Stockholm-based video game developers Digital Illusion Creative Entertainment must have known they were in for a bit of a tough time when they set out to follow up 2011’s Battlefield 3 with a direct and proper sequel, rather than a series of experimental spin-offs which the studio’s history indicated might have been the case.
With only a two-year development cycle, what could they do to innovate on an already massive online first-person shooter experience, while satisfying their hardcore audience as well as introduce newcomers to the series. The answer is quite a bit. Not only was the powerful Frostbite 3 engine born from this period, the same engine that would power a number of next-generation EA titles to come, but the studio managed to improve upon the past in some little and very big ways.
In the end, is it enough?
Battlefield 4 introduces a number of new ideas while reintroducing some old ones. Game modes like Obliteration and Defuse are fresh new ways to highlight the remarkable gameplay experience that Battlefield has to offer. Levolution, the next evolution in destruction, encompasses more than just a few scripted spectacles and adds a welcomed extra layer of gameplay. Player customization has reached all new heights while seamless integration with Battlelog, the game’s social and stat-tracking service, is rather impressive. Returning is a focus on a theater of war that wages on a more oceanic front while players will once again be allowed to take the commander’s seat in the revamped Commander Mode. But, much like Battlefield 3, in between these pillars of gameplay and features lies those finely-tuned minute-to-minute experiences that make Battlefield 4 the truly immersive experience that it is.
Before getting into whether or not Battlefield 4 earns it title as a proper sequel, let’s talk about the game’s launch, which, while it had its fair share of rough patches, was a significant improvement over Battlefield 3’s almost disastrous entrance onto the scene back in 2011. Make no mistake, there are issues to had and numerous bugs to bare witness to. Users suffer from mid-game crashes, especially on the PC version, while textures and sounds take a few good seconds to load in at times. In my personal experience on the Xbox 360, the end of my very first online match resulted in a hard freeze of my console, which, in turn, led to a corrupt save file, erasing any single player progress I might have achieved up to that point. While hit detection is greatly improved, it isn’t always consistent and can leave you scratching your head in moments of disbelief. “How did that guy kill me with what seemed like only one bullet from his assault rifle before even turning the corner?”
What surprised me, however, was the absence of any noticeable “lag” or “rubber-banding”. If the dedicated servers on which the multiplayer experience runs manage to pull through without over-loading, Battlefield 4 is a very playable title at launch. Sadly, the bigger some of these titles get and the more ‘connected’ they become, the shakier the launch. Battlefield 4 manages to sneak by relatively unscathed, in this regard. With a couple of server-side fixes and client patches, I see smooth sailing from here on out.
Upon first booting up Battlefield 4, you’ll notice a few major improvements right off the bat. Menus are incredibly responsive and easily navigable. While I dislike that the My Soldier tab no longer offers the ability to customize my soldier right then and there (it is now only available in-game or through the Battlelog), I really appreciate how clearly laid out rewards and progression for kits, vehicles and weapons are. Game options are more or less the same, save for the addition of a network smoothing slider and the extensive selection of color blind settings. Deuteranopia, Tritanopia and Protanopia options are all available. I wish there was a greater selection in controller layout options on the consoles, however, as there are really only two: Default and Veteran. Those wishing to return to the Battlefield 3’s layout will definitely want to switch over to Veteran, though no matter what selection you make, the Commorose/spotting function will always be binded to the Right Bumper/R2. It takes a bit of getting used to, but in the end, it’s a great way to incorporate this essential team-oriented feature into the console version of the game. Personally, I’d have been happier if we were given the option to at least switch sides for the grenade and Commorose functions, but I’ll live. Needless to say, this issue is irrelevant on the PC version as key bindings are customizable.
Thank the stars Quick Match now only throws you into official servers so you know exactly what you’re getting into. Those looking for a more customizable experience can visit the Server Browser that includes options for Official, Ranked, Unranked and Private servers. To newcomers, I highly recommend paying a visit to the new Test Range in order to get a good feel for everything Battlefield 4 has to offer. You can fiddle with the new in-game user interface, test out some weapons, and most importantly, practice your driving, piloting and navigating skills with all the land, sea, and air vehicles Battlefield 4 has to offer.
In-game, the heads-up-display has been cleaned up significantly, is less intrusive, and does a much better job at telling where to go and what to do at any given game mode. DICE has clearly taken feedback to heart and made the new kit selection screen a breeze to navigate. The new deploy screen is much more informative and intuitive. It even features a mini picture-in-picture screen that shows you a fellow soldier’s point of view before spawning in at that location. While managing the new five-man squads is rather simple, entering into a match with a group of friends on either the PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360 is not. There’s no real way to “squad-up” together and enter a match as a unit, though it is easy enough to send a few invites through the newly integrated Battlelog function while in-game. You’ll just have to cross your fingers and hope that they all end up on the same team, depending on the server population.
Unlocks are split up into a few different categories this time around. Ranking up kits earns you additional field upgrades and gadgets as well as the ability to use universal weapon classes like the carbines, shotguns and designated marksman rifles. Earning kills with a particular weapon class unlocks more weapons within that class, including side arms. By the way, there are a lot of weapons in Battlefield 4, which explains the alteration in the way in which they are unlocked. Lastly, levelling up your general rank earns you Battlepacks which reward you with random XP boosts, weapon attachments, knives, and camo paints, all which are merely cosmetic in nature. Ranking up a weapon to a certain milestone will also yield a weapon-specific Battlepack, supplying you with a number of attachments or paints for that weapon only.
As with all Battlefield titles in recent history, Battlefield 4 is best-in-class when it comes to visual fidelity, audio design, and the overall level of immersion that the technological advances of the Frostbite 3 engine provide. To be able to manage Battlefield 4’s expansive and destructible environments, large player counts, and numerous vehicles all while maintaining such an impressive level of graphical quality is truly a remarkable feat. Frostbite 3 even goes above and beyond in some instances with amazing weather effects and believable lighting and particle effects. But what is fancy graphics without engaging gameplay? Battlefield 4 doesn’t manage to disappoint in this regard either, though there are a few oddities here and there.
Battlefield 4 still holds true to it’s class-based design where kits like the Assault, Engineer, Support, and Recon all play a specific role with access to their unique arsenal of gadgets and weaponry. The selection of gadgets for each class has been overhauled for greater variety and increased mobility. No longer are classes like the Support and Recon tied to manning stationary gadgets that essentially remove you from the gameplay entirely. The effectiveness of the Recon kit has been increased significantly with the ability to once again wield C4 and even claymores. Though, in combination with the anti-vehicle capabilities of the Support and Engineer classes, it can severely hinder the effectiveness of tanks and other land vehicles. Five-man squads can now work together to progressively earn various Field Upgrades which provide minor but noticeable benefits, depending on your selection.
Though suppression capabilities have been limited to only light machine gun and sniper rifle users, weapons tend to handle with a little more kick than they did in Battlefield 3. That does, however, lend greater importance to the selection of weapon attachments. Primary weapons now boast four attachment slots instead of three, five if you include the paint slot, while side arms (which feel noticeable weaker in Battlefield 4, as they should be, one could argue) can now be customized with up to three different attachments. You’ll find options for different optic, accessory, barrel, and underbarrel attachments on all primary weapons. Most weapons can be equipped with one of three different styles of grips, for example, each with their own specific attributes that affect either the accuracy, stability, or hip fire spread of a weapon. Accessories now also include the option to install a magnifier behind any of the short range optics, or throw in some canted iron sights à la Medal of Honor: Warfighter, if you happen to be familiar with the mechanic. In general, weapon customization is satisfyingly deep and will have you spending hours looking for the right combinations for different maps and game modes.
Generally, moving and lean-and-peaking has never felt as fluid while shooting and weapon handling has never felt as solid in a Battlefield game. It all lends to some very fast-paced gameplay, especially at the 60 frames per second that the PC version can achieve and PlayStation 4 and Xbox One will be able to achieve. Player animations have also been improved. I noticed a few times that soldiers would raise their hand when calling out for a medic or ammo, for example.
The vehicle game is a bit of a mixed bag in Battlefield 4. While there are technically more options with the introduction of jet skis and attack boats along with the segregation of stealth jets and attacj (stealth jets are fast-flying vehicles that excel at taking down other pilots while attack jets are slower-flying vehicles that are more effective against ground targets), I don’t feel Battlefield 4’s vehicular combat is as “all out” as advertised. Amphibious warfare mostly feels like it was simply put back after it was taken away in Battlefield 3 while the air space in a lot of the maps seems to have been comparatively reduced. All three of the dogfights I haven taken part in dwindled down to me and the enemy endlessly circling each other in stealth jets that are really too fast to be all that effective until someone reluctantly decided to bail. It can also be rather difficult to maneuver in maps with high rise structures or set up gun runs thanks to the seemingly constrictive airspace. This, of course, really only affects jets. Scout, transport, and attack choppers have plenty of room to duke it out and are still among my favorite ways to engage in Battlefield 4’s vehicular offerings.
I can’t tell if it’s any worse than or similar to Battlefield 3, but the machine guns on many of the vehicles still seem rather ineffective due to either poor accuracy or lack of splash damage. And, as I mentioned above, tank drivers or users of other ground vehicles will need to be extra wary of additional explosive infantry munitions. I sense complaints of the tank’s effectiveness in the near future. But at this point in the game, it’s hard to get a real feel for that rock-paper-scissors balance between all of the vehicles and infantry, as it can take some serious time and dedication to unlock all the different abilities and upgrades.
Destruction in Battlefield 4 has taken a turn for the better with the introduction of Levolution and DICE’s refined philosophy behind map design. Battlefield: Bad Company/Bad Company 2 veterans will be happy to note that more buildings are now fully destructible while destruction in general is much more predictable. Walls that you think you should be able to blow up will likely blow up accordingly while pillars that hold up walkways, roads, or buildings can be taken out at will. It gives off a much better sense of control over the battlefield than that which you would find in Battlefield 3. So what’s the deal with Levolution? Is it all that it’s made out to be? Sure, the spectacular Levolution events that occur in all ten of Battlefield 4’s multiplayer maps (and only in modes like Conquest, Rush, or Obliteration) are gimmicky, but what other online shooter offers you the chance to take down an entire sky scraper, flood the streets of a small town, or send a giant satellite receiver crashing to the dish below? Admittedly, it can get rather distracting as, all too often, players would rather spend the entirety of a match shooting at a giant dam than capturing objectives (guilty as charged). But beyond that, Levolution also introduces other dynamic elements like changing weather effects, car alarms that set off after being tampered with, metal detectors that beep when walked through, or lights that break when shot at. More than anything, it makes the battlefield feel alive and adds even more to the already impressive sense of immersion.
Battlefield 4’s maps are unique enough from one another to offer a good sense of diversity. Your selection ranges from open-ended battlefields like Golmud Railway or Rogue Transmission, perfect for epic land or aerial battles, locales like Paracel Storm or Lancing Dam that offer satisfying battles on water, or close-quarters, infantry-focused areas like Operation Locker and Flood Zone. Golmud Railway, Glancing Dam, Paracel Storm and Operation Locker all stand out to me as maps that I would place my bets on to become some of the game’s more iconic maps. I’m certain that, soon enough, we’ll see plenty of 24/7 Operation Locker servers thanks to its hectic design that is heavily based on Battlefield 3’s most popular map, Operation Métro, but without those nasty choke points.
10 maps at launch may not sound like a lot, but the variety through which they are experienced via the game’s seven different game modes more than makes up for it. Battlefield 4 includes your standard offerings like Conquest and Rush, staples of the Battlefield series, as well as more commercial options like Team Deathmatch, Squad Deathmatch and Domination, first introduced to the series through Battlefield 3’s Close Quarters DLC. Unless you have a lot of patience or really like it, Conquest on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 is still generally avoidable due to smaller player counts, especially with some of the more suitable options for consoles and new offerings like Defuse and Obliteration. Defuse is heavily inspired by the classic one-life-to-live Bomb Defusal mode (aka Search and Destroy) made famous by games like Counter-Strike, while Obliteration is something completely different and something I’m personally very excited about.
Obliteration tasks players with capturing a single bomb that randomly spawns somewhere near the center of a map that must then be taken to one of three enemy bases to be destroyed. The first team to obliterate all three enemy bases wins. It’s a finely crafted new mode that I think is a perfect fit for the Battlefield series for a couple of reasons: 1. It centers all the action on one specific point or one specific person. 2. It makes use of the entirety of any given map. 3. It promotes teamwork and vehicle play in a crafty way. 4. It’s perfect for adrenaline-seeking junkies that might not get as much out of any of the other modes. There are a few wrinkles that need to be ironed out, however. It should be kept to smaller player counts and definitely needs a timer, otherwise, nothing would ever get done in close-quarters maps like Operation Locker. Generally, Obliteration is an exciting new mode that feels right at home with fan-favorites like Conquest and Rush, while Defuse offers a more traditional and competitive experience for gamers with a more tactical edge.
Battlefield is one of the only games I will play with its companion app right next to me on my tablet at all times. That’s because DICE has really done it right. Through a neat and appealing interface, the Battlelog lets you easily check up on stats, player progress and swap out weapons or gadgets in the loadout screen on the fly, then push those changes to the game. PC users will find more use out of the browser version than console players, seeing as it is the launch hub for the game, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t something for everyone. Two very exciting features introduced along side the launch of Battlefield 4 are the Battle Screen and, of course, Commander Mode.
The Battle Screen, which has yet to fully launch on mobile devices and is only available for the PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One versions of the game, will essentially let you use your tablet or second monitor as an enlarged and more detailed mini map. Chances are, a good chunk of you already have one or more displays surrounding your play area anyways, so you might as well make use of them.
Commander Mode, which can be accessed either in game or via the Battlelog on other devices, offers a great way to get involved in the fight in a more casual setting. The layout is easy enough to understand. Selecting a point of interest will bring up a command wheel that you can use to provide various UAV support or issue basic commands to a selected squad like attack or retreat. Allowing your squad assets to build up grant you the ability to drop supply or vehicle crates for your teammates. If you want to get really hands-on, you can zoom in using various view modes and call out enemies via VOIP. Like the deploy screen, you can also see what your squad is seeing via a mini display in the bottom right-hand corner. It’s a fun little distraction from the main game and an easy way to assist others in a more laid back fashion. It also feels pretty darn good dropping massive Tomahawk Missiles on attackers and getting squad members out of a sticky situation.
While Battlefield 4 might look visually similar to its older brother, it’s done more than enough to earn that ‘4’ beside its name. Regardless of the scale of improvements it has made over Battlefield 3, Battlefield 4 is without a doubt the place to be for those looking for an all-encompassing online shooter experience filled with truly epic “only in Battlefield” moments. It certainly has a few kinks to work out and feels like it could have used an extra few weeks for polish, but it certainly isn’t something patch or two couldn’t take care of. Otherwise, most of what is to dislike about Battlefield 4 comes down to preference alone as there is very little “wrong” with it. Even still, it’s gorgeous visuals, top-quality sound design, and unmatched gameplay on both large and small scales makes Battlefield 4’s allure undeniable and irresistible.
4.5 / 5
I’m giving Battlefield 4 and optimistic four and a half stars out of five on the basis that any technical issues affecting the game will be patched swiftly, as DICE has proven they are capable of doing in the past.
So, what do you think about Battlefield 4’s multiplayer? Is it deserving of that ‘4’, or is it just a Battlefield 3.5? Sound off in the comments below!
This review was based on the retail version of Battlefield 4 on the Xbox 360 and PC.