If there’s one thing that you could say about Battlefield 3’s developers DICE, it’s that they’ve been unerringly steadfast in their ambition to drive forward the Battlefield franchise. Although the Swedish developers show little unanimity with EA in the notion that Battlefield 3’s conception was fueled with intent to knock Activision’s Call of Duty series off its perch, comparisons between the two first-person shooters will always be inevitable. So with that in mind, you can begin checking your corners and we’ll lay down the covering fire, as we endeavor to find out if Battlefield 3 really has got enough in its barrel to shoot gaming warfare to the next level.
Game: Battlefield 3
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Battlefield 3 is the latest iteration of the long-running first person shooter series that derives itself from military warfare. It’s predecessor, Battlefield: Bad Company 2, succeeded where others failed by asserting itself as the prevalent alternative to Activision’s multi-billion dollar blockbuster; a solid and well presented single player campaign being one of the several reasons why. Battlefield 3’s campaign attempts to continue that ethos by handing you the role of the defiant U.S marine Sgt. Henry ‘Black’ Blackburn. Suspected of treason, Blackburn recounts previous assignments through an interrogation by the CIA with the sole purpose of determining the next location of an impending terrorist attack.
Gone are the somewhat jovial vibes of the Bad Company series, in favour of a more serious, sobering atmosphere. More fitting perhaps considering the plot has been driven towards creating tension whilst attempting to stay in the realms of possibility. Although the story isn’t completely free of cliché (flash-back interrogation and train shoot outs anyone?), Battlefield 3’s well written dialogue and great voice acting does manage to capture the correct tone. No more so than in the cut scenes between missions that impress in their story telling and make light work of drawing you into the urgency of impending nuclear threat. Overall, the story doesn’t really bring anything original to the overly-done terrorist scenario, but asides from being a bit rushed towards the end, it’s solid enough.
A lot has been made of DICE’s new Frostbite 2 engine and rightly so. Even on the inferior looking console versions, whether your trailing through the desert in tanks, cruising the skies in fighter jets or simply sprinting through devastated city streets, it’s all still beautifully rendered. It’s not just textural improvement either as another well renowned feature of the Frostbite engine is its seamless in-game destruction of your surroundings. The way structures and cover crumbles around you is now even more refined and nothing less than frightening, especially when you’re already trying to dodge bullets and plot your next course of action. It’s become a real staple of the series that when combined with the newly injected ‘ANT’ animation system – the same tech that powers EA sports titles – looks fantastic and adds some real believability and immersion to the game.
Unfortunately, it’s not all destructive bliss and visual marvel as the Battlefield 3 engine is plagued with several unusual bugs. During a mission named ‘Comrades’ I managed to move ahead of an AI team mate which baffled him to the point of getting stuck. He then sought out the only viable course of action to correct my heinous impatience – floating through a wall on the floor above and tastefully gliding down to his designated position. The glaring look of disapproval never came but I felt scorned nonetheless. Flower pots suspended in mid air, body parts protruding through walls and annoying texture pop-ins are other examples of the few rare and non-game breaking graphical wonders you’ll witness – minor tarnishes on what is, on the whole, an excellent visual experience.
Sound design offers a balanced, authentic sound and is slightly toned down from Bad Company 2’s ground shaking echos. That’s not a bad thing though, because reverberation from location to location has been meticulously implemented for realism. This means Battlefield 3 offers a very accurate representation wherever the action takes you and despite the slightly dampened approach, guns will shake your rib cage at every given opportunity. Each weapon, explosion and vehicle is easily located and deducible by ear alone and together with the afore mentioned dialogue and some excellent scoring, DICE uphold their reputation of being one of the industry’s leading sound designers.
Battlefield’s first person shooting mechanics are better than they’ve ever been this time round. With all the weapons you’d expect from a modern warfare based title, the renewed addition of being able to go prone and some tight controls and design, Battlefield 3 feels great to play.
The single player campaign will take you through a multitude of locations including indoor shootouts through Paris, earthquake ravaged streets of Iran, flying over the Persian Gulf and storming through Iranian desert – yes, all the usual modern military jaunts are present and correct, padded out with Hollywood heroics and set piece vehicle excursions. For some gamers, especially those new to the Battlefield series, the campaign will be a decent but superficial experience that ticks many of the right boxes. However, veterans of the series might well be left scratching their heads wondering what happened.
DICE has said that Battlefield 3 is their biggest, most ambitious project to date, and at times it feels like they’ve lost their way, incomprehensibly deviating towards their competitor’s linear approach to the single player campaign as a result. They have managed to retain Battlefield’s usual scope to some extent, but the freedom and creativity afforded to you by the Bad Company series is replaced by some uninspired and overly scripted gameplay.
The teammate and enemy AI only serve to highlight this frustration. Sometimes enemies will be caught standing obliviously out of cover, facing the wrong direction or even rendered invincible until they’ve exited a vehicle. Other times, you’ll think you’ve found a nice spot to take cover in only to be barged into the open by a team mate moving to his predetermined location. The campaign is trying so hard to force feed you an immersing experience it often has an adverse effect, causing the player to feel isolated from events in-game. Even the frequency of environmental destruction seems to be at the mercy of the game’s convenience, so much so that when you finally are given the chance to blow out a wall it feels cosmetic rather than tactical, leaving you with very little incentive or opportunity to experiment.
Despite the few grinding imperfections, the campaign is paced well and you’ll find some particularly memorable moments. Climbing into the cockpit actually had me feeling nervous such was the tension, almost to the point where I felt like I should pause the game and go read some books on aviation before continuing. Disappointingly, scripting still manages to negate the experience by placing me in the backseat to take pot-shots at enemy planes instead of actually flying – yet another promise of freedom ripped from under the player’s feet. That’s not the case for the desert storm-like tank mission thankfully, that does a much better job in its player involvement and serves as one of the many great cinematic centre pieces that give the campaign its ‘wow’ factor.
Asides from the campaign, Battlefield 3 also offers some co-operative and multiplayer modes. The network only co-op takes the form of some quite entertaining two player scenarios that have you replaying some of the campaign missions, plus some unique content specifically designed for the mode. It’s a nice addition that’s well implemented, giving you plenty more to do such as earning new weapons and competing on the leaderboards with stats acquired from the missions. It would have been nice to have seen 3-4 player inclusion, but it’s still enjoyable nonetheless.
Then there’s Battlefield 3’s stunning multiplayer, which unlike the campaign does everything you expect it to and a whole lot more. The console version enables 24 players to get it on within 5 different game modes that evolve around taking ground, destroying pre-marked locations or simply team death match style killing. You’ll also have 9 maps to play, some of which are more desirable than others in looks and in design, but all offer a different experience and encourage a variety of approaches.
The heart and soul of DICE’s multiplayer though is the way it encourages you to work together with other players. Whereas some online shooters merely give you a platform for good teamwork and tactics, Battlefield 3 demands it. The result of that means it’ll be rare that you’ll feel much repetition between one session and the next, and because you’re able to set up your own squads or automatically join other squads, it gives focus to the overwhelming scope you’ll be presented with. By also offering a variety of classes to customise and compliment each other with, Battlefield 3 gives a sense of achievement that’s unmatched by other games of similar stock, such is the brilliance of DICE’s attempt to simulate team based warfare.
Vehicles also play an important role, whether it’s getting teammates to the heart of the action quicker, clearing areas for ground infantry to exploit or to fend off enemy armour as they fight for territory. The ‘Caspian Border’ map had me standing still gawking at how much was happening around me the first time I joined it. Walls exploding, bullets flying, tanks imperiously arriving over the landscape and all unfolding whilst jets and other aircraft screamed over head. It was almost as if the last ten years of military based warfare games had thrown up on a field; quite a confounding sight as my squad trudged our way through the carnage. Battlefield 3 does indeed contain some truly inspiring moments online and despite suffering from a few connection issues and some of the visual anomalies that also plagued the campaign, the immersion can be relentless at times, rarely loosening its tight grip on you.
Battlefield 3’s multiplayer will dominate the larger portion of your time as you aspire to unlock everything. Within the four classes of Assault, Support, Engineer and Recon you’ll be able to unlock all sorts of weaponry and gadgets including defibrillators, gun attachments, claymores, and other class specific specialisations. You’ll also be able to grab upgrades to vehicles, that although are tough to get to grip with at first (due to no practice outside of multiplayer), are really enjoyable distractions and are also pretty lethal once mastered. Earning points to upgrade has also been tweaked, with the option of gaining them not just through killing but from assisting, suppressing and also leading your squad (should they follow your orders to defend and attack).
You won’t find much replay value in the scripted campaign mode. Even if you play on the highest difficulty your play time won’t extend much beyond 6-7 hours and the experience of playing will be nearly identical from one play-through to the next. Fortunately, the two online modes make up for the deficiencies by giving you plenty to do, not just by chasing the numerous unlockables but by their sheer addictiveness that will have you craving more for months on end.
Battlefield 3’s campaign will excite some and frustrate others, particularly older fans of the series that have seen its single player slowly progress since the dedicated multiplayer romp the game began life as. Although it does have some nice moments, it’s a shame to see it veer off a path that seemed so promising with its predecessors, especially as the destination they’ve arrived at is a style of production that is becoming stagnant and probably nearing the end of its tenure.
What you’re left with after the fallout, however, is a part of the game that remains true to itself and by doing so raises nearly every bar on how a online shooter should play. Battlefield 3 has great visuals, intense sound design and a thrilling, addictive multiplayer that will keep you coming back time and time again. The fact is, the Earth’s rotation won’t give you enough time in a day to fit in all the Battlefield 3 you’re going to want to play. DICE’s latest creation is without doubt, a triumph for online gaming. Your move, Modern Warfare 3.