As the next generation of consoles inch towards everyday reality, it's worth contemplating what will become of the classic single-player shooter. In games like Ubisoft's The Division, Bungie's Destiny and Respawn Entertainment's Titanfall - arguably the three most promising next-gen titles - the solo campaign as we understand it no longer exists. Instead, playing alone and playing in company will be different states in the same fluid experience, with the design heavily skewed towards the latter.
As this generation has progressed, multiplayer modes have become more and more important to a given shooter's long-term viability, and have eaten up more and more time and resources as a result. Single-player shooter fans have frequently been given cause to feel cheated, and the situation is unlikely to change with the new consoles. Indeed, the notion of a distinct, separate single-player campaign may disappear altogether.
"Great efforts have been made to capture the magic of multiplayer during the solo mode. There are epic moments to behold"
In that regard, Battlefield 4 is still very much based on current-gen thinking, the team at DICE contriving new ways to breathe life into an aspect of their game that most people barely even acknowledge. For what it's worth, DICE seems to have succeeded in its potentially futile quest, crafting a narrative-driven fantasia of explosions and bullets that, while perhaps not stellar in its own right, is at least a confident step forward from Battlefield 3's much-maligned linear trawl.
GamesRadar, which awards Battlefield 4 a 9 out of 10, attributes some of this improvement to the solo campaign's more "intimate" tone - a welcome development for fans of Bad Company 2's energetic banter. "Your squad mates, Irish and Pac, have more developed personalities," the reviewer notes, "and there are some memorable little moments in between all the shooting and shouting."
In truth, the biggest problem with Battlefield 3's campaign was how little DNA it shared with the kinetic, widescreen battles that defined the online experience. With Battlefield 4, DICE has met this criticism head on, and the entire package is much improved. Indeed, GamesRadar proclaims it, "the best Battlefield ever created."
"Great efforts have been made to capture the magic of multiplayer during the solo mode. There are epic moments to behold, like dams bursting and frenzied tank battles inside savage tropical storms. You unlock kit, and accrue points for kills - just like you do in multiplayer."
"Terrific level design is responsible for what makes this work well, and I'd wager that a good chunk of Battlefield 4's maps will live as classics"
However, even the campaign's most vehement supporters ultimately acknowledge its place in the overall hierarchy. Indeed, GamesRadar caps its words of encouragement with a very deliberate backhanded compliment: "It's like a beautiful-looking training mission, with chatting." And for the vast majority of Battlefield players it doesn't need to be anything else. DICE clearly understands the real reason why people spend $60 on its marquee franchise, and it has precious little to do with the personal foibles of AI squadmates.
Battlefield 4's multiplayer modes have been showered with tweaks and refinements, stirring the critics into a chorus of unanimous praise. It seems that the best in class is now even better, thanks in no small part to each map's unique, destructible features - demonstrated at E3 with the destruction of a skyscraper that had served as the venue for a firefight just seconds before. EA named this spectacular new feature "Levelution," and it's telling that IGN never once uses that term even as it offers its hearty, if qualified congratulations.
"Large-scale destruction like this changes the fundamental layout of an area, forcing combatants to react intelligently and change their strategies and loadouts on the fly," IGN notes in its 8.5 out of 10 review. "Even after the magic and surprise is gone, teams always need to be prepared for how they'll react when a crumbled tower keeps their tanks out of enemy territory. Coming out on top because your new strategy adapts to and harnesses the new level design is even more satisfying than the XP and armory unlocks you earn along the way."
Not every example of "Levelution" matches the awe of seeing a vast building reduced to rubble, of course, and IGN believes that the effort required to trigger certain events isn't always justified by the utility of the end result. Indeed, there is the nagging sense that, having invented a new 'back-of-the-box' feature, DICE felt "obliged" to fit examples in wherever possible, and many are "superfluous" as a result. However, the emphasis on destruction trickles down into other areas of the game, leading to more subtle implementations of the idea, and a commitment to great map design.
"Finally, for the first time since Bad Company 2, teams can tear down most simple structures. Knocking out supports to topple houses and collapse roads isn't quite as exciting as a skyscraper sinking into a bay, but it's great for keeping enemies out of troublesome spots or creating a crawl space to hide in.
"Battlefield 4 takes the scope of the previous games and blows it up, with maps that take minutes to run across on foot"
"Where Battlefield 4 most brilliantly distances Battlefield 3 is in its map design. The best Battlefield maps are challenging and satisfying, demanding you take advantage of everything at your disposal, and Battlefield 4 does this extremely well... Terrific level design is responsible for a lot of what makes this work well, and I'd wager that a good chunk of Battlefield 4's maps will live as classics."
And so to the elephant in the room. With a dearth of first-party AAA exclusives on both Xbox One and PlayStation 4, Battlefield 4 has become the de facto barometer for what we can expect from the early days of the new console generation - in terms of fidelity and scale, at least. The vast majority of reviews took place at several events hosted by EA, where current-gen, PC and PlayStation 4 versions were available to play. Needless to say, the critics - including those referenced here - opted for a mix of PS4 and PC, only dallying with the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions for the sake of comparison.
According to Polygon, which gave the game a more reserved 7.5 out of 10, the most obvious difference for console gamers will be in the scale of the battle. There were pronounced differences between the console and PC versions of Battlefield 3, and while the PC version of Battlefield 4 handily outstripped the PS4 in most respects, both platforms now offer the same fundamental experience.
"Battlefield 4 takes the scope of the previous games and blows it up, with maps that span virtual kilometers of space that take minutes to run across on foot. Battlefield 4's multiplayer levels feel less compromised in scale than in Battlefield 3, which has the unfortunate side effect of feast or famine. When one of the larger maps had less than 50 players, for example, I found it easy to wander for multiple minutes looking for something to do, for someone to shoot or assist or something. Anything.
"It's hard not to wonder just what DICE will be able to do when it no longer has to hobble its designs to suit ageing hardware"
"But when those levels are full - when, for example, 64 players are battling for control of Hainan Resort's five capture points - there's no shortage of engagement... At one point, I watched as the resort hotel crumbled under the explosives of my teammates and jets screamed overhead, and then I ran to the next capture point, gunning down other players and avoiding turret fire from a Little Bird attack chopper.
"It's exhilarating in a way no other shooter is."
In its 8 out of 10 review, Eurogamer also notes that some disparity still exists between the PC and console, even when that console is a PlayStation 4. However, when either platform is placed alongside current-gen hardware, "the difference is night and day. Not just in terms of visual polish, but in tangible gameplay terms as well." Indeed, even with player-counts and map sizes scaled down, the Xbox 360 version - Eurogamer didn't play the game on PS4 - "just can't cope" with what DICE is asking it to do, and the reviewer is left wondering what compromises were necessary to serve three so very different masters.
"The differences in the carefully staged single-player campaign aren't so bad, but anyone who tries the game online on next-gen will find it very difficult to go back again. On 360, even with the full 14GB of installed data, the textures are murky, the graphics flicker and glitch and the low resolution and chugging frame-rate cut right into the core of the game - obscuring enemies behind technical wrinkles and generally making it harder to fight effectively. If you're looking to this game to justify a platform upgrade, consider its job done.
"It's hard not to wonder just what DICE will be able to do when it no longer has to hobble its designs to suit ageing hardware, though."