This is a review of Battlefield 4 Premium Edition, which includes all of the DLC packs which were released for Battlefield 4 since the game's launch. A lot of the game features described in this review are only available if you have these additional DLC packs.
In short, Battlefield 4 is a multiplayer first-person shooter which pitches up to 64 people into intense combat across large and varied arenas based on the contemporary world. It is a descendant of the excellent Battlefield 2 and is almost identical in spirit, though far more advanced.
Battlefield 4 does include a decent single-player campaign which acts as a nice introduction to the game, and lets you adjust the controls to suit you. But the real draw here is the multiplayer mode.
Jump into a match using the server browser, choose a soldier class, choose and customise your weapons, then choose a deployment point and jump into action. Fight with your squad and your team to capture, defend or destroy objectives, all the while suppressing and eliminating soldiers of the opposing team, and making full use of all available resources such as armoured vehicles, combat jets and helicopters, and fixed weapon emplacements. Die, redeploy, repeat.
Whereas in Battlefield 2 you had a choice of seven classes of soldier, each with a somewhat fixed loadout, in Battlefield 4 you can choose from four highly customisable core soldier classes:
Once you select a soldier class, you can then equip your soldier with one primary weapon, one secondary weapon (a handgun), two gadgets, and a field upgrade path. The field upgrade paths start off by giving your soldier some first-level effect (such as faster sprinting, or more hand grenades, or the ability to drop more medic bags) and as you earn squad points by assisting your own squad you open second, third, and fourth-level effects, making you more effective in your chosen role. But stop assisting your squad and you'll quickly be reset back to the first-level field upgrade again.
Initially you have access to only one weapon of each type, and a limited choice of gadgets, but as you score kills and points in the game you gradually unlock more and more weapons and gadgets in each category. And, all told, the selection of weapons and gadgets is vast. The ability to mix and match lets you prepare for the way you intend to approach the current deployment.
If your squad's current problem is enemy vehicles, then deploy as an engineer with an anti-tank or anti-air missile launcher. If the enemy are causing a nuisance from a well-defended rooftop then deploy as a support soldier with a mortar, and watch as they scatter for cover when the shells start landing around them. If you need to punch through into a room full of tightly packed enemy soldiers then deploy as an assault soldier with an assault rifle and an underslung grenade launcher. Need to take the enemy by surprise, then deploy as a recon soldier and sneak a radio beacon into a sheltered spot beyond their front lines and have your squad parachute in from behind them. Too many casualties, go assualt with defibrillator and medic bags. Enemy snipers causing a nuisance, then go recon with a sniper rifle and pick them off. Enemy rushing your line, go support and hurl sustained fire from an LMG to hold them back. Friendly vehicles taking too much damage, equip engineer with repair tool and fix them up.
Battlefield 4 also features a range of game modes, including:
Conquest Large offers the greatest amount of freedom, with great big maps which let you pick any of several objectives to target. Other game modes force you to focus on just one or two objectives, such as Rush or Obliteration, and this narrow focus limits freedom, butts the two teams right up against each other, and makes the combat far more intense, but also far more likely that even a slightly stronger team will steamroll over their weaker opponents. These modes are better suited to capable, coordinated clans.
Conquest, Obliteration, and Rush game modes also allow one person on each team play as commander. Unlike in Battlefield 2 (where a soldier on the battlefield had to hide somewhere to access commander mode and could be killed if the enemy found him), in Battlefield 4 the commander is a dedicated role (with a dedicated slot on the server). As before, the commander looks down over the battlefield, seeing his soldiers' positions in relation to objectives and known enemy positions, and he can give squad leaders orders, and can launch a UAV to scan for the enemy within a certain radius.
Rather than the simple artillery barrages seen before, in Battlefield 4 the commander can now launch cruise missiles or gunship airplanes (depending on the map being played) so long as his team has secured the relevant objective (usually these prizes are awarded for holding the most central objective on the map). The cruise missile simply slams into the selected point on the map and annihilates anything close by. The gunship is a weapons platform into which your team can deploy, allowing them to pound ground targets with heavy-calibre cannons. Other objectives unlock commander assets which allow infantry or vehicle scans which briefly search the entire map, causing enemy targets to flicker on the situation map for your soldiers.
Other commander assets include an EMP UAV and a Proxy Attack. These are useful when you find that you're not alone: if the enemy team also has a commander you'll need to do your best to interfere with his efforts, just as he'll be trying to disrupt yours. Launching an EMP UAV will remove the enemy commander's visibility of (friendly and enemy) soldiers and vehicles within the area covered by the EMP. And if a cruise missile strays into the EMP circle it will gradually degrade, making it possible to disarm an enemy cruise missile before it lands if you can guess where it's headed and launch your EMP before it gets there.
For more serious disruption, the Proxy Attack will totally knock out the enemy commander's ability to use his command interface, forcing him to wait fifteen seconds until he regains control. The ideal time to launch such an attack is before you make a bold manoeuvre or before you launch a cruise missile, removing the enemy commander's ability to resist.
These commander assets all take time to recharge after use, so it's vital to carefully choose when and where to launch them. With the exception of the UAV, which recharges almost as soon as the previous one has pulled out. It's vital to keep UAV drones running hot over the areas where your soldiers need advance warning of enemy positions.
To improve the effectiveness of your squads, you can "promote" them to award them with field upgrade points (which help to advance every soldier in the squad to the next field upgrade level). You can also activate rapid deployment on fallen squad leaders who have proved themselves heroic and valuable in combat, so that they don't have to wait so long to redeploy. You also have the ability to drop supply crates and (if you have enough commander points to spend) light vehicles. The supply crate will replenish ammunition and gadget items, and the light vehicle will help a stranded soldier to get into or out of trouble quickly.
To motivate your soldiers to deal with troublesome enemy soldiers you can designate as a high-value target any enemy soldier who is on a kill streak of six or more. Marking an enemy soldier as HVT will cause that enemy's position to show up clearly in your soldier's view for a limited time, making it easy to track the target. If one of your soldiers kills the HVT then both you and your soldier get bonus points. But the enemy soldier will get bonus points for every kill he achieves while marked in this way.
This is the sort of game that has incredible highs and infuriating lows. I've played four-hundred hours of Battlefield 4 before writing this review, and I have to say that while the initial magic has worn off, I'm still finding myself drawn to it for an hour or two most nights, even if it does drive me crazy more than half the time.
First off, it has to be said that the game engine is a vast improvement over the engine of Battlefield 2 released eight years before. The world of Battlefield 4 is atmospheric, detailed and destructible. You're no longer safe from a battle tank just because you've made your way into a building. The tank can blow holes in the walls, or simply roll right through the structure. Do enough damage to certain buildings and the whole thing will come down. DICE calls this Levolution, and the most impressive example is seen in the map Siege Of Shanghai: sustained heavy weapons attacks on the massive skyscraper which forms the central strategic point will cause it to emit terrible noises of structural failure, shortly before the tower shatters laterally and the entire thing comes crashing down, killing any soldiers daft enough to remain on its top deck or in its lobby. The sight is quite a spectacle, and afterwards the air is thick with dust, the remaining rubble becoming the new strategic point over which the two teams fight. Some server administrators find this so undesirable that they forbid players from attacking the skyscraper, so that the tower remains standing.
In other maps the environment changes inevitably. In a map called Paracel Storm the beautiful, sunny, tropical calm of an island chain changes substantially when dark clouds move in, followed by the sounding of a storm klaxon just as strong gales and heavy rain start to lash the beaches and buildings over which you fight, and the sea heaves about your water vehicles. In Gulf Of Oman a dense sandstorm moves in, turning a clear day into a murky brown haze which makes long-range engagements (such as sniping and jet piloting) somewhat harder. And the Final Stand map Whiteout casts you into a blizzard which makes it harder to spot targets.
Even on the maps which don't feature grand, scripted Levolution sequences, the fact that tank cannons, helicopter and jet weapons, and portable rocket launchers can reach you even when you're inside does make things more interesting. If you go one-on-one against a tank with only an RPG or an SMAW, you'll have to fire each rocket and then run for your life, putting enough cover between you and the tank cannon to reduce the chance that you'll be splattered before you can find another sneaky vantage point from which to launch the next rocket. You need to be prepared for your cover to blown as the scenery gets shattered all around you.
At its core, Battlefield 4 is entirely designed for teamwork. When you deploy you can choose to spawn at one of the strategic points held by your team, or alongside any member of your squad, or at a radio beacon planted by a member of your squad. Members of a solid squad will always spawn alongside their squadmates to reinforce them and tackle whatever foe or objective the squad is facing, and the squad leader will make it clear which objective is the current target. Field upgrades are accrued by good squad players, and the team commander will lavish further upgrades on squads who follow his orders. The coordinated squad is far greater than the sum of its parts.
Unfortunately, on a public server it's very easy to forget that teamwork is the aim of the game. Beginners will not at first even realise that there is such a thing as a squad, nor realise they can deploy on their squad, and they'll rush about the place as a lone wolf, totally independent of any squad or team strategy. And this inital pattern seems to stick, because even in a squad of experienced players you're likely to notice that everyone is wandering off on their own one-man mission. On public servers you're most likely to find that there is no one playing as commander, squad leaders often don't give orders, and squad members almost never follow orders. And even in the rare cases when there is a commander, most squad leaders ignore or reject their orders.
On the other hand, you'll know a coordinated squad when you see one. Wherever the squad is, there the squad members will be, moving as a pack. Most likely they'll have the same clan tag and they'll be communicating with each other over a TeamSpeak channel using microphones. And they'll be annihilating pretty much everyone they encounter in a public server match. Just one coordinated squad in a match can make the whole thing a one-sided affair, with their team absolutely crushing the other team. When, by chance, you find yourself contributing to such a squad it is very satisfying. But very rare. If you're a social sort of player, I'm confident that you'll profit from joining a gaming clan and playing as a coordinated squad.
For the unsocial types, the eternal lone wolves, there's still plenty of fun to be had, though you will have to be prepared for exasperation when you're in the mood for some random public-server teamwork and instead all you find is numpties who couldn't find their ass with both hands and a map. Very often you'll be assigned to a team which is so utterly hopeless they can't even hold onto a single strategic point, and the enemy team is hammering your side with no hope of turning things around. In such cases it really is just best to quit the match and try a different server in hope of finding a better balance. It's no fun when one side is too much better than the other, even if you're playing on the better team.
When you first start playing, you'll almost certainly focus on playing as a foot soldier, choosing a deployment point and then wandering about trying to work out what's going on and where you're supposed to be going. There's a huge amount of information coming at you. Bottom-left you see a mini-map which shows an overhead view of your situation relative to any nearby teammates and any known enemy positions. Bottom-centre are indicators which show which gadgets you have equipped. Bottom-right is your status display which shows you your current health and ammunition levels. Top-right you see a stream of kill confirmations, friendly and enemy, and top-left you see the chat window which is probably full of messages from the current server and from the players engaged in this current match. There's a lot going on, but it's laid out well and never gets cluttered.
If your soldier stumbles into trouble you'll likely take enemy fire, and a damage direction hint will flash in the middle of your view, to indicate roughly from which direction the harm came. If you survive the engagement you'll notice that your health is now less than 100 percent. Stay out of enemy fire for a few seconds and your health will begin to slowly increase back up to 100. Waiting for this to happen by itself is time consuming, so you're best bet is to seek out a friendly assault medic who can throw a medic bag your way to rapidly restore you to full health. Failing that you could take your chances and hope that you don't bump into an enemy again before you're in better shape. This self healing is welcome, because if you're alone in enemy territory, or otherwise miles from friendly forces, you will at least return to health eventually rather than be left in a close-to-death state.
Soon enough you'll notice that the direction and distance to strategic points are overlaid in your field of view, and you'll start to recognise which points belong to you, which to the enemy, and which are in the process of changing hands. This all works very well, the indicators being clear but not too distracting, and you can always find your way to an objective easily enough.
One thing I do miss is friendly fire. In Battlefield 2 almost every server was configured to enable friendly fire, so that you had to be careful and accurate when firing rifles and hurling explosives, to avoid doing harm to your own team. For some reason, I've never once seen a match in Battlefield 4 where friendly fire is enabled (and I'm not even sure it's an option). This means that care and precision do somewhat go out the window, and relentless bursts of fire and reckless volleys of grenades are hurled in the enemy's direction regardless of the proximity of your own team. I can understand that this reduces the opportunity for temper tantrums, but it does take something away from the challenge of engaging the enemy.
In Battlefield 4 most maps offer numerous vehicles, and you can hop in or out of them as you see fit. But you need to be quick: vehicles offer a strong advantage in many situations, so the available vehicles tend to be in great demand, and only the first into the driving seat gets to pilot the thing. The selection of vehicles is impressive, including main battle tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, light road and water vehicles, transport helicopters, scout helicopters, attack helicopters, stealth jets, attack jets, and fast attack water craft.
Controlling vehicles with the keyboard and mouse is always a little clunky, though never more so than when you're trying to manoeuvre a stealth jet around terrain and tall structures while an enemy vehicle sprays 30mm rounds in your direction. As terrible a control device as a mouse makes for a jet, I get the impression no one uses a joystick because it's too much of a pain in the ass to switch from one peripheral to another mid-game. (Especially seeing as you'll have to eject over enemy territory and continue on foot if your jet takes enough damage that it bursts into flames.) For helicopters the keyboard and mouse work well enough, and for land-based vehicles they serve just fine, even if you find you have to pulse your finger on the accelerate or turn key to avoid over-shooting your desired course.
Whereas Battlefield 2 offered no private way to get practice in vehicles, which often made for hilarious times when half your team boarded your practice flight just in time for you to lose control and crash into a building, killing all involved. Rather than subject yourself to the ire of your team, in Battlefield 4 you can practice in the Test Range. Here you wander about completely alone, free to test all of the weapons and vehicles available in the game. Which makes it much easier to adjust your controls and get a feel for the vehicles without risking your popularity.
Once you've got your controls setup and become familiar with the handling of stealth jets and attack helicopters, the Air Superiority game mode is not a bad place to get some real practice. In this game mode there is nothing but aircraft, so you can spend hours practising tight turns, firing guided missiles and countermeasures, and dog-fighting with a 20mm cannon against a fast-moving target in three dimensions. After a few hours in jets I still haven't got the hang of pummelling an enemy jet with cannon rounds even when it's bobbing about just metres ahead of me, but I still find whooshing around the contours and hazards of the map at 330kmh-1 exhilarating. And when, somehow, it all comes together and you knock enemy aircraft out of the sky with one swoop, then blow an enemy tank to smithereens on the next pass, it does put a big smile on your face. The attack jet is more focused on bringing pain to ground targets, being less agile and capable of flying at slower speeds (to improve aim and reduce the chance you fly straight into your target) but I find this a very tricky vehicle to handle. It's also quite difficult to get time in an attack jet because they are only found on certain maps and the single attack jet available is snapped up quickly by the other eager pilots on your team. (You know you're on a terrible team if there are spare jets going unused for more than a couple of seconds.)
Of the helicopters, there is possibly nothing more satisfying than playing the role of gunner in an attack helicopter while an extremely talented pilot carries the pair of you rapidly from one conflict to the next, with your cannon fire shattering and scattering infantry and vehicles, and his rocket fire menacing enemy heavy armour. Piloting the attack helicopter is far harder work, as you're juggling attack, manoeuvre, countermeasures, and evasion all at once. But a good attack helicopter pilot is an awesome asset to the team. As for the transport helicopter, the thing flies like a brick, and gives the pilot no firepower at all, relying on two gunner positions on the sides. Piloting the transport helicopter is not elegant, glamorous, or powerful, but a good transport pilot can get a squad from objective to objective in seconds and harass enemy troops and light vehicles on the way. And finally, there's possibly nothing more fun than piloting a scout helicopter, which is so light, so agile, and so nippy that you feel like you're bouncing from one geographic feature to another, in between hurling cannon fire and heatseeking missiles all about the place.
While the air vehicles have to fret mostly about other aircraft, anti-air tanks, and engineers with Stinger and Igla surface-to-air missile launchers, the ground vehicles mostly have to worry about enemy armoured vehicles, jets, helicopters, engineers with anti-tank missiles and mines, and sneaky soldiers who plant C4 right on the side of the vehicles before detonating it remotely. Driving or gunning in an armoured vehicle is a game of constant alertness, hunting around for signs of a soldier peeking out or sneaking up on you, scanning the terrain for signs of anti-tank mines and enemy armour, watching the skies for furious aircraft about to unleash devastation. Vehicles do repair themselves automatically after damage, but it's a slow process, and you'll want a friendly engineer (equipped with a repair tool) close by to get you back into shape quickly in case fresh trouble is just around the corner.
High stress or not, when you get into the flow with an armoured vehicle you can do an awesome amount of damage before the enemy get the better of you. Keep moving, switch between primary and secondary weapons to dole out damage with one weapon while the other reloads, fire your countermeasures at just the right moment, and know when to get the hell out of there when you sense the tide is about to turn unstoppably against you, and you can mow down swathes of enemy soldiers, knock out several enemy vehicles, and capture several strategic points all in one run. And very satisfying it is.
As you score points in each type of vehicle, you unlock new vehicle features such as alternative primary and secondary weapons, countermeasures, and general upgrades. Most of these offer a welcome assortment of options when deciding how you want to use a vehicle. For example, stealth jets and anti-air tanks can (once they're unlocked) choose between 20mm, 25mm, and 30mm cannon rounds. The larger rounds are more effective against heavy armour but fire and travel more slowly, so you have to make every hit count.
And as a battle tank driver you can choose between a range of battle cannon shells, such as high-explosive, armour-piercing, guided, and the anti-infantry canister shell. Other options include countermeasures such as smokescreen and active protection (which detonates launched weapons just before they impact your tank). As a tank gunner you can choose assistive options such as proximity scan (to detect those C4 junkies before they reach you), incendiary protection (to toast those C4 junkies just as they reach you) and gunner SOFLAM, proximity scan, and autoloader (which speeds up reloading of your only weapon). Both driver and gunner can select from different optic modes such as zoom (simply magnifies the view) IRNV (which gives night vision and shows troops and vehicles clearly) and FLIR (which shows very little except the engine and body heat of vehicles and soldiers, making them show as bright objects against a comparatively dark background). These optic modes, in different ways, make it easier to spot the enemy amongst the chaotic debris of the battlefield.
Some vehicle unlock options don't make any sense, however. Why on earth would you want to fit proximity scan on a jet? Proximity scan can only detect enemy soldiers within a sphere of radius 29m, and a jet generally moves so fast and flies so high that this feature will almost never be of any use. And the TV-guided missiles (where you launch a missile and then steer it yourself) are great for an attack helicopter gunner, but not a good idea for a jet pilot who ought to be focusing on flying the plane itself. (Though I'll bet there are some jet pilots who can successfully do both at once.)
My favourite option as a gunner in a battle tank is gunner SOFLAM. This lets the tank gunner laser-designate enemy vehicles so that your driver can get easy hits with guided shells, and any friendly engineers with compatible missile launchers can get guaranteed hits against the enemy vehicle even if they're firing from behind cover. Even though countermeasures will break your laser lock, it forces the enemy vehicle to spend that countermeasure, and once that's gone the enemy driver or pilot is likely to flee for cover to allow it to recharge. And if their countermeasures are already spent then your laser lock can be a death sentence. This makes gunner SOFLAM a very influential tool, and it's very pleasing when you can hold a lock for long enough that your team take advantage of it.
Recon soldiers can plant a small tripod-mounted SOFLAM unit on the ground, which can be left to find targets automatically or can be remote controlled. But these tend to be crushed or shot by enemy vehicles pretty quickly. Recon soldiers can also carry a PLD which lets them laser-designate targets as and when they see the opportunity. But this does attract the attention of the target, so it's best to be at at least a couple hundred metres away. A sneakier option open to the recon is to use an SUAV, a small remote-control plane which can fly out over the battlefield and laser-designate enemy vehicles, at least until its (fairly feeble) battery runs out or the enemy shoots it down.
Similarly, engineers with certain guided missile launchers, such as the Javelin, can designate their own targets, but this takes two or three seconds and is extremely likely to draw the attention of the enemy vehicle. More sneaky are the dumb-fire launchers such as the SMAW and RPG which simply hurl themselves in a gravity-bound arc, without any guidance at all. These can be launched quickly and without warning, allowing a close-range engineer to rush into cover before the enemy vehicle realises it's got company. However, you stand very little chance of taking down an armoured vehicle as a lone soldier. Much, much better to be working as a coordinated squad, with one squadmate laser designating the target, while two or more of you fire guided missiles at it.
The selection of primary and secondary weapons is huge, and even within the same category there is great variety in weapon characteristics such as the muzzle velocity, recoil (how much your aim jumps with each shot), bullet spread (how many degrees the bullet can stray from dead centre), and the amount of damage done at each distance. This means you're likely to prefer one weapon over another depending on how you play the game, and there's plenty of choice. (The full set of weapon characteristics is large; see Symthic BF4 weapon comparison for more detail than you probably need.) You can also unlock weapon attachments such as suppressors, muzzle brakes, flashlights, laser pointers, and a variety of different scopes, all of which alter the weapon characteristics.
Different weapon classes are suited to different purposes: shotguns are ideal for close-quarters room-clearing; PDWs and carbines are handy for rapid-fire bursts at close range; sniper rifles are magnificent for taking out foolishly stationary targets at distances of hundreds of metres; assault rifles take the middle ground, being handy at close and medium range while doing moderate damage; and the DMR aims to be a compromise between an assault rifle and a sniper rifle, which means it's not great at close range or long range but can be effective in the right hands and the right circumstances.
But the primary and secondary weapons are all fundamentally the same in that you aim the targeting reticle at an enemy, hit the fire button, and hope to see a little crosshair flash to indicate a hit, headshot, or kill. Much more varied are the gadgets. Each soldier can equip two different gadgets at a time, and most gadgets belong to just one soldier class. For example, only the engineer can equip a repair tool, missile launcher, and/or the mischievous EOD bot; only a recon soldier can equip the PLD; the support class has exclusive access to the ammo bag; and only an assault soldier can equip a defibrillator and/or a medic bag. The full selection of gadgets is so varied that it is sometimes difficult to decide which two to equip, and the choice of gadgets really does alter your options while playing the game.
For example, an engineer equipped with an Igla surface-to-air launcher and an anti-aircraft mine will be completely powerless against enemy ground vehicles. But an engineer equipped with anti-tank mines and the repair tool will have no response to an enemy aircraft. Similarly, an assault soldier carrying both a defibrillator and a medic bag and using the Combat Medic field upgrade path will be indispensable to a team which is under siege, able to revive and heal almost as fast as the enemy dole out damage. But swap the defibrillator for an underslung grenade launcher and the Grenadier field upgrade path and now you're able to serve a different role, better suited to punching a hole through an enemy spearhead. A recon soldier might choose to hang back and deploy the MAV, a remote-control drone which he can fly over the battlefield to surveil the enemy, spotting whole clusters of enemy soldiers and vehicles at once; alternatively if he wants to be in the thick of the action he might equip a TUGS which can be planted somewhere to scan for nearby enemy movement, or short-lived motion sensors which can be thrown to check for enemy presence up ahead before making his move. And a support soldier who needs to run and gun with his squad will probably want to carry an ammo bag to keep their weapons fully loaded, while a support soldier who needs to hit the enemy from a distance might equip the mortar or the XM25 airburst launcher which are capable of damaging the enemy even if they are behind heavy cover.
One place where the game does let the side down is in its loadout presets. Using the web-browser based Battlelog you can create soldier loadout presets and give them names (such as "Long-range sniper" or "Behind enemy lines" for a recon soldier) making it easy to return to a preferred set of weapons, gadgets, and field upgrades to suit a certain style of play. The problem is that you can only select these presets from the web-based Battlelog, you have (so far as I can find) no way to do so once you're in the game. And in most matches you'll find that you need to hop from one style of play to another, even within the same soldier class. So being able to hot-swap between presets would have been very handy, and it seems an odd oversight.
Something which is very different in Battlefield 4 is that sniper rifles equipped with a scope having magnification of 6x or greater will give off a constant glint whenever you look through the scope. How strongly you see this glint depends only on the angle of your position relative to the scope's line of sight. So when you see a strong glint blinking at you from a distant roof, crane, catwalk, or hill, you know that a sniper is zeroing his aim on your position and you'd better get out of sight quickly.
While this is very handy from the point of view of the sniper's targets, it does make it impossible to conduct the sort of sneaky, stealthy sniping I used to love so much in Battlefield 2. No longer can you hide in the long grass (you don't even get a ghillie suit any more) three-hundred metres from the action, lazily watching the chaos unfold while you wait for a hapless fool to stop still so you can zero in on a headshot. Now your position will be revealed as soon as you look down the scope, glinting away brightly at any distance, even if you're in shade, even if it's night time. Which is hugely disappointing, though I can see how it helps to balance the game and forces even long-range snipers to keep their wits about them and engage more in the heat of battle. But I do miss those lazy, long-range, long-grass, sneaky sniper sessions.
To compensate somewhat, sniper rifles can be equipped with (once you unlock them) a 40x magnification scope, and a range finder. Combine this with the fact that in Battlefield 4 sniper rifles can have their sights adjusted to account for bullet drop over different distances, and it makes it satisfyingly easy to achieve a headshot at a distance of one kilometre if your target is completely still. Simply use the range finder to confirm that your target is at a distance of, say, 997m, then set the crosshair zero of your scope to 1000m (so that the crosshair points to where the bullet will be once gravity has taken effect over a distance of 1000m), then wait for your target (probably another sneaky sniper) to stay very still, place the crosshair over the target's head (maybe a little higher if the range finder says you're a little further away than your zero-distance; lower if you're a little closer) and boom! One-click headshot. And the sniper rifles always kill with one bullet if you achieve a headshot, no matter what the distance to target. Great fun, but remember that scope glint means that even distant sniper targets will be made aware of your exact position very quickly.
Exactly as before, your performance in every match (on ranked servers) is recorded in your Battlelog account so that your every significant action is scored and totalled, allowing you to compare yourself against the masses, worldwide or locally, or simply see how you compare with those in your friends list.
Battlefield 4 values non-kill actions as much as it values death and destruction. Reviving a teammate to full health will give you 100 points, exactly the same as you'd get for killing an enemy soldier. And, to my delight, spotting an enemy, so that his position is marked on your team's mini-map for several seconds, will earn you 25 points if any member of your team kills that enemy while his position is still shown. In Battlefield 2 I used to spot the enemy relentlessly (even though seemingly no one else did) because making your team aware of enemy positions gives your team a serious advantage. So it's very pleasing that this action now counts towards your score.
A whole heap of other actions add to your score, such as: healing with medic bags, supplying ammunition, killing by headshots, killing enemies who are about to or who just did kill one of your team, piloting a vehicle when a teammate deploys into it or achieves a kill from it, repairing friendly vehicles, having teammates use your radio beacon, getting revenge on an enemy who has killed you recently, and ending an enemy's kill streak. In short, so long as you're in there getting your hands dirty you'll be racking up a score. And probably the most profitable thing you can be doing is capturing objectives; in Conquest mode you'll score 400 points for being on the strategic point at the moment of capture, so there is a strong incentive to shift your ass from one objective to the next without dawdling.
Once your score exceeds a certain threshold you are promoted to the next rank, and each promotion earns you a Gold Battlepack which will contain goodies such as weapon and camouflage unlocks, and XP boosts which increase the rate at which you accrue points for one hour of actual in-game play.
Your actions in each round also allow you to be awarded with ribbons and medals which recognise your performance. For example, each time you achieve six kills with a sniper rifle (all within the same round) you'll be awarded a Sniper Rifle Ribbon. If you reach fifty of these ribbons you'll be awarded with a Sniper Rifle Medal. Similar ribbons and medals can be awarded for each weapon category, vehicle type, and game mode, and also for certain things such as kit actions (such as healing, reviving, repairing, radio beacon spawning, etc) and team actions (such as kill assists, spotting the enemy, and being on the best squad in a match). Some of these awards are extremely difficult to achieve: after 400h I have received just one Melee Ribbon (four knife kills in the same round) and not a single MVP Ribbon (highest combat score of all players in a round). On the other hand, I have more than a thousand ribbons for healing and nearly nine-hundred for spotting.
Also related to your actions in-game, but more convoluted, are the assignments. Each assignment has one or more criteria you must satisfy to complete the assignment, and in reward you might receive a new type of dog tag (a largely cosmetic adornment), or unlock a new weapon, gadget, or camouflage pattern. For example, the Eye Spy assignment requires you to reach rank 10, play a round in any Final Stand map, and then (in any map) get two spotting ribbons and 20 DMR or carbine kills. On completing this assignment you will be awarded with the excellent Target Detector weapon unlock (for use with DMRs and carbines), which automatically spots any enemy you happen to aim at with the scope (much easier than reaching for the spot key when you find yourself in a gunfight).
Some assignments are very demanding, such as the Blade Runner assignment which requires that you be awarded with ten Melee Ribbons (each requiring four knife kills within the same round). At my current rate it would take me four-thousand hours to complete this assignment, so it's not getting a lot of my attention. (Never mind the Stealth Assassin and Melee Expert assignments which require that you receive a further twenty then fifty Melee Ribbons.) And the Air Warrior assignment is a bit of a beast, requiring that you reach rank 100 and then receive one Attack Helicopter Medal, one Jet Fighter Ribbon, and then destroy five jets with attack helicopters.
Battlefield 4 features what are possibly the best and most convoluted easter eggs of any video game. Just as impressive as the amount of thought the developers have put into creating these features (which are almost totally invisible at first, and easily missed) is the amount of effort the Battlefield 4 playing community have put into uncovering them. You can go online to find forum discussions where the meaning and function of these pieces is discussed at length, and see videos of players working together to find hidden switches, decode chunks of Morse code, and apply detective work to finding and assembling the mysterious pieces until they uncover the magnificent whole.
The Final Stand DLC adds four maps which are themed around military technology research and testing facilities, and less obviously also adds four Phantom assignments which are initially hidden. The first three are unlocked by clicking on a subtle skull found at the bottom of the Battlelog Leaderboard pages, then entering secret passwords into the faux operating system console which appears. (Don't ask me exactly how these three passwords were discovered; I've no idea.) Once these three lengthy assignments have been completed you are awarded with a Phantom dog tag, and Phantom weapon and soldier camouflage. If you equip these, and also equip one of four Final Stand dog tags which can be found (after a lot of hunting) in random locations on the Final Stand maps, then you are ready to activate the Phantom elevator.
The Phantom elevator is found in the wonderfully eerie Hangar 21, a Final Stand map set in the mountains on a moonlit night, where development of a new military combat vehicle is taking place in a large multi-level hangar which emits unearthly sounds. In order to activate the Phantom elevator, soldiers equipped with four Final Stand dog tags must be inside the elevator, and only those equipped with the correct dog tags and/or camouflage will survive the descent; those wrongly equipped will be killed amid flickering lights and inhuman noises. Those who survive will descend several hundred metres to reach the Phantom room, where a force field must be deactivated by entering a sixteen digit passcode (discovered piece by piece by the Battlefield 4 community). Once inside you can claim your very own Phantom bow, a composite bow which fires four different types of bolt, and (if you hunt around) receive the final Phantom assignment. Complete this final assignment and you'll be awarded with a new dog tag which, combined with a Final Stand dog tag, allows you to be counted as having two of the four tags needed to activate the Phantom elevator, which comes in handy if you want to help other people to reach the Phantom room. (Coordinating three people is a lot easier than four.)
After DICE released a version of Dragon Valley (a map first seen in Battlefield 2) for Battlefield 4, it didn't take the community long to realise that there were goodies to be found. It turns out that hidden around the map (only when playing on unranked servers) are seven tiny buttons. Toggling these buttons causes some of the lanterns in the main temple to come on or off. If you solve the logic puzzle and get all twenty lanterns lit then a keypad appears in the temple, and interacting with it causes the nearby lantern to blink. This is a message in morse code, and determined players found that it was an instruction to go to the Zavod 311: Graveyard Shift where they found that a boulder was whispering a slowed-down, reversed audio message. Playing this in the correct speed and direction gave a new riddle, the answer to which was an eleven-digit passcode. Entering this into the Dragon Valley keypad caused the nearby lantern to blink in a new way, this time a four-minute Morse code message which tells the player to join a ranked Dragon Valley match and stand at the water tower in the north-west for two minutes, then enter a unique nine-digit code. By completing all of these steps you unlock the DICE LA camouflage, which has the useful property of appearing dark in thermal imaging, making it harder for you to be spotted by someone using thermal optics.
I have completed both of these easter eggs and I've helped half-a-dozen people to reach the Phantom room, and I have to say that while it can be hard work coordinating with total strangers to activate the Phantom elevator (especially if the three/four of you are spread across distant timezones), it would have been handy to have had help toggling the switches in Dragon Valley. Travelling alone from one end of the map to the other to find tiny switches, then using an EOD bot to drive around the temple and check on the new status of twenty lanterns, then taking notes before moving on to the next, it all takes a fair bit of time, and there's no guarantee that you'll solve the puzzle correctly in your first couple of attempts. (In fact, on my third or fourth attempt the keypad appeared for me even though I only got eighteen of the twenty lanterns to light.) And translating a blinking light into Morse dots, dashes, and spaces, then translating those into English was surprisingly draining (capture video of the lantern, then play it back at quarter-speed while concentrating intently) but fun. These weird and varied side shows do make the game much more interesting.
With such a huge game there are bound to be problems, and the list of irritations is a long one.
To play a match of Battlefield 4 you have to use the web-browser based Battlelog to search for multiplayer servers. You can filter by a large number of variables such as map, game mode, team size, number of free slots currently available, various game options, and so on. Generally this allows you to quickly find a list of matches over a variety of maps and modes which suit you, which are almost full but still have slots free. But for reasons which aren't clear, the server browser doesn't bother to count reserved slots (for paying VIP members of the server) so even though there are no free slots for hoi polloi such as you, the browser still lists the server anyway. This is irritating because you have to manually scan past such over-crowded servers to find ones which really do have space for you.
And the server browser fetches its list of servers in chunks, so there's a good chance that the first batch received will include some full servers, some empty, when what you want to see is almost-full servers. So you find yourself having to page down to the end of the current batch in order to force the browser to fetch another batch, to give you further suitable options. Worse, you have to then manually re-sort the list because the page doesn't do it automatically after fetching the next batch.
More irritating is when you click to join a game, and the browser tells you that you're joining, then that you're in game, but in fact Battlefield 4 has not actually loaded, so you never make it into the game at all. This is doubly a nuisance because the server browser believes you're in and playing, so you have to click to exit that match and wait ninety seconds for the game to exit and unload, even though you never left the server browser.
Once you're past the server browser and you're actually loading into a match, the worst thing I think you can see is a server introductory page full of weapon rules. I hate to see nonsense such as "NO SHOTGUNS!!!", "Max 5 sniper rifle per team", "no explosives", and so on. Battlefield 4 is designed and play-tested with all of its weapons, vehicles, and gadgets intended for use, so seeing a subset of them banned by these awful servers is seriously irritating. Worse is that each such server uses its own terrible server-side solution for enforcing these stupid rules, which means you'll be suddenly auto-killed by the server admin system because you dared to deploy with the wrong type of grenade equipped, or for some other infringement. Such servers are best avoided, and I sincerely wish DICE would have added a server blacklist so that players could simply avoid ever having to play on such dire servers more than once. In fact, DICE should either decide to build weapon rule enforcement into the game properly, or decree that no Battlefield 4 server should ever be allowed to specify weapon rules.
You'll also find that sometimes you'll join a match and the game will be stuttering so badly that it's unplayable. Ask in the chat window and you'll learn that other people are seeing the same problem on this particular server. In such a case you're better of quitting and trying somewhere else. This isn't very common, but there's no point in struggling with a bad game experience when you find the server has problems.
Overall the game engine is incredibly solid, but a couple of things do consistently irritate. Firstly, the use of cover is made quite difficult by quirks which very often make cover an impediment rather than a protection. In theory you're supposed to be able stand or crouch behind cover and then right-click to peek over or around the cover, giving you a view beyond it without exposing too much of your profile to enemy fire. In practice you'll often find that the peek option doesn't appear at all, so you'll have to physically move yourself out of cover to take a look. Worse, you might find that you can peek, but after a fraction of a second the game inexplicably ducks you back behind cover without your say so. This is great fun if you try to pop out of cover to fire a grenade launcher or rocket, because you'll likely drop back just in time to fire the explosive at the cover right in front of you, injuring or killing you in the process. And even in the best case this nonsense means that you can't fire at the enemy, which often causes you to lose the initiative.
Also baffling is the occasional quirk in the terrain. Generally you can walk up steps and slopes, and vault over hip-level barriers and obstacles without trouble. You are a big, strong soldier after all. But sometimes you'll find that a tiny pebble is completely stopping you from walking forward, or that a low barrier just won't let you vault over it. It's deeply irritating to be killed by an enemy you failed to spot because you were busy fighting with a pebble. These terrain quirks are not that common, but in a game played by so many people for so long it would be nice to think they could have been cleared away before now.
Something else that would be very easy to fix: when you're a gunner or passenger in a vehicle and your pilot decides to bail out, you currently get absolutely no notification that you're now alone in an unguided box. This is especially infuriating when you're gunner in a helicopter and you're so focused on the cannon targeting reticle that you don't notice for several seconds that the attitude and altitude of the vehicle are plummeting. Even though you can instantly switch into the pilot seat yourself, by the time you notice the problem it's often too late to recover flight and you're forced to jump out of a perfectly good helicopter. In Battlefield 2 you would hear a "bail out!" warning if the pilot abandoned the vehicle you were in, but in Battlefield 4 you get no warning at all. True, the pilot can choose to use their commo rose to issue a "get out" warning, but this almost never happens (again, lack of teamwork). So DICE really ought to have added an automatic warning for this situation.
And another thing which would be easy to fix: move the spot enemy button so that it isn't the same key as the button which issues squad orders. When you happen to be the squad leader, it's extremely irritating to hit the spot enemy button and find that you've now changed your squad's objective from one strategic point to another, just because that point happens to be roughly in the direction of the enemy soldier you're spotting. This will bug the hell out of your squadmates too, who will not only hear new orders every few seconds, but will not know which orders are real and which are spurious. Splitting these actions across separate keys would be very welcome.
One of the biggest problems with a multiplayer game is that it's full of people. Not the sort you see in Hollywood movies, but real, actual, unrefined people who might be having a bad day/week/year/incarnation and want to share their bad mood with everyone else. In the best case they'll simply be whining all over the chat window about how badly the team is doing, or how bad their luck is today. In the worst case they'll be pouring concentrated venom into the chat window, hurling around racial slurs and casting foul sentiments towards other players and their mothers. On a server which is actively administrated, the extreme cases will lead to the hothead being kicked and probably banned. But the lower level whining is common, and it's too easy to get drawn into it when you're having a bad day yourself, cursing the lack of teamwork, berating bad drivers and pilots, whingeing about the terrible balance between the two teams, and so on.
The good news is that you can simply hide the chat window altogether, so you need not get drawn into the stream of bilious nonsense which scrolls endlessly up it, but you're still bound to catch sight of some of this spiteful gibberish from time to time.
Though it seems rare, and though you'll never be able to prove it, there does sometimes seem to be someone in a match who is cheating outrageously. Videos online offer demos of what claim to be undetectable products which allow a player to instantly lock aim for a headshot, and reveal the position and distance of all enemy soldiers even through walls, terrain, etc. And even though I suspect most such products have been found and blacklisted by the PunkBuster software which Battlefield 4 uses to ban cheats, there's always the suspicion that some people have hacks which are not yet recognised by the anti-cheat software.
A kill-to-death ratio of 10:1 combined with the fact you die by headshot in a blink as soon as such a player rounds a blind corner, and a Battlelog record which shows that the player tops the Leaderboards in all categories despite only having 25h of game time under their belt, these are all indicators that a player is either cheating, or is in fact Skynet. Why any person would use hacking tools to assist them in a game, I don't understand. Surely such a cheat has to realise that they're not actually playing the same game as everyone else, and so any score they achieve is not real, doesn't belong to them, and would not be replicated if they played on a clean build of the game? Whatever the rationale, such cases do seem rare, and numerous people tend to report them as cheats through Battlelog in the hope that their account gets investigated and closed.
Regardless of the quirks, the bugs, the terribly unbalanced matches, the grumpy whining, infuriated raging, and the high number of terrible servers, overall the good points of Battlefield 4 greatly outweigh the bad points.
The settings are rich and impressive: war-torn cities littered with debris, remote factories which shatter and crumble amid the destruction of battle, pristine tropical beaches, ruins amid lush jungle, desert landscapes dotted with military outposts, a hydroelectric dam, giant satellite dish, and more, all beset with fine details and interesting features. The soldier and vehicle models are nicely detailed and move fluidly, and so immersive are the environmental effects — screamed orders and agonised shouts getting lost amid the palls of discharging smoke grenades, the blinding flashbang and incendiary grenades, the cracks of rifle rounds and frag grenades, the thump of battle tank cannons firing — that sometimes it feels you're on the verge of developing shell shock, especially in the intensely confined infantry-only maps such as Operation Locker and Operation Metro 2014.
There's plenty to do, in fact the variety is huge. Whether you want to focus solely on infantry-only maps and team/squad deathmatch and never once clap eyes on a vehicle, or want to focus solely on air combat, or armoured vehicle combat, or specialise in Conquest or Obliteration or Rush, or to become a jack of all trades and chase down every one of the many awards and assignments the game dangles in front of you, Battlefield 4 leaves the decision entirely yours. And the variety is striking, you'll realise that one minute you were storming into a military research facility with a squad of soldiers, the next you'll be piloting an attack helicopter to take on an enemy tank, and after that maybe you'll take on the role of team commander, or be hunting for Final Stand dog tags, or making headshots at 1000m with a sniper rifle, or rolling a battle tank along a crumpled street, or running and gunning from room to room with a semi-automatic shotgun, or launching guided missiles at enemy vehicles, or performing a perfect turning circle in a stealth jet to outmanoeuvre an enemy jet. After 400h there are still things that take me by surprise.
And while the game is undoubtedly better suited to squads of friends working together, you can (just about) play without getting involved in clans or TeamSpeak channels and you might, by happy coincidence, even find yourself part of a smooth running squad of strangers just now and again.
Battlefield 4 is a huge, wild, intense ride, and it's difficult not to recommend it to someone who is a fan of the multiplayer FPS genre.