Battlefield 4 hands-on: scaling skyscrapers and sniping for victory in war-torn Shanghai

Bad Company and its sequel were great multiplayer games, but they lost some of what made their predecessor, Battlefield 2, such a marvellous team-based shooter. Battlefield 3 took a step in the right direction by making large-scale warfare the norm again. Battlefield 4 is going even further, by bringing back Commander mode.

One player on each of Battlefield 4's two teams is now able to view the battlefield from above, issuing orders to different squads, dropping resources such as vehicles to aid in their team's assault, and launching tactical missiles to take down enemy units. It brings back another layer of tactics to Battlefield's endless war, and it makes perfect sense on the large levels. The mission I played at this year's E3 was the same shown at the EA conference: the Siege of Shanghai. It takes place on the streets surrounding the city's waterfront, with a river bisecting the map. A Metro station acts as one of the capture points; another is placed on top of a tall, central skyscraper. It's designed for 64 players, and at each team's spawn, there's a plentiful supply of tanks, jeeps and helicopters.

My first round as the game's familiar recon class starts in typical fashion: players leaping into vehicles and immediately driving off while I chase after them in a desperate attempt to get inside. Eventually I find a vehicle of my own, and set off through the streets with a group of random squadmates. We capture our first point without taking a shot.

Next I move to another point on the roof of a multi-storey car park, and leap from the van seconds before it explodes under heavy fire. I kill one, two, three people at mid-range by using my sniper rifle to injure them and my pistol to finish them off. I capture the point and move on again.

At this point, my squad and I have been scattered to the wind, but when I die and respawn with them later, I'm atop the game's central skyscraper. Half the people playing have congregated here, because they've all seen what happens when you destroy the building's supports: it falls over, spectacularly. We all want to be on top of it when that happens.

My squad and I kill any enemies on top, and then wait. And wait. And then, when we realise nothing is happening, we throw ourselves over the edge and parachute down below. I land on the roof of a much smaller building, and bring my sniper rifle out again. One kill, two kill, three kill, four. I'm top of the server at this point; if every Battlefield server was full of tired, confused journalists, it would be my favourite game.

For a while, it's possible Battlefield 2 was my favourite game. It wasn't the bombast – though running across cratered beaches while machinegun fired pinged around your feet and jets buzzed over head was a thrill. Instead, it was the quiet moments with my squad that made me love it: Tom Francis, Craig Pearson and I camping on top of a structure in the middle of the desert, observing the battlefield around us, picking a target or waiting for the Commander to select it for us. There was a sense that you and your friends in a squad were a tactical unit, and that you existed within the broader context of a raging battle, whether you were taking part in it at that second or not. The Commander helped with that, bonding everyone together – again, whether you ignored the person in the role or not.

Just as before, you get bonus XP if you do decide to follow your Commander's objectives. And if your team is doing well, the Commander gets more abilities: from UAVs to provide tactical information, to artillery strikes and Tomahawk missiles.

I noticed only a few changes to the game's classes; assault, engineer, recon, and support each return from the previous game. The recon class now has the C4 – previously a support class item – to complement their sniper rifle. On the Siege of Shanghai, C4 is one of the best ways to bring down the skyscraper at the centre of the map, so I wonder if the change means we can expect more destructible buildings on other levels.

Each of the four classes also now has access to three types of grenade: the standard frag, plus flashbang and incendiary grenades.

It's too early to tell how these changes will shift the flow of the game, or how the system of weapon and item unlocks might have been tweaked. So much of what makes Battlefield compelling can only be discerned from dozens of hours of play, and my session with the game ended after a too-short 15 minutes.

But there's a clearer change in the prevalence of boats: battles in the river and inlets around Shanghai were as constant a fixture as the fight for air dominance. Best of all, ejecting into the water doesn't damn you to along, boring swim: you launch out on a jet ski.

Battlefield 4 plays like it could be a bigger, prettier and more tactically complex iteration of BF3. My only complaint from the little I played is that I never saw the map's tower fall. I was either elsewhere in the map when it happened, or waiting to respawn. Next time.