Beauty and the beast: Battlefield 3 [360 Review]
[PS. If you’re only interested in multiplayer, scroll about hafway down to the ‘Multiplayer’ heading.]
“Boys, we’re attracting a lot of fucking attention!”
Spoken early in Battlefield 3’s campaign, is that line that perhaps sums up this FPS juggernaut more than any other. No matter the review scores, no matter the sales figures and no matter the size of the online community this time next year, what EA have already achieved with this game is to create a full-blown competitor to Activision’s all conquering Call of Duty series.
Even prior to its release, Battlefield 3 has succeeded in ramping up the modern combat FPS vs. modern combat FPS excitement in a way Homefront, Medal of Honor or even Battlefield: Bad Company 2 failed to do. Given the pre-order numbers and insane levels of hype, Battlefield 3 is already a runaway success… a King Kong to Call of Duty’s Godzilla.
However, where King Kong grows on you over time as you realise he’s not such a bad guy, Battlefield 3 doesn’t. As far as the single player goes, it’s derivative, uninspired and crammed full of so many bugs and glitches that you’d be forgiven for thinking you’ve just been warped into a rioting ant farm.
Unlike Battlefields past, Battlefield 3 follows the template of its contemporary peers by offering a campaign consisting almost entirely of set-pieces, linearity and repetition. If you don’t do things exactly as the game designers ask, you’ll die. Don’t follow the neon blue position markers exactly, you’ll die. Don’t press ‘A’ to avoid that punch, you’ll die. Any sense of freedom in terms of tactics, positioning or prioritising of targets has been stripped away entirely.
The result is a campaign high on pomp and razzle-dazzle, but lacking in charm or personality – frankly, we’ve seen it all before. Set-pieces are strung together, connected by segments of room clearing and corridor hugging, creating a pace that is initially exhilarating but quickly tiring.
One (maybe two) moments aside, the set-pieces on offer are precisely those that you’d expect from any old FPS. Turret section? Yep. Defend a VIP with a sniper rifle? Yep. Bomb targets from the sky? Yep. Sneak behind enemy lines with an AI companion? Yep.
Is it fun? Nope.
A tank battle sequence offers a very welcome change of pace (and it’s not something you’d necessarily expect from this genre), but it’s all over much too quickly. In fact, the fun part of the mission is over so quickly that it acts primarily to serve as a taster of what could have been, rather than what is.
It seems that the team at DICE have decided not only to try and emulate Call of Duty’s success, but also its single player structure i.e. to tell the story through cinematic techniques, rather than through gameplay. Cinematic storytelling means taking control away from the player which is exactly what they’ve done here.
That’s not also a bad thing (see Uncharted 3), however, but for a cinematic structure to work it must be near-perfect, it must feel like a movie; Battlefield 3 just doesn’t have the required level of polish to pull that effect off. The story, while legible, is clichéd and overplayed. Minutes into the six-ish hour campaign and the ending is obvious, completely removing those narrative elements that are supposed to act as the core pillars of tension and drama.
If you’re someone that enjoys linear structures then you’ll find a lot to like. The set-pieces are frantic and upbeat thanks to the level of forced guidance, dominating sound effects and concerned chatter from your squad; shoot outs do a great job of establishing a sense of vulnerability and panic.
Still, if you were expecting/hoping for the open-world(ish) approach of Bad Company you’ll be disappointed. One section of Battefield 3 is so linear that I died four times trying to stab the same enemy from behind. It turns out that you’re supposed to sprint up to him and stab him, if you move too slowly you’re guy simply dies. What does he die of? Heart attack? Spontaneous combustion? Boredom?
What will surely disappoint everyone, though, is the quantity of glitches (we’re reviewing an Xbox 360 version of the game). Lips and voices de-sync constantly, objects float in mid-air, enemies run clean through solid walls, friendly AI blocks your path and some particle effects (dust, fire etc) occur a good few seconds after you’d expect them to following a grenade explosion or disintegration of masonry. Before you ask: yes, I played the entire game with the HD content pack installed to the hard drive.
This kind of thing is unacceptable from any game, but especially so from a game that comes with such expectation and from a developer that has demonstrated such a high level of polish in its previous works. At times the campaign is so repetitive and so glitchy that you begin to wonder just who DICE assigned to its creation.
Then there’s the co-op campaign, which by any standard is the very definition of ‘tacked-on’. Featuring six missions across stages largely based on select examples from the main campaign, co-op sees all of single player’s problems return albeit compounded by the fact that two of you are trying to fight through them. The stifling linearity is made worse thanks to an incredibly awkward ‘revive’ mechanic and a design that too often relies on you breaching rooms from different sides in an attempt to flank the enemy (a ‘feature’ that soon outstays its welcome).
I imagine that for a lot of you reading this, the above is almost entirely redundant. What you care about is the multiplayer. I’m very happy to report then, that all is well and good in the online world. Some of the maps are stunning to behold, providing battlegrounds that are large even by this series’ standards.
Consoles support matches of 12 vs. 12 (32 vs. 32 on PC), but unlike certain examples from Battlefield’s past, maps have been designed in such a way as to facilitate action no matter which class you prefer. Whether you’ve a taste for sitting back and sniping from afar, getting in on the action and chucking medikits to your comrades or sprinting to take control of your favourite vehicle, every map offers equal opportunity to score points and drive your team to success.
From wide open desert arenas to the narrow streets of Paris and mountainside radar stations there’s enough variety to satisfy everyone (at least until the DLC kicks in proper). The larger the map the more vehicles are present, preventing things moving too far into Delta Squad territory and becoming an exercise in patience as you scan the horizon for your target.
What’s most impressive is that so many elements have been slotted together to create something that feels robust and cohesive throughout. Fighter jets join helicopters, jeeps, tanks and buggies in an armour set that would make Obama think twice, the game modes are brilliantly balanced and the wide selection of firearms and gadgets greatly widens the scope of what we’ve come to expect from an online shooter.
Given their potential firepower and sheer ‘cool’ factor, it’s a little frustrating that the fighter jets are the least interesting of the vehicles to take command of. There are not enough of them to create compelling dogfight encounters and you’re generally moving too quickly to wield them as air-to-ground weapons. Perhaps in the bigger games on PC that will be a different story.
There are four core classes to select from (Assault, Engineer, Support and Recon) each of which is pitched towards a different playing style. The Recon packs a sniper rifle and perks aimed at detecting enemy movements, Assault is your good all-rounder with the added bonus of being able to heal yourself and your teammates, Engineers can repair vehicles and Support is the Mr. T of the bunch favouring big weapons and lots of ammo.
Within the four there’s huge opportunity for customisation and personalisation. In an act of brilliant perk-pacing, new items are unlocked at a rate that prevents you feeling overwhelmed but without making you feel starved of new toys to play with. That may sound like a trivial element to highlight in a game of this scale, but it really does improve the experience and demonstrates DICE’s skill in crafting near-perfectly balanced online theatres of war.
You’ve probably grasped what I’m trying to say by now. If you’ve got a thing for first-person shooter campaigns then Battlefield 3 is going to severely disappoint, but if multiplayer’s your game then you’re going to find an enormous amount to like.
Still, as a complete package it in no way lives up to the expectation. Only one of its three core elements (single player, co-op and multiplayer) is worth your time, the other two feeling as though they’ve been added merely to increase the number of potential bullet points on the back of the box. Depending on which elements you’re interested in, Battlefield 3 will either be your game of the year, or your letdown of… well, the year.