Battlefield 4 reviews are spilling onto the 'net like blood from a freshly inflicted exit wound, but while next-gen and PC multiplayer seems to be the focus, VG247's Dave Cook's been playing the Xbox 360 campaign.
Cards on the table folks, I'm a sucker for Battlefield: Bad Company 2. I felt that Battlefield 3's campaign was a noose around the franchise's neck, squeezing and restricting everything the previous game had achieved into a suffocating bottleneck of scripted events and blatant sign-posting played out across a farcical globe-trotting caper.
Gone were Bad Company's wide expanses, the ability to approach objectives from multiple angles and the hilarious, often nonsensical banter between the misfit soldiers of B Company. If you want to talk entertainment value then I'd rather hear Haggard and Sweetwater talk bollocks while blowing things up than watch a set-piece I have no control over any day. I get it though; Battlefield 3 was geared as a more sober, authentic flavour of military experience that was set to dazzle with its crumbling structures and high production values.
Despite all of Frostbite 2's technical prowess and DICE's talent, the story mode veered closer to that notion of the irrelevant shooter campaign. It begs the question of - given Titanfall and Destiny's multiplayer-only campaign format - have we now reached a point where such offline components are no longer required? I can't answer that, but I get the sense that Battlefield 4's campaign wasn't cheap to produce. It technically doesn't need to exist for this game to sell, and it's a safe bet that the majority of players still pick it up for multiplayer alone.
That said, there are moments during the Xbox 360 campaign that look quite stunning - even in my video of the first ten minutes - but more often than not the console begins to show its age whenever the draw distance screams off towards the horizon, or when destruction kicks off in a big way. You'll still follow your AI squad-mates like an obedient lap dog as you try to unravel a Russian-influenced Chinese coup. You'll still run ahead of them to use some sort of initiative before the next skirmish, only to plod back to your comrades to shepherd them along to the next scripted trigger point.
I was bored silly when having to follow my crew around, but when shit kicks off, it does so with a louder bang than Battlefield 3's enclosed encounters. One mission set in a storm-stricken Singapore harbour underlines Frostbite 3's slick weather effects. As you fight your way up a coastal street using a friendly tank as cover, your visibility becomes hampered while desperately trying to spot and execute threats at long range. The game's new Engage feature alleviates the pressure somewhat and sees you issuing basic attack orders to your squad, lending you a modicum of support.
When each level's 'big destruction set-piece of doom' kicks off, it does so like a punch to the gut. In this particular stage, the storm kicks into high gear and causes your aim and footing to waver convincingly, as cars fly into the air like toys. Then an oil tanker cuts through the bridge like scissors through paper, causing your squad to tumble into the drink. Elsewhere, construction sites collapse around you, plane wings shatter and flatten enemy troops and surface destruction comes in droves. You still can't level buildings like in Bad Company 2, but there's more to destroy here certainly.
Moments like these still wrestle control from the player, yet it feels like DICE has cribbed from its genre-mates Infinity Ward and Treyarch to useful effect. These moments are genuinely worth pressing on for. They work. My only real gripe from a set-piece perspective is that all too often the segue between missions consists of protagonist Recker being knocked out and the screen fading to black. You black out and wake up in the next stage, ready to continue the fight. It's a lazy mechanic, but it's certainly not exclusive to Battlefield 4.
After three hours I'm currently on the penultimate mission of the campaign. There are seven missions. Across them all there are moments that free up the environment and give you a degree of that old Bad Company freedom, but they're wrenched from your hands all too soon. I understand that some players may prefer the bombastic corridor nature of Battlefield 4, but for this shooter fan I came away dazzled by the tech, confused by the muddled plot and still yearning for Bad Company 3. I didn't even mind the short running time.
We truly are in a place right now where the industry's biggest hitters demand significant investments and even bigger returns to keep producing this kind of blockbuster content. Changing up templates can be fraught with disaster and financial loss. This is why the triple-a pack relies on incremental refinement and improvement, rather than seismic sea changes. I get it. It makes sense. As today's 'other' lifted review embargo - Assassin's Creed 4 - shows, this is not necessarily a bad thing.
Critics have applauded Ubisoft's efforts to remedy the problems that plagued Assassin's Creed 3, and from what I've read so far they've nailed it and built more on top. The same goes for Battlefield 4's campaign. It's a bigger, bolder and more enjoyable experience than its predecessor, but if you're the kind of person who liked the way both the Battlefield and Call of Duty brands remained on two sides of the same fence with their USPs held tight, you may be disappointed by what you find. These are now two very similar experiences made indistinguishable largely by their names.
Where Bad Company 2 offered something different to Activision's franchise, Battlefield 4 follows suit. The campaign's cast has infinitely more personality than Battlefield 3's forgettable star players, and there's actual energy to be found here as you play whack-a-mole with the AI popping in and out of cover. The enemies are no substitute for a highly skilled multiplayer opponent, but if you treat the story like a Saturday evening action flick and just coast through its rote tale of American survival, faceless rogue states and a prison break-out ripped almost out of the original Black Ops, you'll breeze through it with nary a complaint.
The case for a return to Bad Company has become further validated, but given the wavering significance of military campaigns I'm not sure DICE will be too phased once Battlefield 4's multiplayer servers ignite later today.
Speaking of which. Stay tuned for our multiplayer appraisal in a day or two.
Disclosure: To assist in writing this piece, EA sent Dave an Xbox 360 copy of Battlefield 4.