Technically and creatively, Battlefield 4 remains a marvel, though the game’s strengths here are tempered by an uninspired narrative, which sees the player character, Recker, cooperating with his varied squadmates; their mission involves the leaping from creative environment to creative environment, each decidedly unique. From an Azerbaijanian village, characterized by brown deserts and dilapidated structures, through towards an icy tundra, craggy, snowy mountains on all sides – the diversity is immense, which staves off the repetitious. The beautiful majesty of these locations is only bolstered by massive technical prowess, nearly unparalleled. In the mentioned village, which represents the game’s initial level, a powerful, blustery wind is blowing always, kicking up dirt into the air, or blowing violently the many flags carefully positioned on buildings and other structures. Sensory overload is a possible repercussion of these effects – the environments are too busy, beautiful though they may be. But navigating through a snowstorm or beaching on shore while a typhoon is blowing in full force, rain falling violently, results in a consistently exhilarating experience. One of the most compelling levels occurs early on, seeing the infiltration of a towering building in the city of Shanghai. Occurring at night, the atmospheric abounds, glimmering lights of other buildings visible always, while busy traffic is visible on the streets far below. Great verticality is here present, Recker positioned above at dizzying heights, and the mission proper is one of creativity and diversity, with the ascension to that upper floor, where the pace again shifts, gunfights erupting in claustrophobic corridors.
The game’s narrative exists merely as a framework, providing motivations for the frequent bouncing from location to location; it is a confused mess, involving conflict with Russians, and excursions into Chinese cities, where further opposition is faced. There are extractions of central characters, the seizing of data, the rescuing of innocent civilians, but none of these objectives seemed to matter, failure at achieving resonance on a deeper level. A fair bit of intrigue is present, though, as a Chinese female is met early on; initially received with trepidation and hesitancy, her stance and allegiance vacillate often, becoming ally, then foe, then ally again, her motives unclear. Highly likable, her voice acting is done well, able to speak fluently English and Chinese, while her character and facial modelling are also impressive, that last quality – facial modelling – being spectacular on all of the central characters, including squadmates Irish and Pac. Indeed, a saving grace for the narrative is represented by the dialogue and bantering between these squadmates, titled Tombstone. Irish is highly idealistic yet naïve, hoping always to see the good in man, acting with his heart rather than his brain, inevitably leading to many difficult situations. Others try to temper his brashness, like the level-headed Pac, quite endearing if generic. They believably clash at times, while others they come together as comrades, reflecting the disrupting effects of war on friendships. Death abounds, too, the formal leader of Tombstone dying in the opening hours, promptly giving command to Recker. The developers made the divisive decision to eschew voice acting here, Recker being completely silent. Here, it is rather frustrating, though understandably the intention was to heighten immersion, and relative success is achieved on that front – the first-person perspective is never left, even in cutscenes, which helps player identify with character. Still, despite this squad camaraderie, and a great frequency of death, which imparts a certain bleakness in tone, the narrative was never engaging, being too straightforward and devoid of ambition.
The campaign is very short, though that succinctness is actually an asset – the game moves at a consistently brisk pace, filled with cinematic moments, made all the fiercer when considering the maintenance of first-person perspective; manning a vehicle in a daring escape sequence, free to marvel at the detailed interior modelling, results in an excess of tension, the developers’ creative energies on full display, resulting also in a certain groundedness, which permeates many of aspects of design; being tortured with a cattle prod in that highly intimate perspective fast becomes more impactful and visceral. The dizzying nature felt atop that towering Shanghai skyscraper is only amplified, verticality felt more fiercely. Everything serves to evoke a sense of smallness and insignificance – the maps are sprawling, while Recker and his mismatched crew are tiny in comparison, even as they decimate entire squads of enemy opposition. Departing Shanghai by boat, business accomplished, informant rescued, the entire cityscape is visible while travelling down water, the beautiful majesty of the shining buildings on full display. And then, all is dark, a devastating EMP disrupting all lights and electronics. Irish, in his compassionate way, assists his unknown fellows, escorting them to a ship in the distant waters, military base of operations, where their vigor and health can be restored. It is a compelling, emotional act, creatively arresting. Then, the generic is reembraced, even as Irish maintains his likability and integrity to the last, while destruction closes over him. Given the muteness of Recker, Irish stands out as most compelling character, departing greatly from the mundane, grunt-like soldiers which populate many titles – he has a heart, willing and eager to enter the fray if it means the preservation of even strangers. Tombstone truly seems a band of brothers, united in mission and affection.
Whether scaling a Chinese skyscraper or fighting against the winds in a Russian tundra, the gameplay is universally fantastic. The arsenal of weaponry is large, the modelling detailed, while each gun is possessive of realistic, sometimes immense recoil, forcing careful maintenance of shots, constant readjustments a necessity if accuracy is to be sustained. At longer distances, bullet drop is present, forcing further tactical considerations, lending a sense of realism to the title, even as a regenerating health mechanic is expectantly employed. Given the immense quantity of guns, experimentation is encouraged; replace one weapon for another, and available tactics can totally change – one gun is suitable for a cautious approach, another facilitating more aggressive playstyles. Aggressiveness, though, is often punished harshly, when considering enemy AI. Fairly believable, they maintain cover wherever possible, taking periodic shots at Tombstone before promptly retreating back to the sanctuary of cover. Accurate but fair, boldness is discouraged, though the overall level of difficulty is slight, a scant few engagements posing a significant challenge. Frustration is occasionally evoked by the great frequency at which enemies lob grenades, forcing constant redirection, but this is a minor gripe. Challenge is further lessened by the rapid rate of health regeneration. Still, if cautiousness is encouraged, there are ample opportunities for a cautious approach; the environments are massive in scope and scale, ideal for long-range weaponry, like sniper rifles, highly damaging and satisfying to use. But whether using a booming sniper rifle or a puny DMR, headshot damage is immense, all enemies dropping by a single bullet to the skull. More exotic weapons are also present, like a plethora of valuable explosives, capable of efficiently dispatching enemy armor, devastating threats, capable of wreaking terrible destruction, their power bolstered by the destructible environments; walls can be blown to shreds, permitting new enemy sight lines. A building subject to great gunfire or explosives can collapse on the instant, a former bastion of cover made totally useless.
An elaborate progression system is at place here, each level having predetermined thresholds which, when met, confer a new type of weapon, gradually opening up more options for experimentation. These guns can be equipped at any of the myriad resupplying stations scattered about the levels, which also refill the stock of ammunition. The conferring of these medals – and the guns they unlock – is highly generous. Save for one level in the entire campaign, I acquired the highest rating, even though I did not deliberately set out to obtain them; it happened organically, though I suppose my predilection for headshots bolstered my stock of score, as they reward a higher number of points. The progression systems, though, are highly linear and restrictive, no direct action available to the player, with an inability to select what precisely will be unlocked by the points acquired. Similarly, weapon modifications for these weapons cannot be altered – flexibility of scopes, magazine sizes, and other similar attachments are here lacking, each gun being fashion with predetermined accessories. Still, the system is highly rewarding, with a very tangible component, the expansion of armory. The narrative, brief as it is, did not permit me to wield all of the weapons obtained, encouraging a replay, interesting and unexpected in such a cinematic, scripted title. I can imagine the multiplayer as being particularly robust and flexible, though I often lack any significant interest in such modes. The degree of freedom is likely immense, building upon the campaign’s relative restrictiveness.
Battlefield 4, while characterized by competent gameplay systems, is totally lacking in ambition, overly relying on the bombastic, to a fault – quiet moments and exposition are mostly lacking, while what is present only muddles the narrative. The squadmates of Tombstone seek to temper this confused mess, constantly expressing their humanity, their human doubts and dreams, their profession placing them in a position of perpetual danger, death looming on all sides. Still, these are soldiers, they are trained men, and that training shines through in the gameplay, intuitive and precise. Gun modelling and clever, detailed audio flourishes further an already strong sense of immersion, guns controlling believably, bullet trajectories and drop-offs realistic; fighting fast becomes a joy, the levels large, nearly being a sandbox, though heavy linearity does persist. Despite these engaging systems, repetition gradually emerges; a lone stealth section is present, serving to break up the gunfights, but it is over just as nearly as it was begun, while the systems here are basic and unrefined, seeing the fleeing of a dilapidated prison. Presentation and gameplay, then, mostly excel, though periodic drops are present – manning a tank, while serving to break up the repetitious, swift becomes an unenjoyable chore, actually destroying the rapid pace of the narrative, that pace displaced by frustration. But such faltering engagements are minimal, the game having a great, consistent flow, though a divisive fact is here present – the game’s campaign is very short, completable in a scant six or seven hours. Dull moments are a rarity, action abounding always, and given the sometimes-busy environments, the game can be overwhelming and intense. A satisfying if abrupt conclusion is present, the game ending when it needed to it, ultimate objective completed. With a high degree of immersion and stellar gunplay the title is engrossing and intense, even as narratively it seems wandering, directionless, the only strengths here attributable to a suite of believable, human soldiers – the groundedness of their figures sustains the narrative, prevents its devolution into total disaster.