Chain of command.
In the six years between Battlefield 2 and Battlefield 3, Electronic Arts released several expansions and an attitude-infused spinoff of their military shooter franchise, meaning not a single year has gone by without some new BF-branded product. I never felt like DICE ran the risk of oversaturating the market or turning vehicular and infantry combat into a rote practice of menial value. It's not like shooting virtual people has worn on the gaming public, but Battlefield 4's reveal had me worried. Only two years beyond BF3, mere months since the developers had delivered that game's last DLC pack to Premium subscribers, and all too conveniently on the precipice of next-generation consoles, the fourth entry seemed rank with desperation to cash-in.
Thankfully, gameplay advances, graphical upgrades, and tried-and-true online combat prevent BF4 from feeling like franchise abuse. More surprisingly, some of the brand's greatest weaknesses have been addressed, meaning even the most skilled and experienced generals can feel good about moving onto this new theater of war. Battlefield 4 isn't a generational leap, but it proves itself through tangible, iterative growth.
Almost all of the franchise's value waits in unbelievable moments of online interaction, where you can fly a million-dollar jet at top speed or ride gunner in a helicopter with a friend who sets you up to cut down swaths of enemy soldiers, but DICE hasn't rested on that and accomplishes more in one campaign level than it did in the entire Battlefield 3 single-player component. The changes on-hand might seem minor, but the developer has fundamentally refocused its story mode to great effect.
Where the previous game presented conflict on a massive scale, it did nothing to excite the player on a personal level. In Battlefield 4, players take on the role of Recker, a soldier who better resembles the lone-wolf hero that defines modern FPS games. Recker can go anywhere, do anything, and kill everyone in his path. When an enemy armor rumbles into view, Recker's gotta deal with it without help from his ever present squadmates, Irish and PAC. He can direct the team to engage specific targets or highlight enemy combatants with tactical binoculars, but nothing moves forward without Recker's boot going first.
It's less "Look what we can do with our fancy new engine!" and more "How can we use our engine to wow the player?" This is a welcome, marked improvement for the franchise. Throughout the campaign, players will still stumble in disbelief over moments that just don't make sense, like when Recker slices through a wounded soldier's trapped leg like it's a sausage. In another sequence, my score display informed me that my squadmates were doing their job and eliminating enemy combatants, but they wouldn't stop shouting "Good job, Recker!" Regardless, as a piece of interactive fiction, BF4's campaign keeps things entertaining and doesn't overstay its welcome, almost to a fault. The campaign is painfully short, but players might ignore it altogether and jump into online play anyway.
Somewhere in a deathmatch or capture-the-points Conquest showdown, players will get distracted by just how beautiful EA's Frostbite engine renders their constantly-in-conflict world. It's not just concrete exploding into dust, or glass shattering as a building collapses in the sea. It's an animated billboard that shudders and eventually displays a dead panel after a stray rocket hits it. It's the cat still walking back and forth, appearing on the edges of that black panel. It's the sun shining through foliage as you try to pin down an enemy with LMG fire. Look no further for the most visually engrossing multiplayer shooter money can buy… at least on PC.
For my review, Electronic Arts provided access to Battlefield 4 through its Origin service on PC, but the game is also available at launch on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. The game will come to next-generation consoles on launch day, but regardless of any fancy new hardware under the TV, Battlefield always leads on PC. Obviously I'm a plebeian Mac user, but I was surprised at the versatility of graphical options on PC. If your machine is still wielding a last-gen graphics card, Battlefield 4 might still look damn gorgeous thanks to a lot of flexible options. You won't waste time in upgrading for this though.
Once you do get online, joining matches works just like in Battlefield 3. You can spawn on your squadmates and gain bonuses for working closely together, but my favorite re-addition to this game is Battlefield 2's Commander mode. Armchair generals with a penchant for strategy games will get a huge kick out of viewing a heated match from top-down, establishing objectives and aiding those with boots on the ground. You can take command before even joining a server if the slot is open and it's exhilarating that the view normally reserved for strategy games is actually a live picture of others around the world following your orders.
Considering everything that went into Battlefield 3 and some of the Premium subscription modes that came after launch, I'm disappointed my favorites couldn't come back for Battlefield 4's first days. Wrestling with flight controls and crashing a precious jet feels embarrassing, where BF3 Premium's Air Superiority mode readily provided dogfights to ease the unlock progression. I'd also like to demand EA and DICE add Gun Master mode (where your weapon cycles after every two kills) as soon as possible.
Restarting all of your class progressions might feel like a bummer too, but the unlock ladder proves just as easy to climb as before. Pick a class, outfit it with all your favorite gear, and get to ending countless lives online. At least the multiplayer game plays smooth and without game-breaking bugs (that I've encountered) at launch.
Battlefield has always focused on slower, more purposeful action, but what does the numeral 4 even mean here? Is Battlefield 4 worthy of a brand new integer? Maybe not. Maybe they could have called this Battlefield 3 Next-Gen Edition, but increased destruction (which still holds back from turning multiplayer maps into flattened pancakes after one match), increased fidelity, a new campaign, and engaging multiplayer progression make this a worthy heir to the PC shooter throne.
Code provided by publisher. Review based on PC version. Also available on Xbox 360 and PS3. Coming soon to Xbox One and PS4.