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Battlefield 4 Gameplay and Performance Preview
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Date: Oct 15, 2013
Section:Graphics/Sound
Author: Joel Hruska
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Introduction, Features
EA took the wraps off Battlefield 4 this past week, offering players a chance to experience a taste of what the game offers via an early beta. We've spent time with the game, tested its early performance, and come back to report the findings. AMD, of course, has been talking up the Battlefield 4 combination with a vengeance, highlighting the features of its new Mantle API and close partnership with DICE, Battlefield 4's developer. At the same time, however, this is just a beta -- while we'll be checking performance and commenting on game changes, this isn't a full review of the final product.

What's New and Different:


We can, however, still talk about some of the changes. The first question people are going to have is, "Can I jump from BF3 straight into BF4?" The answer is absolutely yes. It's not just that the game is designed to be approachable, but that it plays almost exactly like its predecessor.



That said, there's a lot of clean-up around the edges that improves the experience. Many of the vehicle and weapon models are the same, but the particle effects, colors, and explosions of the new maps are brighter and clearer. The audio engine appears to have been significantly boosted; sounds are sharper and gunfire is more satisfying. The weapon loadout screen is easier to navigate, and the tactical map you see in between respawns shows you what's going on at the various spawn points or in available vehicles. It's a vast improvement over BF3, and gives you a clearer idea of whether the vehicle / person you're about to spawn on will be dead two seconds after you hit "Deploy."



Health (both player and vehicle) regenerates very quickly in the beta, substantially reducing the need for medkits. The beta's single map, Siege of Shanghai, features a gorgeous demonstration of what EA/DICE call "Levolution" -- the idea that the game map can change dramatically depending on player actions. If you're familiar with the Battlefield series' destructible terrain, this is a further extension of the concept. No, buildings can't be completely leveled ala Battlefield: Bad Company 2, but the idea behind Levolution is that players can cause enormous changes within specified areas of the map, thereby shifting the balance of power on underlying terrain.


EA's official Levolution demo and gameplay demonstration.

EA/DICE's Levolution system is also responsible for the fact that these new maps are more interactive than their counterparts. Players can go up and down in elevators, open and close choke points, and manipulate more environmental objects than was previously possible in BF3.
 
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The Siege of Shanghai: Gameplay, Design
We've been running around in the game's version of Shanghai, alternately blowing people up and being reduced to our constituent atoms. One of the things we like most about this map is the way it makes use of vertical space. In addition to the flag sitting high in a destroyable skyscraper, there are flags suspended on walkways -- and the people fighting on those walkways are neatly exposed to fire from the lower levels. WeI've been sniped by players who apparently bailed out of helicopters above the killing zones, dropped on to the tops of buildings, and go to town on the people below. There are BF3 maps that implemented these sorts of concepts, but it's done particularly well in Shanghai.


People fighting up on top? Not a problem.


There are a host of little improvements over Battlefield 3. Compass readings are now attached to the periodic call-outs -- instead of hearing "Sniper in your area," you'll be told "Sniper to the north of your position." Vehicles can now suffer a "critical hit" that cripples movement for several seconds. There's a third spot on tanks or other craft to allow another player to manage countermeasures rather than assigning this task to the driver, and some of the gun positions now have more firing options than were previously available.



Another great addition? Boats! Now you, too, can bounce up and down in a rubber raft while enemy troops hurl blazing death in your general direction and teammates man the gunwhales, shouting curses in your general direction.

Right now, the destruction of the skyscraper has a really ugly impact on the overall map. It covers the entire game area in a white haze that's meant to represent the stunning amount of dust in the air, but in practice, it looks like poor draw distance. Here's a comparison of the initial explosion / collapse, and the long-term effect.


 
We suspect that this is profoundly difficult, as huge amounts of particles in the atmosphere will make proper lighting nightmarish and could blow video card computation budgets through the roof if anti-aliasing is enabled. But it's also possible that this effect is merely a placeholder for different changes that will drop later in the beta.

Pixel Scaling: A Bridge Too Far

One of the more interesting features of the BF4 engine is the ability to scale resolution upwards or downwards. Let us explain what this means, since the slider sits apart from all other graphics options. If you change the resolution scaling, you change the resolution that the GPU renders internally as opposed to the displayed resolution. Most of the time, these numbers are identical -- but let's say you've got a GPU with really limited VRAM. How do you deal with that? You render at a low resolution internally, then scale up.

But the problem with this method is essentially the same issue that can limit FXAA's ability to replace MSAA as an antialiasing method. You're working with an output stream rather than the underlying data, and upscaling to 1920x1080 never looks as good as natively rendering the same image. It's a fundamental limitation of the technology, and so we're not surprised that the game engine struggles. But the comparison, for all that, isn't very good. Here's a pair of screenshots that illustrate the difference. First, on the left, is a screenshot from 1366x768 set as the native resolution, with 100% scaling. On the right, here's 1920x1080, set for 70% scaling (to achieve roughly the same resolution).



Check the detail on the boxes to the left. The native resolution is far sharper. If this is how the Xbox 360 and PS3 handle BF4's graphics -- by scaling down via software -- than the game isn't going to run particularly well on those platforms, and gamers may ultimately be happier with BF3.
 
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Performance and Frame Latency
We tested the BF3 Open Beta using the Radeon HD 7970 and the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 770. Graphics settings were tweaked using the BF4 Settings Editor and set to "Ultra" in all cases, with 4x MSAA enabled, high-quality FXAA, and 100% native scaling.

We used the BF4 Settings Editor for our configuration -- the Open Beta client refused to save in-game graphics settings changes normally.

We tested using FRAPS on a 64-player server in Buffalo, NY (geographically the closest server to my own home). Game frame rates were measured over the course of seven minutes.

We've also graphed the frame time latencies using FRAFS, a handy tool for displaying FRAPS frametime results. If you aren't familiar with frame timing, this is a metric of how long it takes to draw each frame. It shows variation within a single second -- something that FPS, by its nature, fails to catch. And the differences it captures are exceedingly useful. For example, here's the traditional FPS results (min, max, average) for the GTX 770 and the Radeon HD 7970 over an entire run.

Here, the GTX 770 falls about 10% back from the Radeon HD 7970, but this doesn't capture the full range of the performance difference. Let's look at frame times.

 


The top graphs here are from two separate Radeon runs (colored red) while the green results are for the two NVIDIA runs. See the two dotted lines running across the plot at 16.7ms and 33.3ms? This denotes how much time the GPU spends at or above 60 FPS (16.7ms per frame) and 30 FPS (33.3ms per frame). The Radeon cards only break the 30 FPS mark a handful of times. The 1% latency, meaning the worst 1% of all results, is 27ms for the Radeon cards, or 37 FPS.

The NVIDIA results, on the other hand, are quite different. The GTX 770 broaches the 30 FPS barrier many times in the same seven minutes, with a 1% frame time of 36.9ms, which works out to 27 FPS. This difference is apparent when you play the game; the NVIDIA cards seem to hitch and stutter randomly. It's not terrible, but it's definitely noticeable when racing through the disintegrating streets of Shanghai. The gap in 1% frame time results (27 FPS for the GeForce vs 37 FPS for the Radeon) is a much better indicator of the relative difference between playing with the two solutions.



Note that Mantle, which has been widely talked up these past few weeks, isn't actually in use yet. Both these cards are running in DirectX 11. Mantle's availability in BF4 is set for December, 6-8 weeks after the launch of the game itself, which hits October 29. Exactly how much performance benefit Mantle will deliver is unknown -- the benefit should be significant, or AMD wouldn't have bothered in the first place. 15-20% seems a reasonable estimate, but that's a guess on our part. Even so, the advantage should be significant.

What's more significant here is that the GTX 770 and the Radeon HD 7970 end up tied, despite the fact that the GTX 770 is a $400 card , while the Radeon HD 7970 or its doppelganger replacement, the R9 280X, are both available for $300. People rarely buy a GPU for just one game, but if you're a BF fanatic, the Radeon family, at least currently, is offering the better deal here.
 
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Conclusion
Again, this isn't a full review, but from what we've seen, BF4 is shaping up to be Battlefield 3.5 -- and that's not bad. The new game adds the Commander mode back in, adds boats, tweaks map settings and the HUD, increases out-of-combat regeneration dramatically, tweaks the damage model for vehicles, adds new maps, new game modes, a different type of map evolution, adjusts audio cues, allows players to automatically squad up with friends even when joining a new server, and a host of other tweaks.



Sometimes, enough modest changes evolve into an entirely new product, and when you factor in the tessellation improvements, terrain deformation, Mantle API support, enhanced audio cues, and better particle effects, that's what BF4 is shaping up to be. And it appears likely the game is going to be a premiere title across all of the current and future consoles plus PCs.

Battlefield 4 is going to be closely watched for a number of reasons. Mantle performance, comparisons between the Xbox 360 / PS3 and Xbox One / PS4 versions, and, of course, on its own merits. While we can't predict sales results, it's a potential bellwether for any number of product segments, including whether or not PS3 and Xbox 360 games will still sell well with new consoles shipping just weeks from now.

As for the NVIDIA vs. AMD results, we'll wait for the final product and later driver revisions to make any definitive statements, but for now, even when using DX11, the BF4 beta seems to run best on a Radeon.
 


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