While narratives have never really been DICE's strong suit, Battlefield 4, the next entry in its popular series of shooters, at least takes things in the right direction. While Battlefield 3 delivered an incredibly boring campaign that bordered on dreadful at times, the new entry at least seems like it tried.
The story is not wholly impressive. It features a villain with few defining qualities, apart from being a villain. He is talked about frequently, but only ever appears twice. The antagonist hails from China, rather than Russia as has been the tradition of late. Russia does appear as an enemy in the game, but it is brief. Luckily though, this game spends more time with China. As a result, it provides some exceptional graphical flair, like the night time panoramic visual splendour that is Shanghai.
As to be expected, through the course of the story, pretty much everything that you come across explodes. It might be instant. It might already be in the process of doing so as you get to it. Sometimes it might take a while. Just know that it will explode. There are occasional breathers in between explosions, offering the opportunity for gorgeous visuals. Emotions and sad situations are thrown in too, but their effectiveness is spotty at best.
The campaign offers varied locations, excellent level design, and looks pretty, but still manages to feel dated. Many of the set pieces are things that have already happened in other military shooters. One level in particular feels extremely similar to the stage in the Gulag in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. Mainstays of the genre like stealth segments make appearances. Unfortunately, vehicle combat (a specialty of the series) is criminally underutilised in the campaign, only really offering one level for you to have a go with a tank.
DICE has always been one of, if not the best, in the industry when it comes to audio design, and this title is no exception. While the game's score is okay, it doesn't really add anything to the experience. The audio design, however, is astounding. Buildings falling apart. Towers toppling over. Distant pops of gunfire. It has never sounded better, and is one of the strongest aspects of the game.
If we're going to be honest, though, people don't really play Battlefield for its campaign. There's one thing that has kept this series around this long: the multiplayer. And there is a clear-cut winner between the generations. While the PlayStation 3 version feels like an iterative jump forward, the next-gen version of Battlefield feels, well, next-gen. The game can now accommodate the same number of players as the PC (64 in select playlists), and the visuals come close to matching high-end PCs. In particular, the lighting on the PlayStation 4 is truly incredible.
The multiplayer component is exceptional, offering a widely expanded array of weapons and gadgets to work with. Re-tooling of progression, such as being awarded new weapons by getting kills with other weapons of a similar type speeds up the process. The new interface for class customization thrives. While not perfect, it makes everything more readily visible. It offers a great step forward from Battlefield 3, which had a time consuming, cluttered interface.
New vehicles, new locales, and new maps abound, offering a nice variety of new toys to play with. Map design has always been one of the series' strongest areas, and Battlefield 4 indicates that this trend will be continuing for the foreseeable future.
A nice feature making a return is Commander Mode, which has been absent since 2006's Battlefield 2142, in which each team has a "commander" who micromanages the entire battlefield, pointing out enemies to the team, keeping their troops in supply, or launching tomahawk missiles at the battlefield.
Series mainstays like Rush, Conquest, and Air Superiority make returns (as expected), alongside more classic playlists like Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Territories (Domination), and Capture the Flag. Joining these game modes are newcomers Obliteration and Defuse. Obliteration is a neutral bomb game type that offers a quicker pace than some of Battlefield's slower options. Meanwhile, Defuse is an infantry only playlist in which there is no respawn. This playlist seems to encourage camping, and all-in-all isn't terribly fun, especially for a game like Battlefield. Series mainstays like Rush are the best option, especially given the support for 64 players, which drastically improves the experience.
Unfortunately at launch, the multiplayer is full of issues. Some game types are completely inaccessible, while some are only accessible by a few gamers, creating pitifully small lobbies. Others, meanwhile, function normally. Conquest only works on occasion, for example, whereas Team Deathmatch performs without issue consistently. DICE has acknowledged these issues, and is actively working on fixing them, promising a week of Double XP as an apology.
The fact remains that, in spite of these issues, Battlefield can pride itself on being able to offer a lot more depth than many of its competitors, and brings with it some features that you can't experience in quite the same way anywhere else. This comes in the form of "Levolution", the phrase coined to describe the dynamic changes that can occur on the maps mid-game, such as players bringing a rather large skyscraper down in the middle of the game, or obliterating a dam, and having the destruction subsequently flood the lower portion of the map, allowing you to swim through areas that you had previously been walking through. The system works beautifully, and offers some truly dynamic, map altering 'wow' moments, that would be worth just sitting there watching if it didn't mean that you would probably get your head shot off.
A lacklustre campaign shouldn't stand in your way of experiencing Battlefield 4's top of the line multiplayer. While it can't quite shake the feeling of being an iterative entry in the series rather than truly revolutionary, it does enough new things, and sees the return of enough fan favourites that it shouldn't go unnoticed. Next-gen visuals and 64-player online combat mean that if you don't want to sink money into a high-end PC, this is without a doubt the best way to play DICE's latest destructive hit.