You've got to hand it to EA for a slick piece of fan-service. After completing its press conference with an action-packed look at Battlefield Hardline, the firm revealed that it was releasing beta code for PC and PS4 immediately, with none other than Sony VP of publishing and developer relations Adam Boyes popping up on stage to reveal how BF4 owners could get instant access to the code in all of its "1080p, 60fps glory". Live-streaming to the world is one thing, releasing code direct to gamers there and then is quite another - it's the ultimate crowd-pleaser, in this case marred by just one fact: the PS4 beta doesn't live up to the claims made for it.
Probably the biggest criticism levelled at Hardline is that it's a full-price release that looks and feels remarkably similar to Battlefield 4, to the point where some have suggested that it could have been released as a DLC expansion to the existing game. Based on our testing, the similarities between the two titles extend still further, down to the technological underpinnings of the game itself: Hardline's implementation of the Frostbite 3 engine is an extremely close match to Battlefield 4's. On PS4, we see the same 1600x900 native rendering resolution and identical post-process anti-aliasing, along with a performance profile that's similar - perhaps possibly worse - than its DICE stablemate's.
Of course, this is beta code, with all the disclaimers that should be attached; the game is still in development and there is likely to be a significant optimisation effort - but the reality is that Hardline has a long, long way to go before it can be said to hit a sustained 60fps. In an E3 that has been defined to a great extent by increased developer confidence with the new wave of gaming hardware, it's difficult not to be disappointed with a sampler that is presenting us with a visual experience reminiscent of a title brought to market last year, at a time when studios were only just getting to grips with the new systems.
So, onto the analysis. In addition to our own performance tests, we were hoping to bring you a complete breakdown of EA's six-minute action-packed Battlefield Hardline multiplayer conference demo, but the bad news is that the whole presentation took the form of canned footage running at just 30fps - fine for YouTube and livestreaming, not so good for getting a handle on how well the game actually runs. However, while we can't show you all the cool weapons, toys and vehicles from EA's demo, we can get a good idea of the optimisation challenges Visceral faces as it closes in on Hardline's release date.
"Announced by Sony during E3 as a PS4 1080p60 title, the reality of the Battlefield Hardline beta clearly falls short."
In the video above, we've got a mixture of cops and robbers footage across both modes - Blood Money and Heist - including two sections of note that really cause problems for the engine. First up, there's our helicopter gunner sortie that sees us flying high above downtown LA, attempting to blast some robbers off the road. Secondly, there's Hardline's take on BF4's "Levolution" - here we see a massive crane collapse onto the city streets. In both cases, the impact to performance is substantial, with frame-rates dropping down to a minimum of 30fps.
General action sees us sees vary wildly between 40-60fps - with sudden fluctuations in frame-time giving a disjointed, judder-filled gameplay experience - definitely more than just a visual issue, as controller response definitely feels muggier when the engine is under stress. It seems that a combination of effects brings the frame-rate down, with transparencies in particular causing the PS4 version to struggle.
Image quality in the beta is a bit of a mixed bag. Texture filtering wasn't so great on console Battlefield 4, and it remains much the same in Hardline, while the high contrast edges of the architecture don't fare well at all with the post-process anti-aliasing technique, causing a lot of moire pattern artefacts and sub-pixel shimmering. Battlefield 4 had the same issues of course, but it could rely upon a mixture of environments, with its less urban stages faring a lot better from a visual perspective. Of course, with Hardline we only have a single level to judge - obviously there's much more to come.
The PC version of the beta goes some way in clearing up the visual artefacts of the PS4 code. Here we compare console vs computer, with the PC game operating on high settings at 720p, 900p and 1080p (all with ultra textures). This allows us to cover pretty much all the established display profiles for Frostbite 3 on console, while also revealing the benefits of a native full HD presentation. What it doesn't show is the pixel-popping shimmer we see in motion on all settings - a state of affairs that can only be resolved by implementing PC's performance-sapping deferred MSAA modes. On a broader level, it has to be said that PC once again feels very much like its DICE-coded predecessor, with a similar level of performance and nigh-on identical quality settings.
So at the end of all that, we're left in something of a curious place with Battlefield Hardline. We have Sony's head of developer relations ascribing qualities to the beta not borne out by the actual code - fair enough, mistakes happen. But then on top of that, we have headlines suggesting that Visceral has confirmed that both Xbox One and PS4 will hit the same lofty performance level - a state of affairs that doesn't match the capabilities of the Frostbite 3 engine as we know it.
"If you look at the games that Visceral Games has made before, we have always striven for total parity between our platforms," creative director Ian Milham told Gaming Bolt, though it's worth pointing out that he does not specifically address exact resolution or frame-rate. "Of course, the PC version, it will do whatever your PC can handle, and the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 versions will obviously not be as high res as compared to the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One versions. But those two [PS4 and Xbox One] should be locked in together."
You certainly can't argue with Visceral's pedigree when it comes to cross-platform parity. Xbox 360 and PS3 versions of Dead Space 2 and its sequel are virtually indistinguishable from one another - a state of affairs that also extends to Dante's Inferno, the studio's fun, if not exactly demanding, hack-and-slash title. However, these titles utilised the studio's own technology. Cross-platform parity is certainly a laudable objective - the question is, can Frostbite 3 hit the target?