After learning that the Battlefield 4 servers were back at capacity following the announcement of Battlefield 2042 earlier this month, myself and a friend decided we'd reinstall the game on PS5 and enjoy a few matches together. We wanted to relive the glory days of DICE's last modern-day FPS before its successor arrives in October. In hindsight, we couldn't have been more naive.
The first signs of trouble appeared the moment the game booted up, and quickly revealed that the ability to create or join each other's Squads – a key part of the Battlefield experience – was completely broken. I couldn't join my friend's party, nor could he join mine, thus leaving us incapable of entering a match together. A quick internet search revealed that this is because Battlelog, the awkward social system that DICE and EA once pushed into all of its Battlefield games, was shut down in 2016, and so players now have no way of squadding up in instalments that relied on the service to do exactly that.
After much faffing and shared frustration, the two of us finally managed to get into a game together (we had to both select a match from the server list and pray that we'd join in on the same team), but at this point it already felt like an exercise in diminishing returns. Thankfully, the map we'd made it into was a good one – Rogue Transmission – and while Battlefield 4 is showing its age in more ways than just that borked Battlelog, it didn't take long to see why everyone's returning to this eight year old shooter in anticipation of 2042.
Beautiful, deadly, and chock full of "Only in Battlefield" moments, Battlefield 4 resembles the last echoes of the sandbox warfare design pillars that DICE would subsequently move away from with future instalments. Now that Battlefield 2042 is promising a return to that foundation in all its outlandish flavors, fans are flooding back into Battlefield 4 to remind themselves of what that tastes like. Spoilers: it's just as delicious as you remember.
Only in Battlefield 4
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Credit where credit is due on Battlefield 4. For a game that came out in 2013, and is now available to play across three generations of consoles, it still looks mighty impressive. Sure, draw distance blur and texture pop-ins are commonplace, and some of your soldier's animations evoke bad memories of the infamous neck glitch from Battlefield 3, but the shooter still mostly holds up in its presentation of modern day multiplayer mayhem.
That's in strong part to the game's sound design, which is less vulnerable to aging, and still eclipses the authenticity of many other contemporaries with its wartorn soundscapes. When bullets crackle past your head and the industrial whir of an apache drowns out the skies above, the sense of immersion is inimitable. Dynamic lighting and weather effects also help maintain the illusion, and with the whole thing running at 60 frames per second in 4K resolution on PS5, the game can be genuinely stunning at times.
But people aren't playing Battlefield 4 for its shiny yet somewhat dated production value. This is the last Battlefield game that truly embraced the founding design philosophies of the franchise; where jets could be RendeZooked, helicopters could become roadkill, and snipers could find perches 400 feet above the ground. Even in this instalment, DICE walked back on some of the freedoms it gave players in Battlefield 3 and Bad Company 2, removing the ability to take off from runways (and thus the opportunity to sabotage them) and dialling down some of the destruction in its environments.
Even so, there's something to be said about a game that lets you ride a quad bike off of a collapsing tower and into the middle of a tank battle below, to give just one example of the kind of watercooler moments which future instalments would offer less and less of as time went on.
Speaking of collapsing towers, Battlefield 4 is also the entry which introduced Levolution to DICE's shooter series, allowing players to trigger massive, map-changing events that offered operatic spectacle never seen from an online game before.
Unfortunately, this far on from launch, matches are dominated by players who know exactly how to trigger a map's Levolution event before the game's really even started. It's rare to join a match that won't send Siege of Shanghai's tower tumbling down within the first few minutes, for example, leaving players left with the much less interesting conflict zone of rubble and steel to fight amongst for the rest of the game.
Still, those events haven't lost their potency in Battlefield 4. Watching Paracel Storm's warship plough its way onto the beach amidst a tropical storm remains just as jaw-dropping as it did eight years ago. The fact that you're less likely to see such Levolution events happen – since you'll join servers that triggered them half an hour ago – only makes them more of a treat to sit back and enjoy when they do.
A glimpse into 2042
Rubbing up against Battlefield 4's matchmaking issues also proves to be an unexpected reminder of the game's infamous launch period. For those who can't remember, the first few weeks of release were so buggy and unreliable that EA became the target of a number of lawsuits, suggesting that the publisher had misled audiences with its marketing. The following year, even DICE acknowledged that 4's server woes had shaken Battlefield fans' trust in the franchise, and dealt lasting damage to the very legacy of the Battlefield IP.
Of course, Battlefield 4 would be the first of many seventh-generation multiplayer games to buckle under the weight of their own server traffic, and even DICE has continued to struggle to ensure a smooth launch period with future instalments. Given how Battlefield 2042 has come out of E3 2021 as one of the most popular games of the show, and also resembles one of the few truly big releases of the Holiday season this year, you can't help but worry whether the title is about to repeat history in all the wrong ways.
DICE's plan to stagger player numbers through tiers of early access, alongside holding both a closed alpha and open beta in the lead up to launch, will hopefully address those risks head on. But returning to Battlefield 4, in all its messiness, is a potent reminder that it doesn't take much for a player base to turn on a game entirely. Still, the fact that so many players are returning to 4 shows that such a game can also redeem itself over time. However Battlefield 2042 initially lands, then, whether that's with a bang or a whimper, the lasting appeal of its eight year old predecessor can at least assure DICE that its latest title will be hitting the ground in the right direction.