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E3 2013 - Battlefield 4 Hands-On Preview

The Battlefield series is now over a decade old and has lodged itself in gamers' consciousness like a bullet from a sniper rifle in an enemy's skull. After the success and longevity of Battlefield 3, developers EA Digital Illusions CE were going to have to pull out all the stops to make a first-person shooter that could succeed its predecessor without feeling like a visually-improved carbon-copy. After a lengthy hands-on at E3 this week it appears that Battlefield 4 will deliver something that is both recognisable and redefined.

Jumping into Battlefield 4 on the map "Siege of Shanghai", we got to experience the game running on PC with full-on 32-a-side combat. We found ourselves on the U.S. side battling to take control of a section of the city while repelling the Chinese forces attempting to retake the area. Immediately obvious was how smooth the game ran with no visual glitches, latency or slowdown of any kind. Graphically, Battlefield 4 did not seem that different to the previous instalment, certainly not when played on a high-end PC, but no doubt the developers will have more opportunity to showcase engine improvements in the future.

Indeed we initially found ourselves experiencing a very real sense of déjà vu, with the control scheme virtually unchanged and the general urban setting very reminiscent of titles both past and present. However, as we sunk further into our time with the game a general feeling took hold that gave Battlefield 4 a subtly different atmosphere to its predecessor: the sense of organised chaos. It's something we will return to, but the almost overwhelming impression of being in the midst of a constantly changing fight is both exhilarating and daunting.

The series-staple classes return once again with Assault, Engineer, Support and Recon roles all essential in their own way and picking a diverse team still seems to be a key to victory. Lacking the necessary skill to artfully headshot enemies we chose to keep away from the Recon class and opt for the slightly more versatile combat skills of the Assault, Support and Engineer options. The match began relatively serenely with our fellow players all moving forward together in their respective squads (returning in much the same way as Battlefield 3). However, it took under a minute for the action to unfold with gunfire raining down and explosions shaking the streets.

 

One of the first improvements we recognised were some changes to the sound quality, which was especially surprising given that we were packed into the middle of a very loud trade show floor. Gun shots, explosions and engines now seem crisper, meatier and more authentic and the distances at which you hear them also seem subtly different. It was not something that the developers chose to emphasise in particular but throughout the course of our multiplayer experience the sound was consistently impressive. Hearing a sniper shot ring out and then successfully flanking the camping rifleman based solely on your estimation of his position from the sound is always satisfying.

The real differences came from the intensity of the action, which was not only insanely fast-paced, but also on a different scale. The series on PC has had 64-player multiplayer for years but never has it felt this large-scale. Enemy squads, vehicles and individual players seem to be everywhere, and nowhere feels safe or secure. Never before has a tactical and acute awareness of space, and the map, been so important and sticking together in your squad is the best way to progress. Having someone watch your back and provide covering fire was consistently a life-saver and led to the capture of many points.

The return of the Commander mode (available from tablet devices) last seen in Battlefield 2142 is a welcome addition. Playing in this mode provides an overhead tactical interface allowing users to issue squad orders and the benefits of calling down supply drops, artillery strikes and other perks. While playing, this has a relatively subtle effects with important areas highlighted with a green glow and suggested objective markers appearing on player HUDs. It proved very useful by helping squads to regroup and promoted team work.

 

Throughout their E3 promotion of the game EA Digital Illusions CE were especially keen to emphasise the improved destructibility that the Frostbite 3 engine provides and its associated impact on gameplay. After being present at the EA press conference and seeing what appeared to be a highly scripted multiplayer scenario demonstrating those environments, we were amazed to see that it was remarkably representative of actual in-game occurrences. Within the first five minutes or so of playing we were already staring in awe at concrete barriers, sections of roads and buildings being obliterated or collapsing after sustaining heavy fire.

A major theme across the thirty minute fight was the control of the central capture points, two of which were situated in subways whereas the middle point sat atop the roof of a skyscraper. Whilst protecting our underground control point from a particularly skilled enemy squad, who were making mincemeat of our teammates, we were astonished when the roof collapsed and two vehicles dropped in. Thankfully, a stray shell had brought our salvation and one of our own tanks proceeded to destroy the enemy car it had arrived with before annihilating the enemy troops.

It was an incredible and organic occurrence that felt so epic it should have been scripted. Throughout the multiplayer match we encountered situations like this where our squad mates would either come to our rescue or we would witness seemingly impossible events. We jumped underneath a bridge while being chased by two enemies only for a teammate in a boat to suddenly arrive just in time for us to hop in the turret and get revenge. We saw an enemy damage part of a road, causing one of our tanks rear portions to get stuck angling its gun upwards at the moment it needed the additional height to blast another vehicle.

 

One of the real highlights was the moment when an EA employee took pity on our pathetic attempts to pilot a chopper and rocked up next to us indicating we should man the mounted minigun. With a professional at the controls we were free to bomb through the streets using the high rate of fire to lay waste to squads and send showers of broken glass hurtling into the streets. At the same time we were free to witness the carnage below as tanks duelled in the concrete, snipers pinned down players and when entire intersections were turned into dust from artillery bombardments.

Battlefield 4 has recreated intense, brutal combat in a way that somehow its predecessor has not. While much of it may seem highly familiar: the HUD, visuals, classes and even the weapons, something has changed to make it gel together much better. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly what that new ingredient is. It could well be the enhanced destructibility which definitely adds a new layer of unpredictability and spectacle to the action. Maybe it was Commander mode more effectively funnelling friend and foe together for better action.

Whatever EA Digital Illusions CE have done it certainly seems to work well, but we still have a few reservations about the experience. Getting teams to work together needs to be a major priority and while Commander mode is working towards that, it still needs to incentivise co-operation during the multiplayer game as much as possible. Battlefield without teamwork is not as enjoyable an experience and in order for it to be the best it can it needs to ensure it truly creates a sense of a united force working closely to achieve a goal.

Similarly, the enhanced destructibility will necessitate a much more creative and complex level design process which was clearly so evident in the map we played. If each level can be as diverse, fluid and changeable then clearly the developers will have nothing to fear. The Siege of Shanghai map we played in provided that rare mixture of both long-distance, close-quarters and vehicular insanity that the series has become known for.

Despite being, in some ways, one of the most recognisable and unchanged games of E3 2013, Battlefield 4 was one of the highlights in terms of its gameplay experience. So much stands against it: it is a modern day, first-person military shooter very much in the established mould. Yet, at the same time it is compelling, varied and filled with the kind of unpredictable, challenging gameplay that so many people crave.

We are already looking forward to spending more time with Battlefield 4, if only to get to grips with more detail in its weapons, unlock progression and map variety, not to mention the single player component. However, even at this early stage it is already looking polished, detailed and, most importantly, fun. With a release date set for November 1st for PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 (PlayStation 4 and Xbox One to follow) there is still plenty of time for EA Digital Illusions CE to show us more.

evilgiraffeman | 19th June, 2013
Platinum's picture
Cheers
Kaostic's picture
Nice one Giraffe, great to get some hands on insight

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