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Digital Foundry: Hands-on with the Battlefield Hardline PC beta

Has Frostbite 3 evolved since its BF4 debut?

Best known for its Dead Space trilogy, developer Visceral Games takes the baton - and indeed, the Frostbite 3 engine - from DICE to build a Battlefield universe all of its own. Early access to the multiplayer beta launching today shows that the gameplay has changed in that handover to support its new cops and robbers theme. But as a pure technical exercise, does the maxed-out PC experience leapfrog its predecessor?

It's safe to say that, for its multiplayer component at least, changes to the engine aren't on a monumental scale, based on tests run at ultra settings. Visceral promises that AI is extensively rewritten from the series' military outings, but underneath, the rendering technology is visibly close to that of Battlefield 4's. Reflections rely on a similar mix of real-time and baked-in methods, depending on your perspective of a scene - and the game's HBAO shading still looks odd up close, cutting off the effect at the ends of objects and hands in a way that looks closer to the screen-space approach.

However, despite its quirks, the per-pixel lighting remains gorgeous as ever, and each map design benefits from strong artistic direction. It's worth noting that this beta leans more on medium sized maps, focusing on the LA bustle of Downtown, and the junction surrounding the Bank Job's vaults. That said, given the level of detail iron-pressed into these smaller areas - including the impressive number of destructible elements - they rank among the more adaptive maps we've seen from the series yet.

Battlefield Hardline running at 60fps with v-sync engaged, using a top-end GTX 980 graphics card. Not a single frame is dropped in Heist mode, suggesting much higher rates - and possibly resolutions - are viable.Watch on YouTube

Alternative analysis:

Only the Dustbowl map, a sparse wasteland of villas and hotel blocks, shows something approaching the scale of Battlefield's 4's largest maps. It falls short of recurring favourite Bandar Desert in terms of scale, but as far as vehicle play is concerned, it's a colossal playground that highlights some interesting changes.

Firstly, new police SUVs, civilian cars and vans have been modelled for the game, with the handling changed to favour much faster pursuits. The physics are all tweaked in-house by Visceral Games, with the team stating it was not able to plug and play mechanics of driving games built on the same engine, such as Need for Speed Rivals. The result is still a fast paced, more satisfying race across the wasteland, backed by a particularly forgiving handling model - especially on motorbikes - that (perhaps too cheaply) overrules most glances against walls and lamp posts.

But do these maps give us a preview of Hardline's single players mode, and its ambition there? After all, it'll be a tough job for Visceral to top the set-pieces of Battlefield 4's solo play, particularly Baku's collapsing building and the epic South China Seas aircraft carrier shoot-out. Judging by the Downtown stage's tumbling cranes and crumbling roadworks, the potential is certainly there to really stretch current-gen consoles and PC hardware once again. As it stands though, based on the performance of Electronic Arts' test setup, a Core i7 4770K at stock speeds, 16GB of RAM, and a GTX 980 graphics card, it inevitably handles the multiplayer without any issue at ultra settings.

Of course these are ideal conditions, and we intend to return with more rigorous tests across reasonably priced GPUs in the future. Only a single dropped frame from 60fps is recorded here during a sandstorm scene, but for all other tests it's locked at this refresh - suggesting a vast overhead in performance for the card despite the ultra preset's performance sapping 4x deferred MSAA. There's no sign that Battlefield Hardline's optimisation on PC has been tampered with so far then, but this is an area we'll investigate fully once the beta launches in earnest. However, based on titles like Dragon Age: Inquisition, not to mention Hardline's DICE-produced predecessor, there should be plenty of scalability to accommodate less capable PCs.

The PC graphics settings menu also looks very similar to its Battlefield 4 counterpart, including the ability to downsample from higher resolutions, the implementation of deferred multi-sampling anti-aliasing and also its support for AMD's Mantle API. That's standard form for all Frostbite 3 releases, with DX12-inspiring API having already made its way into both BF4 and Dragon Age Inquisition.

All of which leaves us hanging on the public release of the beta due some time today, where the 'netcode' gets a stern stress-test - required as much to amass data on server load and in-game performance as it is to assure the audience that the immense problems that beset the Battlefield 4 multiplayer experience won't be repeated with Visceral's debut title on current-gen console hardware.

A quick glance at Battlefield Hardline's graphics menu on PC shows a high degree of similarity with its Battlefield 4 counterpart.

As things stand, as fun and as playable as it is, the Battlefield Hardline beta shows little in the way of technological surprises - but certainly from a rendering perspective, it's built on a firm foundation produced by some of the smartest rendering architects in the business. We were only given limited access to the PC version of the beta you'll be playing today, so the big question for us is to what extent the console version of the Frostbite 3 engine has moved on since we last saw it.

DICE aimed for a 60fps update on Battlefield 4, but failed to consistently hit the target on both Xbox One and PlayStation 4, despite sub-native resolution framebuffers operating at 720p and 900p respectively. Last year's E3 beta on PlayStation 4 disappointed by showing no real improvements in image quality whatsoever, matched by a lacklustre, inconsistent frame-rate. In short, it looked and felt like a launch game with all the compromises that come with it - as opposed to a faster, smoother, more optimised release. Last year's 900p beta didn't really cut the mustard, and despite Visceral Games' proud history of cross-platform parity, there's the lingering worry that Xbox One owners will once again get lumbered with a sub-par 720p presentation.

The Battlefield Hardline beta arrives today on all formats - including PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 - and we'll aim to get our console impressions and metrics up on the site as soon as possible.

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