After Battlefield 3's iconic synth soundtrack, that this most eagerly awaited of the next-gen launch titles should fade from black to the strains of Bonnie Tyler's cheese-tastic Total Eclipse of the Heart is more than a little incongruous. Naturally, it's just a slick slice of sleight of hand from devs DICE - setting the scene for a bombastic opening that also serves as a thunderous showcase for the next-generation powers of PS4 and Xbox One.
If there's an indisputable star of the show here, it's plainly the all-new, all-singing, all-shooting Frostbite 3 engine that blazes out at 900p on PS4 (and at 720p on Xbox One). Both versions looked stunning, though the consensus was that the PS4 version definitely shaded it. More than just a pretty face though, DICE's baby does some frankly insane things that tangibly affect gameplay - or at least alter your perception of it - as well as destroying ear drums and melting eyeballs.
Wait until you see a tropical storm roll on in, the wind so fierce it blurs the vision and affects locomotion... or gasp as an aircraft carrier's hull is torn asunder girder by twisted girder - all in-engine. Plus the shift to 60fps on next-gen consoles has definitely given the gunplay a rocket up the jacksie, too. Scale and speed equals a compelling combo.
In the decidedly brief (six hours tops) but pulsating single-player campaign, you play as Sergeant Daniel Recker, silent cipher, one man 'Recking-ball' *cough* and team leader of Tombstone, your usual spec ops-style, rag-tag posse breaking both rules and necks alike to stop a nefarious Chinaman (and some Russians) from killing a somewhat nicer Chinaman who wants to get into bed (figuratively) with the West.
Yep, if BF4 flops in any one particular department, it's definitely exposition. The painfully signposted pathos regularly rings hollow, the Chinese-US love-in and cultural exchanges (chiefly between supporting characters Irish and Hannah) stagger between cheesy and plain heavy-handed.
We're not sure whether it's the acting, the writing... but something just doesn't ring true. Maybe we were just too jaded by the game's sky high gaming bodycounts to care about a few screaming all-American NPCs trapped in a brig and destined to drown. Maybe we're just horrible people. Or maybe the plot is just a bit too safe, generic, confusing and - ultimately - bland for its own good.
Thankfully the impressive action - and a handful of genuinely jaw-dropping next-gen style set plays - more than redeems any perceived narrative missteps. There's a seamless flow now between single and multiplayer, the incongruity of BF3's not-so twin halves consigned to history. The understated rewards system feels both fluid and holistic - rack up the carnage through skilful kill-combos, special takedowns etc. and you can earn bronze, silver and gold weapon unlocks for each of the campaign levels.
Similarly, plunder hitherto unused weaponry from downed foes and it'll be added to your wonder-crate, a bottomless cache of juicy military hardware that's accessible at regular intervals during missions. Realistic? Absolutely not, but it constantly makes you reassess (and re-equip) your mission loadout, and basically lets you mess around with the best guns relatively early doors rather than after beating the game a dozen times.
"Thankfully the impressive action more than redeems any perceived narrative missteps."
Lest we forget, Battlefield's single-player campaign has always been something of a bonus - the undoubted meat of the title is to be found in its corpulent, oh-so scrumptious multiplayer, and BF4 is the strongest online incarnation yet.
The jump to 60fps has had an undoubted effect on the action; up close it's fierce and frenetic, with some of the more claustrophobic Deathmatch maps (like Operation Locker) arguably even besting COD for sheer twitch-blasting, charnel-house ferocity. Spawn, kill, die, respawn. That said, attempting to go toe-to-arcadey toe with Infinity Ward/Treyarch arguably results in BF4's grand vision faltering somewhat, even if the actual pace certainly doesn't.
Nevertheless, there's a breadth to the game now that was possibly missing before - BF4 patently wants to go steady with you, be your one-stop shooter, and there's nothing wrong with that. The series' hardcore fans absolutely need not fret though, because although we don't blame DICE for attempting to have a cheeky gobble on the swollen COD pie, Battlefield 4 feels more assured in its regular guise. In fact it feels amazing. We're talking mega maps, 64 players fighting and dying per session, more time (and room) to breathe and the chance to inject more strategy into the mass murder.
The larger environments are quite beautifully designed and realised. Standout maps include Lancang Dam, Flood Zone, Zavod 311, Siege of Shanghai, Rogue Transmission and - particularly - Paracel Storm, all of which feature in one shape or another gobsmacking central destructive set-pieces.
Demolition looms large on both local and bigger-scale levels, and it's a great feeling when you know a sneaky foe is lurking behind a wall so, cackling evilly, you proceed to bring down half a building atop their bonces and claim the kill.
Frostbite 3 positively purrs here, smashing stuff up with unprecedented Úlan and driving the gameplay to new levels. At times, it honestly feels like your world is - quite literally - crashing down about you. It's staggering, progressive stuff.
Game modes old and new continue to deliver the goods, with classics like Conquest and Team Deathmatch combining well with fresher favourites like Rush. A few brand new configurations pop up too - primarily centred on the delivery, planting and/or defusal of bombs - in Obliteration and Defuse.
We found the former a bit chaotic, the latter (5 vs. 5, no respawns, over in minutes) enjoyably tense. Some larger-scale scraps, meanwhile, endured for a good half an hour, being insanely chaotic set-tos that left participants alternatively gasping for breath, pumping fists or high-fiving and weeping quietly when the score screen finally flashed up. As we said, there's more variety to BF4 than ever - from the micro to the macro level and everything in-between.
At its best then, there's nothing to touch Battlefield 4's multiplayer for all-encompassing war. Take Paracel Storm, packed with 64 players, all waging their own mini wars on their own bits of the huge map. Gunboats are mowing stragglers down like ripe corn on the beach, supersonic jets are dropping death from above, buildings are disintegrating in hails of blood and dust and the sound design is blowing your mind.
"At its best, there's nothing to touch Battlefield 4's multiplayer for all-encompassing war"
Then, when you think it couldn't possibly get any more enthralling, any more goddamn immersive, a gigantic tropical storm thunders in and the carnage really commences.
A triumph on a multitude of levels, Battlefield 4 is the series' most compelling package to date, a delightfully slick introduction to the next-generation of consoles and more than a good enough reason on its lonesome to pick up a PS4 or Xbox One to see what high-end PC-owning players have been banging on about for years.
Kudos to the dog-punching fans at DICE - it's fantastic to see the next-gen kicking off with such a convincing wallop. COD, over to you...
A bombastic start to the next generation of shooters, especially in multiplayer.
- An incredible next-gen game engine
- Stellar map design
- One of the best team shooters ever
- Single-player campaign is short and narratively nonsensical.
- Some irksome respawn points