I haven’t exactly been quiet in voicing my concerns over the direction of the Battlefield franchise in recent years, but you should know, dear reader, that they only come from a place of genuine love. Blowing up bridges on Wake Island in Battlefield 1943, raining down sniper fire from Heavy Metal’s wind turbines in Bad Company 2, dominating the air space from the comfort of an F/A-18E cockpit in Battlefield 3’s Caspian Border… these moments are some of my favourite memories in gaming history, as fresh in the mind as if they happened only yesterday.
So when I suggest that Battlefield has been going through something of a quiet identity crisis since Battlefield 4, I don’t do so with any joy. From failed experiments like Hardline through to even perfectly accomplished titles like Battlefield 1, the DNA of DICE’s shooter series has permuted to the point where its latest entry, Battlefield 5, plays like a stifled facsimile of its lauded predecessors.
Somewhere along the way, Battlefield has lost its sense of playfulness, scale, and style, constraining itself into a narrow corridor of ever-shrinking (non-destructible) walls, but that shift could be about to change as we begin the next generation in earnest.
Sixth time’s the charm
Speaking in a recent investor call, Electronic Arts CEO Andrew Wilson confirmed that Battlefield 6 will take “full advantage of the power of next generation platforms to bring massive immersive battles to life with more players than ever before, [taking] all the destruction, player agency, vehicle, and weapon combat that the franchise is known for and elevating it to another level”.
“You should imagine that we’re looking across all forms of the experience to ensure that this is exactly the game that Battlefield fans want to play”, Wilson continued, “and the game that we believe will drive growth in the Battlefield franchise.”
While those comments are as wishy-washy as you’d expect from a exec at a shareholder meeting, they do appear to corroborate the rumours we’ve heard about Battlefield 6 up until now, which is supposedly scaling up the series’ theatres of conflict to a level that hasn’t been seen in the franchise since Bad Company 2. The project is also apparently returning to a present day setting, doubling the player count to 128, and utilising some of the next-gen horsepower afforded by the PS5 and Xbox Series X.
Yes, it’s not a huge amount to go on, but every new piece of information revealed so far is hugely promising – that latter detail in particular. Battlefield’s ambition has long been constrained by the limitations of the console hardware, whether that’s having to halve its 64-player count in Battlefield 3, or capping framerates and draw distances on Battlefield 5. But with the jump to next-gen, which is prioritising the gains made in speed and performance over graphics, that remaining red tape is gone.
The supercharged SSDs of the PS5 and Xbox Series X should, in theory, allow DICE to push the capabilities of their physics and rendering systems in the Frostbite engine without worrying about any consequential effect on ability to stream in assets or maintain a consistent framerate. That sounds a little techy, so let’s try and illustrate that with some examples of what it could mean for Battlefield 6.
Snipers could be able to spot players from greater distances, with no ‘pop-ins’ or loss in detail to character animations and textures when looking down their scopes. Skyscrapers could topple over organically, rather than as part of scripted events, with some rumours suggesting entire cities could be turned to rubble over the course of a single match. Every building in a map could be explorable, DICE’s exceptional sound design could be rendered even richer by 3D audio, and players could boot up the game and be dropped into the frontlines within a matter of seconds, rather than minutes. You get the idea.
If DICE and EA live up to what they’ve been promising, Battlefield 6 could be the definitive mil-sim sandbox shooter that harks back to the very best of Battlefield, while also pushing the series forward with the innovations made available to it in the next-generation. That “if”, of course, is as big a conditional as the towering high-rise that sits precariously at the centre of Siege of Shanghai.
Levelling the playing field
In the same investor call, EA CFO Blake Jorgensen revealed that DICE is apparently ahead of its internal schedule for Battlefield 6, confirming that the game is coming this Holiday season, with a reveal in Spring. That’s another positive for the Battlefield fan, as recent franchise entries have often felt as though they’ve launched by the skin of their teeth, riddled with myriad bugs, balance issues, and netcode hiccups. All of that aforementioned sky-high ambition will be for nothing, basically, if Battlefield 6 barely runs at launch.
Given the three year gap between this sequel and Battlefield 5 (compared to two years between that latter game and Battlefield 1, during which DICE was also working on Star Wars Battlefront 2), the studio has certainly had more time and resources than usual, though the impact of COVID-19 on working conditions will have no doubt had a disruptive effect.
All of this is to say that I’m optimistic, and perhaps even a little bit excited, to see what Battlefield 6 will look like this year, though that anticipation is not without a healthy degree of caution. The next generation often acts as a fresh start for many a franchise, and though Battlefield has had its moments over the course of the last, it could certainly do with something of a reset. It’s in DICE’s hands, however, as to whether that reset boots up the experience fans are hoping for, or another small step in the other direction.