Battlefield 3 review
EA’s Digital Illusions CE studio has a history of delivering quality. Originally better known for developing small-scale racing titles, the breakthrough success of Battlefield 1942 brought their particular brand of team-based multiplayer to the eager hands of players. Despite the relatively muted reaction to Mirror’s Edge, the team’s attempt to branch out in a new direction, they can be relied on to churn out slick new content with a level of polish virtually unmatched among their peers.
And when it comes to the multiplayer portion of Battlefield 3, polish and mechanical excellence is exactly what you’re getting. The basic concept will be familiar to anyone who played Bad Company 2; join a server, pick a soldier class and jump into the action by spawning either at a base or on any member of your squad still alive. The game modes available translate to various forms of territory control — either defending your locations from attackers in Rush, or trying to hold onto capture points in Conquest.
The graphics are astounding, simply put. The increased fidelity in rendering high resolution textures since Bad Company 2 is a revelation, and it also appears as if DICE have changed their edge-smoothing techniques as well. Character models are more detailed, weapons are suitably updated and the dynamic lighting is quite something, even on consoles. Owners of the hard-drive-less 4GB Xbox slim should beware however; the Xbox version comes with an optionally installable HD texture pack without which the game is unutterably fugly, and we were unable to get it to install on our machine despite abundant flash drive and USB-attached memory.
The new maps are pretty stunning to behold, although it can be hard to focus on architectural beauty when throwing yourself prone in a ditch. The new game engine has allowed DICE to expand the epic scale of the scenarios on offer, with areas like Caspian Border and Davamand Peak really giving vehicle specialists space to breathe, and offering scope for thrilling aerial battles with the re-introduced jet fighter. While the more built-up, urban maps can feel rather more restrictive, this does give infantry a greater role in proceedings, especially in the tight corridors of Operation Metro, as featured in the beta.
The tweaked character classes are a mixed bunch, with the addition of the medic’s health pack and defibrillator to the Assault trooper making them a tough all-rounder, while the Support class now feels like something of an afterthought, offering less-useful ammo pickups. The Recon class can now function as a forward observer, setting up mobile spawn points and spotting targets for teammates to take out.
As always, the devs have put a great deal of effort into encouraging you to play as a team, rather than follow the Call of Duty-style Lone Ranger philosophy. Working together, spotting enemies, clearing zones and moving as a unit is one of the most satisfying sensations I’ve ever had in online gaming, and playing with some friends only enhances the feeling. It’s disappointing to see so many players refusing to cooperate to take objectives, or selfishly hogging vehicle spawns. The console versions of the game also suffer from a lack of voice communications, although one can hardly blame DICE for the deficiencies of their player base.
In addition to the competitive play, you can also team up with a buddy to take on cooperative missions that demand you work together to overcome a tough challenge. For instance, one of the first missions slips you into a helicopter cockpit as pilot and gunner, and tasks you with protecting a vulnerable convoy. Although the co-op system is lacking a little in scope and content, I found it a great way to learn team tactics and mastery of vehicle combat, important given that the game includes no tutorial on advanced play or even the option of combat against bots.
Online play does use EA’s Online Pass system, so don’t expect to play with your friends if you bought pre-owned. I’ve made my feelings on the current trend towards gating content to extract more cash from the long-suffering consumer (I think it’s bullshit), and in this case it goes doubly so. What EA have done in essence is to gate off the real game from many potential players, and demanded an extra entrance fee.
With the good stuff out of the way, we should probably talk about the single player campaign. While I recognise that BF3 is primarily designed for online play, there is simply no excuse for the poorly written, leakily plotted and stunningly idiotic collection of clichés that make up the narrative heart of the solo experience.
For the most part, the story follows the actions of US Marine Blackburn, who is dumped into a series of outlandish locales following the trail of an Iranian terrorist and his Russian ally. Throughout the journey you’ll run the gauntlet of heavily scripted corridor gunfights, endure several equally linear vehicle sections and play portions of the story through the eyes of temporary allies, thrown in with the minimum of explanation. In fact, this lack of context is a recurring phenomenon, with the writers having made zero effort to flesh out the character’s background and motivations, or even to avoid gaping plot holes and massive deus ex machina.
Despite the narrative issues, the grand spectacle of the scripted missions can be quite breathtaking at times. A short section where the player takes control of a jet fighter pilot aboard an aircraft carrier being briefed on her mission before stepping out into the frantic environs of a war fleet at sea is an excellent example of the capability of gaming to provide a real sense of place. The fantastic presentation is marred only moments later however, when instead of being allowed to take your magnificent flying machine for a spin, you find that you are only the co-pilot, relegated to firing off missiles while the AI handles the real action.
That same feeling of being demoted to a second class citizen is implicit in every aspect of the single player game. While it may be a logical stretch for a soldier to have the same freedom as the main character of Assassin’s Creed, giving the player some leeway in how to accomplish their objective instead of strictly signposting the approved route might have helped lessen the sensation of being a lab rat running a maze. The constant use of quick time events to resolve major gameplay events is another example, taking control out of your hands and simply making you watch while the developer’s pre-approved actions run their course.
However, my main objection is more a philosophical question than a failure of implementation. If Call of Duty is striving to become as like a linear, non-interactive war movie as possible, and DICE have chosen to ape their rival in a slavish fashion, then why have they chosen the most worn-out, boring tropes of the genre to concentrate their drama on? Where are the games that recall triumphs such as Das Boot or Saving Private Ryan, deep and involving character dramas that use the theatre of war as a pressure cooker to tell us a story about cruelty, love, loyalty and brutality, instead of taking a cue from Michael Bay and EXPLODING ALL THE THINGS.
And that leads me to my final point, which is less a specific criticism of the game itself, and more a general disappointment with the industry. Remember when we used to talk about what it would be like when games were accepted as an important part of mainstream society, and interactive art was recognised for the groundbreaking and epoch-defining innovation it can be? Well, that dream is dead children, and it’s games like these and their short-sighted developers what killed it.
Games may have exploded into the public consciousness like never before (try finding someone in their late twenties or early thirties who has never played a video game), but the notion has become inextricably linked with these shallow, meaningless, Ross-Kemp-on-gangs-ITV2-midday glorifications of brutality that make a mockery of the potential for genuinely affecting, sober interventions into a study that has occupied so many great artists.
Which is not to suggest that Battlefield, at least in its multiplayer incarnation, is not mechanically satisfying. In fact, it’s just about the best way to scratch that itch that first burrowed into my epidermis with exposure to manshooting gems like Quake. If you want to play a team-and-class-based shooter on consoles, this is what you should be playing.
It just opened up a lot of questions for me. Is what DICE laughably call as story really the best we can do? Perhaps what I want and need from a game is different from the majority of my peers, but I refuse to believe that what we as a gaming bloc truly desire is this kind of brain dead piffle. Not when great statements on war, struggle, comradeship, futility and heroism remain to be made.
NOTE: Since this is a review of the console version of Battlefield, I have not included any discussion of EA’s Origin system, or indeed the Battlelog online network. If you want to bring it up in the comments, I’ll let you know my opinion, but the score does not reflect any criticism of the PC software requirements.