Review: Battlefield 3

Review: Battlefield 3

For nearly a year now the video game world has been abuzz with talk of which shooter is going to earn the right to devour your soul this fall: the tried and true Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3 or the veteran behemoth Battlefield 3? Based on the past 4 years, putting your money on the COD series would have been a pretty safe bet, but I can honestly say that you may want to take a few steps back and rethink your decision because the tides may be turning.

Battlefield 3

Long before the Call of Duty franchise became a household name there existed a shooter so mammoth and so engaging that the world of FPS games appeared to reaching its pinnacle. Unfornately, with the rise of console gaming, Battlefield drifted into a rather niche, PC-exclusive market. The advent of more powerful consoles opened the door for the Battlefield series to retake the throne, but after a less than stellar console appearance with Battlefield 2: Modern Combat, the series drifted yet again into the forgotten recess of our collective gaming mind.

For me, it seemed like Call of Duty was bound to become my favorite online shooter, as it really was the most polished and most innovative at the time. I attempted to sink my teeth into both of the offshoot Battlefield series games, but the Bad Company thing just wasn’t doing it for me and I found myself falling back into the familiar arms of Call of Duty.

Then ‘it’ came. Being a massive Battlefield fan, I vividly remember the first inklings of Battlefield 3 and its promise to revolutionize the series; namely its console presence. For months I clamored over every single shred of information about this game and dreamt of the day it would wind up in my hands. Well, it finally showed up and after a solid few minutes of nerdgasming, I managed to jam it into my system and began praying it would be everything I ever hoped for.

Considered Me Engaged

As far as story goes Battlefield has never really been one to focus on telling an engaging narrative. However, in this day and age I doubt many critics and fans would buy the whole “Well, we’ve never done it in the past, so why should we bother now?” excuse. Also, in order to properly challenge the competition, the folks at DICE needed to craft an appealing, believable plot capable of drawing you into not only the events of the story, but more importantly, the lives of the men and women you take control of.

The game’s plot drops you into the middle of an all out war on the Iran-Iraq border. You take control of SSgt Blackburn as he leads his team of men into the city in an attempt to locate a possible chemical weapons facility. What they discover has the potential to endanger millions of lives and alter the very course of human history. Blackburn takes it upon himself to pursue the lead, which ultimately lands him in what I like to call ‘the shit’ and the government isn’t buying a word he says.

The majority of the story is told through superbly voice-acted interrogation cutscenes with conveniently timed questions that lead right into the next mission. The cutscenes aren’t too terribly long and can be bit over dramatized, but they do well enough in getting the story across. Despite a few glaring plot holes that are never truly explained, you eventually begin to feel like you are the one being pointlessly interrogated as you know the truth of the matter; you just can’t convince the black suits of your innocence. (Let’s face it, how stressful/exciting would it be if they simply believed you and you all went on your merry way?)

The rest of the story is played out through incredible amounts of character dialogue and spot on military banter, so it’s clear DICE spared no expense making sure the characters and their interactions were as authentic possible. Particularly impressive are the missions where you take control of an F-18 navigator/weapons specialist and a crewman in a tank. I’d be curious to know just how much time the developers spent working with actual military teams to construct believable dialogue and routines because the attention to detail is staggering.

What really separates the story in this game from other shooters is your tendency to get drawn into what is going on and become attached to those around you. This is war and your buddies are going to die. However, I rarely find myself caring about dead AI comrades – usually because I am the one killing them – but what caught me off guard was the fact that I actually found myself taking sides within the unit based on what the commanding officer was ordering and who died as a result. Your comrades will unexpectedly get gunned down and you have nary a minute to pay attention to their death because the war is still raging all around you and you must continue the mission. That doesn’t stop you from caring or from acknowledging their death, it simply reminds you that this is war and some people actually have to deal with this stuff.

It’s hard to share anything major about a game’s story without giving away crucial plot points, but what I can tell you is that although it may not be the most innovative or creative story we’ve ever seen, Battlefield 3 is second to none when it comes to presentation and cinematics. The interrogation cutscenes felt a bit out of place at times because I mostly felt like I was watching an episode of 24, but the moment I was dropped back into the shoes of a solider I suddenly felt like I was part of a modern Band of Brothers episode.

Avoiding the Easy Way Out

I will tell you that things are a bit slow at first and DICE does an incredible job refraining from demonizing any peoples of the Middle East as this war is not meant to parallel the one we are current involved in. As tensions mount, the focus shifts around the world and it becomes a global conflict. However, right when things are getting exciting, they fall flat and the game ends. The ending isn’t bad by any means. I was just a bit surprised at the abruptness. It’s like popping a fresh piece of your favorite gum into your mouth just to find out it’s beef jerky.

If My Eyes Were Sexual Organs…

If a compelling narrative really isn’t your thing, then you’ll be happy to know that this game looks simply fantastic. The signature dark hues with vivid, striking neon colors actually go beyond giving this game a futuristic feel. Streaking lights, tracer bullets, flickering light bulbs, colored flares, clouds of smoke, and muzzle flashes are something that usually can afford to be overlooked in a game, but for some reason I was constantly focused on these trivial effects. That’s how good I think they look. Either that or they just added such a dramatic tone to the game that I couldn’t ignore them. The new Frostbite 2 engine, which was built from the ground up specifically for this game,  really ramps up the level of realism, but the console versions don’t benefit as much from the upgrade as their older, wiser PC sibling.

If you played the beta or perhaps listened to the podcast where Matt Eades shared his very candid feelings about the in-game textures, you may be wondering what the final verdict is. Well, I can assure you that the textures in the full retail version of the game are about as good as it gets… sandbags and all. The occasional texture might pop in here and there, but it’s nothing compared to what I saw in the beta. Thank goodness.

Another graphical feat you may notice is that the game actually feels like it has some depth to it. Other shooters find you hiding in a darkened bush only to be lit up like a burning Christmas tree for the entire opposing army to see. Thankfully, Battlefield 3 understands that shadows do in fact hid things and they can be used as a tactical advantage in battle – this especially rings true in the online multiplayer modes.

Not only do shadows provide some much needed cover, but the shroud of darkness from a moonless night offers up some of the most impressive and tense moments I’ve experienced in a shooter. Headlights from strategically placed cars blurred my vision while enemies popped off warning shots in my direction. Each light, regardless of how distracting, can be shot out, opening up a whole new element of gameplay… pure darkness.

The characters themselves also serve as a noteworthy technical achievement. While the cutscenes prove to be superbly done with facial expressions matching the voice work perfectly, don’t expect the in-game models to have the same level of detail. They are far from bland, however. What the in-game soldiers lack in aesthetic appeal they certainly make up for in believability through their animations. Each solider moves and reacts as you would expect a real soldier to. Bumping into them won’t throw them off their guard, but watch as they navigate a series of obstacles, or ease themselves down off a ledge and you’ll see just how much care was put into crafting the perfect digital soldier. The character animations are quite a trip to watch if you pay close enough attention. As you wait to breach a door take a peek at some of your squad members. They’ll be fidgeting, rolling their necks, or doing whatever it takes to pump themselves up before going into battle.

And what’s better than a believable looking soldier? One who functions in battle. Your squad mates won’t kill everyone on the field for you, but they will certainly put a massive dent in the opposing forces if you give them the chance to.

All this greatness doesn’t mean the game isn’t without its flaws. I happened to play through the entirety of the game on PS3 and experienced very little texture delay or poor draw distances, but from the people I’ve talked to there have been some reports of flat textures taking ages to load, graphical hiccups, and a myriad of other technical issues. The worst graphical bug I can think of was a texture dropping out and turning pink for a split second. But it’s nothing to really get your undies in a bunch over. What’s more exciting is the crumbling building.

A Self-Destructing Detour

That’s something deserving of a quick side note actually. The building destruction has been one of the main focal points of the game and often touted as the breaking point (pun intended) between MW3and BF3. However, the main storyline rarely made use of this feature outside of scripted events. Sure, as you rain a fury of lead down on your foes their cover will slowly chip away, but never did I have to blast a hole in the wall to get to someone behind it or reveal a secret passage. It’s sad to see such emphasis go to waste in the main story, but the online… that’s a whole different ballgame.

Pretty much anything is fair game, so if you like to hide behind walls, you may want to adjust your tactics because one tank shell could spell the end of your wallbanging days. It’s not entirely all-out destruction, however. As much as I would love to have Red Faction style destruction in a shooter, Battlefield 3 is still limited in what it can do in terms of destruction. Fortunately, it’s still enough to turn the tide of battle and give you something extra to do if you have a spare second.

Be All That You Can Be

DICE wanted to make it very clear that this game is in no way a clone of other military shooters out there as the intention of Battlefield 3 is to create the most immersive combat experience possible. And with that they have crafted a game that some may refer to as difficult. I rarely say this about a shooter, but you can expect to die a lot. As in the real world, one, maybe even two bullets are enough to kill you depending on where they hit. You do have regenerating health, but often times you’re dead and gone before you even realize your screen is turning black and white. Fortunately, the checkpoints are set up in such a way that you never really have to trudge through difficult portions of the game more than more.

The shooting game world can safely be divided into two categories: twitch shooters and strategic shooters. Battlefield certainly does not fall into the twitch shooter category, so if you are used to COD or something else out there that is similar, you may need to allow for a bit of an adjustment period. The controls aren’t sluggish by any means. Rather, they are tight and solid, offering up a great deal of precision. However, that tight gunplay introduces something that is quite hard to overlook.

In a game based entirely around shooting a weapon at a staggering variety of targets from an equally staggering variety of distances, one would think that everything would be, well… balanced. For some reason I found myself dreading situations where I couldn’t charge in and do some close range shooting. The controls are a bit too tight at times and subsequently make accurate shooting down range quite difficult.

Control bugs aside, what you encounter on the battlefield and how you interact with it is constantly changing. The scripted sequences lend a bit more excitement to the game than could ever be achieved through random AI encounters. Again, I don’t want to give away to terribly much, but the part where you have to evade a MiG that’s zeroed in on your ground location is an absolute nail biter.

You will run across a slew of timed button sequences that aren’t to terribly difficult, but they are unique enough to break the up monotony of the mission. It’s usually just an excuse to engage you in an elaborate fist fighting scene where you ultimately rid yourself of the baddie in some violent and creative way including tossing them out train windows and down stair shafts.

Could You Spare Some Change for the Bus?

Finally, the single player campaign drops the ball a bit when it comes to the use of vehicles. I have always been partial to the Battlefield because of its liberal inclusion of vehicles, but the main campaign was almost entirely devoid of decent vehicle sequences. I had high hopes after taking a 20 minute ride in an F-18 Hornet, but quickly came to realize I would not be flying one, or driving much of anything else for that matter. No trucks, no hummers, one tank, and a co-pilot jet ride are not enough to satiate my love for vehicle combat. Thankfully, I can get that somewhere else.

The Potential to Reign Supreme

I’ve certainly spent enough time covering the meat and potatoes of how the game looks and feels, but what about the real reason anyone is going to enlist in this fight: multiplayer?

Battlefield 3 is attempting to bring the massive scale combat it’s so famous for to the console, but right off the bat it hits a stumbling block. From the moment I logged in and got dropped into a match I felt a bit off. These maps are enormous. Some of them are so mind bogglingly large that they could easily be filled with hundreds of soldiers duking it out. However, the console versions are limited to a measly 24 players… total. Needless to say, the maps feel a bit empty at times. My very first match saw me driving circles around the map in a tank without seeing a single person, friend or foe, for nearly 5 minutes. Thus, I began shooting my name in the walls via the main cannon.

Thankfully I didn’t write it off there and kept trudging forward. What’s underneath is one of the most engaging and deep multiplayer experiences available.

There are only a select few modes available for play including Rush, Conquest, and an assortment of deathmatch games, but surprisingly that is more than enough to remain occupied. An average match (depending on the mode) can take upwards of 45 minutes, so you can become pretty immersed in the game. However, if find yourself on the receiving end of a merciless beat down, the match could be over in as few as 10 minutes.

What really draws me in is the sheer need for teamwork. I know a lot of other online games say that teamwork is required for success, but when is the last time you hopped online in another and organized anything other than flamethrower raid into the enemy encampment? Never? That’s what I thought.

BF3 has a robust squad based system that allows you to work together as a team, even without having to talk to one another. When you die you have the option to respawn directly onto another squad member, inserting yourself directly into the action and also serving up a healthy helping of XP to the person you spawned on. This also helps keep the playing field evenly balanced and prevents one team from monopolizing a series of locations. As long as one person makes it there and survives, the rest of the squad join the fight at the press of a button.

Perhaps the most fun I’ve had online is working together with teammates while using vehicles. I absolutely cherish my time in a tank with a comrade, laying waste to anything that moves. You’re about as close to invincible as it gets when you’re double teaming people in one of these steel death boxes. Don’t trust me as your helicopter pilot though as I have a tendency to cut tail and bail out at the most inconvenient times.

The jets on the other hand are a thing of sheer frustration. I absolutely love flight sims, but the flight controls for these jets couldn’t be any farther from functional. I’m wondering if they decided to see if they create the absolute worst handing aircraft in the universe just to see how people would react. These jets are next to impossible to control, so they usually wound up as giant unguided missile when I got in the cockpit. Fortunately, you can stumble into the options and change them to a much more manageable setting and thats when they become absurdly fun… if you can manage to snag one.

For the amount of fun the vehicles offer, they sure take an unnecessarily long time to respawn. I can understand that certain vehicles are a bit overpowered, but the jets and helicopters simply become crap shoots if you ever hope to get one.

You level up in a rather unorthodox way. Rather than allowing you to physically select or purchase certain items and/or weapons, you have to earn them. You can only earn weapon upgrades by using the appropriate weapon, but once you have unlocked a good chunk of items, you are free to customize to your heart’s content. Everything from flashlights and red laser lights to ACOG scopes and front grips are available for your weapons.

What’s particularly refreshing is that each faction has their own set of weapons, so you actually have double the amount of weapons to choose from and level up. It adds a bit of forced change to the game that is rather welcome, unless you find yourself constantly being dumped onto the same team time and time again.

Finally, the class system is back and better than ever. Some major adjustments have been made to a few of the classes, such as adding the medical aids to the assault class. Choosing the right class is crucial to the success of the team. If you have a team filled with engineers running about wielding blow torches, you’ll have a pristine fleet of tanks and jeeps, but who is going to revive all the dead soldiers on the front lines? Or if you have a team consisting entirely of medics, who is going to refill the ammo of these immortal soldiers? An equal balance of classes is just another way that BF3 encourages, without forcing, team work.

 A Fair Shake

It’s really hard to try and sum up a game that has been a long time coming, but Battlefield 3 is just about everything I could have hoped for. Sure, a few technical bugs slipped in here and there, but the surprisingly engaging single player campaign – not to mention the ability to tackle it co-op with a buddy – quite surprised me and is a welcome addition to the already sterling package. The lackluster ending left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth, but careening headfirst into the multiplayer instantly washed that away.

DICE has come right out and said that BF3 should technically not even be compared to MW3 simply because they are two drastically different styles of games, which means COD lovers should be thrilled about this game and want to see what it has to offer. I certainly hope that hordes of gamers aren’t so blinded by the light of fanboyism that they avoid this title all together because I can honestly say that Battlefield 3 is going to consume my online life for months to come and I may go as far as to say that it stands a chance at attracting as much online multiplayer interest as MW3 … that is if people are willing to give it the fair shake it deserves.

Score: 9.3/10

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