News, Views, and Reviews
I’ll give the Swedish game studio, DICE, credit: they are getting better and better. Each update to their “Frostbite” game engine is shinier, prettier, and capable of more realistic animations and special effects, and each iteration in its Battlefield series plays smoother and faster than the one before. After considering all the DLC and updates to Battlefield 3, it is a remarkably better game now than when it was originally released. Battlefield 4 builds on these improvements and delivers DICE’s best, most well-rounded product yet.
I say “well-rounded” because some people, myself included, miss the immense destructive capabilities and open sandbox game play of the Battlefield: Bad Company spin-off series. For Battlefield 4, DICE has refined the destruction in favor of tighter, more polished controls and smoother game play, brought back “traditional” Battlefield elements like going prone and the popular “Commander” feature, and added several new game types. As much as I miss the destruction, I appreciate the efforts to make the game run better. I also appreciate the efforts to produce a better single-player experience, but I think DICE still has room for improvement. As usual, I prefer doing separate reviews for single and multi-player portions, as I don’t think it’s fair to somehow average the quality of both or have one portion drag down the other. Some people skip the single-player experience entirely, and others might want to see how it stacks up to other games, even though they’ll spend most of their time playing online. With that said, here is my single-player review.
Graphics: Based on my custom built gaming PC, I was able to play Battlefield 4 on “Ultra” settings. Naturally, performances may vary. As I mentioned earlier, BF4 is shinier, prettier, and capable of more realistic animations and special effects (than BF3). The most noticeable improvements are the non-playable-characters, especially your teammates, that have much more lifelike faces and expressions. I personally appreciate the wider range of colors, as many “military shooters” seem to be way too monochrome for my tastes. In BF4, a wild shoot-out in a construction zone may have the drab browns and grays we are used to seeing, but it is encased in the warm glow of a setting sun, with brilliant blues and oranges contrasting the rest of the environment. Weather effects like dust, wind, rain, and water have also been improved. Most importantly, the grainy filter of BF3 is gone, so everything has a much crisper, cleaner, more realistic appearance. Earlier this year, I proclaimed that Crysis 3 set a new benchmark for graphics, and praised it for being THE best looking video game. How does BF4 compare? Overall, I maintain that Crysis 3 is the best looking game. BF4 pulls ahead in facial expressions and character animations, mostly because there was only one other main character in Crysis 3 to compare to the larger cast in BF4. But, Crysis 3 has such a high fidelity in the environment – I went on and on about the moving foliage, for example – that it’s easily better looking than BF4. Battlefield 4 does some impressive things with destruction that Crysis 3 didn’t, like bullets chipping away at concrete or entire buildings or ships falling apart around you. But, these seem to feature some fairly generic “chunks” of stuff flying around as the graphical detail is obviously sacrificed in favor of particles and other debris. I’m sure some will disagree with me, as I’m aware of my preference for the lush, jungle-like environments in Crysis 3, and others might prefer the urban destruction of BF4. At any rate, the fact that I’m even comparing the two is a profound compliment to BF4.
Controls: More important than the graphics, to me anyway, are the improvements to the controls. I don’t know if it’s an improved frame rate or lower input latency or both, but the controls are much tighter and more responsive than they’ve ever been in a Battlefield game. The game still suffers from some confusion when you try to “mantle” or jump/climb over obstacles, though it is remarkably better at it than BF3. I appreciate the addition of a new feature, the ability to “call out” targets to your NPC teammates. This functions much like the ability does in multi-player: a tap of the button “marks” an enemy target, and your teammates will try to take them out for you. Some might not be bothered by it, but the transitions from getting in and out of vehicles is still jarring, with no animations representing what is happening. At least the vehicles themselves also handle with more precision than before. Even stranger, is the absence of screen prompts for game pads. These were absent in BF3, too, but you’d think that DICE would know to include them by now. Above all else, I’m most pleased with the improvements to the controls, so good job, DICE!
Game Play: After being spoiled by games like Crysis 3, FarCry 3, Tomb Raider, and Bioshock Infinite earlier this year, with their open “sandbox” or exploration type game play, it’s hard to go back to a heavily scripted, linear campaign. Fortunately, BF4 doesn’t have any “monster doors” or infinitely re-spawning bad guys. In many ways, I was reminded of the single-player portion of Crysis 3, although stealth isn’t usually an option in BF4, and you often have team mates to help you. Like Crysis 3, many areas have sort of an “arena” set up, with a set number of bad guys versus you and your squad, that can be eliminated with different strategies. Failure or dying resets the entire area, so don’t expect to just jump from invisible check-point to check-point like other corridor shooters allow. Personally, I prefer this amount of choice and player freedom, even if it means re-doing large sections of the game after an unfortunate death. Strangely, there is a dramatic choice at the end to choose one of two different endings, but the story was so dumb, I didn’t really care by that point. Overall, it’s a huge improvement over the single-player mode in BF3, which was quite possibly THE worst I’ve played in recent memory. It had a lot of glitches and bugs, like scripted events that wouldn’t load properly, teammates that would get in your way or get stuck in animations, or checkpoints not loading, and so on. The improvements to the AI especially make BF4 behave like it should, and there are far fewer glitches ruining the experience. Preferences may vary, and there may be some people out there that prefer a shorter, 5-6 hour, heavily scripted experience. More power to them.
Sound: One of the fields that DICE has always excelled in is the sound quality. They take great measure in providing authentic audio experiences, such as the differences in sound of the different weapons, their relative distance to the player, the environment they are in, and so on. Due to the nature of the more octane-fueled campaign, the audio appropriately escalates, including some amazing spectacles like collapsing buildings and an aircraft carrier breaking apart. The teammate chatter is serviceable, but the writing is so bad, nothing really stands out. It’s not insightful or meaningful like in Crysis 3 or Bioshock Infinite, but it’s not especially funny or witty, either. I can’t say anything about the soundtrack, because I seriously didn’t notice it. I think we’re supposed to pay attention to the sound effects instead some bombastic overture playing in the background. Fair enough.
Narrative: Did I mention that the writing is bad? Battlefield 4 is so full of cliches and plot holes, at times, I seriously wondered if it was trying to parody military-themed shooters instead of earnestly trying to be one. It’s not just that it feels so similar to just about every other military shooter story, it actually feels like pieces are missing, like essential story details could have been in a level or chapter that got scrapped in development, and never got re-inserted to tell the whole story. Or left out on purpose just to try to surprise the player later. The remarkable facial expressions and animations of your teammates isn’t as impressive when there isn’t much story or character development to back it up. Sadly, like BF3, the campaign in BF4 starts out strong and gets more and more linear and confined as the game continues, ending in a rather anti-climatic showdown that feels rushed and unpolished. I’ll admit that I did start warming up to my teammates towards the end – but then it was all over, so it felt like a missed opportunity.
Conclusion: In a nutshell, Battlefield 4 is an improvement in every possible way. The campaign is short and fairly linear, but player freedom is given in several larger battles, and there are no re-spawning enemies. Ironically, playing the PC version isn’t the real story with Battlefield 4. Compared to the PC version of BF3, BF4 is a nice improvement, but nothing special. Fans of the series have long enjoyed the mayhem of 64 player matches, better graphics, and smoother frame rates than consoles. The next-gen of consoles is where BF4 will really shine, as there are HUGE differences between the Xbox 360/PS3 and Xbox One/PS4 versions. The current gen consoles barely did BF3 justice, and BF4 will fare no better. As far as single player is concerned, however, I will repeat that the bugs and glitches of BF3 are mostly absent in BF4, so at least that is an improvement that all platforms can enjoy. For a better analysis of the multi-player portion, stay tuned for my multi-player review!
Battlefield 4 is rated ‘M’ for Mature for Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language. BF4 launches October 29th for PC, Xbox 360, and PS3, November 15th for PS4, and November 19th for Xbox One.