Strange as it may be to say about a series that has built its reputation on raw scope, Battlefield's biggest problem might be that there are times when it's not nearly big enough.
That certainly is the case for Battlefield 4, which, like its predecessors, is both really good and deeply flawed. I've spent a lot time thinking about why this might be the case, and I've come to the conclusion that its problems are most evident when it gets away from what it does best: Namely, massive battles featuring the full suite of vehicles and destructible environments. After all, this is a series built around the notion that it's really cool to drive a tank through a collapsing skyscraper. It doesn't really do subtlety.
Nevertheless, you'll find times when Battlefield 4 seems bent on limiting its scope as much as possible. This seems to be especially true during its single-player missions, which might explain why Battlefield 4's campaign is as weak as it's ever been. Starring a decent but ultimately underwhelming cast of characters headlined by Michael Williams (Omar from The Wire), the adventure jumps from Shanghai to a Chinese Prison to a battle in the Suez Canal, with the unifying thread being war with the Chinese and the Russians. The context for the story is breathless and poorly-explained, with much of the dialogue devoted to developing a relationship between Williams' one-dimensional Irish and Hannah, a Chinese operative working with the U.S.
The campaign's best mission -- and, as it turns out, also its largest and most dynamic -- is a firefight through a gutted aircraft carrier that is taking on water followed by a running battle at sea. It's this battle that feels the most similar to the actual multiplayer missions, which are heavy on vehicles and set piece design. Afterward, the campaign becomes markedly less ambitious, opting instead to stick to suffocating corridors and individual gun battles, which are hampered by some really frustrating choke points. The campaign would have done well to have taken a page from a contemporary like Halo, which has always done a good job of dropping players into what amounts to a sandbox and letting them get from Point A to Point B however they want. As it is, the single-player continues to have relatively little of what I like most about Battlefield -- the huge, chaotic battles that define the multiplayer.
Thankfully, once the single-player is out of the way, Battlefield 4 largely finds its feet. Its trademark Conquest Mode remains customarily excellent, especially when playing on full 32 vs. 32 maps. The battles that erupt on such maps can be awe-inspiring, particularly when there are skilled players on both sides. Helicopters and stealth jets shoot through the air, while tanks and attack boats dominate the land and sea. The best maps are the ones that allow this action to flow naturally; among them, Zavod 311 and its rickety old factories, and the dynamic Rogue Transmission, where battles rage above and below its huge communications dish.
The map selection has its own set of flaws though, which is most apparent in levels like Flood Zone, where the map can go from "solid" to "unplayable" in the space of a few moments. Blame "Levolution" -- a new feature in which certain triggers can completely change a map. It's a cool idea, especially when massive skyscrapers are collapsing onto the field, but there are times when the execution is left wanting. Flood Zone is probably the worst offender, where an abrupt flood brings the action to a grinding halt as players are forced to swim through flooded canals, unable to use more than a pistol.
Other maps focus too much on close-quarters combat, which is where Battlefield is arguably at its weakest. Though hardly unplayable, maps like the one set in a claustrophobic Chinese prison sacrifice the dynamism and excitement of Battlefield's vehicles. Once again, when Battlefield tries to limit the scope of its engagements, its flaws become readily apparent. In the case of the Chinese prison, the support classes have a much harder time filling their particular niches in such tight quarters. Easily campable spawn points and massive choke points also turn modes like Obliteration (a sort of tug-of-war in which two sides fight over a bomb) into a total slaughter. At one point, I found myself stuck in one such engagement, which dragged on for 40 long minutes before being mercifully cut short. Another reviewer likened that match to trench warfare in World War I, and I'm really hard-pressed to disagree.
Such battles make me wish that Battlefield 4 were a more focused game. I originally fell in love with the series in large part because of its incredible scope, and those feelings have hardly waned over the years. If the series were to apply some of that magic to the single-player in particular though, I wonder if it couldn't be even stronger than it already is. That might be what it takes for Battlefield to take the much-desired next step and become the dominant multiplayer shooter of our age.
Even if it doesn't reach the dizzying heights to to which it aspires as a AAA shooter, though, Battlefield 4's core modes remain great, and they will only get better as new maps and vehicles become available. Thanks to its sheer enormousness, it retains a particular niche that I personally find very appealing, and I expect to continue playing throughout the year. I just hope I don't have to spend too much time in Chinese prison.
Visuals: While not a huge leap up from Battlefield 3's already strong graphics, the Frostbite 3 engine still manages to impress with spectacles like collapsing dams and skyscrapers. At max settings, it's one of this year's richest and best-looking games.
Music: Battlefield 4's soundtrack is relatively sparse, with what little there is alternating between soaring action movie tracks and droning, reverb heavy grinds. Where it really shines is its sound effects. Explosions, gunfire, and jets are distinct and rich, and do much to bring the battlefield to life.
Interface: Battlefield 4's customization is almost overwhelming at times, which I blame on the interface. Loaded as it is with jargon, it can be tough to tell what you're getting when you're attaching one of a dozen scopes, or choosing between various gadgets. The result is a trial-and-error approach that can be a tad frustrating when trying to optimize a class for battle.
Lasting Appeal: Battlefield 4 is less a game than a platform. Over the next few months, it will be heavily supported with new maps and other content, making it the kind of shooter that can easily last an entire year. Further adding to its lasting appeal is the Spectator Mode, which ought to go a long way toward increasing its viability in eSports and competitive communities. All told, Battlefield still has a really strong core experience. A map can be approached in a dozen ways, by land, air, sea, or on foot, which does a lot to keep them interesting over a long period of time. Of all its strengths, lasting appeal might be the biggest.
Battlefield 4's below average campaign is once again disappoints, but the excellent Conquest mode and large-scale combat is enough to carry the series for another year. Pretty much status quo for EA's top multiplayer shooter.