Shooters have a formula for success: be accurate, engaging, and rewarding. This generation has seen a competition between two powerhouse FPS titles that take this generation’s cake and are prepared to eat the next one. Time will tell who wins out in the coming years, but one thing’s for sure: I’ll be playing Battlefield 4 before AND after PlayStation 4 launches. This is partly due to the PS4 upgrade voucher included in the PlayStation 3 game case, but more than that, the current-gen version of this stellar shooter flexes the PlayStation 3’s muscles in ways that highlight the abilities, as well as the limitations, of the hardware and have me wondering what this experience will be like on PS4.
In Battlefield 4, China is on the verge of civil war, thanks to a seizure of power by Admiral Chang, a political figure set to dismantle the existing ruler Lin Lié. Chang intends to do this by blaming America for causing this internal conflict. What sets this story apart in the realm of FPS games is that the squad itself is believable, and from the massive events in the opening sequence to the little conversations between firefights and checkpoints, main character Recker finds himself amidst a group of marines with characterization that, while cliche at times, is as well-delivered as the best AAA titles available. To call the story "deep" or "complex" or even "long" would be optimistic, but it has enough ebb and flow to keep players attached to the group and the scenario at hand by creating a realism that accompanies the game’s staggering graphical prowess.
The story covers vast terrain as well, as wide open desert areas lead to the rainy streets of China, an enclosed battleship on the water, a snow-packed mountainside, and a mix of grassy and urban terrain. The difference between the Frostbite 2 engine from Battlefield 3 and Frostbite 3 in Battlefield 4 isn’t night and day, but some of the game’s textures stand out amidst environmental destruction for a visual masterpiece–even if these levels of razing have become expectations of the Battlefield franchise rather than milestones. The sounds of the game are stellar, as well, and each bullet fired yields sound appropriate to where the gun is being shot. When in a confined space with soft walls, the gunshots are dampened, but in open, urban maps, sound echos and carries further.
Learn more about some of the game’s small issues after the page break.
Still, this push toward maxing out PS3’s hardware brings out flaws, though whether these flaws are due to game or hardware is up to speculation. The framerate stayed consistent (at least, consistent enough to not notice much change), no matter if waves of enemies or waves of water were bombarding the scene, but some textures stood out as visually disjointed. Specifically, some cars reflected incredibly pixelated and improperly lighted images, and some water details are better in places than they are in others. In fact, water was very inconsistent across the entire game. Some water that was built into the ground texture, such as small puddles after a rain, looked beautiful, but reservoirs of water (of any size) that could be traversed varied wildly. Oceans look great as they thrash and throw, where larger puddles and Mission Two’s river tend toward opaque and mercurial rather than aquatic. These visual maladies don’t break the illusion of realism, necessarily, because they don’t appear as often as they could, but they’re still there and quite noticeable.
I also noticed four-second freezes–visuals, sound, and all–every time a system notification, like a friend signing on, appeared in the top-right corner. Trophies popping didn’t seem to have the same effect, but the hang-ups reflect either tapped-out hardware or poor optimization. Again, speculation–don’t assume I understand the memory allocation behind system notifications.
Meanwhile, companion and enemy AI are nothing special. Sometimes, enemies make decisions that trigger a specific route and the enemy runs that route no matter the circumstance, or they leave their heads out for long periods of time, resulting in higher scores for those who can take advantage without dying. Even on harder difficulties, the challenge is more in field management than enemy precision and smarts, which makes the game enjoyable without high frustration beyond Normal. Allies are equally dedicated to pathways and pre-determined actions. More times than I care to remember, fellow squadmates would slide up next to me in cover and push me out into gun fire. Perhaps I’m too aggressive and I push farther forward than my allies can handle, but the overall intelligence isn’t sophisticated enough to impress.
But boy, that Frostbite Engine 3 can perform miracles. Even if initial rendering can take a little time, the end result is beautiful. Feelings of lethargic nostalgia often took hold as the game, both single-player and multiplayer, loaded up to show a world, much like in the Unreal Engine 3 multi-plats of old, that wasn’t entirely rendered until the textures finished popping in. But that lethargy was always replaced by awe once everything appeared in its complete visual clarity. Edges are crisp, textures are vivacious, and the action is intense, and through all this, as I said before, the framerate holds up. Whether Frostbite Engine 3 really is performing miracles or the PS3 is more capable than many believe nowadays is almost irrelevant: DICE has built a game that even Sony first-party developers should strive to match in visual bombast.
Check out details on multiplayer and weapons after the page break.
Oh, and Battlefield 4 gameplay takes to the player in a way that only Uncharted can topple–that’s right, Uncharted. Remember, in Uncharted 2, when the Nepalese building around Drake was toppling and he still had to fight off enemies and a helicopter? Imagine playing the scene in first-person. And it looks better. Battlefield 4 has you covered, but DICE takes the setup to mind-blowing scale and circumstance. I won’t spoil this, or other, magnificent moments, but imagine the intensity of a toppling building staged in "Titanic" proportions.
You’ll also be engaged by ribbons and awards, which are handed out like candy on Halloween. In a world where instant gratification is the norm, these notifications of performance make the experience that much more personalized. With these ribbons and awards come weapons and equipment, and this aspect is not segregated to either single-player or multiplayer: both modes of play have plenty of reward for players, based on performance. That’s not unusual for shooters–and the latter has been the console norm since Call of Duty 4–but Battlefield 4’s multiplayer separates itself from the competition by adding a vastness to its own incredulous scope. Of course, many Battlefield fans attribute massive scale to the franchise, but this outing has a sense of verticality unmatched by its predecessors. I never participated in Battlefield 3 multiplayer outside the initial beta, so I cannot say in confidence if the maps were as tall as they were long. However, the multiplayer this time around features tall structures and varied, destructible maps that surprised me. Immediately after spawning, I was falling from a plane with a prompt to the right of the screen to pull my parachute, but since I was falling to the earth, my focus wasn’t on the on-screen prompt until I almost hit the ground. The feeling that situation gave me was gripping, and I never forgot about the fact that I had a parachute after that. Well done, DICE, for I also learned the parachute is a superb way to get around the map from roosts, and no section of Battlefield 4’s varied maps ever felt out-of-reach. Pointing out enemy players is great as well, since your player will physically point at them and they will be highlighted for the rest of your team to see for a time.
Guns themselves each have a distinct feel, but like any good shooter, the shooting system is universal and accessible, sui having to acclimate between each weapon won’t be a chore. Mechanisms slide and backfire gives a further touch of realism. The more powerful guns have more kick to them, which affects accuracy naturally, and half the fun is exploring the best way to use each gun. Overall, Battlefield 4 isn’t exactly a point-and-click shooter, but it’s also not as heavy as Killzone 2. Rather, gun and player movement have a natural weight that’s complimented by responsive commands, giving Battlefield 4 an overall natural and enjoyable flow. Accompanying wonderful gunplay is the new lean system, which allows for the player to automatically lean out from a corner to aim simply by holding the aim button while in cover.
The returning game modes are as follows: Conquest (all-out vehicle warfare with objectives), Domination (fast-paced Capture the Flag), Obliteration (destroy enemy targets), Team Deathmatch (you know this one), Rush (attack and defend points on the map), and Square Deathmatch (self-explanatory). Already, Battlefield 4 hosts an array of modes that cater to most any playstyle, but one more makes its debut: Defuse. Featuring five-on-five combat, Defuse tasks players with eliminating the other team or handling military objectives. It’s got a lot in common with Rush mode, but here, you only get one life per round. Typically, FPS multiplayer modes can watered down from the single-player experience, but the difference between the two here is nominal. Buildings still blow up in glorious fashion, textures are still vivid, and gunplay in general is incredibly smooth. Visually, the only negative is that textures tend to take a bit longer to load in multiplayer, but since human enemies are a constant threat, forgetting about the first few moments of visual ugliness is easy, especially after the action hits and the visuals cement.
DICE expands the mark Uncharted made on the industry by delivering an explosive narrative in memorable fashion. Visually, I can’t imagine Battlefield 4’s expansive areas looking any better, but seeing graphics like this in current-gen consoles was a thing of fiction even three years ago. In prime form, Battlefield 4’s competitive modes deliver for so many different styles and interests that choosing any other multiplayer shooter would be pure subjective preference. Even then, what DICE has created may have players questioning current- and next-generation standards. Precise controls, an engaging narrative, and thrilling gameplay trump minor hiccups and AI routines to make Battlefield 4 a crucial PS3 experience. If the game’s PS4 version can up the already-astounding visual ante even higher, Battlefield 4 will be in my PlayStation disc trays for months to come.