Many zealous devotees of the Battlefield franchise will qualify their admiration for the series by noting that they don’t play its singleplayer campaigns. It’s a perfectly understandable and acceptable caveat given that Battlefield has for most of its existence been a multiplayer-only game for the hardcore PC set.
But it’s also by its nature a defensive statement. Obviously it wouldn’t be necessary if Digital Illusions CE was able to produce a halfway compelling offline experience.
Battlefield 4 will not put an end to the need for that old refrain about the series’ subpar singleplayer. The game’s multiplayer is exceptional. The game’s short campaign is staggeringly poor when one considers the vast financial and creative assets at Electronic Arts’ disposal.
Players control the mute Sergeant Daniel “Reck” Recker, leader of Tombstone squad, itself an ensemble of clichéd characters. They’re set adrift in a brief, noisy, and hollow spectacle that reads like a student’s imitation of a discarded Tom Clancy manuscript. It’s a paint-by-numbers affair that includes everything we’re resigned to anticipate: the extraction scene, the betrayal scene, the unlikely ally scene, the torture scene, and so on unto the prosaic end.
Poor AI breaks what little immersion excellent graphics alone can provide – and DICE’s Frostbite 3 engine truly is a thing of beauty. Recker is able to issue only one order to his squad, “Attack”, and even that isn’t carried out with much effectiveness. They’ll break cover – or push Recker out of his – and rush enemies only to unload full clips at close range with little to no discernable result.
Soon what little investment even the most forgiving or hawkish of gamers might be able to drum up is totally spent, and finishing the campaign is a matter of going through the motions in a disconnected kind of way until it limps to an empty moral-choice at around the five hour mark.
So offline gamers probably need not apply. But we don’t play Battlefield for the singleplayer campaign, and the multiplayer in Battlefield 4 is unquestionably the best the series has produced in many years.
The game has seven multiplayer modes, three of them a cut above. Map progression mode Rush makes the welcome transition from the off-shoot Bad Company series, and but for a few frustrating choke points, it works well on all ten launch maps.
In Obliteration, two teams vie to deliver an explosive to one of three enemy positions. It’s a more frenetic mode than many veteran Battlefield players will be used to, but it demonstrates the versatility possible with Battlefield 4’s class and vehicle balancing.
Four more modes provide adequate distractions and cater to niche taste. Team and Squad Deathmatch serve the Kill-Death-Ratio crowd looking for a pure experience. Defuse is lifted straight from Counter-Strike, and Domination is a rendition of Battlefield’s traditional Conquest mode focusing on smaller teams and tighter maps.
But with its large map sizes, dynamic objectives, and full array of infantry and vehicular combat, 64-player Conquest mode is still king. It’s clear all maps have been designed with Conquest in mind, and it’s where the game has by far the most interest and replayability.
The game again features four classes designed to facilitate a range of playstyles and roles on the battlefield, but – sniper aside – each class is now more clearly defined by its gadgets than by its primary weapon. An overhauled points system also takes the emphasis off achieving the highest KDR, and awards the most points for objective-based play and teamwork. It means even novice players who couldn’t hit the side of a stationary tank can still make a meaningful contribution by supplying ammunition, health, repairs and weight of numbers.
All actions in the game are bound to a deep, rewarding progression system that very carefully provides more options that cater to the nuances of any player’s style rather than greater power.
Commander mode also resurfaces after a long absence, and after a few rounds it’s difficult to understand why it was ever removed. When given attention, the symbiotic relationship the Commander shares with squads can easily tip the outcome of a match.
For those who do follow KDR as their most important measure of performance, a new “counts as kill” metric that awards a kill to the soldier who did the most damage irrespective of who got the killing blow should come as a welcome addition.
In addition to Rush mode, rampant destructibility has also made it over from the Bad Company series. Most cover crumbles away under anything more than a long stare, and the fact that a hole can be punched in most any wall has a huge impact on the moment-to-moment dynamics of any map. In addition, players can shoot sprinklers and fire extinguishers to limit visibility, raise bollards, lower security gates and collapse roads.
Each level also has a singular, large-scale event that dramatically changes the map. In the beta, players watched a skyscraper collapse into Shanghai’s Huangpu River. On Paracel Storm, a frigate slams spectacularly into an island, and in the unimaginatively named Flood Zone, a dam collapses and drowns the streets of a shanty district, and so on. These events initially inspire awe, but they soon lose their lustre as players settle on a preferred state.
In some modes these so-called "Levolution" events (a marketer somewhere was surely dragged to the blackest pits of Hell for that one) can be a frustrating hindrance ripe for trolling. For example, as the bomb in Obliteration mode resets when it is dropped in the water, flooding the Flood Zone can cause the game to slow to a truly wearisome crawl.
These annoyances and others, such as squad objectives failing to tag correctly, hardly impact the overall multiplayer experience, however. Battlefield 4’s multiplayer isn’t innovative so much as it is refined, the steady application of years of experimentation across a range of titles, and it represents an excellent opportunity for lapsed players to jump back into the series.