2013 marks the second Battlefield release that goes head-to-head against Activision’s Call of Duty franchise. Both games are essentially military shooters with fairly short single-player campaigns where you play as a soldier in a conflict that doesn’t necessarily make sense, but the real draw that keeps gamers coming back every year is each game’s multiplayer component. Battlefield 4 continues that tradition with a throwaway single-player experience and a decidedly meatier multiplayer campaign that brings ten new maps, tons of new weapons and a whole lot of destruction to the table that last year’s game didn’t have.
This new level of destructibility features in both the game’s single and multiplayer campaigns, and it’s glorious. No more can you fire an anti-tank missile at approaching armour and hide safely away behind an indestructible wall while you reload: no, Battlefield 4’s levels are now so breakable that any tank driver who spots your hiding place can blow you – and the wall – into Kingdom Come with a well-placed shot.
DICE, the game’s developer, has taken that idea and applied it across huge levels that support up to 64 players, and the destruction ramps up to the point where after a 40-minute match, much of each level’s buildings are blown-out shells of their former selves, and in many cases what was once good cover is now open space. It’s about time a multiplayer game did this; too long have multiplayer maps been dull, unchanging and shell-resistant constructions, making the new destruction model a refreshing change.
DICE went a step further and designed in deliberate, level-altering elements of destruction into some of the multiplayer maps: on Siege of Shanghai, for example, a building collapses spectacularly when its support structures are destroyed; on Flood Zone, the destruction of a levee above the town you’re fighting in floods the town with four metres of water that changes the map into one better-suited to boat combat, and on Paracel Storm, a huge tropical storm rolls into the level, causing the sea to get rough and eventually, a destroyer to crash into the island. These evolutionary changes to each level, that DICE has called “Levolution” in its marketing efforts, really shake things up in multiplayer and provide players something they’ve never seen before: pure spectacle.
As a result, playing on these new levels is utterly enthralling. On levels where the destruction is player-initiated, there is often a race to the part of the map that can be broken to see who can bring down the (metaphorical) house first, and on others where it’s random, like Paracel Storm, there’s a palpable sense of tension as you play, wondering when the storm is going to roll in. And when things happen, they are visually spectacular in ways that no other multiplayer game can match, and DICE and EA deserve serious kudos for their efforts.
Of course, this being a new game DICE has also added three new game modes: Domination, Defuse and Obliteration to mix things up. Domination is an infantry-only Conquest-like mode where players fight over the control of three flags; Defuse is a Counterstrike-like game mode where one team attempts to plant a bomb on one of two bomb sites while the other team defends (no respawns), and Obliteration is the mode that offers the most fun in my opinion as it involves a bomb that spawns randomly in the level that must be delivered to the enemy’s bomb site, of which there are three per side. The first team to blow up all three bomb sites, wins, and the random spawning nature of the bomb leads to some thrilling tug-of-war battles that could really go either way, right up to the end of the fight. These new modes add to Battlefield’s already-generous plethora of content, and offer something for just about every type of player to enjoy.
In Battlefield 3, the Battlelog system only tracked your soldier’s multiplayer progress and stats, but in Battlefield 4 it’s much more integral to the entire game. Now, it also shows your stats for the single player campaign, from how far you’ve progressed to the number of weapons and dog tags you’ve found in each level. Your and your friends’multiplayer stats are also here, and everything from your average accuracy to your kill/death ratio to recent wins and losses is accessible from within the Battlelog browser window.
Battlefield 4’s graphics are made possible by EA’s phenomenal Frostbite 3 engine, the technology on which the entire game is built. It uses cutting-edge graphics tech to put out some of the most impressive visuals ever seen in a game, although admittedly on its highest settings it goes a little nuts with the lens flares, which pop up just about everywhere in the game. Its sound, on the other hand, is close to flawless – gunfire is satisfying punchy, and everything from running footsteps to the crack of a sniper rifle as you zigzag between buildings makes you almost feel like you’re actually there.
Where I felt DICE’s efforts went a bit wrong is in the game’s levelling system, and the way a lot of the best equipment is inaccessible until you’ve earned enough experience points and levelled up far enough to unlock them. While this is fine for the hardcore players who put in the necessary hours to get there (and that’s a lot), it’s a bit tough on more casual players who only log in every once in a while. Admittedly, pleasing everyone is a pretty tough balancing act, and it makes sense that DICE would be aiming to please the more committed of its Battlefield fans, so it’s a system that just has to stand whether it’s fair or not.
Happily, there is a solution: casual gamers can always rent their own BF4 servers and restrict access to players of a certain level in exchange for a bit of cash every month, a very real possibility considering EA’s partnership with Gameservers.com and MWEB’s own BF4 server-hosting capabilities. If you’re interested, head over to the Gameservers.com site and check the rates out for yourself: they start at R132pm for a 10-player server.
Battlefield 4’s controversial Premium pack is another bone of contention. So you buy the game for 500 bucks, and you think that for the price you should be getting the whole game, but you’re not. To get the full Battlefield 4 experience, you’re expected to plunk down another R500 to buy all of the game’s downloadable content, which includes more maps, vehicles, weapons and battlepacks (booster kits that help you level up faster and augment your weapons) that become available throughout the game’s life span (so over the next two years or so). Granted, as a Premium subscriber you get access to that content two weeks before everyone else, but still, you’re looking at an outlay of two bucks short of a thousand, and that’s no small sum. It’s also not including the completely separate expansion pack, China Rising, that drops on December 17.
On the one hand it could be argued that this extra Premium membership cost is nothing more than greedy EA trying to squeeze as much cash as it can from the poor gamer’s wallet, but if you think about it that’s not really the case: what EA is doing is adding additional content to Battlefield 4 in the hopes of making a profit, and as that’s what it’s in business to do (and not succeeding means EA goes out of business and therefore no more Battlefield games for you), that’s a good thing. Besides that, each of the game’s five downloadable content packs will probably cost around R125 at retail, and Premium subscribers are getting them for less than full price AND two weeks before regular players, so it’s actually a pretty good deal. Not to mention that this process extends the life of the game significantly.
Finally, we come to single-player. Having finished Battlefield 4’s single player campaign, I can say with confidence that it’s worth at least one playthrough, but more to beat your friends’ scores than to experience its gripping story and compelling characters, both of which it lacks completely despite trying really hard. Fortunately it’s short and sweet, with only seven chapters that can be beaten in about seven hours or so; less if you rush.
What I did enjoy, though, was the scoring system DICE introduced into the campaign. Each kill earned points, with kill streaks adding a stacking multiplier so that when I hit a lucky patch, I scored much higher than if I just offed enemies one-by-one. Headshots also scored higher, which encouraged me to aim more carefully. It was somehow immensely satisfying to compare my overall score with that of my friends, and when I was ousted from the number one spot by a measly two thousand points by one of my mates, I seriously considered re-playing levels to improve my initial score just so I could knock him out of the top position. I would have, too, if I wasn’t an adult with responsibilities, but I promised myself I would, someday, do just that.
Quite disappointingly, both the single and multiplayer portions of game were much buggier than I was expecting. The worst of these oddities was the corruption of my savegame towards the end of the last level, which forced me to replay a large portion of it. On several occasions I noticed clipping problems, with either my player character or my squadmates moving through doorways and objects they should not have been able to pass through, and twice I watched helicopters that I had just shot down jumping around the screen strangely and then vanishing instead of crashing to the ground in a blaze of fire and smoke.
Multiplayer has been a bit of a rough ride, too. I had a number of servers crash on me, I’ve been kicked from servers for no discernible reason (and I swear I wasn’t being a douche), I’ve been unable to connect at times to servers that aren’t full, plus I’ve experienced a bunch of in-game weirdness like vehicle physics that just don’t feel right and dying without knowing why (although to be fair that could have been a lag spike). EA is apparently working on fixes, and patches have already been rolled out that have improved some things, but overall this is probably the buggiest Battlefield game I’ve played.
Fortunately, this being such an important franchise for EA, these issues will probably be sorted out in the coming weeks with patches.
Overall, I’m quite happy with Battlefield 4. Sure, its single player campaign is forgettable and bugs have marred my experiences in multiplayer somewhat, but who really cares when there’s so much multiplayer goodness to enjoy when things go right? Not me.
Battlefield 4 by DICE, published by Electronic Arts
Available on Xbox 360 (R699), PS3 (R699), PC (R499)
The good: Innovative level destruction, brilliant multiplayer, gorgeous visuals, fun new modes and maps
The bad: Forgettable single-player campaign, some bugs, unlocking the best stuff requires a bit of a grind