Battlefield 4 Preview

Elevator music.

E3 convention-goers got a chance to get hands-on with Battlefield 4's Siege of Shanghai map in 64-player Domination gameplay last week. I headed to the Electronic Arts booth for my appointment and grabbed a Disneyland-style Fastpass for multiplayer mayhem, but only after getting my first taste during Monday's press conference hoedown. Despite some audio difficulties at Microsoft's stage-show, Battlefield 4's developers showed off a single-player level that made for drop-dead gorgeous next-generation gameplay.

In that demo, the player moved back and forth between the interior and exterior of a collapsing battleship, all before hopping into a boat equipped with plenty of firepower for a daring escape. While I didn't get to play this part of DICE's upcoming shooter, the fidelity struck me. It should be obvious to anyone with access to YouTube that the console ports of Battlefield 3 simply couldn't hang with Frostbite 2.

Furthermore, I don't think anyone expects to enjoy Battlefield 4 on Xbox 360 or PS3, much less Wii U. The surf spraying the player's face, the explosions and pieces of debris flying everywhere, even the way enemies fell and crumpled to the floor… the fidelity DICE is capable of achieving with Frostbite 3 is astounding. Shadows are darker, lights are brighter, and explosions have a greater effect on the environment around the player. While I can't say how it affects the campaign's gameplay, it certainly works well in multiplayer.

My next stop on Monday's press conference circuit had me sitting in the audience as EA pulled the curtain back on 64 EA employees ready to hit their marks on the world's most explosive and exciting live multiplayer demo. If the guy controlling the lead demo screen had been playing against real-world opponents, he probably would've been shanked and tea-bagged 10 seconds in. Regardless, the stage demo squad leader gave everyone in the audience a thorough tour of Siege in Shanghai.

The large bay plays host to five different control points, the most central of which is actually on the rooftop of a skyscraper. Players can take "working" elevators up hundreds of floors to the roof and fight over the pool. All told, the technical achievement involved in a balanced field of this size blows my mind. I remember glitching around Goldeneye 007's multiplayer maps, so what kind of trouble can we expect in DICE's ballooning battlefields? I headed to EA's booth to find out. I didn't expect to do as well as the guy driving the demo on Monday, but at least I'd get to try it for myself.

Normally I play the Assault class so I can be the healer, everyone's favorite squadmate, but Battlefield 4's increased destruction had me trading the med-pack for a bazooka. You can spawn directly into a tank or helicopter, or you can spawn on anyone in your 5-man (instead of 4-man in BF3) squad. I joined a tank already in progress across the map, hopped out, and did my best to further our team's progress on a control point. This underground position had working support beams that dumped rubble on an unwitting opponent. Seeing rocks painted with parking lot lines crush an enemy made the bazooka worth lugging around, even if I got knifed in an embarrassing turn of play.

Another digital life wasted trying to bring a tank down, I turned my focus to trying out one of these elevators. I got inside, hit E to push the "up" button, and waited patiently with the other two members of my squad curious enough to spawn on me as I pushed towards C. A few seconds later and I exited on a rooftop… where pretty much no one else was. I looked around and discovered that some other helicopter-riding squad had taken control before my arrival. Still, I peaked over the edge and saw firefights erupting in the city below. Tanks rumbled over bridges and shots rang out in the distance.

You might question how all of Frostbite 3's fidelity effected gameplay in any meaningful way, but there's a true sense of place and weight in every frame per second. I jumped over the side and parachuted back to base as the enemy team's tickets bled out, leaving the massive skyscraper to come crashing down into the bay. I looked up from my safe distance and watched the geometry slowly bend, glass shattering outward and electronic billboards going dark. Huge clouds of dust blanketed the map, and I waited seconds for the fighting to reemerge.

When the air cleared, C point moved from its skyscraper rooftop to a peninsula in the middle of the bay. The rubble created a stretch out to sea that made C an even more hotly contested point, forcing each team to swim for it. I jumped in and headed out to ensure we held our ground, but soon the newly altered map devolved into outright chaos. First our team held every point, then we lost the two nearest to our base, then we quickly lost all five points. It wasn't enough to turn the tide and my team of 32 emerged victorious, but the frantic race to the end exceeded my expectations of a lengthy Battlefield Conquest match.

As realistic as it was, I didn't like how the building wreckage blanketed the entire map and turned dense and detailed textures to dusty, muted surfaces. I did like how it dynamically changed the flow of battle, though. I never hesitate to trade my perception of gorgeous graphics for gameplay advancement. I'd even go so far as to say Battlefield 4 aims to fulfill the promises Battlefield 3 made, even if I was damn pleased with DICE's last BF title.

There's still a lot of time left for DICE's team to perfect and polish the formula established in Battlefield 3. Added destruction, map deformation, and the same deeply developed equipment trees will certainly keep players engaged in multiplayer for hours on end, but I'm hoping for an even better campaign. Of course, if every multiplayer map changes mid-match as dramatically as Siege on Shanghai, single-player Battlefield will once again prove nothing more than a distraction.

Battlefield 4 releases on October 29 in North America for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC, and later on Xbox One and PlayStation 4.