As someone who originally enlisted in Battlefield 1942, tracking the series' trajectory has been interesting. What originally started as a multiplayer-only hardcore PC shooter has steadily evolved over the last 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.
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 handles spotting as well) players can request ammo, health packs, and repairs. 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 are also 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. If you like Team Deathmatch or Domination, you may enjoy Operation Locker, but the corridor design makes it a terrible option for the new Obliteration mode.
Perhaps the best new 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 second new mode, Defuse, is a Counter-Strike style, five-on-five competition where each player only spawns once. You can win by either eliminating the other team or by detonating a bomb. This game mode goes quickly, so it's a great change of pace from the lengthy conquest and rush modes.
The infantry-focused modes like team deathmatch and domination aren't nearly as compelling. Simply put, not many of these maps stand up to the offerings from competing games like Call of Duty, and they also mitigate the value of splitting players into different classes. The engineer class is hardly useful in these battles, and the game doesn't have the same attraction when you remove vehicles from the mix.
One of the big problems previous Battlefield games faced was the steep learning curve of more complicated vehicles like helicopters and jets. To help soldiers who would rather learn how to operate vehicles without the threat of constant fire, DICE added a test range for practice. This should cut down on the amount of battles where a soldier hops into a helicopter and crashes it immediately. However, since you can't have more than one person in the test range at a time, players still need to join live-fire battles to master subtleties like knowing when to fire countermeasures.
No matter what mode or class you are playing, you continually earn rewards thanks to the deep and varied progression system featured in Battlefield 4. The variety is staggering, with more types of sights, grips, knives, rocket launchers, and camo than any previous Battlefield game. Some are unlocked by ranking up your class or weapon, and others can be acquired at random in a Battlepack, which you receive roughly every three levels. Battlepacks offer the chance to get a great attachment early on, but the randomness comes with a price. Since the items contained in a Battlepack are determined by pure chance, you may receive attachments for several weapons you haven't unlocked yet.
Ever since it was abandoned following Battlefield 2, a subset of hardcore fans has lamented the loss of Commander mode. DICE resurrected the mode for Battlefield 4, with several significant alterations. As a commander you don't spawn into the world like a normal soldier. Instead, you make all of your decisions from a tactical map, which makes it an attractive option for players using tablets. From here you can launch UAVs to reveal enemy locations on the map, create EMP blasts to neutralize the UAVs of the opposing team, and direct squads to attack or defend specific locations. Your other options are controlled by how well your team is performing. If they lock down several control points in conquest, then you are given access to powerful ordinance like cruise missiles and AC-130s that can turn the tide of battle. Not many commanders were present in the majority of my matches, so it's tough to gauge how impactful they are in a match's outcome.
Commander or no, the deep multiplayer stands in stark contrast to the forgettable single-player campaign. DICE promised an emotional connection with its star characters, but not even the magnetic actor Michael K. Williams (Boardwalk Empire, The Wire) could find success with this B-movie-level script.
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 VIPs from Shanghai in the midst of the madness, 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. The story culminates with a choice-driven ending, but given my lack of attachment to the characters I hardly felt engaged enough to weigh my options seriously.
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. You can give the squad at your side basic attack commands, but in most cases you can wipe out an entire brigade alone before your allies can take one enemy out, so I often left them to their own devices. The bullet-fodder AI hardly presents a challenge, and often pop in out of thin air right in front of you. I would expect an army that has that kind of technology to be much more formidable. Thankfully, the campaign is short, clocking in at roughly five hours.
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 land, air, and sea battles. Given the underwhelming performance of yet another story campaign, maybe DICE was on to something in ignoring single-player altogether in Battlefield 1942. Imagine what the studio could do if it invested all that manpower into making its already good multiplayer experience even better.
Review note: Battlefield 4 is also releasing on PlayStation 4 (November 15) and Xbox One (November 22). Though we played these versions, we were not able to fully test all features to the point that they could be included in this review. As a result, this text pertains only to the platforms listed.