I don’t quite know how to review Battlefield 4. I definitely don’t know how to score it. The problem is that, although it’s generally a rather enjoyable game, it’s got problems. Lots of problems. And that makes this hard.
Tell you what. Let’s start with the one thing that a grand total of six people care about: the single-player campaign, which is… well, it’s okay. It’s a marked improvement over the Battlefield 3 campaign, but then there are intestinal parasites that are a marked improvement over the Battlefield 3 campaign.
It tells the tale of Tombstone squad, a group of marines initially sent to get some intel from Baku in Azerbaijan, and later sent into mainland China to extract VIPs shortly after a Chinese general launches a coup. Things inevitably go horribly wrong, and for the next four hours you’re shooting your way from setpiece to setpiece, pretty much all of which are what you’d expect. There’s a torture scene and a prison break and a city rescue and so on. And yes, I said four hours. It is not a long campaign.
The shooting is robust, the setpieces are generally rather impressive, and there’s even a spot of solid acting thanks to Michael K. Williams (Omar from The Wire). He gets to shout and look sad and be involved in all sorts of emotional situations that you – as squad leader – could probably defuse by actually taking charge, except that you’re a mute protagonist and thus are content to sit and watch your squad bicker and fall apart. DICE even took the opportunity to make things feel a bit less linear by setting up plenty of encounters in wider areas with a variety of ways to approach, and you can unlock new weapons throughout the campaign and equip whichever ones you want from loadout lockers.
So yes, the campaign takes a lot of cues from Battlefield: Bad Company 2 – which is good! Then it ends around the time it feels like the first act should be coming to a close, which is deeply unsatisfying. It’s got a wonky plot, some naff pacing and some moments so cheesy they’re cringe-inducing, but it’s enjoyable for the little while it lasts. That said, it’s really not a reason to pick up the game.
No, if you buy Battlefield 4, it’s going to be for the multiplayer. This is where things get tricky.
Let’s start with the basics. Battlefield 4 has been sold primarily on two big features: the reintroduction of Commander Mode, and the absurdly named Levolution system. These both function about as you’d expect.
Taking on the role of Commander requires you to have hit Rank 10 as vague proof that you know what you’re doing. Once you reach this and hop into the Commander slot of an ongoing game, you’re presented with a top-down map showing the positions of all of your soldiers, all of the capture points, and all enemy troops that have been spotted. You can select your own squads and give them orders – although there’s no guarantee they’ll listen – as well as call in various powers to help out.
For instance! If you’ve just ordered a pair of squads to march into a capture point, you can call in a UAV to scan that area for enemy troops and mark them on the map. You can use a jammer UAV to completely remove your troops in that area from enemy scans. You can send in a supply drop, or remotely reinforce a squad. You can even call in a cruise missile if you fancy some direct action. Most of the bigger powers, though, require you to hold certain capture points, and – although this won’t mean much to the ground troops – this inevitably results in a push-and-pull battle between you and the enemy commander. If point C gives the cruise missile, then you will definitely be throwing troops at that (if they bother to listen to you).
It’s a handy tool, though it’s one that will mostly attract clans and organised gamers. Keeping track of about eight different squads (who may or may not be sticking together, and who may or may not listen to you) on a 64-player server, with people logging in and out, is a bit of a headache. You can definitely assist your troops, but it’s hard to feel that you’re really commanding them when there’s so much beyond your control and no guarantee that they’ve even noticed you exist.
Then there’s the Levolution stuff, which is still really stupidly named. This is DICE leveraging the Frostbite engine’s penchant for environmental destruction into huge setpieces across the multiplayer maps; on one, a massive skyscraper in the centre of the map can be toppled. In another, a tsunami whips up and causes a ship to smash into an island. Another has exploding gas mains that rip the main street apart. Etc.
They’re not huge in terms of shifting the way the game plays – they tend to affect smaller areas and just change one capture point, more than anything – but they’re still a hell of a thing to watch. Paracel Storm’s tsunami is a particular favourite, mostly due to the way the sky darkens and the wind visibly picks up before the ship comes sliding through in a crash of metal.
And then the game crashes.
Even though these new features aren’t exactly game changers (unless you’re serious enough about the game to join a clan and regularly play with 31 other people, at least) they do provide a rather unique feel, and Battlefield 4‘s basic gameplay is more than enough to keep you entertained anyway. It’s still got its own individual quirks, successfully creating big, wide-open areas that generate their own flashpoints without feeling too expansive. It’s still got planes and helicopters and tanks taking part in mile-long battles, with rockets and flares and tracer rounds illuminating the sky.
And, hell, it’s still got those Battlefield moments. It’s got the bits where you completely forget about the wider conflict around you and spend five minutes being stalked by a tank, firing rocket after rocket at it and always just escaping before it can draw a bead on you, narrowly ducking into another corridor as it crashes through the wall behind you. It’s got those moments when you’re hanging out of the side of a helicopter being piloted by a maniac, hopping into the minigun to attack enemies and then hopping into one of the other seats so that you can repair the damn thing while it’s still in flight. It’s got the bits where you and your squad tromp halfway across the map to secure a capture point behind enemy lines, and you feel like you’re in The Guns of Navarone.
And then the server crashes.
My preview was pretty much right in that Siege of Shanghai is probably the best map of the bunch, but most of the others aren’t too bad. I never, ever want to play Zavod 311 again – a wide-open map that pretty much entirely revolves around two capture points in the middle – but most of the others have something going for them. Dawnbreaker is a battle in a beautiful but narrow city. Hainan Resort offers a bit of archipelago-hopping. Operation Locker is Operation Metro, only there are ways to get around the chokepoints. Flood Zone is a battle in a small town which, upon dam destruction, will entirely fill up with water and move the fight to the rooftops.
Then you notice half of the ground is purple, and the sound has gone.
On the other hand, the different game modes offer different experiences. Large Conquest (more capture points, more players) is the “Battlefield experience”, but Rush works really well on some of these maps, and Obliteration – a gametype in which both teams are trying to capture a neutral bomb and take it into enemy territory – is good for an occasional laugh. Domination is still categorically rubbish, lumping all the worst aspects of modern FPS games into one bubbling pot of shit, but it’s easy enough to avoid.
Then you join a server and discover that you have no unlocks. Including all of the things unlocked by default.
Of course, those “worst aspects” can crop up in the other modes, too. With this many players, you’re dependent on your team not being a sack of morons, like when three full squads are sat on one rooftop with sniper rifles. Or when the enemy helicopters are running rampant and killing everyone, and all of the anti-air and all of the jets have been taken by people who are doing tricks to impress themselves. Or when… but I can’t really blame DICE for that. That’s just the internet, really. You join a server, you take your chances.
I can blame DICE for the unlock system, though. They came right out and admitted that the jet unlocks in Battlefield 3 were awful and stupid, and sure enough the vehicle unlocks in Battlefield 4 are vastly improved. The player unlocks, less so. You will get stomped on by people with better weapons. You do have to use a weapon completely bare before you can unlock rudimentary sights or assists for it. You absolutely have to unlock homing rocket launchers to have a chance of hitting aerial opponents.
Then you notice that, despite your ping being 50, there’s some really weird and noticeable lag messing up everyone on the server. And on the next server you join. And on the next.
You begin to see why I’m having such a hard time with this. When Battlefield 4 works – when the stars are right, and you have a team that can spell “Battlefield” without using two Xs and an S – it’s a glorious, shining, near-emergent experience. It’s not hugely different from Battlefield 3 barring some minor tweaks that fix a couple of long-standing problems and make things a little more entertaining (like the Field Upgrade system that gives perks to your entire squad as you complete objectives, but is lost if everyone in the squad is dead at once, thus encouraging teamplay and not being suicidal) but more Battlefield is good Battlefield.
I said “when” it works. I should’ve said “if”, because – other than a playerbase that was raised on a strict diet of lead-based paint – you have to contend with a horrifically buggy launch. Whenever a Levolution happens, half of the server disconnects. The servers themselves crash regularly. The lag issues are bizarre. The game regularly (although, thankfully, temporarily) loses your unlocks. The sound cuts out. The ground textures corrupt. You’ll inexplicably drop dead for no obvious reason. I’ve been on a lot of servers where this has been referred to as “Betafield” and I honestly can’t disagree.
Truthfully, I don’t expect these issues to last, but I’m not reviewing the future. I’m reviewing the game as it stands right now, and as it stands right now, it’s annoyingly difficult to recommend. When it works, it’s Battlefield – better than Battlefield 3, still probably not as good as Battlefield 2. When it doesn’t, it’s an aggravating, frustrating mess that is absolutely not worth £40.
Make no mistake: right now, you’re paying top dollar for a product that shouldn’t have been launched in this state. Some of it might be down to the number of players, but a lot of these bugs were noted in the beta and actually seem more widespread now. There’s a solid game lurking under this mess, but at the moment you’ve got to be rather lucky to find it.