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Editor’s note: This review has some limited story spoilers.
You have to give credit to the game developers in Sweden who have built Battlefield 4, the modern combat first-person shooter game that debuted on the current-gen consoles and the PC on Oct. 29. They have finally outgunned Call of Duty, the most popular FPS in gaming.
At the same time, Electronic Arts’ DICE studio in Stockholm has stumbled with its online services. After playing the full single-player campaign on the PC and multiplayer as well, I was prepared to rate the game considerably higher than Call of Duty: Ghosts, its chief rival this fall. But I’ve also played the new versions of the game on the PlayStation 4 and on the Xbox One. The graphics look wonderful on those consoles, but the multiplayer service has had a lot of problems. I couldn’t even log into Battlefield 4 on the Xbox One with my existing account on Origin, EA’s online gaming service, and had to create a new Origin account altogether just to play on Microsoft’s Xbox Live platform. The problems have been so bad on the new consoles that EA is enticing players back with the promise of double XP (experience points) for multiplayer play from Nov. 28 to Dec. 5. The whole situation sucks, because I’ve seen how much effort DICE put into this game. EA has snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, and once again Call of Duty will wind up with a higher review score as a result.
DICE has struggled mightily over a decade to keep up with Activision’s 500-plus developers (and two studios) working on Call of Duty first-person shooter video games. Outnumbered and outflanked, DICE has had to match the Call of Duty developers in producing new multiplayer maps and downloadable content (DLC). But rather than make a blockbuster game every year, DICE has been creating a new Battlefield game every other year, alternating in the release rotation with the EA’s Danger Close studio, the maker of the Medal of Honor series of modern combat shooters.
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But with lousy sales, Medal of Honor has been put on the shelf, and Danger Close has given way to an expanded DICE studio. DICE has focused on making a quality game every two years, and now its efforts have paid off with Battlefield 4, which beats Call of Duty for the first time in my opinion. DICE has taken the time to create a better, more dramatic single-player campaign story. It has created better graphics, and it has fashioned a multiplayer experience that is both realistic and fun (when it works right).
All of these features are important because as many as 65 percent of players don’t even start the single-player campaign. With a better single-player campaign, more Battlefield 4 players might player it. And because Activision’s studios are warring with each other, the Call of Duty multiplayer experience is becoming divided, with Activision studios Treyarch and Infinity Ward going in different directions. That has left an opening for DICE to create a more consistent multiplayer and single-player campaign experience.
Call of Duty: Ghosts, which debuted Nov. 5 on the current-generation consoles, still focuses on the adrenaline rush of being an infantry soldier in a modern war setting. But by gradually inching up its creative efforts, DICE has crafted an experience that takes advantage of its strengths in character animation, environmental destruction, and vehicular combat. When it comes to modern combat, EA has finally had a better core game than Activision, because the sum of its parts beats out its rivals.
That doesn’t mean Battlefield 4 is going to outsell Call of Duty: Ghosts, which has more buzz and a bigger marketing budget. Multiplayer problems are holding BF4 back, and these hopefully are going to be temporary. But the overall effort shows that Activision and Call of Duty aren’t predestined to rule the multibillion-dollar first-person shooter market, particularly in a year when next-generation consoles can really show off the difference between the games.
What you’ll like
The story is more dramatic, especially in the beginning
Battlefield 4 follows the fortune of a single squad, Tombstone, as the U.S. becomes embroiled in a war with a militaristic faction of the Chinese government. The first scene does a good job of highlighting a lot of the cool things that happen in the game, and it is also an intense beginning.
The action is set in 2020, six years after the events of Battlefield 3. Russia and the U.S. have been fighting for six years, but war with China is imminent because of a spat with Admiral Chang, the main foe, who plans to overthrow China’s government and support the Russians in the war with the U.S.
It all begins with Tombstone on an intelligence-gathering mission in the Central Asian nation of Azerbaijan that turns hot. The four-man squad must fight its way through hordes of enemy troops through areas that show off the power of DICE’s Frostbite 3 game engine, which enables both cool graphics and physical effects such as the destruction of walls, glass, buildings, trees, and just about anything you can use for cover.
As the player, you can hide behind a concrete barrier and shoot at enemies. If you sit there long enough, the enemy bullets will tear the concrete to pieces, and you’ll have no cover. You can do this with virtually any kind of barrier, and you can deny your enemies their hiding places by shooting away at barriers. This adds to the intensity of the beginning, as you’re seriously outgunned by enemy firepower. It’s actually kind of fun to sit behind a barrier and wait for your enemy to shoot it away, given the great sound effects of bullets thudding into the stone and other materials protecting you. But wait too long and you’ll die.
One of the things you can do is call in the help of an attack helicopter, simply by ordering it to attack enemies that are in front of you. While the helicopter has the enemy pinned down, you can circle around and outflank your foes. You can also direct the other members of the Tombstone squad to attack certain enemies. You can also do this kind of target spotting for your comrades in multiplayer.
Once you attack with the helicopter and mow through a few waves of enemies, you have to attempt an extraction with the helicopter. You do so by climbing to the top of a skyscraper that is under construction. But the building collapses under you in spectacular display of the physical effects of the Frostbite 3 game engine. Your boss gets pinned down, and you have to decide to saw his leg off or not. That scene is gruesome, but this isn’t the end. Your team attempts to escape by car, and then that ends in ruin. Once more, as you will throughout the game, you’re forced to make a decision about who to save or who to let die. It reinforces a message about the kinds of intense sacrifices that soldiers make in the line of duty.
That series of mishaps for Tombstone in the very first mission sets up a story that, for the first time in the Battlefield series, actually engaged me. It had characters like Irish that look realistic, and it made me care about their fates. It made full use of the devastating firepower of modern soldiers, and it made me feel like I was in a firefight that was turning out bad. Unfortunately, the rest doesn’t have the same refined sense of dramatic control as that first level. If it did, I would rate this game much higher.
The destruction is incredible
The Frostbite 3 game engine takes the destruction of the environment to a new level. When a tank punches through a wall, it looks more realistic. You can fire a tank gun at a concrete structure and make it collapse on top of the enemy. That kind of advanced graphics and physics technology enhances the gameplay by giving you new options as a player. It isn’t just eye candy. It’s an integral part of the game. You’ll see outstanding examples of the Frostbite 3 engine in action, including a warship splitting in half, a building collapsing, and a dam bursting.
DICE has been selling this feature in its pitch to gamers since the debut of Battlefield: Bad Company in 2008 with the original Frostbite engine. But when things break apart now, they don’t look as blocky and fake. Walls crumble much more realistically. The U.S.S. Valkyrie, an assault aircraft carrier, becomes a major battleground for Tombstone as the ship is ripped to shreds via combat with the Chinese. The mission in Shanghai atop a glass skyscraper becomes a cacophony of shattered glass as Tombstone fights to rescue a politician who opposes Admiral Chang.
Frostbite fantastically models rain and wind effects in a scene where Tombstone assaults an airfield in an attempt to ground the Chinese air force. Tombstone is captured and has to break out of a prison. In one scene where they’re trying to escape, you have to shoot at lights or shadows in order to take down the enemy troops. That’s just one more example of cool lighting and shadowing that adds to the overall experience.
New ways to play multiplayer
In multiplayer, you can play as the Americans, Chinese, or Russians. Battlefield 4’s big advantage is that you can participate in large brawls compared to Call of Duty: Ghosts multiplayer. As many as 64 combatants can fight at once. And Battlefield 4 brings back the Commander Mode of Battlefield 2142, where you can be the commander on the battlefield telling your troops where to attack and dispatching resources to them such as air drops. The commander can order missile strikes on certain parts of the arena.
The multiplayer maps also feature dynamic events that change the nature of the battlefield, such as a skyscraper that collapses in the middle of a match. That collapse kicks up a bunch of dust and denies snipers their easy perches. The map goal at the top of the skyscraper becomes much more accessible for attackers. You can also engage in distracting tactics such as firing a fire extinguisher into a room, cutting power, or setting off car alarm when you walk by it.
In direct melee fights, you can counter attack to defend yourself in close combat. You can also dive underwater to avoid detection by enemies, and you can shoot with a sidearm while swimming.
Multiplayer also features modes that should cater to the Call of Duty crowd: Domination, where you try to hold three flags on a map. There are a couple of other modes that give you more ways to fight such as Defuse, where you have to defuse a bomb or set it off.
When you play Battlefield 4 multiplayer on next-generation consoles, the experience is awesome because — when you can log in properly — the graphics look great and the action unfolds at high speed. You don’t have a trade-off anymore between speed and graphics. You can hide in the shadows of a map and ambush someone in the light. You can use a fire or smoke screen to hide your movements from enemies. Those kinds of tactics are only possible with outstanding graphics.
Cool graphics that will shine on both the PC and next-generation machines
There are plenty of points in the game where you’ll stop and say, “Wow.” It amazes to me how much intricacy is involved in bringing images of destruction to us in our video games. The sounds of bullets whizzing by and seeing puffs of dirt and dust pop up to obscure your vision is a common experience in Battlefield 4. And it adds to the immersion and realism, making you feel like what it might be like to be in a real battle. In this respect, Battlefield 4 has raced ahead of other combat simulations in delivering realistic 3D graphics with all of the accompany physics and sounds that make it more visceral.
With Battlefield, a gaming PC has always been the best way to play with the most outstanding graphics. But I loved the experience of the game on both the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One. These consoles deliver a great experience. Usually, multiplayer graphics are unacceptably bad compared to the single-player campaign. In this case, I had no complaints about the graphics on the next-generation consoles in multiplayer combat.
It’s about making difficult choices
The story will likely surprise you in the end. But there’s one thing consistent about the way the tale unfolds. You discover new things about yourself and the characters in your squad based on the tough choices that they make. The unit is held together not just by discipline but by their faith in their comrades and their ability to trust — or not trust — fellow soldiers. The plot of the story takes twists and turns. The best thing I can say about it is that it isn’t as hands-down ridiculous as the plot of Call of Duty: Ghosts. But the consistent theme that recurs during different parts of the plot is whether you’re going to make the right choice under pressure and either save or doom your comrades in arms.
What you won’t like
It’s a little short — and it’s a little long
I finished the single-player campaign in about seven hours. It wasn’t particularly difficult, but I could have stretched it out more if I played it on a harder setting. It could have used more in-depth cutscenes. One annoyance is that some of these have a lot of dialogue, but you don’t see the actual characters talking. Rather, you see the image of an aircraft carrier sailing on the seas during a voiceover. That’s not very movie like. I would have gladly sat through more cutscenes to get a better flavor for the story’s nuances. In that sense, Battlefield 4 leaves you wanting a lot more story than it provides.
On top of that, the missions could be more plentiful. That’s where Call of Duty: Ghosts, which is also a short game, has Battlefield 4 beat. Call of Duty has more interesting places to fight, such as underwater and in space. If DICE had added more cinematics and a better variety of locales, it would have been a more fulfilling game.
One mission was ridiculous because I didn’t have the right armament. A Chinese tank had me and my squadmates trapped in a square. But I didn’t have an antitank weapon. Such weapons were plentiful in other parts of the game, but not in this one. Instead, I had about 10 land mines. So I had to chase the tank around, try to get in front of it, drop some mines, and then get behind it. Once I had mines laid in front of and behind the tank, I finally was able to get it to roll over one. It was pretty challenging, but it was a ridiculous way to fight a tank, and it stretched out the game longer than necessary. I would have given my kingdom for a rocket-propelled grenade.
In another scene, you wander through a few decks of an entire aircraft carrier just trying to find another member of your squad. It prolongs a dull conversation and simply serves to familiarize you with a bunch of decks that play small roles in the combat scenes. Such weak scenes destroy the cinematic experience of the game. You would never see such low-action scenes in Call of Duty.
It’s got some bugs
I was amid a big scene on an aircraft carrier when I saw a funny bug. At the edge of the broken ship, instead of jagged debris, I saw a body suspended in midair. It was just hanging there in space when it should have fallen off the edge. The scene was gorgeously rendered, except for that annoying image bug. That kind of retro-error can really pull the player out of the illusion that you’re playing a state-of-the-art game, and it makes you feel like you’re playing a PC game from the 1980s. I encountered a few instances of this kind of problem.
As for the PlayStation 4, EA had to issue a patch this week to fix problems that some players were having. And as I mentioned before, I wasn’t able to log into my existing Origin account on the Xbox One and play Battlefield 4 multiplayer. I had to create a new account. Once I was in, multiplayer worked fine for me on both systems. But EA has apologized for the problems that many have encountered on multiplayer.
Multiplayer matches are still hit or miss
On the PC, I’ve played some matches where there just aren’t enough players given the size of the map. You spend your time wandering around looking for enemies to kill. Then you find them camping patiently behind a wall. Or sometimes you have to make a long trek to get to where the action is taking place. You don’t see those types of boring situations in Call of Duty matches.
On the Xbox One and PS4, you’ll also notice some boring stretches, like Domination matches that last much longer than they really should. But I really did enjoy the variety of things you could do in Battlefield 4, like driving vehicles, compared to its rival Call of Duty: Ghosts, which is infantry-focused.
The battle environments could have more variety
If there’s a way to extend the experience of Battlefield 4, DICE should do so through the downloadable content releases coming later. As noted above, there’s more variety to the types of landscapes you fight in with the latest Call of Duty. With Battlefield 4, I felt there was just a little too much time given to the long levels fighting to recover a ship or taking on the Chinese in direct ground combat. Those levels could have been shorter, and it would have been more fun for the action to move to an altogether different place.
The first-person shooter wars have been an endless treadmill for the teams making the Battlefield and Call of Duty. It’s nice to see that a smarter approach to making a game, in this case by the EA DICE team, really pays off in a better experience for the player. EA could have tried to match Call of Duty by issuing a new game every year. But by taking extra care and publishing this game two years after the last game, the result is better quality. There are still some advantages that Call of Duty has over Battlefield when it comes to variety and adrenaline combat. But Battlefield 4 has gone a long way toward closing the gap, and it’s a better overall game.
I was fully prepared to rate this game much higher Call of Duty: Ghosts, which I rated at 80. But the words from EA’s own top brass is an acknowledgement of the opportunity they have lost as a result of the Battlefield 4 multiplayer problems.
DICE chief Karl Magnus-Troedsson wrote, “I am less proud to see that the game has experienced some turbulence during the launch period. While some platforms have had only minor problems, others have had more than their fair share of issues. Resolving the launch issues is our #1 priority. In fact, we are so serious that we have the entire team working to stabilize the game and we will not move on to other projects until we are sure that Battlefield 4 meets – and exceeds – your expectations. It is the right thing to do.”
EA’s new CEO, Andrew Wilson, also wrote, “We have had our challenges with stability issues on Battlefield 4, and the DICE team is 100 percent focused on understanding and resolving the problems that some players have been having. We won’t rest until we get things fixed, so here are two things we’re committed to doing while we work to get it right: 1) all players will get a Double XP bonus and a cool new piece of game content as a way of saying thanks for your patience, and 2) you’ll get open and transparent communication with updates from us around the clock via the Battlefield 4 Control Room.”
I’m not surprised that Call of Duty: Ghosts is outselling BF4 at retail, given this situation. And with that, you can see the final review score below.
Battlefield 4 debuted Oct. 29 for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC. It was also released on the PlayStation 4 on Nov. 15 and Xbox One on Nov. 22 . The publisher provided GamesBeat with PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC versions of the game for the purpose of this review. I played the single-player campaign on the PC and parts of it on the Xbox One and PS4. I played multiplayer on all three platforms.
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