Expecting greatness from the single-player campaign of a predominantly multiplayer game like Battlefield 4 seems to be overly optimistic, yet compared to many military FPSs it makes a good effort at crafting a campaign. The story is unambitious and short, yet more coherent than its main rival Call of Duty and stands well as a Hollywood action film. Crucially, for a game, it does not get bogged down in uninteractive or uninteresting turret sections or gimmicks; whenever the player has full control, they are playing the game in its standard state. Vehicles function identically to the multiplayer, and many of the annoyances such as poor lighting and overly busy visuals are largely absent.
From a narrative perspective, BF4‘s campaign is briskly told, without the sense of being padded out for game length’s sake; there are no parallel stories being told, and much less of the geographical jumping which makes other games seem so inconsequential. This focus is refreshing in a genre that has increasingly adopted spectacle over coherency, where in order to include a full range of landmarks and setpieces the plot travels the globe. BF4 does, to an extent, hop borders with its plot – yet the movement is much more logically connected in plot terms as the player’s character attempts to rejoin his forces after becoming isolated in enemy territory. This kind of story works for a FPS far better than a small team single-handedly saving the world from a globetrotting villain, and justifies (to an extent) the one-man-army nature of the genre. The setpieces that do feature are very subdued for the most part; a mission on a sinking ship evoking Modern Warfare‘s iconic prologue is about the most extravagant the action gets. However, as a result of this, the great potential of the game that is revealed in the grand warfare of the multiplayer is somewhat lacking. Battlefield is the FPS that traditionally has revelled in mass battles and ridiculous scale; for the campaign to focus on a series of very small-scale intimate missions, with few vehicle sections save a short tank mission and a well-executed car chase, seems an unwelcome limitation. It may be a tightly-written, enjoyable campaign, but it does not make the most of what the game’s engine and mechanics can offer.
On the other hand, the intimacy of the campaign does allow the characters to shine through a little better than most, and they feel like significantly less of the cardboard cutouts that many games are populated with. They are still one-note broad stereotypes of the kind action-films love, but the short conversation sequences do enough to make them seem worth caring about – had this not been the case, the final mission, where the narrative is brought very strongly into the player’s attention, would not have worked at all. The ending shows a little more ambition than most campaigns in that it provides a comparative lack of resolution for the world as a whole, but sadly also feels rushed by the brevity of the climactic sequence. While an ending not involving the world being totally saved with one shot is refreshing, it does not hold up particularly well in the wider military fiction genre – what is notably interesting in the field of video games feels unfinished and malformed as a piece of fiction.
In gameplay terms, the campaign works well; its levels capture what made the original Modern Warfare so memorable by keeping the action comparatively grounded and the action climaxes very personal rather than apocalyptic. The capacity to change weapons at each checkpoint allows a certain level of varied approach to a mission, but the most fun is to be had by bringing the heaviest weapons possible and enjoying the landscape destruction the engine permits. In a sense the campaign is a way of showing off all the physics effects the engine can handle – buildings collapse, aircraft crash, ships break up – and these are generally the climaxes of each mission that lead into the next. As a technical showcase, then, it works very well. Mechanically it is much like the multiplayer played against computer opponents, which is similarly entertaining, if at times bizarrely glitchy. Often it is possible to progress too quickly and have to wait for the AI to catch up, or for enemies to appear in strange places or bunched together. These really serve to reinforce the gamism of it, and shatter the illusion of a coherent piece of fiction. Complaints of obtrusive gamist elements also plague the general design of the levels; an omnipresent score counter quite undermines the attempts at storytelling by permanently reinforcing that BF4 is a game to be played for points. It is a bizarre decision; while I have no problem with performance in a mission governing item unlocks, this could have easily been made more discreet or even handled invisibly during missions. As it stands, the game is a constant stream of positive reinforcement – 100 points per enemy downed, 500 for a vehicle – that make it seem more like Time Crisis than anything else and entirely undermines its potential for conveying a narrative.
Thus while BF4 aspires to do something interesting with its single-player campaign, a number of strange design decisions undermine what it does well; it is at the top end of its genre (the military FPS) yet at the same time is a half-baked piece of military fiction quite ruined by blatant gamism. The capacity for games to tell stories either requires the blatantly gamist elements to be hidden while still retaining the sense of meaningful choice, or for a story to be written that accounts for those gamist elements. BF4 does neither well – its campaign is not long or varied enough to be an interesting arcade shooter, and its story is not strong enough to be truly memorable over the score-chasing design. It is hard to dislike, yet hard to truly recommend.