Thoughts: Battlefield 4 (Single Player).


It seems the universe has a sense of irony.

Way back when dinosaurs roamed the earth (i.e. 2011) I wrote a review of Battlefield 3’s single player campaign. It was, to put it mildly, not a very good game – and I even got to questioning whether it was a game at all, being as it was an almost totally creatively bankrupt experience that alternated between a barely-interactive theme park where you occasionally shot people (or not, since your involvement in the game was entirely optional and the thing would happily play itself without you lifting a finger) and braindead turret sections that were very thinly disguised as vehicle combat. It made almost no use of the destructible buildings provided by DICE’s Frostbite engine outside of scripted cutscenes, had writing and dialogue that was offensively stupid, and in general was just a black hole of awfulness that ranks somewhere in the top five worst games I’ve played in the last decade.

Now, one day DICE is hopefully going to realise that very few people buy Battlefield for its CoD-knockoff single-player, and they’re going to just cut the whole thing entirely and plough the vast numbers of man-hours they waste on it back into making the series’ excellent multiplayer as good as it can be, and the gaming world will be a much better place for it. Sadly that day has not yet arrived, and so I find myself in the rather unfortunate position of having to review yet another Battlefield single player campaign. To say that I wasn’t looking forward to it would be something of an understatement, but with the multiplayer being yet another shining example of a botched, premature game launch I had little else to do this weekend. So I gritted my teeth, girded my loins, and ventured forth into what I fully expected to be another five hours of sheer hell.


This is why I was quite surprised to find that Battlefield 4 isn’t quite the unmitigated disaster that I was expecting. Sure, my first impressions were not favourable; the story starts with a flashback sequence again – always a reliable sign of a hack writer –  and my prodding of the first mission’s scripted helicopter attack revealed that it would sit off in the middle distance twiddling its rotor blades if I stopped the car and refused to participate in the thrilling chase sequence. You get promoted to squad leader after that first mission, yet your supposed subordinates spend the next few missions telling you what to do and making your decisions for you (while naturally relying on you to do everything that’s not sitting behind a piece of cover taking occasional ineffective potshots at the enemy). A typical combat encounter will consist of enemies running in from off map or deploying from helicopters and immediately crouching down behind cover with their heads conveniently sticking out so that you can headshot them. On the face of it Battlefield 4 is as shooter by the numbers that’s just as restrictive and on-rails as its predecessor, with the only real difference in the structure and layout of the levels being that it’s slightly better at camouflaging that fact this time around. A paragon of good game design this most definitely is not.

And yet despite my rock-bottom expectations, despite the awful Tom Clancy-esque plot and clichéd dialogue and formulaic structure of the game, despite every fibre of my being screaming at me that this was just a slightly prettier version of the un-game that was Battlefield 3, I found myself having fun. Only occasionally at first, and with a certain resentfulness that it meant I couldn’t outright hate the game, but while I would hardly call the first half of Battlefield’s 4 single player campaign a compelling reason to pick up the game it’s probably still worth playing if you’ve bought it anyway. The reasons for this are almost entirely down to the improvements that have been made both in the technical capabilites of the Frostbite engine and how the campaign uses it; the scripted destruction now more directly involves the player and there’s more opportunity for you to perpetrate your own mayhem by destroying the structure the bad guys happen to be standing on, but this is small fry compared to Frostbite 3’s new innovation: the weather effects.


Battlefield 4 is an extremely good looking game. That goes without saying. It’s even good-looking running at 1440×900 on my jalopy hodge-podge of a computer. Even so, Battlefield 4’s weather effects honestly have to be seen to be believed. They’re incredible, going far beyond just having a rain filter plastered over the players vision and actually simulating wind and waves during a storm. When you’re in a boat it bounces from wave crest to wave crest; when you’re on land there’s so much crap blowing past your field of vision that it makes it very difficult to pick out targets. The fourth level of the campaign is a beach assault during one of these storms, and even though I’ve done beach assaults in a dozen other shooters the storm made it seem fresh and new again, trying to spot enemy soldiers through the murk of wind-swept detritus and beating rain. I couldn’t help myself. I started to have fun, and I continued to have fun even though the level later transitioned to yet another mobile turret section. Battlefield 4 is the last game I expected to do this, but it showed me something refreshing and novel and I’m prepared to forgive it quite a lot because of this.

Unfortunately my newfound forbearance didn’t last long. I’d already had to put up with a lift door that opened to reveal a soldier standing in mid-air because the level geometry hadn’t loaded, and a tank that was supposedly hunting me that I was able to climb on top of and dance a merry jig on without the tank AI reacting, and the same tank subsequently getting immobilised with its barrel stuck through a window, and a helicopter battle where the helicopter cheated by diving beneath the surface of the ocean to evade my gunfire. I’d resigned myself to having to bulldoze my way through to the end of what is a thoroughly buggy game, but there’s a reason why I only talk about the first half of Battlefield 4’s single player, and that’s because I was hit with a series of crashes to desktop halfway through the game during mission four. It locked up when firing guns, when running to cover, after I died and clicked the button to reload – I couldn’t play for more than a couple of minutes without the whole thing spluttering to a halt and sending me back to the last checkpoint. It had hardly been well-behaved up until this point, but after having a few glimmers of unexpected fun with the game I wasn’t counting on Battlefield 4 almost immediately slamming the shutters down and physically preventing me from carrying on any further.


In some ways this is a relief – while the stunning weather effects almost single-handedly lift the single player out of the chasm that Battlefield 3 fell into and into the vicinity of “interesting curio”, it’s still not something you play because it’s good, but rather because you bought the game anyway and it at least does something that (as yet) no other game has really attempted. I made five or six attempts to carry on with the campaign, but I’m secretly quite happy to have an excuse to not have to sit through the interminable loading screens and cutscenes any more. I still find it quite ironic, though; not only that the game did manage to clear that low, low bar my expectations had set for it, but that it then pulled a Madagascar and refused to let me carry on rather than allow that fun element to infect the rest of the game.  DICE are renowned for buggy launches but even so I find Battlefield 4 to be exceptionally bad in this regard1, and judging from various web forums I’m hardly the only one.

DICE are a top-flight developer with the full backing of EA who are supposedly market leaders in their genre, so why is the game so bug-ridden when I’ve played FPSes from Eastern European developers made with a fraction of the budget that were almost completely bug-free? I have no doubt they’ll eventually patch it – they did with Battlefield 3’s horrendously broken multiplayer netcode – but it’s yet another example of a premiere PC franchise that has been pushed out the door early in order to hit a particular market window, with the publisher trusting that it’ll sell copies based on its name alone. In a way I’m part of the problem; I knew it would be a buggy mess at launch but I preordered it anyway, but this is another one of those games that’s so bad it’s going to make me swear off the next iteration of the series unless I see something that’ll make me think it’ll turn out differently – and when Battlefield 4 can largely be described as “Battlefield 3, except with weather”, I think that it’s a series that’s highly unlikely to surprise me again.


  1. The multiplayer is even worse, with so many server crashes that it makes trying to play for more than fifteen minutes without losing all your progress an extremely risky business.
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16 thoughts on “Thoughts: Battlefield 4 (Single Player).

  1. Janek says:

    We should start a campaign to introduce “twiddling its rotor blades” as a replacement for the word “hovering”

  2. Tormund says:

    I gave up on the Battlefield franchise when they asked me to become a ‘premium’ member by essentially paying a second time for Battlefield 3..

    • Hentzau says:

      That premium is kind of ridiculous, isn’t it? £40 for what essentially amounts to DLC packs, in-game item chests and getting ahead on server queues. The last one is something that particularly sticks in the craw since I already paid £30 for this damn game, why not just let me into the server instead of creating a two tier system where I can get a leg up if I give you even *more* money!

  3. Gap Gen says:

    It’s insane that DICE don’t use their multiplayer setting to create a single player game. They could have a pseudo-ArmA experience, with huge open battles checkpointed by an AI commander giving you orders, and your squad’s actions affecting the flow of a huge battle raging around you – plus it would train you in skills for multiplayer, like flying, which is a bit of a dark art if you just jump into MP headfirst. Of course, EA has presumably decided at some idiot marketing level that it needs to chase the CoD Asshole dollar, so here we are. But as it is, it has a lot of potential. Hell, just giving us back the skirmish mode with some basic AI would be nice.

    • Darren says:

      I doubt very many big publishers really think that single-player games are popular. It wouldn’t surprise me if the industry thinks that Assassin’s Creed is a fluke.

      • Hentzau says:

        It’s impossible to tell without access to specific statistics, but anecdotally the potential number of people who will play your game if it’s single player usually dwarfs by far those who are interested in multiplayer. Multiplayer is good at creating a core audience who will buy multiple iterations of your game, but if you don’t include single player you’re artificially slicing off huge portions of your bottom line, which is why developers keep doing it.

        This isn’t necessarily a bad thing — it’s possible to do singleplayer that’s very well suited to the Battlefield series, as Gap point out. The problem is this square-peg-round-hole scenario where Battlefield (and other games) takes too many of its cues from current market leaders instead of crafting something that relies on its own strengths. It’s the reverse of the old “every game must have multiplayer” syndrome we saw back in the early 00′s.

      • Where do they got those ideas? Especially with some games regulary debunking the idea.

        Look at Steam’s top ten played games. Who’s on 3rd and 5th position? Footbal Manager, totally singleplayer game, and Civilization 5, mostly singleplayer game, also Rome 2 at 10th. OK, those are “niche game” (if you can call niche a game that is 5th most played game 3 years after release). But then on 6th position you see Skyrim. I don’t know how can you think low of singleplayer after Skyrim. 2 years after release it’s still a top seller and lives because of tons of free content you get even before DLCs.

        • Hentzau says:

          It’s worth noting that the Steam Skyrim user numbers on release dwarfed every other game — even TF2 after it went F2P — until Dota 2 went into open beta.

  4. It’s amazing that big and wealthy publisher like Electronic Arts is willing to do not just a boring sequel-remake we are used to (just add more guns, buy screenwrite from Tom Clancy’s ghost writers, give us snarky lovable hero who doesn’t play by the rules, make player feel important, you know all the cheap tricks), but makes almost artistical statement with selling the same game again, cleverly filling it with self-aware irony and social commentary. Player has a minor role in the game and can just roll through it without any effort, writing is deliberately bland and dumb (and masterfully stylized to the point that some players thought it was a real writing of some incompetent intern copywrighter!..), the game has virtually no additions and basically the same graphics, which, of course, criticises consumer’s passive acceptance of 8 year old technologies and gameplay. Any other company (with possible exception of Activision) wouldn’t have the guts to make such clever and brave statement against negative trends in videogaming and even popular culture as a whole; Battlefield 4 isn’t some coward game like Spec Ops that can only whine about it’s own inherent ugliness. Battlefield 4 shouts about the ugliness of a modern culture from the highest mountain. Battlefield 4 is a counter-culture that doesn’t just rejects contemporary culture like some modernist painter that paints Black Square and calls it a picture, Battlefield 4 paints a hyper-realistic classical painting of some girl with a cat that is so incredibly boring, intentionally dumb and you can see girl’s detailed spots as well as cat’s ear pus. It’s marvelous in it’s contemporary ugliness.

    • Hentzau says:

      I used to think Modern Warfare (the first one) was actually quite a clever anti-war game, until I read an interview with the developers where they said they put the AC-130 level in because they thought shooting people with robotic precision from several thousand feet up where they couldn’t even see you was fucking awesome. Mainstream game developers basically aren’t capable of that sort of self-introspection or irony.

      • I can never understand why can’t people with budgets like that make something… not dumb. It isn’t like you have to choose between
        approachable for general public plot/gameplay/environment and clever elitist/postmodern/specialist thing. We have movies, tv shows and videogames that are both popular, easy to understand and clever, deep, detailed. They don’t even try to hire some Russian to write Russian texts in Call of Duty where are so many levels in Russia. I understand they can’t add difficult puzzles for player to solve, but they also make characters dumber than dumb, not once any of them does anything more intellectual than use boot on the door. Why, just why.

      • Gap Gen says:

        My guess is that since CoD was mainly borrowed wholesale from Spielberg WWII stuff, it also copy-pasted its pathos and respect for the subject matter. When it moved to modern stuff, it started copying Michael Bay, and also copy-pasted all of his subtext. Either that or the studio changed and lost the people responsible for caring about this stuff.

        In any case, it seems like money actually makes you dumber; it exposes you to investors and upper management who don’t give a crap, bloats your team into a soul-less design-by-committee monster, and squeezes out individualism and humanity. I remember Dan Harmon saying the same thing in a webcast of some talk he gave; can’t remember which one.

  5. PlayNicely says:

    The part about money making you dumber resonates with me.

    Modern management tends to like it when the quality of your product is some simple function of the money you throw at it – the problem is in game development this only works for art assets and marketing, not for programming. Which is why AAA developers produce beautiful yet bug-ridden games.

    Given a semi-competent art direction you can basically hire 50% more artists (composers, modelers, animators, etc.) and expect about 50% more output. This is not true for programming, where there actually is such a thing as too many people working on a given codebase.

    As a mediocre programmer myself I’ve seen it in action: A good programmer can easily be as productive as 5 mediocre ones, a brilliant programmer can replace 5 good ones. A careful and intelligent software design can literally save months of work. These ratios depend on the productive team members’ thinking styles being compatible and the organization’s ability to grant them certain liberties. A well-composed team of good programmers can be much more than the sum of its parts and an extra programmer who doesn’t fit in can actually reduce its productivity.

    No amount of money you throw at a really productive team can increase its output beyond a certain point, which means that no amount of money can make them meet an earlier deadline without sacrificing quality. And since good and brilliant developers tend to have a strong inner motivation to create quality works, the requirement to sacrifice quality to meet some marketing-imposed deadline tends to drive them away from such environments.

    • Hentzau says:

      I recently switched job roles into something where I had to start learning how to do simple programming. I have a natural aptitude for it, which helps, but I haven’t been doing it very long which means I’m still pretty bad at it. I can hack out code that does most of the things my job requires, and it’s pretty illuminating to get one of my co-workers — who isn’t a fantastic programmer himself, but who has been doing it a hell of a lot longer — to come over and show me how he’d do something: it’s always far smarter from a top-level design point of view and does the same thing in about a third of the space and a tenth of the memory usage. So your point about the programming side not being one that can be improved by throwing money at it is definitely true, I think.

      At the same time it doesn’t matter how good you are at programming: bugs *are* an inevitability, and the only fix for that is to give a game sufficient dedicated bugfixing and polishing time. This rarely happens in modern PC game development, and with the advent of console patching is becoming less and less common on the consoles too.

  6. […] a month post-release and Battlefield 4 still isn’t working properly. The stress of releasing for five different platforms simultaneously […]

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