No one fights a war alone, so why does Battlefield still think we want to?
Every big war game that hits the shelves is accompanied by a round of people saying "don't bother with the single player." Battlefield 4 is one of the best examples of that yet.
Cookie cutter characters against a boring backdrop make it difficult to become invested in the story, while glitches and issues with AI on both sides of the battle constantly shatter the suspension of disbelief.
Can Battlefield 4 keep itself from being a footnote in the shadow of Call of Duty solely on the power of its famous Conquest mode?
Going it Alone
"Why is this here?" is what you'll ask if you finish the Battlefield 4 campaign. It manages to come up short in every way it can with serious issues, both technical and aesthetic, marring the experience.
The first thing you'll notice is the eye-gouging screen-tearing as you turn left and right. Some games it's not so bad that you can filter it out, but here it's impossible to miss. You'll get past it, just like I did. The other stuff isn't so easy.
The cast is populated with poorly written characters spouting one-liners even Jason Statham wouldn't be caught saying. "Things got f***ed. Then things got unf***ed. Let's leave it at that," says one character who pretty obviously died earlier in the story, explaining why he's still alive. The best that can be said of the cast of the campaign is that the female characters aren't worse than the male characters. They're also crappy, but they aren't crappier. That's really as good as it gets.
Bookending these grating exchanges between characters are what can only be called embarrassing interactions with computer-controlled opponents. The game tries at first to feel open, but things quickly funnel into paths and arenas. In those arenas you can make some situational assessments but a strategic approach doesn't mean much of anything. Without any meaningful stealth options, enemy encounters always turn into firefights.
The enemies don't bother flanking or suppressing, either. Instead they use a weapon unavailable to the player that we'll call magnetic grenades. The enemy throws these grenades at you anytime you duck behind something and they always land, with pinpoint accuracy, right between your feet. That is, aside from firing guns directly at you, literally the only tactic I encountered from enemy AI during the course of the campaign.
That doesn't even go into the many, many times I watched friendly and enemy AI cross paths like they were playing football instead of trying to kill each other.
Finally, aside from a hard freeze during the campaign, the other major glitch I experienced happened at the very end. You're forced to make a decision by pressing or not pressing a button. Despite hammering the button like a contestant on a rigged quiz show, nothing happened. I thought this was the way it was supposed to happen until the game gave me an achievement for the "choice" I'd made.
If Battlefield 4 was only a single-player game, it might end up on my Worst of 2013 list with Aliens: Colonial Marines. The campaign is mercifully short if you really need the Gamerscore.
Join the Fight
Battlefield has been and always will be a multiplayer experience. The campaign mode is, quite obviously, tacked on to achieve feature parity with competitors. The multiplayer is the important part and it's what keeps gamers coming back year after year.
At the top of the list, where it belongs, is Conquest mode. Conquest mode defines Battlefield and rightly so. This is why you play Battlefield and not Call of Duty or any other war games.
Conquest has something for everyone. Where Call of Duty's multiplayer modes depend on fast pace and quick kills, Battlefield is about teamwork. Each team starts with a certain number of tickets (points, really), and whoever is in control of the most landmarks on the map keeps their tickets while the other team slowly loses theirs.
If you're not the best shot, you can focus on capturing these points using stealth and speed to get to and retain the points while other players do the shooting. If you don't want to stand around waiting, you can hop in a tank, helicopter, or any number of other vehicles to capture and defend points. This time around, DICE has seen fit to add a test range that lets you try out weapons, customize loadouts and even get used to the myriad of vehicles available. No longer do you have to learn how to use a helicopter on the fly or, more likely, on the tip over and crash.
On a full map, there's always something happening around you and it's incredible to watch, making it both some of the best multiplayer around and fun even to spectate on.
The other modes are fun but, really, Conquest is where the best time is and where most players will get their money's worth.
The gunplay is tighter than its predecessors. Suppressive fire will force players to look for other solutions now that suppression is actually dangerous. Attachments seem to have a noticeable effect on weapons as well. If it says it reduces muzzle drift, it actually reduces muzzle drift.
The biggest feature of Battlefield 4 is, of course, Levolution. Ironically, the very thing used to demonstrate this high-level destructibility demonstrates its biggest problem. Levolution is a great feature in most levels, changing the flow of the battle and adding new hiding places. In Siege of Shanghai, however, it's generally agreed upon by players that the map stops being fun when the tower drops.
A more subtle implementation takes place in one of the water-based maps. As a storm kicks up, the sea gets rough. The resultant waves toss your watercraft of choice around brutally, making it hard to steer and even harder to aim. This changes gameplay drastically, moving what might've been a sea battle onto land just to be able to get a bead on your opponent.
That said, it seems most players have either lost interest in bringing the Shanghai tower down or have agreed that it doesn't work. In other levels, though, watching a smaller building crumble is incredible even on the current-gen consoles.
The multiplayer isn't free of issues despite being far more successful than its single player counterpart. Especially on PC, but also on Xbox 360, crashes are a major problem. Some PC gamers describe the game as unplayable. That Shanghai level I mentioned apparently can often crash if the building is demolished.
Aside from that, the game makes a lot of assumptions about how much Battlefield you've played. It took way too long to figure out how to switch squads and teams so that I could play with my friends instead of against them. There isn't nearly as much explanation as there should be for someone new to the series.
There are tons of those attachments that I mentioned before, and while the attachments do make a noticeable difference, each attachment type has four or five different possible options. There are multiple foregrips, for example, and while a foregrip makes a difference, one foregrip or another doesn't make any discernable change to my aim or recoil.
Speaking of stability, this is really the major problem with Battlefield right now. While EA's new CEO bragged rightfully about Battlefield having a smooth launch on the server side, the game crashes often on Xbox 360 and frequently on PC – supposedly its lead platform.
Some PCs seem to run the game like a champ while others can barely manage. I've heard multiple accounts of users having to underclock their video cards to run the game. AMD has released multiple patches for its cards while EA has done the same for Battlefield servers.
If you flip past the campaign disc and head right for multiplayer, Battlefield 4 has a lot to offer despite some technical shortcomings. Conquest is some of the best multiplayer around no matter your skill level.
If you're planning on picking up one of the new consoles in a few weeks, the $10 cost to upgrade should be well worth it if you don't want to wait a couple weeks. GameStop has a simple $10 upgrade deal if you bridge generations with this game. Buy it there now on Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3, upgrade to the next-gen version for $10 later. Once we have those versions in our hands, it'll mark the first time the console version of Battlefield matches its PC counterpart in terms of map size and capacity; hopefully the crashing won't come with it.
Even if you're not picking up a new console, Battlefield 4's multiplayer is fresh enough to make it worth checking out. The gunplay is better than ever and the massive changes maps can undergo as a game progresses add fun, interesting wrinkles to combat that other games haven't replicated.
I hope that next year DICE learns from its mistakes and gives single player a pass entirely so that they can concentrate on their already excellent multiplayer and show us what they can really do.
We purchased Battlefield 4 for Xbox 360 with company funds. We completed the single player mode once, as well as exploring multiple multiplayer modes before starting this review.