At the EA booth at E3 I had the chance to sit down with a copy of Battlefield 4 and take it through its paces. Displayed proudly at EA's press conference this year, it is obvious that EA are banking on this classic franchise to draw in the hardcore shooter crowd.
After being shown a brief demonstration video that reminded all the noobs in the audience how to handle themselves in a full-on firefight, a large group of gamers - 64 in fact - was ushered in front of teched out PCs in the middle of the show floor. We were playing through the multiplayer mission that was shown in EA's trailer - the United States army was marauding into Shanghai and was trying to take down the Chinese National Television station, which is located in a prominent skyscraper.
After selecting and customising my class (there were four to choose from: assault, engineer, recon, and support) I got straight into the action. The first thing that was noticeable was how smooth the experience was - there was little delay between deployment and some intense shooting action. This is helped in part by the addition of "squads" into the Battlefield 4 multiplayer experience. There are groups of around 4 to 5 players that are banded together as a team. Using your squad to best effect brings with it clear advantages - your squadmates show up on your minimap so you always know if are supported and you can choose to deploy to your squadmates when you respawn. It's a neat innovation that means that the pace of the Battlefield 4 experience remains fast and action orientated.
The second major new feature is the inclusion of the "Commander" class. This is a player who is sitting over the battlefied and is directing squads and units to new locations and objectives. Through a top down strategy map style interface, they can see the ebb and flow of the fighting - and where there are weak spots or choke points. They aren't just a passive observer though - by squad members completing orders that the commander has given, they earn points that can be spent on game changing weapons, like Tomahawk missles or high altitude gunships.
As my game rampaged on it was a little difficult to respond to or keep track of exactly what it was the Commander wanted me and my squad mates to do - but in the hands of an experienced player giving orders to a clan there is scope for some really awesome tactical gameplay.
The combat itself was fast paced and intense. The flow of the battle and the ability to deploy right into the action meant that there were several loud and violent mini battles happening all the time throughout my hands on. These were an awesome opportunity to see some of Battlefield 4's weapons in action, ranging from the classic assault rifle to high tech grenade launchers. These mini battles gravitated around the key buildings in the map keeping the action centered on the map's overall objectives. They were also an opportunity to show off the game's physics engine. Many environments were destructible and as they were shot at, stormed over and blown up they responded authentically. When Alan Bell was playing the game, he described seeing a shell zoom past a tank, hit a tree, and topple it. As the tree fell, its branches shook and its leaves rustled in real time. Physics like this ram home the carnage of war.
The map I played through also strongly emphasized vertical play. Several buildings can be entered, and you can take elevators to the top of them to rain down bullets on soldiers in the street below - until someone in a helicopter blows you away from the sky. Although getting up that high was a slightly surreal experience. There's something a little strange about running around with bullets flying and then hopping in a quiet elevator with 4 other heavily armed dudes. All it needed was some dinky elevator music to start playing.
However, odd elevators aside, the most intense part of the game came when the Americans managed to destroy the central tower. This didn't end the game - but it did change it. The streets became littered with dust and debris, giving different options for cover. Line of sight was also drastically reduced, as the haze of the collapsed building clogged your vision. And this was all rendered in stunning detail.
Battlefield's graphics and high frame rates really rounded off the combat experience and kept your head right in the game. The sound design was also amazing. Guns popped and cracked, shells exploded, tanks revved and roared. The sound in Battlefield titles is usually pretty good, but I was blown away by how authentic and immersive Battlefield's audio was. And when the central part of that map's combat experience is the destruction of a massive skyscraper it's damned important to get your graphics and audio marching in sync. Thankfully, Battlefield has.
However, it remains to be seen how fluid the combat is in different environments. The map I played through was mostly urban, meaning compressed street warfare. This meant that the action was mostly soldier to soldier, and tanks and other vehicles didn't feature as much as they would in other maps. However, when they did they were tactically useful and incredibly deadly. In the middle of the map there was a river crossed by a bridge, the booming tank battles there were a sight to behold, and their burning carcasses gave added cover to the swarms of infantry running past in support.
Overall I was really impressed with the Battlefield 4 map that I played through. The multiplayer madness of the franchise's 64 player maps creates an experience that is chaotic, fast-paced, and fun. The title will come out on October 31 in Australia, so hopefully it makes the hop over the ditch at the same time. Because if the final experience is anywhere near as good as the hands on experience I had at E3 kiwi gamers are going to want to snap it up quick.