Battlefield 4 review: a little acting goes a long way
C. Custer | On October 29, 2013 at 8:57 pm
You’d have to be living under a rock to be unaware that Battlefield 4, DICE and EA’s answer to the blockbuster behmoth that is the Call of Duty series, was coming out this fall. The game, which was released on today in Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Taiwan (it’s coming to Japan on November 7), has been hotly anticipated by FPS fans around the globe. But does it deliver the goods, or is this year’s entry just another rehash of what’s quickly becoming a tired genre?
Gameplay: The same old Battlefield
If you’ve played any of the previous Battlefield games, you’re not going to find any surprises in Battlefield 4. In fact, if you’ve played shooters at all, you’re likely to feel right at home here. You’ll drive vehicles. You’ll blow up walls, mark targets, take down tanks, and shoot a boatload of people (literally) before the game is over, and that’s exactly how it should be. Like previous entries in the Battlefield series, it’s a bit more open than Call of Duty in terms of how you can approach each battle, but it’s certainly not an open world game and you’ll still find yourself getting funneled down more than a few narrow corridors.
Battlefield‘s controls feel as tight as ever, and every gun I fired in the game felt weighty and powerful, as though I was operating a heavy (and deadly) piece of machinery. That’s not to say they all felt the same, of course — each of the many guns has its quirks, and one of the little innovations that makes this game enjoyable is that players have more choice than ever about the weapons they use. In the story mode, at every ammo crate you can select from all the weapons you’ve encountered so far in the game, not just the ones you can find lying around. Early on you don’t have a lot of choice, but later in the game you’ll find this frees you up to experiment and switch weapons around as the situation warrants. You can still only carry two regular guns and two explosive devices at a time, but you’ll never be limited in terms of which ones you can choose.
The enemy AI in Battlefield 4 is excellent. They stick to cover, and will work very quickly to root you out if you try to stay in one location, either by tossing a grenade your way or moving swiftly to flank you. How difficult they are to take down (and how easy you are to take down) depends on what difficulty level you choose to play on, but you won’t see too many enemies standing still in the open firing at you, running into walls, or failing to see you when you’re standing right in front of them the way you often do in games with lesser AI. The squad AI is pretty good too; they got in my way while I was walking a few times, but they tended to stay out of my way when I was firing, which was nice, and they never got stuck on geometry or otherwise held up my progress.
I did run into a few bugs during my time with Battlefield 4, but most of them were resolved by simply updating my graphics card drivers. The few others I encountered — a mysterious hovering corpse, and a strange bug that flung me off a ladder to my death — were isolated incidents and didn’t affect my enjoyment of the game at all.
It is true that there’s really not much in the way of innovation in Battlefield 4‘s gameplay, but in my opinion, there didn’t need to be. Battlefield 3‘s failings had more to do with its lackluster story than any flaws in the gameplay department, and as we’ll see, it’s here that Battlefield 4 really sets itself apart.
Story: a little acting goes a long way
Battlefield 4‘s predecessor Battlefield 3 included a much-lauded multiplayer component, but its single-player story mode left something to be desired. While full of the big-budget set pieces players have come to expect from triple-A shooters, but its story mode was ultimately empty and forgettable. Battlefield 4 improves on this experience in almost every way, offering a focused campaign with compelling characters whose names and personalities you’ll remember long after the credits roll.
Warning: Mild early-game spoilers ahead: You play as Daniel Recker, a member of a US special operations team code-named Tombstone. Tombstone is one of the military groups attempting to deal with the fallout of a military coup in China following the assassination of Jin Jie, a progressive politician who was advocating for systemic change in the country and was close to being chosen as the China’s next president. Shanghai has collapsed into riots and Admiral Zhang has essentially invaded the city and seized power. Given the sorts of crazy rumors one often hears about the goings-on behind the scenes in the real Zhongnanhai, it’s not a bad scenario to base a plot around, and as premises for military shooters about global wars go, it is one of the more plausible.
Like in most shooters, though, you play as a grunt and you spend most of your time in the thick of things, not debating Chinese politics in the war room. Whether or not the game’s story works, then, hinges almost entirely on the characters the game surrounds you with, and Battlefield 4 is a massive improvement over Battlefield 3 in this regard. Most of the characters you come across are memorable, but you’ll spend most of your time with Irish, a fellow member of Tombstone, and “Hannah”, a Chinese intelligence agent who’s working to foil the coup and joins forces with Tombstone. Much like the Battlefield: Bad Company series focused on a small crew of soldiers, Battlefield 4 focuses pretty exclusively on this Tombstone team. Luckily, the voice actors playing these characters are absolutely fantastic.
Irish is played by Michael K. Williams, best known for his role as Omar on the critically-acclaimed television series The Wire, and Hannah is played by Jessika Van — both actors deserve to be mentioned by name here because this game simply would not have been as good without them. Both of their characters are well-written, and the few missteps in the script are easy to forgive when the characters feel as real as they do thanks to Williams and Van’s apparent chemistry. And while those two steal the show, you’ll come across other great characters too, including a hilariously foul-mouthed CO.
DICE has also wisely chosen to focus Battlefield 4‘s story mode on the story, and refrained from shoehorning in elements of the game that wouldn’t make sense from a story perspective. This means, for example, that you’ll never fly any kind of plane or helicopter in the story mode, because Recker is not a pilot. That might sound like a bad thing, but it’s this laser-focus that keeps the story from going off the rails with irrelevant side-missions and unnecessary characters that might have been fun to play but wouldn’t have fit with the story. Unfortunately, it also means that the campaign is remarkably short; an experienced player can finish it in less than six hours.
Thankfully, when you finish the campaign you’ll have reason to replay it, because at the very end you’re presented with a couple of choices that have huge implications for the way the game ends. Saying much more would spoil it, but I will say that I was very surprised by the way my first playthrough ended.
The story isn’t perfect, of course. Irish’s untrusting cynicism is a bit overwritten at times, and there are a few aspects of the plot that will probably leave you wondering how what’s happening makes sense. There are also a few early indications the game is going to tackle the complex racial issues that arise as American forces are fighting one group of Chinese while saving another group of them, but the game backs away from the issue almost as soon as it raises it. None of these things will be enough to derail your enjoyment of the story, though. It may be short, but it’s as exciting as any action movie and you’ll meet some very interesting people along the way.
Atmosphere: Welcome to Asia
Visually, Battlefield 4 is absolutely gorgeous. On the highest settings, it’s as good-looking as any PC game I’ve played, and it runs more smoothly than most of them. And thankfully, instead of stranding gamers in yellow-and-brown Middle East levels, DICE takes you all over the map. You’ll visit Shanghai at night during a rainstorm, and Singapore during an intense tropical storm. You’ll wage naval warfare across rolling seas that look as close to the real thing as anything I’ve seen in a video game, and you’ll fight your way through snow-capped mountains on the Tibetan plateau, among numerous other locales.
But what really sells these places is DICE’s attention to detail. I have been to a lot of the places that come up in the game, and aside from a large red sign for a cosmetics shop that kept popping up in Shanghai, everywhere you go feels pretty real and lived-in. Natives will likely get a kick out of spotting the real-life local landmarks you can find in Shanghai and Singapore, although it’s not easy to go sightseeing when Chinese soldiers are shooting at you.
Although I’m not Chinese, I will say that I suspect playing this game could feel a bit weird for some Chinese gamers. It does not portray China or its people as evil (although Admiral Zhang doesn’t come off well), but the fact is that you still spend most of the game shooting people who are screaming at you in Mandarin. Russian gamers are quite familiar with this feeling, of course, but it may be relatively new to some Chinese gamers to shoot an “enemy” who is wearing your country’s flag on his shoulder and hear them screaming in pain in your native tongue.
Speaking of screaming, though, the sound in Battlefield 4 is excellent. The guns crack and chug, the explosions shake your skeleton (if you turn the sound up loud enough), and the background and incidental dialogue — like the chatter of Chinese soldiers when they can’t see you — is mostly pretty good, although a few of the readings are a bit stilted. The music is also excellent; DICE again takes an electronic and very minimalist approach to scoring the game. There are a few moments where the game’s music will tug at your heartstrings a bit, but mostly it’s low hums and buzzes used to put you on edge and make the combat feel more intense. Longtime Battlefield fans will catch even strains of the series’s famous theme music throughout.
We’ll have a dedicated post about Battlefield 4‘s multiplayer once we’ve had more time to play it and advance through the ranks, but from what I saw on launch day, it’s basically more of the same. As with previous games, players can choose from several customizable classes and mess around with their equipment. And of course, the more experience you gain from playing, accomplishing goals, and getting kills, the more equipment you’ll have available to you.
Rush, Conquest, and Team and Squad Deathmatches are still the main multiplayer modes. There’s a new mode called Obliteration that seems aimed at merging the massive scale of battles in Conquest with the focused fields of fire in Rush matches, but when I tried to play it, I was dumped into a Rush server instead. I’m not sure if this was a bug or if there just wasn’t anybody playing Obliteration in my area, but we’ll have more on this later.
Another new addition is the Test Range, which allows you to take all the game’s weapons and vehicles for a spin in a pressure-free environment. Although it’d be nice if this mode also had some bots, it’ll still be great for newbies and vehicularly-challenged players like me. I plan to spend some serious time at the Test Range learning how to fly a helicopter without immediately crashing it.
There’s also a new mode called Commander, with integrates with a tablet app to let you play as a battlefield commander providing supplies and giving orders to the people fighting in the PC game, but that isn’t available for a few weeks and when it does launch, you’ll need to have leveled up to at least level ten to access it.
There’s nothing earthshakingly new in Battlefield 4‘s multiplayer; it is essentially more of the same from Battlefield 3 with new maps and a few adjustments and tweaks. But again, that’s not a bad thing in this case. If you liked Battlefield 3‘s multiplayer — and millions of people did — you’re going to like Battlefield 4, too. Personally, I can’t wait to jump back into the fray.
Battlefield 4 is an excellent game. You certainly couldn’t call it innovative, but there’s not much need to innovate if you’ve already got a formula that works well. In 4, DICE has added in the final, crucial piece of the puzzle — a compelling story thanks to its great characters — and made what is undoubtedly the best Battlefield game yet.