With BATTLEFIELD 3, EA set out to deliver a Call of Duty-beater. It’s not for a couple of weeks that we’ll find out if they’ve managed to one-up Modern Warfare 3 – but how do DICE’s efforts stack up in the meantime? Here’s our huge review…
Battlefield 3 is formulaic, and yet it’s also two games in one. One part is a meticulously cultivated linear experience with cinematic appeal, the other part a collage of malleable pieces spun together in a sandbox arena. It’s a lot of things, but none of them are original. Both of its primary components have been done before, but they’ve never been this refined.
DICE have taken two opposing paradigms and placed them side by side. One of them is clearly a by-numbers process that presents well despite being hackneyed. The other philosophy is opened-ended, but still familiar.
They adopted Call of Duty’s philosophy for singleplayer, but the campaign is better than any CoD offering since the original Modern Warfare. For multiplayer, DICE adhered to strong Battlefield traditions, and further refined the staples of the series. The combination of the two provides what is perhaps DICE’s finest moment yet.
Battlefield 3 injects you into its campaign quickly. From an empty street alongside a bridge with a railway track running below, suddenly you’re breaking through a train window, shooting bad guys, broken handcuffs still around your wrists. The intro plays out in a linear, brief and exhilarating fashion. Mostly, the campaign doesn’t deviate from that pattern.
After the brief intro level, we cut to a small room to which the game’s protagonist, Sergeant Henry Blackburn, has been brought for interrogation. He’s joined by two CIA agents. The scene is cinematically set: harsh light spills in through the blinds, the contrast is stark and our perspective is no longer first-person. Military FPS games no longer tell their stories with a satellite image and a voiceover.
Glenn Morshower, playing a CIA agent, delivers a standout performance from first scene to last, one of the best I’ve seen in a videogame. Thor Edgell, playing Morshower’s CIA counterpart, delivers an equally naturalistic and punchy acting display. They both interrogate Blackburn for details about a plot threatening New York. It’s obvious all three men in the room know more than we do. The gaps get filled in with flashbacks in the form of missions, but the narrative bulk of the game is carried by these three actors, in this setting.
At one point, Agent G – played by Morshower – tells Blackburn: “You look jetlagged. And by that I mean you look like shit.” I laughed. The delivery was terse, the rhythm of the jaded CIA agents’ dialogue was strangely staccato, and believable. Battlefield 3′s dialogue is well-written. Not ‘well-written for a videogame’ – it’s well-written, full-stop.
The story is narrow, swift and rushed at the end, but it provides the necessary hook to set up all the appropriate set-pieces DICE was going for. And the set-pieces are plentiful: jumping on trains and helicopters, buildings collapsing, earthquakes, explosive chase scenes, and one daring sequence involving a fighter jet. There’s Russians, turmoil in the Middle East, and the threat of nuclear disaster. It’s standard, but delivered well.
Three Spetsnaz operatives HALO-jumping out of a plane into Iran to clear an arms dealer’s villa is cool. Running through downtown Tehran at night, timing sniper rounds and darting past alleys full of terrorists, is cool. Manning weapon systems on an F-18 in a dogfight with insurgence-piloted fighter jets is cool. Yes, it’s been done before, but DICE execute the formula with precision, and rouse the adrenaline in doing so.
It’s a classic, core shooter experience that is soundly designed, tightly controlled, and appropriately paced. A few campaign levels are large enough that you get an impressive sense of scope, but others feel narrow, and all of them play linearly. There’s the occasional slow-motion sequence, and frequent interruptions by cumbersome QTE melee encounters, but when those get out of the way there’s a good first-person shooter to be played.
Enemies are unvaried, mildly intelligent and resilient. Opposition comes at you smartly, positions well, and manages to kill you even when you don’t think they’re in position to. It doesn’t take long to realise that the enemies – while not dynamically threatening – are carefully laid out so most encounters are challenging, but not frustrating.
Choose your battle
While the singleplayer is compact, the multiplayer is big. The maps are expansive, varied in terrain, strategy, and scope, but all of them are able to house multiple pockets of destructive playgrounds to romp through on foot, or in vehicles. It’s antithetical to the campaign: non-linear, unguided, and conquered with intuition and reflexes. It has an unforgiving learning curve that demands you make sense of your generous surroundings, move with purpose, and find a role within a cohesive unit of players. Battlefield 3 multiplayer is an open field, a freeform expression of hot lead and steady nerves, best navigated by methodical combat improv and masterful manipulation of the environment.
It feels like a sandbox. It’s a canvas that you and your teammates can either mark deliberately or spill ink on. It’s satisfying or frustrating specifically because, unlike the singleplayer, it’s contingent on your innovation and skills, more than a led-by-the-hand design. While there are certainly objectives to be had, and areas that feel deliberately staged to be fire fight areas or vehicle arenas, I can’t recall another shooter that feels as user-defined as Battlefield 3. Because of the various classes and their customisations, the variety of vehicles and a terrain that is malleable, the multiplayer consistently feels dynamic, fresh and engaging.
The maps are spacious, appropriately segmented and well-designed, but most enjoyed once mixed up a bit. Destructively rearranging a map is satisfying and strategic. The Frostbite 2 engine depicts destruction better than the previous iterations, as you destroy things to assist map control, and eliminate enemy positions. Where buildings crumbling in Bad Company 2 looked like a deck of cards falling to the table, here they look believable, realistic.
The basic Battlefield game modes return, with no additions. Rush, Conquest and Deathmatch play similarly to how they did in Bad Company 2. You’ll find yourself playing all the modes in Battlefield 3 for several rounds before growing bored, but compared to games like Black Ops, which offer several different game types, the three core modes of Battlefield now seem limited.
The core modes of the Battlefield multiplayer experience – Rush and Conquest – still excel. Team tactics are essential to success, and incentivised accordingly. You can earn experience points by firing suppressive fire resulting in a kill, killing an enemy dealing damage to a teammate, healing a teammate, and of course completing objectives like capturing a flag or arming/disarming an M-COM station. Plus, there are a handful or other bonuses awarded for tasks other than simply killing enemies.
Take it for a drive
Within the multiplayer, vehicles are plentiful and crucial. Along with the assortment of tanks and light armoured vehicles, there are several helicopters, jets and amphibious vehicles to pilot. Each of them controls uniquely, which creates a challenge and its solution simultaneously: choose the vehicle that’s right for you, stay away from the ones that aren’t. As is typical here, you’ll have to figure out what works between you and your teammates.
The Battlefield class system and character progression return intact, with a few tweaks. The Support class from earlier Battlefield games is back, replacing the Medic class from Bad Company 2. The Assault class then takes on characteristics of the Medic, carrying medkits and defibrillators with an assault rifle. With experience, you unlock weapon attachments and special abilities for each class. It’s Battlefield’s familiar formula for progression and class-based combat – and it’s still highly compelling.
Meanwhile, the sniping is remarkably satisfying. That isn’t any different than Bad Company 2, but it bears noting that this is still the best long-range combat of any shooter available. Few things feel better than scoring a headshot on an enemy 260 meters away, lying prone with nothing but his eyeballs and his forehead peeking out of cover.
The Xbox 360 and PS3 versions scale back the total number of players from 64 on the PC, to a more personal gathering of 24 total players. Capture points in Conquest mode were changed from five to three, and pulled in closer to the centre of the map. We haven’t played the PC version, but the console multiplayer experience doesn’t feel small or scaled down compared to similar shooter offerings. It still feels big, expansive, apt for vehicles, and determined by the team that utilises terrain and man-power with optimal efficiency.
Co-op is serviceable and forgettable. It has the designed feel of the campaign, without the storytelling, and with less imagination. I played a few matches with a friend, and a few public matches. I enjoyed it. It makes for a fun evening or two, if you have a good partner to play with, and want to make a challenge out of besting all the co-op missions – six in total.
Best of both worlds?
Battlefield 3 knows exactly what it wants to be, and DICE strangely chose two opposing tactics to achieve their aim. They chose to copy Call of Duty’s structure and style of campaign – quite blatantly, in fact. It’s exceptionally well-crafted, though. The only downside is the nagging feeling of having seen it all before, repeatedly. Hopefully Modern Warfare 3 will be the predictable pattern’s swan song, but I doubt it.
In multiplayer, however, the game is Battlefield through and through. Bad Company, Bad Company 2, and now Battlefield 3 have distinguished the series from Call of Duty by running with class-based, squad-focused play and destructibility – and here, it’s more refined and strengthened than ever.
Fundamentally, in both the singleplayer campaign and multiplayer, DICE played it safe: they chose to use to established formulas known to be successful. That the game chooses not to innovate is both its greatest strength and the clearest criticism to level against it.
Battlefield 3 is flawed, and it’s also the best shooter on the current market. But with all the media sensation surrounding recent scrapping between a certain pair of publishers, what matters from here is whether that changes on November 8th. Battlefield 3 was built to beat Call of Duty, and now it finally has its chance. And I think Call of Duty has got its work cut out. -Jordan Rivas