The multiplayer component of Battlefield 4 is in many ways the natural endpoint of the steady increase in scale seen from the Bad Company games through Battlefield 3 – the maps are now immense yet populated, with far fewer massive grasslands or deserts to race across dully, the vehicles finally fully encompass the branches of the armed services in more detail, with motor-torpedo boats finally allowing proper naval battles within the confines of a FPS, and there is finally a fully functional commander mode, with UAVs and gunships and all the other paraphenalia of technologically advanced war. Yet the whole affair does not have the same buzz of excitement about it that past games brought – in its ambition, it loses some of the simplicity that made Bad Company 2 so compelling.
This is largely due to the muted colour palette and over-busy visuals; BF4 is a visually dull game. Night maps and oppressive weather effects – showing off the detailed physics and environmental modelling – create battlefields which do not have the vibrancy of Bad Company 2‘s jungle maps or the atmosphere of its nighttime winter battles. It is a dark game, with inside areas poorly lit and the meticulously recreated interior environments mostly coated in shadow, and one map in particular – Flood Zone – almost impossible to navigate in places. Its entire final section in Rush mode is almost completely pitch-black, a ruined multistorey car park confusing to navigate and reduced to checking the colour of names above half-seen players. Not every map, thankfully, is as confusing and muddy as Flood Zone, and another, dominated by an immense dish reminiscent of that featured in the ending of classic Bond film Goldeneye, does well to recapture the glory of Bad Company 2‘s most memorable levels. Similarly, naval map Paracel Storm is exciting and memorable despite its unremitting greyness; patrol-boats and jetskis are tossed by the storm, air strikes throw up dust and a setpiece around a shipwreck is visually stunning. However, the whole aesthetic is muted and lacking definition of colour – vehicles are hard to tell apart at a distance and players are often seen only as silhouettes. Quite often a player can be killed and not have properly seen their attacker – and the post-death camera seems to acknowledge this by highlighting the opponent in orange. Obviously, realism and accuracy in depicting lighting effects is paramount in this genre of game, but I feel that parts of the aesthetic of Battlefield 4 show the necessity of a measure of stylisation to create a rewarding game.
The aesthetics, though, are thankfully the most severe point of criticism; the gameplay is largely unchanged in mechanics yet expanded in scope from previous entries. This is a case where the much-criticised incremental changes to a franchise are useful – Battlefield 3 was largely hard to fault in its core gameplay, with problems mostly resulting from uninspiring and too-large map design. Expansion game modes such as Domination have been rolled into the core game using specially-designed smaller versions of existing maps, while a new Obliteration mode offers a largely innovative challenge with a single point to capture. The other new gametype is Defuse, a simple demolition gametype akin to Call of Duty‘s Search and Destroy. Rush – a kind of point-capture evolution of classic “assault” gametypes and Conquest – a large-scale domination mode with numerous flags and vehicles – remain, with the former still the most enjoyable in its alternation between constant forward motion and desperate defence.
Perhaps the most crucial change is the subtle alteration of the aircraft controls, making helicopters far more intuitive to fly and jets significantly more controllable. Similarly, aircraft now come with far more useful starting weapons, giving players more power in their early games. A practice mode, allowing empty games to be created to explore maps and test vehicles, is also a welcome addition. Clearly, the complaints levelled at Battlefield 3 have been addressed at each step and this is admirable. Yet it is clearly a game waiting for the next generation of consoles; the maps, while significantly improved on their predecessors, still feel slightly too large for their flag placement and player numbers – Paracel Storm, for example, has quite significant amounts of dead, unused space. The Playstation 4 and Xbox One promise much more parity of experience with the current PC version in this area, although prior to these consoles’ launch it is impossible to tell if they will succeed.
Level progression is largely similar to previous games, with a much slower rate of experience than other FPSs and much more rationing of unlockables. The class system still exists, although role protection is reduced by greater weapon overlap; certain light weapons, shotguns and even light sniper rifles and assault rifles can be used by every class as replacements to their traditionally assigned weapons. This is a good decision, since it does not penalise players who wish to use the gadgetry of the sniper class without being tied to long-range weapons, yet at the same time it suggests a lack of faith in the concept of a class-based FPS and an attempt to undermine it. Vehicle upgrades seem to come far more quickly, too, addressing a complaint about previous titles which made fully upgrading a class of vehicle far too difficult. Yet there is one significant change which I feel detracts from this largely well-balanced system; the “Battlepacks” mechanic. Taken from Mass Effect 3, it offers players random packs of upgrades and cosmetic items throughout game progress – a lottery that is largely unneeded in a game with such a well-structured unlock process. Opening random packs of items to get a chance at a much-needed gunsight is an unwelcome break in the illusion the game tries hard to create of tactical action and a clear reminder of both the game’s nature as a game and the wider trend espoused by EA of adopting random-roll and microtransaction distribution models in premium titles.
It is hard to dislike Battlefield 4 multiplayer as a game; it is functionally little different from previous titles, to its benefit. Yet while great steps have been taken in making the maps more welcoming and populated, and less open Great War-like fields dominated by machine-guns and snipers, the need to future-proof for the next generation works against the improvements in design. Similarly the overuse of muddy and obscuring lighting techniques limits the capacity of the player to see much of the fine detail that the maps are full of, and at times actively hampers the playing of the game. A more brightly-lit and well-defined aesthetic would both improve the game experience by making target acquisition feel a fairer challenge and also allow the meticulous craft of the environments to show through better.