As far as buzzwords go, ‘Levolution’ is among the worst. It’s Battlefield 4’s central gimmick, though, and the natural conclusion to the destructibility introduced in 2008’s Bad Company. Here, rather than blow neat holes in walls or knock down the odd house, you can destroy set-piece structures on every single one of the game’s multiplayer maps.
Given its prominence in EA’s promotional campaign, it’s little surprise to find that Siege Of Shanghai is the most dramatic map of the lot, featuring a towering skyscraper that can be felled by crippling its supports, which forces any players inside to parachute to safety as it lurches to the ground. In Flood Zone, a burst levee turns streets into water-filled canals, while Rogue Transmission’s colossal radio telescope tumbles apart.
Paracel Storm is our favourite level, set on islands beset by a tropical squall that grows increasingly violent as the round progresses. As the storm intensifies, the waves get choppier, hampering water vehicle handling. A huge ship moored to a wind turbine will break free if its tether is destroyed by either you or the storm, shifting a capture point. In one game, we lost a dogfight and ended up in the waves below, only to see our pursuer slam into the turbine, setting the ship free.
These moments are undeniably among 2013’s most striking visual spectacles in gaming, but they are novelties, and grow old quickly. Battlefield 4’s biggest, most exhilarating moments have nothing to do with scripted destruction, but are born from the sheer chaos of giving 64 players access to guns, tanks, choppers and jets, and then throwing them all into a sprawling map.
But, swelling player counts aside, that’s been the Battlefield series’ indestructible foundation for a decade, and again DICE proves unwilling to tinker with the formula. Movement feels almost imperceptibly nimbler, but the weapons handle identically to Battlefield 3, falling halfway between arcadey snappiness and rattly kickback. In terms of new features, a rudimentary peek-and-lean system has been added, activating whenever you press yourself up against a piece of cover and nudge your crosshair towards its edge. Obliteration, meanwhile, is a fast-paced new mode that combines bomb planting and point capturing.
But the most important new addition is Commander mode. One player per team can occupy the role of commander, viewing the battle from above with a tactical map and issuing orders to attack and defend. If your squad completes an objective, you’ll unlock Commander Assets, meaning you can aid your men on the ground with ammo and vehicle drops, or even a UAV that marks the location of enemy infantry for them. There are more direct options, too, including AC-130 and cruise missile strikes. And commanders can view the battlefield through the eyes of their soldiers with a picture-in-picture camera feature. Taken together, it adds an extra tactical layer onto a game that doesn’t reward teamwork so much as demand it.
Many of Battlefield 4’s maps feel notably bigger than those of its predecessors, with a lot more height to exploit; jets scream overhead as players jump from skyscrapers, and tank columns roll through the canyon-like streets below. Even on medium settings, this is a beautiful game. DICE is still self-indulgent when it comes to bloom and god rays, but this hyper-real style makes it stand out from other military shooters.
Multiplayer is the star attraction of any Battlefield game, but DICE has once again wasted man-hours on a forgettable campaign. It’s the most rote FPS trawl imaginable, but the strength of the visuals and scale of the set-pieces do just enough to hold your interest until the credits roll. It feels like an elaborate tech demo, a way for DICE to show off Frostbite 3’s tricks and a decent workout for your graphics card.
You play as Recker, a marine whose squad gets caught up in a war between China and the US. The casting of Michael K Williams – The Wire’s Omar Little – gives the script some weight, although it’s far from well-written. The campaign’s pace is ponderous, and there are too many clumsy instant-fail chase sequences in its six-hour runtime. Its highlight has nothing to do with Frostbite 3’s next-gen grunt, either – that honour goes to an amusing deployment of Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse Of The Heart.
Battlefield 3’s launch was marred by server and balancing issues, and it’s the same old story here. Right now, there are severe problems with the game’s netcode. You’ll bury six shots in an opposing player, only for them to spin round and kill you with one. Battlefield 4 can at least be patched server-side, reducing the need for client updates, but while teething problems are an expected part of any online launch, they’re becoming too much of a theme for DICE and publisher EA in general.
Let all the vision-obscuring dust settle and it transpires that Battlefield 4 is a more conservative sequel than we were led to expect. Neither Commander mode nor Levolution’s scripted destructability have changed the feel or flow of multiplayer in any dramatic way. But that’s not necessarily a problem: Battlefield’s pitched 64-player battles have a rhythm that’s still all their own, and the emergent carnage caused when jets, tanks and infantry collide is quite unlike anything else. Its tightly scripted singleplayer game, however, is like everything else, and it sticks in the craw that a tepid story is still sucking up resources when multiplayer has arrived with so many avoidable technical problems. DICE has ironed out kinks in the past, and it is sure to do the same here, but will the studio ever get it right on the first pass?
PC version tested. Battlefield 4 is out now on Xbox 360, PC and PS3. It will also be released on PS4 (November 29) and Xbox One (November 22).