Almost every event that you're a part of in Battlefield 4 is punctuated by some sort of demolition or explosion. Pursued by a helicopter? It'll blow up sooner or later. Running up a flight of stairs? They probably won't be there on the way back down. Need to get past an armoured vehicle? Better blast it to bits. And that's basically the franchise's newest entry in a nutshell – it's a bit bigger, and slightly bolder – but is that really enough to warrant a sequel so soon after Battlefield 3?
The short answer is a mixed one at best. While DICE's latest project improves on its predecessor in several ways, it undoubtedly plays and feels very similar – although that's not necessarily a bad thing. If you've spent hundreds of hours shooting down fighter jets and running opponents over while driving a tank in the previous title, then you'll feel right at home here. On the other hand, none of the release's additions do much to change the formula in a meaningful way – they simply make it a little more bombastic.
Take the terribly named 'Levolution', for example. The series has all but trademarked environmental destructibility by this point, but here, the multiplayer maps attempt to go one step further. Throughout the course of a match, a catastrophe will occur that alters the location for the rest of the session. A skyscraper can be levelled, or a tropical storm can roll in from the sea, beaching a huge vessel, for instance. Initially, these drastic changes are brilliant to watch and exciting to see unfold, but with time, their ultimately artificial nature becomes increasingly disappointing. The scenarios lack any real dynamism, and tend to have the same effect on matches time and time again. When you eventually begin to adapt to the changes, 'Levolution' becomes little more than a backdrop swap.
Fortunately, the rest of the game's multiplayer is nothing if not dynamic, with the larger maps essentially becoming sandbox environments full of deadly toys just waiting to be smashed to pieces for your enjoyment. The latest instalment is still full to the brim with those 'only in Battlefield' moments, where unpredictable happenings occur on a regular basis. A tank that's been hunting you through a dense urban landscape might suddenly go up in flames as someone crashes an aircraft into it completely by accident, or a nearby explosion could bury an opponent in rubble just as they're about to stick a knife into you.
It's these moments that really make the experience of playing with others shine, but even without them, the title has all the makings of a solid online component. Progression is still determined by how well you've done during a game, with rank increases unlocking new guns, mods, and secondary equipment – all of which provide a massive amount of options when it comes to customising your loadout. There's no doubt that you'll experiment with a lot of different weaponry in order to find something that suits your playstyle, but that's part of the fun. Finding your niche is a rewarding experience, and flaunting your speciality while in a squad can contribute massively to achieving victory.
Indeed, teamwork is still a vital part of finding success online. While there are still viable options available for those who are more inclined to work alone, well-versed squads – especially those who communicate with each other – almost always have the upper hand. Sticking together and tackling objectives with your allies often means the difference between getting gunned down instantly by an opposing squad and actually having a fighting chance at survival. Not only that, but shootouts between two groups across one stretch of land always makes for a glorious spectacle, with such tense situations easily becoming stand-out moments.
If this all sounds like business as usual, that's because it is. Even the release's two new game modes – Obliteration and Defuse – do little to distinguish themselves, although they can provide a decent alternative to the more drawn-out playlists. Both bring a quicker pace to the online component, with Obliteration placing a bomb on the map which is fought over by the two sides, which must then be taken to the opposition's base and detonated. It's a relatively quick and satisfying struggle, but again, it's really just another basic objective that doesn't inspire any particularly new tactics or thought processes. Defuse meanwhile is perhaps even more uninspired, as the inability to respawn and total lack of vehicles means that both teams will either be overly cautious or insanely eager, resulting in incredibly contrasting, but equally predictable experiences.
Alongside the previously mentioned 'Levolution', there is one other new feature, however, which comes in the form of Commander Mode. Assuming the role of a commanding officer, you can now preside over larger battles from a strategic aerial viewpoint. From this perspective, Battlefield 4's warzones almost look like a board game, as you watch your units move from one objective to the next as nothing more than little icons. It's quite a strange sight at first, but it adds a weirdly calming alternative to being out there on the field, guns blazing. You can give your squads orders, showing them where to move or which target to take care of, but it's often hard to discern whether or not your subordinates are actually paying attention. Still, the mode offers an interesting take on the tug of war that occurs in almost every match, and no doubt more serious players will get a kick out of knowing that a sort of guardian force is watching over them.
Unfortunately, despite its great map design, plethora of fun vehicles, and nice sense of progression, the current generation game's multiplayer component suffers due to its player count of 24. At times, it can seem like an age before you finally run into an adversary, with the vast majority of combat happening exclusively in and around the objectives – which means that a lot of your time will often be spent traipsing agonizingly from your spawn point to wherever the action is taking place. However, we're confident that this issue won't be quite as prominent in the impending PlayStation 4 version of the release, thanks to its 64-player battles.
Sadly, that isn't where the problems end. We encountered physics-related bugs and strange happenings multiple times during different games, and were forced to respawn on several occasions due to our character falling through the map, or getting lodged in scenery. Worst of all, our console locked up four times when playing, which once resulted in a loss of progress. Thankfully, some of these issues appear to have been patched, but the fact that they cropped up in the first place is disappointing for a title which comes with such pedigree.
Where we don't expect much pedigree, however, is the series' single player campaign. Battlefield 3's offering was just about as uninspired as it gets in terms of characters, plot, and story progression – even if some of its gameplay scenarios were exciting and well-designed. Sitting at around five hours worth of content, Battlefield 4's attempt doesn't fare much better in that regard, but surprisingly, it improves upon almost everything else – even if it isn't a drastic advancement.
Taking on the role of the completely mute Sergeant Recker, it's up to you to lead your squad – Tombstone – from one perilous situation to the next. Your constant allies, Pac and Irish, provide the contrasting personalities of calm and heated, with the former actually developing into a reasonably likeable character, and the latter being little more than a tedious big-mouth throughout. With a maximum of four team members, you'll be seeing plenty of different faces joining your ranks – some much more interesting than others. Overall, none of the cast's particularly engaging, though, even if there is the hint of some chemistry between a select few.
The narrative itself is a typically bumbling story of a military coup and America swooping in to save the day, but there is a decent degree of tragedy mixed in here and there, which sets the tone for a rather sombre campaign. This somewhat realistic approach to war is offset by some uncharacteristically cheesy scenarios, though, which do their best to remind you that this is indeed a video game full of large explosions and poor dialogue. Again, like its cast, the plot won't keep you awake at night as you ponder its details, but it is enough to keep you playing, even if it's just to see what becomes of your squaddies.
Of course, we've sadly grown to expect a disappointing narrative when it comes to shooters, which means that it's down to the campaign's gameplay to save the day. In many ways, it feels like the title is trying its best to impersonate Call of Duty, with over-the-top set-pieces at the forefront, and much to long-term fans' dismay, a lack of vehicle-based missions. The situations that Tombstone find themselves in are suitably crazy, but the locations that you'll be blasting your way through are nicely varied and well designed, with highlights including fighting your way through a luxury hotel, and carefully navigating around more open environments full of enemies.
Moments of sheer amazement and a ton of content will keep you playing Battlefield 4's multiplayer, despite its familiarity and disappointing technical performance. Meanwhile, its campaign doesn't quite hit the target, but it still marks an improvement over its predecessor's. Nevertheless, it may be worth holding your position and waiting on PS4 reinforcements in order to get the full war-torn experience.