if it’s determined they’re supposed to be up front.
You’ll be inexplicably promoted to squad leader as you learn mundane details about your fellow squad-mates—Clayton “Pac” Pakowski and Kimble “Irish” Graves (voiced and mo-capped by Michael K. “Omar” Williams)—as they jump from waxing lyrical in Bad Company fashion to defying orders or pushing their world views down your throat. You feel so detached from their plight it’s almost dreamlike, as you observe conversations that never involve you, and nor do they make you feel like a fly-on-the-wall Gordon Freeman-type protagonist who’s actually still a believable part of the world around you.
Pac and Irish switch to ghost mode themselves whenever the action occurs, and may as well be placeholder cut-outs whenever the bullets start firing. They’ll sporadically bump you out of cover and rarely get a kill, even when you order them to attack. At best, they’re useful for supressing a flank or group of enemies as you do your own thing, but it doesn’t go a long way to showing any intelligence on their part. There were several occasions when they just watched enemies run past them as they barrelled towards me. It makes the inclusion of squad-mates frustrating and also reeks of a missed co-op opportunity (unlike Battlefield 3, there are no co-op missions at all in Battlefield 4).
Enemy AI fares somewhat better, as they react to your play style. If, like me, you’re super-aggressive, they’ll use cover, lay down covering fire and fall back if you’re getting the best of them. Stay behind cover for a breath too long, and you’ll be dodging incoming grenades; they’ll even flank if you’re hanging back. It’s not the best example of AI, but it ticks the right boxes for some frantic and fun firefights when the campaign opens up in the later levels and remembers that a sandbox approach is better and infinitely closer to the Battlefield experience than funnelling players through maps.
The most interesting part of the campaign, though, is the adoption of multiplayer mechanics. You can spot enemies and, as mentioned before, communicate with your squad-mates to attack particular enemies. In certain sections, you’re even able to call in for help from a nearby chopper or tank. You score points as you advance through the game and earn bronze, silver or gold medals which also unlock additional weapons. These weapons are accessed at munitions crates scattered around the maps and can be used to switch out primary and secondary weapons, depending on what you’ve unlocked.
This acts as entry-level training for a campaign that I bested in five hours (and it could be done quicker than that, too) on Normal difficulty, with only a handful of sections that provided a real challenge. These moments, though, were what showed how much DICE can get right when they stick to the tried-and-proven Battlefield formula, and it’s a shame there wasn’t more of this from the start.
For real online training, though, you won’t have to throw yourself in the thick of the online foray to cut your teeth. DICE has included a handy Test Range feature that lets players train by themselves on an island that’s littered with enemy targets and a host of ships, helicopters, jets, tanks and other vehicles. This is a smart move as it allows players to gain confidence in operating vehicles and weapons that they may otherwise avoid due to how important they can become in the fight online.
And what an epic fight it is. Battlefield 4 is the culmination of what was great about Battlefield 2, merged with the gameplay inclusions and destructibility of the Bad Company games, with tweaks on what you’ve played in Battlefield 3. At first glance, it’s very reminiscent of Battlefield 3, but after sinking some hours into the multiplayer, Battlefield 4 stands tall as the most refined version of the series, to date.
There’s an even bigger emphasis on team play this time around, with positive KDR not being the thing that ensures your place at the top of the leaderboard. Because points ultimately determine your rank upgrades and subsequent gadget unlocks, even terrible players can rise through the ranks as long as they follow squad-leader orders, play objective or support their team by performing simple actions such as reviving fallen friendlies or dropping ammunition.
For the killers, though, individual weapon progression and subsequent unlocks are determined by felling foes (as with Battlefield 3), so you haven’t been entirely forgotten. Playing objective and supporting your team is fundamental to the game design, though. Simple-yet-cool inclusions such as awarding a kill to a player who does majority damage on an enemy (as well as the one who fires the killing shot), means gamers are less likely to scold others for stealing kills. In the same breath, there’s a neat symbiotic relationship between how a team performs and how helpful a commander (yup, Battlefield 2’s commander role is back and better than ever) can be.
This time around, capturing particular points in Conquest mode will grant your commander the ability to perform actions such as launching missiles, calling in a gunship (whose guns can be controlled by players, as in the Armored Kill DLC for Battlefield 3) as well as scanning a map for infantry or vehicles. Commanders can play the game from their platform of choice, or on a tablet, which actually works really well with a simple map overview and touch commands. Squad leaders are in direct voice communication with a team’s commander, and easy points can be earned for following the directions of your commander.
On top of this, the more a team plays nice with each other, reviving friendlies, dropping ammo/health, and all those little team-loving actions that lone wolves tend to avoid, the more squad-specific features are on offer to the commander. The commander has the option to promote squads that are doing well, for instance, and there are other neat features such as the ability to highlight a priority target on the enemy team. I wasn’t able to put this feature to the test, but players can apparently even login from a tablet without first connecting through their platform of choice to play as commander. Considering this overseeing role is available on the main gameplay modes (Conquest, Rush and Obliteration), it’s a fantastic inclusion that further emphasises the team aspect of the game.
Playing as an individual soldier, though, is still a hell of a lot of fun. Battlelog is still used through a browser to access servers, stats, friends lists, leaderboards and loadouts, but there’s also a nifty smartphone app that lets you mess around with this stuff while you’re waiting to respawn or between rounds. You can dictate which class you’d like as your default starting one so you can click deploy without worrying about spawning as Assault. The weapon customisation options also run deep, with a lot of returning entries, and some slight rejigging between classes.
Recon, for instance, is initially closer to its Bad Company 2 predecessor than Battlefield 3, with C4 available early on, and even motion-sensor balls for the Recon player that doesn’t want to sit back and snipe. If you loved using C4 as a Support player in Battlefield 3, though, that’s an available unlock, along with the handy-as-ever mortar. There are plenty of new weapons and items on offer, though, with a range of knife options, and an impressive option of seven grenade types that include flashbangs, flares, smoke and, my personal favourite, the incendiary grenades which lock off tight areas and dish out damage after an enemy flees the initial explosion. It’s a particularly useful grenade for defending points or deterring would-be bomb defusers.
These grenades come in handy during some of Battlefield 4’s smaller online modes. There are seven modes on offer across 10, all of which scale well between epic matches of 64-player Conquest and the more intimate killing-affairs of Defuse and Squad Deathmatch. While 64-player Conquest is still the definitive Battlefield mode that feels different every time you play it, there’s a renewed emphasis on Rush, which feels just as frantic as it did in Bad Company days, and Obliteration is a fast-paced and addictive offering.
In Obliteration, each team has three defensible points and a single bomb randomly appears in the middle of the map that has to be planted on the enemy points. It’s simple in concept, but it often descends into fast-paced chaos as combat is focused around a single moving objective and it’s nigh impossible to run the bomb from its spawn spot to the enemy location. Upon death, the bomb drops and can be collected by anyone, which is where that ‘team play’ phrase comes into play again, as the bomb is best transported in vehicles and should only be planted when you have backup to hold off the waves of incoming enemies. Unless, of course, you jumped in a chopper and flew to the back of the enemy’s base with the bomb before they could mount a defence.
The biggest problem with Obliteration outside of how long matches can last if teams are evenly balanced (we played with no fixed timer, which meant the match could technically last indefinitely) is the massive ‘THAT GUY HAS A BOMB!’ icon over an enemy that makes locational targeting incredibly difficult. A simple arrow above the target’s head would have sufficed.
Bad Company fans will be glad to know that the level of destructibility is, thankfully, closer to what it was in the spin-off series than what it was neutered to in Battlefield 3. While not applicable to every map, certain structures can be flattened completely, and each map has its own trademark macro “levolution” set piece, which is influenced by players. Damage bridges, flood towns, topple skyscrapers or send a ship hurtling into a beach to change the balance of a map. These moments are epic and influence how the rest of the map plays out, but levolution isn’t limited to these bigger events. Smaller instances such as shooting fuse boxes to kill lights, blow holes in walls to create new paths, explode makeshift ramps for climbing buildings, activate bollards to stop vehicles from entering an area, or damage fire extinguishers to create a cloud of blinding smoke.
The sheer variety of gameplay options and the player’s ability to impact the map and control pathfinding is what makes Battlefield 4 so thrilling. Chokepoints are easily negated by making your own alternate path, while vehicles in the larger modes mean even the most entrenched sniper can be minced by a Blackhawk fly-by. For every tactic or play style, there seems to be at least one obvious counter. The tools that DICE provides empower players to make and experience unique multiplayer narratives every time they play, which is what makes Battlefield 4’s longevity so apparent, even from early on in the online foray. Couple this with a deep progression system and new gadgets that force players to adopt new tactics (should they choose to equip the new toys in the first place), and it’s damn impossible to ignore how easily you can lose blocks of your day battling in diverse modes.
What I played was a far more polished experience than the buggy beta, and there was a DICE dev on hand making notes of issues we encountered and sending them back to the team in Stockholm to apply to post-launch patches. These issues were few and far between, though, with the most common woes being sporadic vaulting fails on certain items and iffy spotting of enemies and capture points that often didn’t seem to work with the first tap of ‘Q’. Outside of this, my biggest gripes were that VoIP is currently limited to squads only (team VoIP is set to be included in subsequent updates), as it would have been handy to have both vehicle VoIP (for moments when it’s not just squad-mates with you) and locational VoIP for hearing live enemy chatter when you’re close enough to them. Fall damage also seems to be frustratingly unforgiving, with many a pancaking instance when a parachute is pulled too close to the ground after taking damage.
But these gripes truly pale in comparison to the sheer amount of fun that everyone was having, even those who weren’t particularly high on the scoreboard. Battlefield 4 is visually amazing, with plenty of pretty that is often simultaneously aesthetic and practical, while the DICE sound wizards continue to forge a second-to-none soundscape that complements the eye candy. If you’re a Battlefield fan, this purchase is a given, but even the smaller, faster-paced modes give Call of Duty a run for its money on its FPS formula.
Moneyhat disclosure: EA flew AusGamers to its headquarters in San Francisco to review Battlefield 4 with other games critics from around the world, and AusGamers is now a licensed games server rental provider for Battlefield 4 players on PC. It is also worth noting that NachosJustice was part of the multiplayer beta and had played an accumulated 55 hours before playing the review build.