As someone who originally enlisted in Battlefield 1942, tracking the series' trajectory has been interesting. What started as a multiplayer-only hard-core PC shooter has evolved during the past decade to achieve mass success.
Along the way, developer DICE has built on its solid foundation of team-focused air, land and sea battles with impressive new features like destructible environments and deeper progression systems. At the same time, the studio has struggled to branch out with engrossing cooperative or single-player experiences. As if acting off muscle memory, Battlefield 4 follows this same pattern, with another strong dose of large-scale multiplayer and a forgettable story campaign.
The story follows a squad of American soldiers caught in the middle of the action when a civil war erupts in China. On a mission to extract a couple of VIPs from Shanghai, the crew shoots its way back to its fleet, only to find the U.S. aircraft carrier stationed off the coast completely decimated. From here, they shoot their way through Chinese airfields, prisons and remote outposts.
Battlefield 4's multiplayer largely takes its cues from the pre-existing playbook, mixing some long-lost ideas with a few innovations that enhance teamwork. To help console players better communicate with one another without the need of a headset, DICE carried over the commo rose from PC to consoles. By holding the right bumper (which also handles spotting) players can request ammo, health packs and repairs.
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To encourage soldiers to play the objectives in team-based games, DICE also tweaked the point system. Flag captures and M-Com arming aren't all-or-nothing propositions anymore, so players earn points incrementally. If you get capped at the last second when trying to disarm an M-Com station, at least you get rewarded for trying to save your team.
The 10 new maps deliver a nice variety of environments. During any given mission, you wind through urban streets, roll through fields in a tank and make amphibious assaults via boats. Each level features a "Levolution moment," which is essentially an opportunity for DICE to showcase its technical prowess. The quality of these experiences wavers from impressive to gimmicky.
When the tsunami kicks up in Paracel Storm, it makes shooting from boats much more challenging, testing the skills of the best machine gunners. In other levels, I wish DICE had left the maps alone. Watching a skyscraper fall is cool the first time, but as you play more matches in Siege of Shanghai, you realize the map is so much better with the tower standing tall. Some of these fallen buildings also are tough to navigate, as your soldier often gets caught on the awkward geometry.
While the best maps, like Hainan Resort, work no matter which of the seven modes you are playing, some maps were clearly designed with one style of play in mind.
Perhaps the best mode to be introduced to Battlefield since Rush, Obliteration places a bomb in the middle of the map. From here, teams must vie for possession and then try to detonate it at one of the opponents' three objectives. The first team to detonate all three wins. The best way to win this tug-of-war is to coordinate with teammates, picking up the bomb carrier in a vehicle and rushing across the map in a convoy. These matches have a great sense of urgency and almost give you the sensation of participating in a team sport.
The combat is improved from Battlefield 3 thanks to the removal of quicktime events and the inclusion of Crysis style micro-sandboxes that let you choose how you want to engage the enemy.
Battlefield 4 doesn't advance the series in any significant way, but the subtle improvements provide enough incentive for multiplayer fans to invest heavily in the battles. Given the underwhelming performance of yet another story campaign, maybe DICE was on to something in ignoring single-player in Battlefield 1942. Imagine what the studio could do if it invested all that manpower into making its already good multiplayer experience even better.
VIDEO GAME REVIEW
Platform: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC. To be released on PlayStation 4 on Nov. 15 and Xbox One on Nov. 22.
Publisher: Electronic Arts
ESRB rating: M