IF the dire prognosis for the future of single player gaming is to be proved correct, there will be casualties among those games which strive to uphold the grand old tradition of the campaign.
Battlefield 4 - Xbox 360 (reviewed) / Playstation 3 / PC / Xbox One / Playstation 4
Score: 8.6 / 10
The spine of many an illustrious series, it is a mode that has delivered thrills aplenty down the years. From the exquisitely choreographed Halo 3 through to the rollicking hedonism of Bulletstorm, this generation has been no exception, with innumerable examples of the campaign at its best. As the 360 and PS3 enter their twilight years, there may well be room for one more exalted member of this club, but Battlefield 4 will be forced to linger outside, knocking forlornly on the door.
With the exception of Tripwire Interactive’s Red Orchestra, it is difficult to recall a franchise with such a yawning disconnect between its single player and multiplayer offerings. Online, with a group of focused, communicative friends, it is one of the richest and most intense experiences gaming can offer, capable of swallowing up several hours of play in a single sitting. Alone, it is a desultory first-person shooter beset by bugs and an uninvolving story.
This is, of course, not a new curse to have befallen the series and it is fair to assume that the majority of seasoned Battlefield players will forego the first disc entirely to seek out their kicks in multiplayer. Any critical assessment of Battlefield 4 is, in effect, a review of two games, and the demographic who devote their time to playing with friends may wish to skip through to the latter half of this article as a result.
Bluntly put, the campaign mode is a pretty if underwhelming and fleeting pursuit, sculpted around a perfunctory narrative of geopolitical strife and American triumphalism. Ostensibly a showcase for the raw power of the progressive Frostbite 3 engine, it strives to be a spectacle of Michael Bay style sensory bombardment, melding preposterous set pieces to immersive details. Even on current gen, the aesthetics are undeniably impressive. The visuals are lush but it is the sound design that is its best feature, thanks to an effects library consisting of over a million files, the lion’s share of which will cheer firearms aficionados with a keen ear for the cracks and whistles of individual weapons.
Unfortunately, such costumery cannot disguise a single player game of inelegant form. Within a half hour of beginning the campaign, I found myself stuck in the scenery of a ship’s mess, the camera stuttering hopelessly, leaving me no option but to restart from the last checkpoint. Any hopes I had that such rudimentary bugs were isolated were quickly dashed. The campaign is plagued with these kind of fundamental errors in game design that make a mockery of the extravagance it tries so hard to project.
The AI in particular warrants scorn. It is frustratingly in absentia for much of the proceedings, reminiscent of the unthinking NPCs of EA’s other military FPS franchise, Medal of Honour. When you are not being forced to traipse behind your squad members at an arduous pace en route to a scripted sequence, supposed allies will suddenly shy away from the action when a firefight breaks out. The result is repeated mashing of the right shoulder button in a vain attempt to have them engage with the enemy, an experience akin to trying to shepherd a group of drunkards into the back of a taxi. The enemy AI fares no better. Foes err on the side of caution and seldom stray from a static stronghold, instead preferring to hurl grenades from cover.
And while the production budget, graphics and sense of occasion all point to an endeavour on the scale of a Hollywood blockbuster, the dialogue does little to disabuse critics of the medium of the notion that it has some considerable way to go before emulating the finesse and delicacy of traditional screenplays. At best, Battlefield 4’s script could be described as functional, serving as a prompt for the unfolding on-screen action. At worst, it offers up clunking, banal lines encumbered by so many clichés and truisms it makes Resident Evil’s discourse look like the work of Robert Towne.
Take two hoary examples, one from early on in proceedings and one from the game’s climax. The former sees Dunn, Irish et all hitch a ride on a traditional barge in Shanghai. Cue the line: “This rusty steel can is hardly a speed demon.” The latter instance, without giving any spoilers away, sees an integral character come back from the dead, offering only the following Pinteresque gem by way of explanation: “They had me f*cked, then I got unf*cked.” It is enough to make The Expendables script read like a first draft of Apocalypse Now, and any remaining moral gravity to the story is gunned down by a Bulletstorm-style scoring system.
You may have read through the above five paragraphs and wondered how the game could have scored 8.6 out of 10, a highly respectable tally by any standard. The answer, unsurprisingly, is multiplayer. Freed from the constraints of the campaign, DICE excel like never before, producing a series of online modes so stunning that they single handedly rescue the entire title. The experience has been purified and enhanced to create arguably the best multiplayer experience in years, and one that throws down the gauntlet to a new generation of IPs.
Even taking into account the significant downscaling that has taken place in the 360 version, the arenas of combat are vast yet impeccably constructed, showpieces for a design approach that ensure the features of each and every map interact with and inform the strategies of unfolding battles. DICE’s much-vaunted, if clumsily named Levolution mechanic more than justifies its overblown marketing lexicon; war is conducted amid clouds of dust and water vapour, as each side lays waste to buildings, dams and chimneys, forcing warmongers to reconsider their tactics on the hoof.
There are a range of game styles available, but in time honoured tradition, the essence of multiplayer is built around Conquest, a signature mode ever since 2002’s Battlefield 1942. In Battlefield 4, its capture point gameplay benefits from the amplified maps, several of which will doubtless be regarded as classics in the years to come. Every player will have their own favourites, but Operation Locker and Hainan Resort deserve to be singled out for praise.
The Commander mode from Battlefield: Bad Company 2 makes a welcome and overdue return (although an iOS app designed to complement the game has been put back a few weeks), while a new mode, Obliteration, plays to the strength of the series, rewarding close teamwork and regular communication. Do not make any plans for the immediate future if you play it, however; you wage a war, not a battle, with games stretching close to the hour mark depending on the quality of the opponents you find yourself up against.
With a bounty of upgradables like scopes and grips giving great value and incentive to those planning to plough weeks, if not months into the game, there is little to be faulted. One minor gripe is that the focus on Conquest comes at the expense of other game modes such as Rush and Team Deathmatch, which do not benefit from the prescriptive large-scale combat map layouts.
However, much like the campaign mode, it is rare to find a Battlefield player who will spend any length of time in deathmatch, rendering such criticisms almost moot. It is a series with a clearly defined purpose and philosophy and when it focuses on what it does best, it is without parallel. The lesser features in no way ruin the game, they are simply peripheral to it. In the same way Titanfall will do without a single player mode, EA and DICE should follow Respawn’s lead for their next outing. They have conceived one of the finest multiplayer titles of this generation or any other. It is time they played to their strengths.