GDC 2013: Battlefield 4 first impressions

If you were doubting whether the spectacular leaked screenshots were in-game, let’s assure you; this was a real, live game demo. And if the trailer doesn’t convince you either, there was some egregious ragdolling and god mode abuse in the demo of Battlefield 4 we saw – apparently played live – which wouldn’t have been left in a video.

We could see from the teleprompter behind us that “Human, dramatic and believable” was the key marketing phrase for the game, but what that actually meant in practice was less clear. This, after all, is Battlefield, a series known for unsurpassed multiplayer and mediocre-at-best singleplayer. You’d be forgiven for wondering why they might focus on the latter.

Well, wonder no longer. Having placed Call of Duty’s singleplayer polish in its sights last time around, this time DICE could execute. The demo was an accomplished tour of a what a modern singleplayer FPS looks like, with each section carefully produced to showcase a key feature.

Item one: Frostbite 3 has been unleashed, no doubt for next-generation consoles as well as PC. Say what you like about the gameplay; Battlefield 4′s is running on market-leading tech. From the texture quality of a flaking wooden door to the wind-whipped tarpaulins on part-constructed tower blocks, the game demonstrated cutting-edge graphical grunt that DICE has a right to be proud of – and gave PC players pause to consider its minimum spec.

Item two: DICE has constructed a shooter just as bombastic and militaristic as its rivals at Infinity Ward and Treyarch. Collapsing buildings, nasty assassinations, helicopter attacks and a huge open construction site all convey the blockbuster aim. Voiceovers and team chatter confirm the modern FPS’s addiction to professional militarism.

Item three: plot. The game follows a group of soldiers called Tombstone, led by a Staff Sergeant Dunn. Until this mission, at least, where we see Dunn seemingly bite the bullet, as witnessed by your character, Recker. The gameplay section followed them on a covert mission through Baku, Azerbaijan, as they attempted to recover some intel about the wider plot. If we ignore the demo’s warped chronology, the rough timeline is that the group is separated during an intel handover when Russian Special Forces attack. We catch up with Tombstone regrouping in a school-house in a marvellously modelled recreation of Baku.

The four-strong team then travels through a stunning watery woodland to an evacuation point in a construction site where a friendly helicopter gunship awaits. After sneaking past several enemies, a gunfight begins which continues in flashes until the team has demonstrated all the key elements of the game: outrageously over-powered air support from the gunship, hints of Mirror’s Edge movement, destructible environmental areas and team management for cover fire reminiscent of the dormant Brothers In Arms series.

Once the team reaches the higher floors of a collapsing building, the game changes from pursuit to flight. Here an enemy helicopter chases the crew through the building with its machine guns and takes down their allied chopper, before finally collapsing the building around them in spectacular fashion. Dunn’s leg is trapped by falling rubble and Recker is forced to amputate it, in a gruesome scene. Then a deus ex machina taxi driver turns up and the team borrow his car.

The final section of the demo is a pursuit along a coastal road, with the enemy helicopter chasing down the speeding cab. Recker starts behind the wheel, but the AI takes over and Recker is told to lean out of the open car door and take out the helicopter with a grenade launcher. The downed chopper crashes into the road, knocking the car into the sea. Here, as the car sinks, Dunn is again trapped, this time by a sofa. After a cutscene set somewhat incongruously to Bonnie Tyler’s ’80s power ballad Total Eclipse Of The Heart, the surviving members swim to safety, leaving Dunn behind to drown. It is revealed in a voiceover that the intel confirmed what the higher-ups already knew. Dunn, then, died for nothing.

Though narratively the demo was exactly the sort of movie-apeing storyline that Warren Spector was urging us to avoid earlier this week at GDC, it’s the Frostbite engine that’s the real star here. From the water pools in the flooded basement of a school to the well-modelled troops to the dust cloud raised by your allied chopper’s airstrikes, the game was consistently stunning to behold. Tomorrow, we’ll catch up with Patrick Bach, executive producer of Battlefield 4, for more details.