Battlefield 5 builds on the Frostbite technology in some exciting ways, and this week's beta gives us our first look at how the new DICE game presents and performs on console hardware. In the wake of the recent Battlefield 1 Xbox One X update, can the developer follow up that excellent rendering showcase with another solid work-out for the Scorpio Engine - and just how closely can PS4 Pro match it?
Content-wise, what we get in the beta is fairly straightforward. There's a conquest mode supporting up to 64 players - giving us a full stress test of the engine and netcode - across the canals of Rotterdam and the snowy slopes of Narvik. But while each map looks beautiful in its own way, it's hard to shake the sense this is still early, unoptimised code - as you'll soon see.
Map design is the real highlight here. These two beautifully designed areas build on Frostbite's ability to push tessellated detail on buildings, many of which are destructible with the right vehicle. Parallax occlusion maps are also a standout point on the Narvik stage's snow, adding depth and pop to the hilly inclines leading to a village. You even have weather changes, adjusting the lighting on Rotterdam's streets. From streaks of sunshine creating lens flares on the camera, to fog or snowfall at set points - weather has a big impact on not only on a map's aesthetic, but also your visibility.
This marriage of technology and gameplay courses through the Battlefield series. A lot of it is to do with the post-process effects and filters. The fish-bowl curvature to the camera, the film grain, chromatic aberration, and even the heavy lens flares all deliberately disrupt the frame's clarity for a more grounded, dirty effect. Camera exposure levels adjust automatically too, which can add to the challenge. Black levels have a real crunch to them - a pitch of darkness that makes it harder to pick out enemies in shaded environments after turning from brighter areas. There's a sharp contrast between light and dark, and specular points on Rotterdam's brick-roads look great even when rendered in standard SDR, but with high dynamic range enabled, it really sings.
DICE's work typically presents beautifully given additional resolution, and the recent Battlefield 1 update for Xbox One X brought us pretty close to 4K60 gameplay. Both Xbox One X and PlayStation 4 Pro implement dynamic resolution scaling, with 2160p and 1800p the respective target pixel counts. DRS measurement is always something of an imprecise science - by definition, the rendering load can change dramatically at any given point. Xbox One X typically renders in an 1836p-1944p window, but the scope is there to drop lower. Full 4K is theoretically possible but only resolves very rarely in the current build. Full resolution output - or anything like it - is also infrequent on Pro, with pixel counts in the 1296p area most common in our sampling.
Based on what the beta is delivering so far, it suggests that if you want the best image on console, Battlefield 5 renders at a consistently higher pixel-count on Xbox One X. Pitting the two consoles side-by-side though, there really isn't too much else to divide them. Texture detail loads in at different times, but with a level fully rendered, the assets look identical. Shadows are the same too, and the only drawback on PS4 Pro is visibility at range. There's a more pronounced softness that comes via the combination of a lower resolution and the TAA anti-aliasing, and this is a factor when looking across Rotterdam's long streets in daylight; there is slightly more shimmer on those fine details, but all-in-all, you are getting a close match in terms of visual settings otherwise.
This extends to draw distance, a key facet of any map built on the Frostbite engine. Unfortunately, neither Pro or X cover themselves in glory here. Detail pop-in is very distracting across both consoles, and the distance threshold is the same on each. The same goes for shadow filtering: shade only fills in close to the player as you walk forward and once again, the cascade appears to be the same on both machines. Combined, the pop-in really stands out, and it's distracting viewed in context of the otherwise excellent visuals. It doesn't look great, especially seen through the higher resolutions delivered by the enhanced consoles.
Other aspects of the visuals also need work in the run-up to launch. Up close, the details of the each stage often look unfinished, almost like place-holders for a better version. Texture mapping on terrain at very close range displays a surprisingly low resolution, for example. Rotterdam's streets are blocky and pixelated, and the same goes for the snow on Narvik.
RAM usage has to be carefully managed with these huge maps, but these materials look like a huge cut below the standard of the rest of the game. Maybe the download size was a factor with the beta, and hopefully better assets will be delivered in the final game. Let's remember that Xbox One X has an additional 4GB of memory to play with, and the hope is that DICE will fully utilise it.
Other aspects of the code could also use some extra work - like reflections, for example. Between the glossy marble floors, windows and even water, pre-rendered cube-maps are planted everywhere - but always look basic and inaccurate to the scene. Again it's like a placeholder asset is being used until the details of the map are fully locked down and a more accurate cube-map can be swapped in.
Water rendering could use some attention too. I love the way it looks at a first glance in Rotterdam. The only trouble is, actually diving into it shatters the illusion of a soft, translucent surface, and it looks too solid, and physical. Whether you're afloat or swimming under it, the river surface is a hard, intangible layer that doesn't really react to the player. It lacks a transparent element completely, and so diving in and looking up doesn't give you as much visibility above as you'd think. This is probably wading into nitpick territory, but it's only to the game's credit that this stands out when all the rest looks so good at a distance.
Fortunately, this is beta code and there's no question of that based on the number of glitches you'll come across. My experience here mainly centred around awkward body animations when climbing, and weird body ragdolls. Sometimes, enemies are downed and just float in mid-air, as if pulled by their midriff by an invisible rope. It's happened several times, and while it's hardly game-breaking it does attract everyone's attention in the middle of a firefight to see a spinning, floating soldier. But again, it's all part of the deal with a beta, and I'm sure this one will be fixed.
With that in mind, performance is worth looking at and to DICE's credit, the beta is a full-on stress test with 64 players - a set-up that has historically challenged the current-gen consoles in prior Battlefield titles. Xbox One X currently delivers around 50-60fps on average. V-sync is fully engaged at least, but these bursts of frame drops do stick out. They can be sustained for long stretches too, mainly triggered by long views of an area with lots of geometry on-screen. Effects and firefights amplify that further, and the lowest result I've seen is 45fps. The question is whether really we're just seeing a re-run in performance terms of prior Battlefield titles on console - historically, 64-player maps have always presented a challenge for the CPU.
While hard to get an exact match in scenes, we can also draw some broad conclusions about PS4 Pro beta performance. The range is roughly the same, from 50-60fps, and always at the same spots - typically wide-open, detail-heavy scenes. Maybe it's the case that processing netcode input from 63 other players while rendering draw-call heavy scenes is just a little too much for the CPU here. Lowest recorded frame-rate hits 40fps, which is lower than Xbox One X (albeit not tested under identical conditions). The Pro's Jaguar CPU clusters have a clock-speed (and cache) disadvantage vs Microsoft's set-up, which may be a factor here.
Overall, the Battlefield 5 beta is a little rough around the edges right now, with noticeable performance drops and some sub-par (possibly placeholder) art assets, but the essentials are all in place and hopes are high that the developer can deliver the goods. With the title recently delayed to November 20th, we're hopeful that DICE has the time to tidy up the outstanding issues, but whether the developer can overcome the series' traditional performance challenges in 64-player battles remains to be seen - and this may be especially important this year, with battle royale a key focus for the series.
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