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PS3 and Xbox 360 score - Note: This page of the review is based on retail PlayStation 3 code.
Available on Xbox 360, PS3, PC, PS4 and Xbox One coming soon
Battlefield 4 neatly illustrates the conundrum facing developers and publishers this winter. On the one hand, you have the imminent arrival of the next-generation consoles and the continuing comeback of the games PC. These are platforms ready for the next level of graphics and gameplay, and everybody wants to have a showcase title. On the other hand, you have a huge established base of existing Xbox 360 and PS3 owners who want the latest titles but aren’t ready to upgrade quite yet. Do you ignore this huge market, build a game for the old systems with enhancements for the new, or create something that aims at the next-gen consoles but scan scale back to run on existing systems. DICE and EA have picked the latter.
For now, we only have the current generation code to work with, so how does Battlefield 4 hold up? Pretty well, but with a few caveats you need to be aware of. As anyone who’s seen Battlefield 3 on PC and on PS3/Xbox 360 can tell you, there are some visual compromises and a few major gameplay ones in the console versions, and these have only been amplified by the focus on next-generation tech. Let’s not go crazy: this is one of the best-looking FPS games you’re going to find on eight-year-old hardware and it doesn’t play too shabbily either. All the same, you can’t help feeling that you’re not playing Battlefield 4 as it’s meant to be played.
Still, there’s one big surprise in store on every platform: the single-player campaign is a huge improvement on Battlefield 3. While the plot, to do with rogue Chinese generals and a missing political leader can be a little baffling, the missions are more interesting, more tightly orchestrated and frequently spectacular. It’s not the longest campaign or the most original, but it’s thoroughly entertaining while it lasts.
It works because it plays to Battlefield’s strengths. While some missions still take place in cramped interiors or on artificially constrained routes, a number spread over quite wide areas, giving you different approaches and transforming the game into a more tactical shooter than your average CoD shooting gallery. Weapons and gadget crates give you instant access to any gun, grenade launcher, rocket launcher or mine you’ve already encountered, and these tools allow you to craft different solutions to each mission’s set piece battles.
The obvious way to take out a tank is in a tank, but what if you use anti-tank missiles or mines? Faced with a hangar full of Chinese troops, you can pack a sniper rifle, go in big with a grenade launcher or move fast and get in close with an SMG. Battlefield 4 gives you a sense of agency that is missing from many modern military FPS games. You’re even given a pair of binoculars to scope situations before you jump in, and then some reason to actually use them.
And when the set-pieces come they are barnstormers, even on dated graphics tech. A running battle on a collapsing aircraft carrier has no shortage of big wow moments. An assault on a Singapore airbase in a storm is packed with big action beats, big weather effects and mindless destruction. Throughout, Battlefield’s destructible scenery plays its part, as tanks take out the walls you’re cowering behind and masonry explodes in a hail of bullets. It’s genuinely exciting stuff.
Not flawless, though. Each mission seems to have one section where it loses pace, while there are hugely irritating difficulty spikes that reveal that a constant Battlefield bugbear – sharpshooter AI that can see you and shoot you at ridiculous long range – still hasn’t been eliminated entirely. Sometimes it would be nice if the game threw in a checkpoint before sending out the next wave of troops or tanks. Your own AI allies have a bit more personality this time around, but they still lag behind and you’ll find embarrassing moments where you know where you have to go but need to wait while they catch up, waffle on for a minute then open a door for you.
The graphics also show up some minor defects. The lighting – both natural and artificial – is excellent and the character models are impressively detailed, creating some of the best close-up cut-scenes we’ve seen in a recent FPS. However, you can’t help noticing some slightly murky textures, or the way objects and scenery occasionally pop in, or the way the frame-rate sometimes falls apart during those big, awesome set-piece moments. As we said, it’s a game that’s been built for next-gen hardware and made to work on old machines. Sometimes this shows through.
Most seriously, it shows through in multiplayer. This is and always will be the heart of Battlefield, but it might leave some Xbox 360 and PS3 owners feeling mildly underwhelmed. The key problem is space. Battlefield 3 took a two-pronged approach, creating a 24-player experience for consoles with maps optimised for that number of players, along with a 64-player experience for PC with maps optimised for larger numbers. Battlefield 4 has some smaller and more intimate maps, but the majority seem to have been designed with 64 players in mind. Sadly, the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions only support 24.
The result is that you have some huge, beautiful and brilliantly designed maps – maps made with DICE’s usual skill and imagination running at full pelt – that just don’t feel busy enough with two teams of 12 rattling around inside them. We get maps where capture points are placed on moving trains with mounted machine guns, maps where storms rage and waves swell and maps where whole skyscrapers tumble to bring a key control point somewhat closer to the ground. We even get a map where a burst levee floods the city streets, transforming the whole flow of the action and forcing you to make use of amphibious tanks, jetskis and boats if you want to move around at any speed. This is grand thinking that genuinely moves the genre forward, but perhaps a little too grand for the current gen consoles and their limited player count.
Don’t get too despondent. Conquest mode remains enjoyable on the smaller maps, and the Push and Obliteration modes work well with smaller teams, partly because they encourage all the players to focus on one place at a time. The latter is a real treat, with two teams racing for a bomb which needs to be sped to a designated point to be detonated; a kind of capture the flag with a bang. And when it all comes down to it, no other game has Battlefield’s sense of scale or endless possibility. One minute you can be manning the minigun in a helicopter gunship, the next you might be on the ground stealing a control point from under the enemy’s nose. You’ll pull off heroic assaults, manage last ditch defences and get taken out by a sniper you never even saw. It’s still a game where anything might happen.
In short, Battlefield 4 is a solid buy on the current-generation systems rather than an absolute must-have game. It's good, even great in parts, but a little too compromised for a wholesale recommendation. Buy it for the short-but-sweet single player campaign and some entertaining multiplayer, but don’t expect a big improvement on Battlefield 3 for online play. In fact, in some respects it’s not quite as strong.
Battlefield 4 was built for PC and next-gen consoles and it shows. PS3 and 360 gamers still get a fine single-player FPS and an even more impressive online game, but many of the maps feel too big for the limited player count while the sheer scale of the game shows up the limitations of the current tech. It’s far from a major disappointment, but we’d advise you to wait for the next-gen versions or buy it on PC if you can.
Read our in-depth comparison Xbox One vs PS4