Early in the campaign of Battlefield 4, a marine deals with an attacking dog by punching it right in the face. This is a not-so-subtle jab (well, more of a right cross) at rival series Call of Duty, whose upcoming Ghosts features a canine companion. Ever since Activision’s cash cow started breaking sales records annually, Electronic Arts has been increasingly determined to grab a piece of the military shooter pie with its Battlefield franchise. Battlefield 4 offers more explosions, more destruction and more multiplayer options than ever, and it certainly can go toe-to-toe with any Call of Duty. But you can’t help but wish it had aimed even higher.
Just like its predecessor (and every Call of Duty post-Modern Warfare), Battlefield 4’s single player campaign reminds you of that Woody Allen quote from Annie Hall. “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible,” says the first woman. The other one says, “Yeah, I know, and such small portions.” The campaign is extremely loud and incredibly short, a series of linear levels that funnel you from fight to fight, the only real objective being to kill anything that moves. There are occasionally some great set pieces, such as a firefight aboard a sinking battleship that has you dodging gunfire as airplanes slide off the flight deck into the roiling ocean. But many of the missions just have you shooting everything, clearing out the area, pressing forward and repeating. There’s some odd pacing and bad checkpointing that make the campaign feel overly long and tedious, despite clocking in at just six hours or so.
The story doesn’t help propel you much. Penned by Modern Warfare writer Jesse Stern (imagine that!), it’s set in the near future and focuses on escalating tensions between the United States and Russia and China. It’s the stuff of typical modern-day blockbusters, all an excuse to have you crisscross the globe while blowing things up. You play the mute Sgt. Daniel Recker, a member of the U.S. special ops team known as Tombstone, which includes The Wire’s Michael K. Williams, who’s along for the ride seemingly to yell “F–k!” every few minutes. There are some shocking twists that don’t shock you very much because the characters aren’t developed enough, and the flat finale manages to end with a literal bang but an emotional whimper.
But as most shooter fans will tell you, the single-player campaign is kind of beside the point. Many players will never even play it (and you can’t help but wonder why developer DICE even bothers at this point), instead delving into the game’s massive multiplayer offering. With eight different game modes, ten maps, four character classes, a dozen vehicles, and hundreds of weapons, Battlefield 4 is almost infinitely replayable. Action is fast and furious, and the new (terribly named) “levolution” feature is literally a game changer in that it changes the course of games dramatically and spectacularly. Sure, cover can be whittled away and entire buildings can be toppled. But it’s not limited to just destroying the environment, as players can cause maps to flood, oil spills to burn and incite other dynamic events that largely affect the course of matches and provide an unprecedented level of unpredictably, keeping everyone constantly on their toes.
Ultimately, the Battlefield vs. Call of Duty debate is more meaningful to marketers than actual gamers (and it admittedly provides a nice narrative for game critics), as despite treading similar thematic ground, there are differences enough to justify both — no dogs need to be harmed in the making of these games. Anyone looking for a meaningful single-player experience will be disappointed, but for fans of Battlefield‘s large-scale, class-based multiplayer, there’s a whole lot of game here. The “levolution” feature is more evolution than revolution, but Battlefield 4’s multiplayer has enough ammunition to keep its rivalry with Call of Duty going for the foreseeable future. Campaign: C+, Multiplayer: B+, Overall: B