For the better part of five years, Electronic Arts has been chasing after the shooter crown held by "Call of Duty." The video game giant challenged Activison's flagship franchise with "Medal of Honor" and "Battlefield: Bad Company." Both were good, but not great games.
It wasn't until DICE introduced the Frostbite 2 engine and "Battlefield 3" that EA gained a foothold. And now with the inevitable sequel, "Battlefield 4" finally surpasses "Call of Duty" -- on the multiplayer side anyway. When it comes to the single-player campaign, the team still needs to work on its storytelling and pacing.
"Battlefield 4" begins promisingly as it follows a special Marine unit called the Tombstone squad, which uncovers a plot for a Russian-backed Chinese coup. It's up to Sgt. Daniel Recker, the newly appointed leader, to stem the power grab. He and his squad are sent to Shanghai to rescue Chinese VIPs. What follows is a series of uneven chapters that highlight the game's spectacular eye candy but also exposes DICE's clunky narrative.
In terms of gameplay, the foundation is there. The developer introduces a way to spot enemies and tell the Tombstone squad to mow down foes. The campaign plays more like the multiplayer mode, with wider spaces and the option to get into vehicles and wreak havoc on enemies. It even has the requisite jaw-dropping moments that lay the groundwork for what players can expect online.
The campaign stumbles with its relationship between Irish and Hannah, two squadmates who have trouble getting along. The side story between them feels forced, and that awkwardness culminates in a rushed and bizarre ending that shortchanges what was an epic confrontation.
Although the campaign falters, the meat of "Battlefield 4" is in the multiplayer. While "Call of Duty" has stagnated on that end, DICE has steadily improved the military shooter experience by focusing on gameplay tweaks, improved online play and map design. New moves such as counter-knifing gives players a chance to fight back during disheartening melee attacks. The ability to fix immobilized vehicles makes them less disposable in combat.
When it comes to online play, DICE cleaned up Battlelog so that it's easier to use and navigate. They also make playing in a squad easier than ever with perks called Field Upgrades that last as long as a player's team is alive.
But the biggest improvement is the map design. There are so many variations that accommodate several playstyles from the fast-paced "Call of Duty" close-quarters combat to epic 64-player wars that span over enormous areas.
Now, DICE adds levels that change according to what players do. They call it "Levolution," and it brings a new strategy element to battles. Players can knock down a Shanghai skyscraper to form a new island from the debris that's a key spot in combat. Another map allows players to flood a city, forcing competitors to swim between buildings and making boats more important.
All of this keeps the combat fresh, and that's something that all franchises should aim for as players move to a next generation of systems.
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Platforms: PC, Xbox 360,
PlayStation 3, (PlayStation 4
and Xbox One later this year)