I’ve always had my philosophical differences with Battlefield. There’s at least one moment every match when I wish, if only briefly, that DICE did things differently. Sometimes I get pinned down by enemy armor with nothing in my loadout that can do even a single point of damage to it, and I wish they weren’t so dedicated to their hard counters. Sometimes my teammates take all the vehicles, leaving me to trudge all the way to the next objective, and I wish the maps weren’t quite so sprawling. Sometimes I have a phenomenal round, only to lose because my team wasn’t pulling their weight, and I wish I didn’t feel like such an insignificant cog in the machine.
But then there are the other moments, the ones when I find myself taken in by the sheer scope of it all. I hear the distant gunfire of an infantry ambush. I see the air battle unfolding overhead. I flinch as a tank shell whizzes past my position. I’m suddenly keenly aware of the spectacle unfolding before me, and, for all our disagreements, I’m happy with Battlefield just the way it is.
More than anything else, that’s the feeling DICE has zeroed in on with Battlefield 4. The tradition of grand, awe-inspiring battles is bolstered by a more approachable and varied unlock system, better-designed maps, and, of course, the so-called “levolution” moments, which allow you to make changes to the environment, both large and small. And, of course, Commander mode makes its much-heralded return, giving one player a god’s-eye view of the match and enabling them to support their team with new abilities like support UAVs and supply drops. All these tweaks do wonders to complement the franchise’s established strong suits, namely remarkable sound design, smooth gunplay, and graphics that push the limits of the hardware. This is one of those rare occasions where the longtime sequel mantras of “bigger” and “more” actually pay dividends, strengthening the core appeal of Battlefield without ever feeling unnecessary or bloated.
But there are, as always, a few noticeable shortcomings and flaws. To anyone buttered up by all the pre-release hype, the “levolution” moments might be a slight disappointment. While the impact they have on gameplay is indeed significant—little things like closing doors to shut down routes opens up a surprising amount of new strategies, and larger alterations like collapsing a skyscraper or instigating a flood can dramatically shift the landscape and tone of combat—they’re not quite as dynamic as I’d have hoped. They’re more like a massive switch that can be flipped, but only if you make a concerted effort to do so. Taking out a cracked levee or bringing down the support beams to level a building requires several lives worth of explosives, to the point where it seems unlikely to ever happen by accident. That’s a bit of a letdown, given that Battlefield, with its destruction and combat variety, has always thrived on unexpected emergence.
And, of course, those aforementioned frustrations haven’t gone anywhere. You’ll still get into infuriating death spirals where you curse balance decisions and design choices. You’ll still find that some maps just don’t mesh well with particular game modes or play styles.
But, hot damn, once Battlefield 4 gets into its groove, it’s a force to be reckoned with. When your team starts working together, when you discover the perfect loadout, when you’re on a level that’s perfectly paired to its game type, everything comes together in an incredibly rewarding, almost majestic symphony of systemic complexity. Spend a few hours online, and you’ll have dozens of memorable, thrilling experiences the likes of which just aren’t possible in any other shooter.
I only wish the same could be said for the single-player campaign, which spends just about all of its five-hour running time trying to hammer home how serious and emotional it is. There are serious actors, like Omar from The Wire and also Joey Lawrence’s little brother, for some reason. Characters feel serious things, like empathy and nausea and the desire to shout at each other. They have serious conversations about their emotions and personal backstories. Sometimes people whose names you know die while music written in a very serious minor key swells to a crescendo.
All of these tactics are as painfully transparent as they sound. It’s like they forced a robot to watch every tear-jerking war film ever made, then had him try and piece together a script of his own. He’s going through all the requisite motions, sure, but there’s not a shred of genuine humanity or artistry behind them. Silly Battlefield screenwriting robot, your heart is made of metal and circuits. You cannot love.
To be clear, Battlefield 4’s campaign does make better use of the franchise’s combat principles than DICE’s past three single-player experiences. The AI is greatly improved, the encounters are more skillfully designed, and the ability to tag enemies and direct your squadmates’ attacks on specific targets adds a very light tactical layer to combat. On the whole, however, the linear traipse from one repetitive gunfight to the next punctuated by vehicle segments and ham-handed attempts at storytelling fails to capture any of what makes Battlefield special.
Still, for as much as I don’t want to make excuses, single-player is hardly Battlefield 4’s focus. Even if you watched every TV commercial and read every hands-on preview—hell, even if you looked at the back of the box—you’d be hard-pressed to notice that the campaign even exists. I mean, this is probably the only game I’ve ever seen where the single-player content is relegated to the second disc. EA and DICE clearly want to put multiplayer front and center here—and rightfully so.
Without question, that main attraction proves itself a worthwhile endeavor, strong enough to almost completely overshadow the lackluster single-player offering. Whether you’re a longtime fan or a newcomer trying to decide whether to make this your first go, rest assured, where it truly counts, this is Battlefield doing what it does best, better than ever before.