Like any beta, Battlefield 4 currently has its fair share of problems. After having to disable Windows 8's fast boot option just to play it, for reasons completely beyond my comprehension, I've witnessed crashes and lag galore. I spent five minutes stuck in a flower bed. I've seen players spawn deep within the restricted level bounds and die before they could run onto the map. And a boat impossibly marooned in the middle of a Shanghai high street, mowing down waves of enemy infantry too busy laughing to return fire.
I'm not particularly worried, though, because I've just strafed an enemy position from a helicopter minigun, parachuted onto a jetski, smashed a tank through a car park and pushed an objective with a well-organised squad as a towering skyscraper collapsed overhead. All in the space of five minutes.
The foundations for fun have been laid, that much is clear. BattleLog is better than it has ever been, allowing us to tweak everything from our server preferences to vehicular loadouts and friend IM from the convenience of our browser. Once in-game, you and your squad are thrown into a battle royale as tanks prowl the streets, helicopters rule the skies and throngs of infantry duke it out for capture points. Not to mention queue up for some lifts to ascend the monolithic central skyscraper, often running afoul of cheeky campers who'll bushwhack you at the top. There's a neat mix of engagement ranges and elevations, and intense firefights everywhere you look. It's pure chaos at face value, but close communication and teamwork allows you to carve out your own sense of order as just a small part of an enormous battle.
The Shanghai map isn't, perhaps, the best way to showcase DICE's new vision. Destruction just isn't profound or pronounced enough; though Battlefield 4 boasts 'Levolution,' Shanghai's skyscraper set piece feels artificial and forced. It's like flicking a switch from 'building' to 'rubble,' killing all players on the roof instantly, rather than feeling like an organic part of each match. Beyond raising the odd bollard, there are actually very few ways to dynamically affect the level by deforming the scenery with grenades and sustained firepower.
On the flipside, though, Shanghai has grown on me. It's a perfect size, big enough to provide numerous approaches yet compact enough to ensure that they're fun to be had around every corner. It's tall, too, with players able to snipe from the rooftops or parachute down to practically anywhere, landing behind enemy lines ready for battle, and deep enough for stealthy swimming squads to make a sopping wet entrance. Shanghai is more of a playground than a multiplayer map, a toybox stuffed with jet skis, helicopters, boats and tanks, encouraging you to play with it.
And that's the point, really. As a beta, there's plenty of room for improvement, both in terms of visuals and balance. We'd like to see suppression become more pronounced, especially for the Support kit, while the Engineer is a little too versatile and viable in this pundit's opinion. Other maps need to ramp up the destruction to insane levels. Commander Mode hasn't been implemented yet. Hackers are already plying their vile trade. The netcode needs work. Lots of work.
But damn, it's so much fun. I play games to be entertained, and if the finished product can improve on this first look, Battlefield 4 is going to offer entertainment in spades.
There are two modes to be had in Battlefield 4's exclusive beta. One is the full Battlefield experience as we've come to know and love: 64 players vying for territorial possession across a vast map that's liberally strewn with vehicles and impressive verticality -- a diverse leviathan of a game that offers a depth and accessibility not found in any other shooter out there. The other is a K/D-oriented slaughterfest in ridiculously close quarters that appears to be trying to mirror a certain Activision IP, and failing.
I don't really want to talk about Domination to an enormous degree. Quite why anyone would come to Battlefield 4 looking for that experience is a little beyond me. I'm not saying Battlefield can't attempt to "do a COD", but whether it should is a different matter. Infinity Ward and co. are much better at that sort of thing, and have been for some time. It's nice to give players options, I suppose, though. If you want a fast-paced, twitchy murder rink tied into Battlelog, it's there. It's just not much fun.
Conquest, or more specifically Conquest Large, is where it's at.
There are two river banks -- East and West -- both with two capture points apiece, with a fifth at the top of a skyscraper upon the island that bridges the two banks. Tanks (and occasionally the odd beached boat) roll out down the tight streets of Shanghai, surrounded by skyscrapers and buildings of varying heights. Helicopters buzz overhead menacingly, raining down hailstorms of leaded death. Boats and jetskis zoom across the bay, patrolling the bay, shelling the riverfront and punishing brave/stupid swimmers.
More important, there are figures base jumping off of tall buildings, parachuting out from helicopters, and scattering themselves across the map. Shanghai is a daredevil sniper's playground if you have the patience for it. But I don't, so I leap into the nearest tank and start dishing out shells with impunity. I kill 8 people that round and die 14 times, but still make the top three players on my team because of my capture score. Everything you do in Battlefield counts -- captures, revivals, clearing out vehicles, repairing heavy ordinance, distracting and suppressing enemies, and of course bumping off the enemy team -- and Shanghai manages to provide fantastic opportunities for series veterans as well as less accurate newcomers.
As someone who understands the series but is seriously gaming on PC for the first time in a decade (NEW RIG!!!! WOOOOO!!!), that depth and breadth of rewarded teamwork, of being part of the bigger picture, is enormously welcome.
Sadly, the much-touted Levolution is something of a let-down. As Jon mentions above, it's incredibly scripted -- a narrative switch is flicked when players complete a certain objective or press a button and down goes that central skyscraper in a swirling cloud of dust. One minute there's a firefight in a penthouse roof garden gong on, the next it's a concrete maze of rubble and ruin. The change it makes to that part of the map is pretty cool, but it feels out of the player's hands, and level deformation is just as disappointing as it was the last time around. The Levolution happens in the same places every time -- a pothole here, a blasted opening in a building's wall there. It's the same setup and the same result, and if Frostbite 3 is as robust as DICE say it is, there should be more variation in this, surely?
Sometimes I wish Battlefield wouldn't take itself so damn seriously.
The unlocks have been tweaked and revamped a little to allow players to access cool stuff earlier, following on from DICE's own suggestion that the develops should have been slapped for their unlock balancing in the last game. I'm inclined to agree: why would you give only the best players the best weapons? Class-wise, it's all about the Engineer and the Recon classes in Shanghai, with Assault and Support especially feeling a little underfed. There's an AI Commander in play on the Battlefield as the mode itself isn't operational in the beta, but it'll be interesting to see how that affects the action.
There are plenty of little glitches, the occasional invisible wall, and a handful of frustrating game-crashing bugs, but that's what a beta is for. In any case, it hasn't detracted from what is an enormously enjoyable experience when the team rosters are full, even if it doesn't really feel like there's been much by way of large improvement or progression. Enjoyable, yes; but dear god, DICE, if you're going to invent the world's worst portmanteau (tied with Drivatar), let us Levolute!