Battlefield 3’s intentions couldn’t be clearer. Call of Duty certainly didn’t define modern first person shooters, but it’s definitely given DICE something to aim at, even if it misses the target on a couple of occasions. Not that you can blame them for trying, of course, and because EA have pushed Battlefield harder than anything we’ve ever seen them get behind a hungry market is going to lap this one right up regardless of what we say. Perfection this isn’t.
I think that’s partly the problem here. The drip feed of hysteria inducing teasers has given the impression that Battlefield 3’s single player campaign (we’ll address multiplayer at a later date) is the stuff of kings, where in reality it’s yet another linear blaster with little tactical decision making at play, instead preferring to shepherd a witless character down increasingly narrow (but invisible) walls.
A criticism hardly unique to this title, of course, but it’s disappointing to realise that on a second playthrough everything remains the same: explosion times, enemy positions, squad placement.
Indeed, death, with its associated load time and sometimes clumsy checkpointing, becomes more of a chore than I’d have liked, especially at the end when the game doesn’t stick to its predetermined rules and throws the odd wildcard. I’m not expecting to be able to dodge bullets in slow motion, but some warning at least would go a long way to alleviating any trial and error nonsense. It’s rare – sure – but it’s there, and one moment in particular will ensure nobody gets a clean sheet on their first go.[drop2]Likewise, DICE aren’t comfortable with adhering to concepts explained earlier. Shoot out lights with a sniper rifle to darken a landing zone but then remove the ability to do the same ten minutes later to hide the player when surrounded by enemies tracking you like metal to a magnet. And again, when you see an escaping car you’re told to gun it down, but then expected to ignore that later when forced to run after a helicopter.
The player should never feel like they’re at fault when design decisions are made against the run of play.
There are a couple of technical issues too – clipping raises its ugly head (I found myself inside the door of a car for one cut-scene because I’d moved too far back before a trigger moment) – and the way the game makes you wait for your squad at every junction starts to grate, especially on a repeated mission (or, indeed, if you were killed and forced to retry). That section from the trailer where you take down a sniper hiding in a hotel? Far less fun in reality.
Negatives abound, then, but here’s the rub: Battlefield 3’s actually a surprisingly good game. Despite the issues, DICE have managed to find a workable story and wrap a good chunk of gameplay (around 6 hours on normal, another on hard) over an impressive array of mission types. The main character, skinny Staff Sergeant Blackburn, is mostly locked to Iraq/Iran during the game, but expect at least one diversion and – nicely – a level or two from other characters.
We won’t spoil the major stuff here, but let’s just say that there’s an alternative point of view on offer, a fair amount of retrospective plot (with Blackburn’s present tense playing out in an interrogation room) and a few sections where you’ll retread familiar ground but with a different character. It works well, and the dozen levels or so never feel like padding; the pace snappy, the action constant, even when you’re in stealth mode.
The biggest hit, personally at least, was a desert-based tank assault, which starts off with a more traditional long-range attack before a frankly brilliant dash through an encampment under fire from infantry. It’s a highpoint in a game that doesn’t really have any sticking points – it tails off towards the end, certainly, with two missions in particular suffering from repetition and some awkward scripting, but most of the game is a fun, albeit rather more grounded than Modern Warfare, ride.
But it’s when Battlefield pushes the boat out, figuratively, that it works the best. A flight section might only see you manning the guns (it’s as on rails as anything we’ve seen before) but – for the first run through at least – is exciting, tense and visually breathtaking. Helped in no small part by some exemplary voice work, DICE has managed to capture a sense of atmosphere and dread better than anyone else. And, of course, it looks stunning.
I’m reviewing this based on Xbox 360 code (patched up, with the game installed and the HD pack present and correct) and although it’s clearly not a patch on the PC version, I’m willing to bet that you’ll not find a richer shooter for some time. Textures are sharp, the characters animate well and the lighting is wonderful – sure, there’s some smoke and mirrors, but DICE have perfected a gritty style, with clever highlights on the screen reflecting the light brilliantly.[drop]The frame rate’s fine too, running at thirty frames per second, although there’s some tearing and slowdown in places.
There’s some ugly modeling in play, mind – it’s jarring to see a photo-realistic pavement holding up a car that looks like it’s made from a handful of polygons, or a tree swaying from the roots, but generally if you stick to the beaten path it’s a staggering achievement given the age of the consoles running it. Call of Duty might have a quicker, more stable frame rate, but it has never looked this good overall.
The guns feel weighty, the driving (when you do get to hold the wheel) is fine, aiming is precise and the Quick Time Events, which punctuate the game with a steady regularity, don’t get in the way enough (or are tricky enough) for them not to be any more than a diversion. Tapping a button six times to rappel might mask some loading, but it’s bordering on silly; although that’s an isolated instance.
There’s little more I can cover without spoilers – Battlefield 3’s single player works, but never threatens to change what we expect from the genre, or really push it beyond some incredible visuals and – frankly – stunning sound work. The aesthetics and presentation are top notch, the gunplay and pacing what you’d expect, and the story’s not nearly as daft as it could have been.
A ‘more realistic approach’ might be pushing it, perhaps, but in this case, it works just about hard enough to differentiate itself from the competition. And, of course, there’s the world class multiplayer that the game is best known for (and in the case of the 360 version, at least, takes top billing in disk order). We’ll come back to that in due course, but as a single player campaign this is one worth playing through. Once.
- Amazing graphics and sound
- Solid enough gameplay
- Some odd design choices
- About as linear as it gets
- “My chi is mad focused, yo”
You can’t blame DICE and EA for the direction Battlefield 3 has taken. There’s a decent game here, but it’s nothing – beyond the special effects and presentation – that we’ve not played before. The AI might be smart and your squad at least can fire for themselves, but when it’s the same thing each time, ad verbatim, you can’t help but wish for something a little bit more freeform, dynamic and tactical rather than a roller coaster ride through the Middle East.