"You don't want people to feel alienated by crazy features and crazy changes." So said Battlefield's executive producer, Patrick Bach, just over a week ago. Few will have been surprised by his words, what with the military shooter genre not being known for its radical reinventions, but it's interesting that he felt he had to address the issue at all.
Battlefield 4 is, of course, pretty much exactly the game you expect. A rather thin single-player campaign hangs on the tail of a much more interesting and robust multiplayer offering in which players skirmish across vast maps, throwing everything from quad bikes to state-of-the-art jet fighters at each other in an attempt to gain that precious additional XP, that must-have weapon unlock, that next slot up on the leaderboard. It's Battlefield, and the fundamentals are no more likely to change than Manchester United is likely to field an ostrich in goal, just to be different.
As with many franchises that have endured throughout this hardware generation and beyond, what we're looking at is less a case of ongoing evolution and more a question of custodianship. The numbers on the end of each game's title suggest an escalating sequence, but that's an old model that is rapidly becoming obsolete. Like most online games, it helps to view Battlefield 4 as an update to an ongoing service rather than a distinct product in and of itself, where the aim is not to reinvent but to refresh and to sustain.
On that score, Battlefield 4 excels, buoyed as it is by next-generation consoles that bring parity with a muscular PC almost within reach. It's not quite there yet - textures still pop at times, and some of the larger multiplayer maps use gentle fogging to obscure distant details - but played back-to-back with the same game running on current-generation hardware, the difference is night and day. Not just in terms of visual polish, but in tangible gameplay terms as well.
With the move to 64-player lobbies, Battlefield on consoles finally matches the PC experience in terms of scale. You get five or six capture points as standard rather than three or four, and enough players to make each of them a simultaneous hotspot. There's none of the churn that you get when 32 players are trying to fill the space, moving from one capture point to the next in an endless cycle. Instead, the action spreads evenly and the maps are designed to take full advantage.