Editor's note: Since the Battlefield 4 single-player and multi-player modes are functionally often quite different experiences and sets of mechanics, we have divided the review into a review of the single-player, and one of the multi-player. Maiya's copy of Battlefield 4 was provided as a gift free of charge by a reader.
Battlefield 4 is a first-person military shooter developed by DICE and published by Electronic Arts. You know, I have always felt unreasonably estranged from the military shooter genre; it is the kind of genre that should have me hook, line, and sinker: I have always enjoyed shooters, and military matters, taking after my father in the forces, have always captivated me. Indeed, it is for that reason which Victory at Sea appealed to me despite being a fairly niche title. Military shooters have always seemed like action films that have a few bits of gameplay tacked on, however, slow, plodding, and exposition-laden, and not the simulator kind of slow and plodding of something like ARMA, either. I have to confess: I didn't hate my time with Battlefield 4's single-player, but neither did I love it. This is the quintessential neutral review: everything I liked about Battlefield 4 was offset by something I didn't like.
The central shooting of Battlefield 4 is tight and offers a variety of firearms
Core to the mechanics of any military shooter is, of course, the shooting and to Battlefield's credit, it's quite solid in that regard. Firearms have a good-feeling punch, accurate bullet mechanics such as drop off, and the destructible terrain allows shooting through soft cover in a quite believable fashion. It seems a bit redundant to get into unpacking the quite well-trodden ground that is firearm mechanics, but I feel the game strikes a realistic balance between gameplay and realistic shooting mechanics, though I did have a quibble with hitboxes, since sometimes, visually, you could be quite clearly hitting an enemy but there was an intervening item with a hitbox that was absorbing a hit - trying to fire around aircraft was a particular issue in that regard, as it seems that the nose cones have a square hitbox so often I was trying to shoot over or under them only to find I wasn't hitting enemies that were clearly visible. Nonetheless, that is a problem more with the props used in the levels than the actual mechanics, as much as it is still a problem.
One of the big strengths in this regard has to be the selection of weapons, which is quite varied, in not just in a reskins sort of way. The game excises a choice in weapon mods to allow it to have greater diversity in the weapons - which is to say you cannot change the rail mounts on a weapon or other accessories, the choice in weapons determines that. While this does remove some potential for customisation of weapons or the like, I feel that this is a sacrifice that pays off, as this allows the variance of weapon modifications to give the weapons each a very different feel, and gives each of them very different capabilities in any given situation. The game also does a very good job of finding a middle ground between having too small a selection of weapons and having so many they do not feel adequately differentiated from one another or having those that feel vestigial at best, the odd ones out tacked on to fill some arbitrary quote. Battlefield encourages some exploration to find weapons, as they get added to the available
Stodgy and over-wrought exposition dampens the gameplay quite a bit
Campaign mode, which is the single-player in Battlefield 4, offers a relatively short story - I clocked about 9 hours and I'd put that long since I was tweeting the whole way through - that feels absolutely-overburdened with a wealth of clunky exposition full of every stereotype for a military action story you can think of. You are deposited into the worn combat boots of a US Marine, Sargaent Recker, silent protagonist d'jour, and indeed, with that comes the first of what is admittedly a litany of complaints I have with the story on offer: since you are never really given a voice, and only ever one actual choice (at the end of the game in mild case of Endingtron 2000) it feels like you are just bumbling around, a secondary character in another protagonist's story, in what I like to think of as Diablo III syndrome - the story is told through everyone around you, and you are just some guy tagging along shoot things dead and occasionally do a quick-time event. Yet even for that the game manages to bungle, since each of the shooting sessions is bookended by frankly quite tedious exposition segments or long wanders through passageways or the like. The game doesn't need to add on the commute to each place for immersion's sake, and indeed these onerous sections do much to dampen the pacing of the game.
In fact, if I had a central complaint about the story, it's that pacing is all over the place and often the game comes to a grinding halt to blurt that exposition in your face. Every time it felt like things were getting exciting again I was at the end of the section, and there I was sitting through cutscenes or some pre-baked exposition dump once again. At the very least the game could have had the decency to be loading the next section behind it, but unfortunately I had no such luck, so you got to throw a minute of two of loading into that downtime. I can see what they're trying to do with this in a way: a game that is just all action all the time quickly loses impact and effect, but Battlefield 4 slides onto the other end of the scale, and often dulls it's own edge by bogging you down every time you start having more than the allowable amount of fun.
The other complaint I have about the story is it relies on so much cliche. I almost thought we might see some variation from the usual bugbears of military shooters when the game introduces the central antagonist being a Chinese General attempting a military coup, but then halfway through as if to make certain it checks off all the military game cliches Russians showed up and necessitated a cleaning of my keyboard when I reflexively went to give a pained sigh mid-drink of my soda. This is a story that really does read like trying to check off all the cliches of military action stories: bit where someone that says they didn't sign up for this shit: check, loose cannon subordinate soldier with a heart of gold that is somehow tolerated despite constant dereliction of duty: check, needless conflict over rank in pissing matches: check, scene that exists only to regurgitate military jargon at you to impress: check.
That said, the story isn't inherently bad, and the general premise has some promise, especially the idea of internal factors overthrowing a given social order and the chaos and confusion which gets sown in that wake, especially since it's hinted at from pretty much the onset that the actual Chinese military has been essentially conned into believing that the United States was responsible for the events by which the usurper General takes power. There's an attempt at actual nuance here that we so rarely see in action game stories to begin with that it makes Battlefield's attempts here almost tragic more than simply bad or frustrating. A seed of a good story lies here, smothered somewhere under the unyielding flab of so much faff. Basically, I would say its a decent story that misses the potential of it's own premise, and relies overmuch on cliche. Too much filler, not enough filler.
Sound design in the game is fairly good, but the voice acting kills it
The one thing that really killed me in the exposition scenes is the voice acting. While Michael Kenneth Williams turns in a good performance as the marine "Irish", the rest of the voice acting goes from passable to worse, with some very stilted voice acting in some other main characters, particularly in the moments that are supposed to be emotional, where they come across as robotic and stilted. It really makes what might have been more compelling moments come across in the groans leaving my mouth as I just rolled my eyes and tried to be patient as I waited for the game to hit its head and be reminded that it is, in fact, a game, and let me play it some more.
Remaining sound design is done spectacularly however, with the firearms sounding accurate to their sources and things like ricohets, explosions, and shrapnel quite emphatic and accurate as well. Audio cues are kept short and to the point, and while it may not be entirely accurate, kept distinguishable through the din and thunder of the the shooting as well, which helps to ensure that you receive them, since it's often entirely possible to miss the visual elements, which brings me to yet another gripe (try to act surprised...)
Frostbyte makes for an utterly brilliant-looking game,
a game that you won't be able to see 1/3 of the time
I can sum up this problem in two things: lens flare, and bloom. The game makes a Mirror's Edge-like attempt to simulate light as it would appear through actual human eyes, but it doesn't make it. Lens flare effects abound, and even being legally-blind I could see more clearly than the game allows you half the time. Just glancing vaguely in the general direction of the sun will leave your screen absolutely saturated with bloom and unable to see a thing, which makes the fact that flashbangs often have little effect at all on you all the more ironic. Flame effects also wash out things quite a bit, but that at least can be chalked up to an over-zealous pursuit of realism, whereby if you're trying to simulate realism through human eyes, the only way that lens, lights, and such would have the grossly horizontal star effect is if your character had astigmatism, and given that never gets brought up, I don't buy it.
That said, the engine has a great deal of options to tweak both the gameplay options and the visual fidelity of the game. Pretty much everything you could ask for is here: disabling motion blur, setting texture quality, separate field of view options for on foot and for vehicles, and colour-blind options. It offers a solid setup in an engine with little to complain about, though I noticed some not insignificant pop-in when I turned down the visual effects to try to compensate for that over-saturation of the visual effects, so it seems like that is likely intended to hide the game loading in textures, an unfortunate side-effect of the console native nature of the game, I think I'm probably not wrong to assume.
That's the game engine in a nutshell: it looks great - its hard to overstate that. If it had higher-poly models that the PC could handle it would look utterly gob-smacking. This game engine is that far-too-pretty daughter that you dare not let out of your parental supervision. But it seems to almost lack confidence in itself, exaggerating it's post-process visual effects almost to the point of ridiculousness, and more importantly, to the point where between dust from destructable terrain, weather effects when they're happening, and the over-done visual effects, it is exceedingly difficult to make out what is happening on the battlefield. This could be argued as an ardent pursuit of realism as well, but if it was, it is to the detriment of the game, not to mention the fact that if we were going that route, the modern soldier has a variety of tools at their disposal to overcome that, which really aren't provided by Battlefield 4. There are some binoculars that the game offers, but they don't do much to mitigate that, and serve only to allow you to mark targets for your squad, an act that has about the usefulness of eating your own phlegm given that the AI in the game is thick as a concrete milkshake.
Alternate gameplay mechanic sets such as vehicles and squad
command miss the mark and feel rather extraneous to Battlefield
Squad command in Battlefield 4 is literally just as I described; Rainbow Six it ain't. You use those binoculars to mark targets, taking a page right out of FarCry's book, and then order your squad to attack. That's all it is. Sometimes it's some soldiers attacking, sometimes its a helo, sometimes its a tank, but that's the limit of the variety. Given that there's plenty of breach and clear type situations and the like, there definitely was room for the game to allow some Rainbow Six esque tactical decisions in that vein, but that remains sadly a missed opportunity. It could have given us a possibility to feel like we actually are that squad leader, but unfortunately not.
Likewise, the few vehicle sections felt extraneous. The UI and controls together make them a struggle to control, and there is never a vehicle section that's optional that I didn't both get through better on foot, and got a higher score for doing so, so the game basically incentivised me to ignore one of it's sets of mechanics. The few gunboat water sections are mandatory, but basically commutes from point A to point B, so they are pointless but ineffective, but only one of the armoured vehicle sections really gives you a section big enough to enjoy such a vehicle in, the others are far too enclosed (and riddled with anti-armour weaponry) for them to be effective.
The engine might be pretty
but it has quite a few bugs and technical problems
Not having the console version, I can't say if it's porting errors or something that's just a technical failing of the game, but the game has quite a few quite prominent bugs. The kind of thing that you wonder how it slips through QA. I feel right through through the world once, ragdolls sometimes completely go inside out, and I got some cheap giggles out of one section in the game where you're exiting an elevator and it hadn't loaded that floor of the building yet, so it looked like you were walking out of the elevator to plummet to your death.
And this was enough of a problem for me that I'll be damned if I don't waste your time with it as much as mine was wasted with it: not only does Battlefield 4 already require Electronic Arts' proprietary storefront application Origin to run, it also requires a browser plugin that it calls "Battletag" - don't let the included features fool you, this is their DRM/anti-cheat software, and why it had to be in your browser is a question I can only answer with "EA likes your personal information I imagine" - it wouldn't be the first time an EA bit has gone digging for personal information. Nonetheless, while intrusive DRM is problematic in and of itself, I spent 10 minutes just trying to get the damned thing to work, and ended up having to try it with Internet Explorer, which I hadn't dusted off for several months. It's an entirely needless thing which could have been handled with stuff in the game, as indeed it's competitor Call of Duty does. It may or may not bother you I suppose, but I would be remiss to not mention it.