Clan leader John Strike charges into the Battlefield 4 beta to find out what's new, old, better and broken.
Why was I nervous? It wasn't like I was at a job interview or even meeting my girlfriend's favourite dog for the first time. Yet here I was sitting at the computer at 8:55 AM, my bottom chewing on my underpants in apprehension at the beta release of Battlefield 4 .
I've poured 900 hours into Battlefield 3. As a clan leader, I couldn't help but fear for my ruthless band of buddies should Battlefield 4 not cut the mustard. Casting my mind back to Battlefield 3's beta some two years ago I knew what problems to expect: connection problems, performance problems, clipping problems. I feared that the beta might collapse harder and faster than Seige of Shanghai's destructible skyscraper. At first, it did.
At 9:02 I logged into Origin successfully. Bish!
At 9:03 Battlelog started up. Bash!
At 9:05 the game launched and I was away. Bosh!
By 9:15 I was in game with 3 frames per second and frantically looking for the returns policy on my GTX 680 that I'd installed the night before.
There's no denying my first few hours with Battlefield 4 were terrible, and as clan mates logged in and out we were all too eager to condemn it as a disaster. Comments about the dire framerate, lag and log in issues rippled across the servers and forums. Many wondered if this was what we'd be left with for the next two years. When you're so committed to a series as I'd been with BF3, panic sets in when you're not immediately compelled to play your game's sequel, particularly when it's a game in which you've invested time and forged friendships.
I went to bed. By mid afternoon the next day there were new AMD and Nvidia beta drivers. I was straight on the case, and the fighting began in earnest.
The Battlefield 4 beta, (open to all, as of today) offers one map, two game modes and access to a variety of weapons and vehicles, plus of course a taste of Battlelog's new features. The core map is Siege of Shanghai, a sprawling urban environment that DICE have showcased in their trailers . It's incredibly grey, but offers some fantastic architectural touches, like the huge animated ad boards. These are so big that at a distance I was startled to see what looked unmistakably like an AT-AT trudging across the horizon, only to soon realise it was just a cat (CAT-AT? - Feline Ed).
'Conquest large' mode pitches teams on either side of a large expanse of water, with attack helicopters, boats, jet skis, tanks and armoured vehicles scattered nearby. There are five objectives on the map. Teams can quickly cap the two points on their respective sides, before heading to the central flag at C via a pair of two-storey bridges. Point C is the jewel in the crown, sitting initially at the top of a huge skyscraper accessible only by lift or helicopter. Once you've made your way to the top, you get a spectacular vantage point overlooking the entire map.
Destroy key pillars at the base of the tower the whole thing topples into the drink. Objective C then moves to the tip of a freshly created rubble pier where the fighting continues in a much more exposed location. This is the first instance in a Battlefield game that's seen a map morph so drastically during combat. You're also able to raise electronic barricades at choke points on the bridges to trap and cripple enemy vehicles, and lift shop shutters to give your squad more vision, or hide them from a passing tank. At the moment, players rush to topple the tower for the novelty value. In future keeping it upright might be a valuable move for organised teams that want easy access to nearby rooftops.
There is an inconsistency to this new layer of map interactivity. It's a little contrived that the skyscraper should be vulnerable when the surrounding towers are invincible. The rooftops of these surrounding towers can sometimes be accessed via internal elevator, but you'll find elevators in some buildings that you can't interact with, even though they look identical. Aside from Shanghai's pre-ordained tower and pavement collapse segments, the architecture doesn't seem to be much more destructible than it was in Battlefield 3.
Disappointingly, in adding so much vertical variation Siege of Shanghai has adopted a problem from BF3's Markaz Monolith map. You can still parachute down to lower rooftops in BF4, which lets snipers dig in on rooftops far above your immediate field of view and pick you off relentlessly. The map design does take this into account to an extent. The two main bridges that fasten point C to each team's flanking urban zones have underslung footbridges that provide vital infantry cover. One of the points is situated in a sunken car-park that's almost entirely hidden from snipers. Some of the underground pillars can be blown to tear a hole in the street and allow for alternate access points.
There's little a sniper rifle can do against a tank, of course. As they did in BF3, vehicles play a key part in Battlfield's bigger, more sedate modes like Conquest Large. Seasoned pilots and tank commanders will notice differences. Tanks, for example, are undoubtedly harder to manoeuvre. Turning is more sensitive, and they now have limited shell ammunition which needs reloading after a few blasts. Turrets now have a lower elevation capacity making shooting a chopper down with a shell even trickier. Smoke burst do still release your tank from a missile lock but the smoke itself, though spectacular, acts more like a firework or flare and provides no cover for a repairing engineer.
One final blow to the poor tank crews is that tank shells are now no longer optically aligned with your field of view as they once were, which means you'll hit nearby structures if in the way of the barrel. In Battlefield 3 a tank shell would pretty much always hit its target as long as there was nothing between your field of view and the end of the barrel. Now you have to account for anything even remotely close to where the barrel's pointing, meaning shells often plough into high walls or building corners before they hit their aligned targets. This is because tanks seem to honour the fact that the sight window is actually a few meters to the left of the tank's barrel, giving a false impression of the tank's field of fire.
There are changes afoot for infantrymen, too. Battlefield 2's 5-man squads are back by popular demand, though Battlefield 3's four classes of assault, support, engineer and recon remain. BF4's domination mode - the second of the two available modes in the beta - is the best place to test out your shooting skills. Domination takes place on a compressed version of Siege of Shanghai with no vehicles and extra piles of debris to add cover. Domination is a hybrid of BF3's scavenger mode and its conquest domination mode. There are three flags to capture, random spawn-points, and set points where special weapons spawn. These include a one-shot-kill sniper rifle and a fully automatic USAS shotgun which chews enemies up quickly and violently.
Combat feels similar to Battlefield 3. Your offensive gear again consists of a main weapon, pistol, knife and a grenade. Some neat new mechanics add depth to the fighting. If someone lurches forward for the stab, you now have a chance to counter-stab with a keystroke as soon as his stabbing animation locks you in. This sees you turn his knife around on him and plunge it up into his ribcage for maximum humiliation. Pistols are more important now too. You can customise them with scopes and accessories, and you can use them while swimming.
Much like Battlefield 2, medics and support classes can drop multiple health and ammo packs, as they're now much smaller, and consumable by whoever runs over one. You can in fact throw a medic pack to a friendly who'll catch it and have his health steadily restored. This keeps the action moving, where in previous games large static ammo boxes would encourage people to dig in next to them.
Shock paddles themselves have had an overhaul which will seem frustratingly slow to most, but again I found it adds another level of skill to the game. In Battlefield 3 you could pull out the paddles, click on a dead buddy and see him come back to life before you even heard the beep. Now you have to hold down the mouse button, press it against your dead pal and he'll revive with an amount of health relative to the amount of time you spent holding the paddles down. It's not very scientific but it forces you to make decisions in the heat of hectic firefights. Should you go and help your downed friend or sit tight and bag a few more bad guys?
Battlefield 4 beta's Battlelog is a simplified cut of the final version, missing the platoon options and live server player lists amongst other things. The most impressive new feature is the new leaderboard technology which might as well be powered by Google maps, as it shows you who the best players are in your friendlist, where they are in the country/world, and who the best players are in any city for kill/death ratio, time played and so on. It's scarily good at pinpointing players' real-life locations, and is an impressive addition to Battlelog's growing list of features.
Alas a chunkier hud, no hardcore mode in the beta and some plastic looking on-screen water effects tend to make the game feel more like playing with toys than deadly war-machines. A CoD style 'kill-cam' which shows exactly where your killer was (even behind a building or on a roof) is an unwelcome accompaniment. It's not gone unnoticed that the beta's used the same sounds from its BF3 Abrams tank and even the same textures for its famous bullet-proof white card boxes too. Lastly, four days into the beta, friends are still having connection issues with the game and one of my guys with triple Titans in SLI is getting framerate issues (gulp).
Given the state of the Battlefield 3 beta, and the improvements DICE made since, I'm confident that these issues will get ironed out. Also, it's arguably a Beta's job to help address compatibility issues rather than draw fans into a sequel. Given that the majority of the Battlefield 3 community will move to BF4 initially, I'll certainly be joining them. Whether Battlefield 4 is a game worthy of the Battlefield name remains to be seen. For now, the beta's open to everyone, so come along and play a few rounds. I'm StryK_uK on Battlelog.