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The King-With a Caveat

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    Battlefield 4

    Rating: 4.0 – Great

    The King-With a Caveat

    This review was written on May 24, 2018, for version 1.0.0.28 of Battlefield 4, including Premium services and all available post-launch DLC, for the Xbox One.

    The Battlefield franchise has always been known for executing a core set of design mechanics well: massive-scale team battles, combined arms multiplayer, tactical teamwork, spectacular "Battlefield Moments," and sandbox multiplayer map design able to generate all the previous spontaneously. Judging it by these principles, Battlefield 4 – perhaps one of gaming’s greatest redemption stories, given its horrendous, nearly unplayable launch – exceeds its predecessors in most every way. Under the surface, however, Battlefield 4’s design is also indicative of an intense mechanical failure threatening to plague the massive war machine from the inside.

    But first, the Titan-sized elephant in the room: Battlefield 4’s campaign. I played the campaign three times when the game came out four years ago. It was neither remarkable nor memorable, with unlikeable characters, forgettable missions, braindead AI, and bugs and glitches galore. All of the missions revolve around a scoring mechanic that severely detracts from any sort of immersion, and the game’s vast arsenal is essentially locked behind a wall of collectibles.

    It would be easier to forgive the annoying bits if they didn’t come packaged with seriously game-breaking bugs as well. I mentioned before that I played the campaign three times. This was due to a corrupt-save bug that has been left unfixed since the game’s launch, so instead of reloading just the final mission to pick a different ending, I had to play through the entire campaign to unlock everything. But it gets better: last night when I tried to play it for the purpose of this review, I encountered a bug that would freeze my game during the loading screen at the end of the first mission. I couldn’t progress, I couldn’t troubleshoot, I couldn’t even skip to the second mission because that save data has been gone for years.

    But most Battlefield fans would be compelled to argue that the campaign is the least important component of a Battlefield game, and I am in complete agreement. Battlefield’s bread and butter is its large-scale multiplayer with its rock-paper-scissor balance philosophy that gives everything on the battlefield the potential to impact it severely. Battlefield 4’s approach to balance is largely corrective of Battlefield 3’s, bringing significant balance to the Assault class while simultaneously boosting the immediate viability of the other three; giving C4 explosives to the Recon class promotes good positioning, three types of mines and seven rocket launchers gives the Engineer plenty of options for dealing with vehicles, and LMG buffs and a huge selection of gadgets add mobility and viability to Supports.

    These additions can be a double-edged sword, however. So many gadgets produce a sense of bloating, where some pieces of kit are so niche they’re not worth using at all. Pieces like the MP-APS, M26 Frags, and V40 Minis are truly rare sights because their alternatives are simply better. The same can be said for a lot of the available weapons: with eighty six primary weapons to choose from, it’s only natural that some would make others obsolete.

    Bloating extends largely into the mechanical facets, which boasts tons of features that are rarely – if ever – used. Battlefield 2’s Commander mode makes its return, which allows one player to support his team with spotting drones, cruise missiles, and field promotions, but the role simply isn’t rewarding enough to incentivize anyone to play it. Battlefield 3’s Squad Perk system is revamped to give players a greater selection of perk trees, but each class has one undisputed selection that’s objectively better than the rest. It seems like DICE decided to throw as much as they could into the game hoping that something would stick, and for the most part it does, but extraneous features like the Commander mode are examples of poorly implemented ideas.

    The weapon bloating problem is remedied largely by Battlefield 4’s expansive attachment system, which gives you the freedom to customize a weapon’s performance in any way you see fit. Your choice of attachment can drastically alter how a weapon handles, and even the same gun can behave wildly different depending on how it’s kitted out. You can use attachments to bolster a gun’s strengths, patch its weaknesses, or tweak it to fit your own personal play style, and mastery over the attachment systems is a huge part of creating an effective, impactful soldier on the battlefield.

    Choosing a weapon and its attachments carefully is essential to succeeding on each of Battlefield 4’s wide variety of maps. From the stormy islands of Paracel Storm to the rolling hills of Lancang Dam to the choked interior of Operation Locker, not every weapon can excel in any situation. Because of this, map design excels in incentivizing a wide variety of playstyles, which is only enhanced by excellent class balance and multirole kit options.

    Furthermore, the game’s map designs are handled excellently, with proper bathing and vehicle dispersion that allows games to flow correctly. Asymmetrical maps are well-balanced, and only one map (affectionately dubbed "Meat Grinder Zavod") has an even number of Conquest flags. The combined arms gameplay really begins to shine when it’s firing on all cylinders: tanks in the fields, jets in the air, and soldiers on the ground, all fighting in unison to take objectives and win.

    Unfortunately, Battlefield 4’s maps are hampered by the design philosophy of shoehorning every game mode onto each map. Maps are sometimes redesigned to accommodate game modes in some capacity, and while it works well most of the time, it does create awful experiences like Golmud Railway Rush or Flood Zone Domination. Overall, this does mean there’s more maps and modes to play on, but it feels like forced Rush maps are of a significant drop in quality compared to maps like Battlefield 3’s Damavand Peak or Bad Company 2’s Valparaiso.

    Battlefield 4 is undeniably an excellent entry in the franchise, with a high skill-ceiling and proper mechanical design, but it’s also responsible for the introduction of mechanics that would wind up hurting future games. The bolstered amount of no-line-of-sight weapons like the RGO Impact grenades and the XM25 Airburst nullify the power of some pieces of cover and can feel extremely cheap to use. Explosive spam is still persistent, with UCAVs and mobile artillery joining the roster of things that can kill you beyond your control. The Defensive Field Upgrade completely throws traditional damage models out the window and can very easily cost someone a hard earned kill.

    Scoring is also skewed, with ribbons, medals, and bonuses promoting kills far beyond objective play. The uncapped marksman bonus strongly incentivizes Recon players to stay far away from objectives and land long range headshots, and it’s not unlikely to find one at the top of the leaderboard with less than ten kills. To compound this, the game doesn’t do enough in goading Recons into doing the job of their namesake: their gadgets certainly make spotting enemies easier, but the scoring system doesn’t reward using them enough to make reconnaissance a viable tactic. Additionally, the diversified archetypes of sniper rifles, while perfectly fine and balanced in this game, will become extraordinarily exacerbated in Battlefield Hardline.

    Despite its rocky launch, Battlefield 4 is truthfully one of the greatest multiplayer experiences I’ve ever been a part of. The maps are excellent, class and gun balance is better than ever, and – in typical Battlefield fashion – vehicular and infantry combat feel simply rapturous in the hands of a skilled player. Despite the grand triumph of its online multiplayer, however, I can’t ignore a literally unplayable single player campaign, regardless of how little interest I actually have in playing it. That, coupled with a growing tumor of casualization running through the game’s veins are the only things stopping me from declaring Battlefield 4 a masterwork of online multiplayer. Overall, Battlefield 4 remains the most prominent example of what the Battlefield franchise is capable of: heart-pounding excitement, sandbox creativity, and tactical freedom, and while its components point towards a more diluted multiplayer experience in the future, it stands proudly as one final "Oorah" for a titan of the genre.

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