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Monday, July 28, 2014

Battlefield 4

By on 1:51 PM

Developer DICE is moving the series towards bigger, well, battlefields — more vehicles, more emergent spectacle, more teamwork. And DICE seems determined to keep everything that has defined the series over the last three years and four game releases. It sounds like a great idea, and in execution Battlefield 4 is as successful as ever at the emergent, bombastic play that's defined the series. But there are baggage-related bumps along the way.
Battlefield 4 takes the scope of the previous games and blows it up, with maps that span virtual kilometers of space that take minutes to run across on foot. Battlefield 4's multiplayer levels feel less compromised in scale than in Battlefield 3 — which has the unfortunate side effect of feast or famine. When one of the larger maps had less than 50 players, for example, I found it easy to wander for multiple minutes looking for something to do, for someone to shoot or assist or something. Anything.
But when those levels are full — when, for example, 64 players are battling for control of Hainan Resort's five capture points — there's no shortage of engagement. As infantry cross bridges and hills on foot to take points and attack boats rush along the shore to ferry troops to unguarded areas, the new Commander element allows one player on each team to direct support and assume control of a missile truck in the center of the map. At one point, I watched as the resort hotel crumbled under the explosives of my teammates and jets screamed overhead, and then I ran to the next capture point, gunning down other players and avoiding turret fire from a Little Bird attack chopper.
It's exhilarating in a way no other shooter is.
Moments like these are what Battlefield as a series has worked toward for more than a decade, and when they come, they're better realized than they've ever been. Battlefield 4 takes the casual destruction of structures from Battlefield: Bad Company 2, and the vehicle-oriented size and player counts of Battlefield 3, and weaves them tightly together. And it does it with subtly improved mechanics. A new emphasis on framerate courtesy of next-gen consoles as a baseline leads to more fluid motion on the ground and with a gun.
Other changes are subtle. Suppression — where weapons fire causes an enemy's vision to blur — feels more effective, and it's more of a threat than it used to be. Where I often fired through suppression inBattlefield 3, in Battlefield 4 I found it more appropriate to run, to reposition, to attack from a different angle — or find a less defended target. Battlefield 4 requires a constant awareness of more angles, more possibilities, more dangers and more options than most of its competition combined. There's never only one solution to a problem. And this is where the game excels. It's a shooter that engenders more than a primal satisfaction of success. It's not just clever — it's smart. And it's singular in its combination of elements that enable players to feel that way.
Battlefield 4 also manages to take small lessons from other faster shooters. While Conquest, the objective-based multi-point capture mode on large, vehicle-laden maps, is still the star of the show, the addition of a dedicated, infantry only variation called Domination is often inspired. One match on the prison compound of Operation Locker may have been the most fun I've ever had with a Battlefield game. As each team smashed against each other head-on, or flanked from above, or below or the sides, it emphasized shooting that's never worked as well as it does here.
DICE's relentlessly advertised "Levolution" adds an additional sense of unpredictability and shifting considerations to the game. In Operation Locker, a blizzard would often kick up outside the complex, making it difficult to spot enemies while moving and frosting my red-dot sight, rendering it useless until I spent a few seconds indoors. On Paracel Storm, a heated match of Conquest was interrupted by an intense hurricane that sent boats off course and had enemy combatants a dozen or so feet in front of each other without realizing it.
The complete destruction of large sections of levels adds new tactical considerations to many maps — do we take out the dam and flood the valley, making an approach on this point more difficult, or do we leave it intact so we can bring our vehicles more easily across? And in turn, our team had to decide whether or not to let the other team make the same decision.
On the other hand, the shift in terrain made some maps less fun to play. There have always been maps that favor play styles that feel alien to Battlefield's conceit of creative play and improvisation, but now some maps shift from one extreme to the other over the course of play — swimming more than shooting in Flood Zone wasn't my idea of a good time, and Siege of Shanghai is a less fun map to play with its central tower in ruins.
This is joined by a problem that plagued Bad Company 2and Battlefield 3 alike: every map supports every game type, but not every map works for every game type. Golmud Railway is a dream for Conquest players and tank commanders. But for Obliteration mode, where one bomb appears on a map at a time for either team to grab and destroy the other team's capture points, it led to matches that quickly turned lopsided and frustrating. Rush often forces map configurations that bleed the versatility and variability of attack from Battlefield 4, which almost defeats the purpose of the game entirely. Or so I told myself as I spent the bulk of one Rush round on Paracel Storm swimming from the belly of one troop ship to the partially submerged deck of another, only to get annihilated by the enemy team as I dragged myself out of the water.
But the occasional balance problems of multiplayer are minor given Battlefield 4's aggressive mediocrity in single-player. Taking a cue from Battlefield 3, DICE's latest features a single-player campaign that drips production values even as it grabs you by the collar and drags you through some very familiar motions.
Battlefield 4 has all the necessary components for a good, story-driven shooter campaign. It's got a well-developed set of mechanics, oriented as much around strategic movement — vaulting over barriers, a workable lean system that works nearly auto-magically — as they are around the first-person shooting that so often takes center stage. Guns roar as concrete flies off of barriers and columns.
But for all the fury and fire that Battlefield 4 promises when you pull the trigger, there's little impact during firefights. There's a dizzying disconnect present in the damage it felt like I should be doing and the damage I did. In Battlefield 4, shy of a headshot, you'll be reloading often as you fling magazine after magazine at AI opponents. This combines with the enemies' tendency to hide behind cover for, well, forever, popping up every few seconds or so, leading to extended firefights where it doesn't feel like anything interesting is happening at all.
All of which directly contradicts a campaign that otherwise seems hellbent on throwing you forward, or down, or out of something — just about every chapter ends with your character getting tossed out of something at high speed and/or losing consciousness. Battlefield 4's campaign is a jumbled, minimally coherent collection of guided shooter clichés. It isn't just forgettable, it's consistently, often willfully stupid.


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