Review: Battlefiel​d 3

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It has been a long time since Battlefield 1942 came out in 2002 and there have been nearly twenty releases in the Battlefield series since. Now what has been called the next step in the Battlefield franchise has arrived.  The package that is Battlefield 3 is essentially two games in one.  A surprisingly good single player campaign and a multiplayer mode filled with the classic Battlefield formula of infantry/vehicle/air combat.

Full disclosure: this is not a review that sets this game up against the latest Call of Duty game.  I fully understand that some people from Electronic Arts and Activision, and fanboy camp followers, want there to be a judgment made on that front, but you ain’t getting that here.  EA’s message with this game has been that they want to win the modern military shooter beauty crown this year, specifically targeting the reigning champ.  Frankly that turned me off the game before it even shipped, and I can’t imagine I am alone in that regard.  It seems petty to specifically contrast a product with the competition’s as opposed to showing everyone why your game is great on its own.  But, now that the game is out, we can all try to forget that and the game can be judged on its own merits.  Everybody can be big in the locker room, everyone’s pretty.

Also from the outset, I note there is a tendency amongst some in the BF community to say that only “the real” Battlefield game is played on the personal computer.  While I never got into that sort of discussion, my experience with the Battlefield series has been almost entirely based on the PC versions of these games, where at one point, after dozens, if not hundreds, of hours I got to be pretty good at shooting Germans.  I even bought a joystick to be able to actually pilot the airplanes (but gave up on actually using a helicopter for anything other than a target for the opposing force).  It is certainly true at one point in time when you wanted to pretend to be grandpa’s unlucky buddy, and get murdered by an agent of an enemy state on Omaha Beach or in Vietnam, it would have to have been with a mouse and keyboard as there were no other options.  But that was almost a decade ago.  While there are some differences amongst the versions of this game, maybe it’s time for everyone to look and see if the “true” battlefield experience can be had on the couch.  So we’re talking about the console, specifically the Xbox 360, version here, but keeping in mind the expectations of a traditional Battlefield game.

For those not in the know, or have simply never played one before, the core Battlefield essence is a multiplayer game where players pick a class which determines what gear they start out with and what abilities they have and try to eliminate the other team.  In addition to this sort of traditional infantry class-based combat, players can pop into any vehicle they can see to try to accomplish this goal.  This, naturally, lends to total chaos when human beings are allowed to essentially do whatever they want within a system that provides little guidance.  It is not uncommon for an enemy to drive a tank into an enemy base full of unprepared players and proceed to dominate everyone, killing people as they spawn, until enough people die and think to switch to the class that kills tanks.  Equally common is the sight of another player on your team jumping into existence and commandeering the transport vehicle you were about to get into, and then ride off into the sunset leaving you to very slowly run towards the front lines.  This kind of action leads to incredibly frustrating and equally amazing moments due, again, in equal parts, to the stupidity of other people and random happenstance.  Sure, there is a degree of skill involved in determining how long a player may survive, but the main appeal for me has always been the player dynamics.  Well, that and the appeal of killing an unaware player with a knife (the ultimate insult given the traditionally useless melee attacks).  It’s been a lot of games and different modes since 2002, but Battlefield 3 still maintains that basic Battlefield experience.

The presentation of the game, no matter what mode you are in, is outstanding.  The desert and cities of Iran all look very detailed and in some instances even start to approach photo-realism.  The game looks much better on the single player side of things, probably to streamline performance.  It’s not quite reality, but the buildings and vehicles look very nice.  Most surfaces will display bullet holes for each missed shot, so that every wall after a firefight looks like it will need five tubs of Spackle.  Some structures can be destroyed if shot with enough ordinance, but it is usually difficult to say what will blow up and what will not.  This makes it difficult to plan on destruction as a strategic maneuver.  The menus are all attractive, but have definitely been influenced by the team that worked on Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit.  Everything is a combination of techno-esque music and eye-catching bright colors with dark contrasts. 

One new addition to the franchise here is a comprehensive single player campaign.  Battlefield games have had a single player mode in the past, but typically these were just the multiplayer maps with bots.  Except for the recent Bad Company games, there was zero reason in a BF game to play the single player mode unless you wanted to practice with a vehicle or learn a map.  Battlefield 3 features a complete series of scripted missions that play out a story.  Some of the moments are tense and there are some exceedingly dark moments in the game.  The tone is far more grim than the summer blockbuster plot I was expecting.  There is also a co-op mode that has a separate story than the single player, but seems to use a lot of the same assets.  It’s a nice feature, but not as memorable as the single player and the more engrossing, larger scale multiplayer.  The co-op is not likely something that people will get wrapped up in and the single player game, while great looking and entertaining, is not going to warrant a lot of replays.

Within the first play though, players will find a fully unexpected pleasure during a turret sequence which is probably the most impressive I’ve ever seen in an action game.  Usually there’s part of an action game where you have to get behind a turret, it makes no real sense, and isn’t particularly fun.  In one very memorable level of the campaign, players will assume the roll of the airman who sits behind the pilot and just controls the weapons (so it actually makes sense in the game as a turret level).  The canopy of the jet is scuffed and filled with hundreds of imperfections that realistically reflect the light of the sun as the plane breaks through the cloud cover, from a stormy sea into a sunny sky.  Nearby sounds are muffled, replaced with squawky and garbled radio chatter as the flight helmet is donned.  There is first a dog fighting sequence when enemy planes scream through the sky and are taken down with locked-on missiles.  Then there is a bombing run that requires the use of a black and white infrared camera.  The camera view in this part of the game looks and sounds exactly like footage of these sorts of actual runs that one sees on the news about war or military exercises from time to time.  Take note when this mission comes up.  This is the single player campaign’s guitar solo.

The single player game does not really feel like the same game as the multiplayer.  There are no health packs in the single player, instead opting for Wolverine-styled bullet wound regeneration and there is far more grit on visors and helmets offline.  Usually the single player game is a bit of training for the multiplayer, but here they really could have shipped two separate games.  The single player and multiplayer are on separate discs, and if you were to open up you’re new copy of Battlefield 3 and snap the multiplayer disc in two, you could still have a lot of fun with what’s left.  I’m not sure if you’d want to replay it more than once or twice, but it would still be an enjoyable experience.  (Consumer note: if you bought the game used and do not want to fork over additional money for the “DLC” of an online pass, you might as well snap the multiplayer disc in two.  The passes only come free with new copies of the game.)

Switching discs, as mentioned earlier, the traditional Battlefield experience is alive and well here.  While there are several different kinds of match types, the most often seen are Rush and Conquest.  Rush has a series of objectives for one team to attack and the other to defend.  If the attackers run out of “tickets” (lives or spawns) and they do not destroy the objective, the defenders win.  If the attackers manage to blow everything up, they win.  Conquest is the most basic Battlefield game mode where both teams start from bases and are required to capture a series of flags.  Once captured, players can spawn from the new position and advance to the next.  Conquest is very much a game of momentum where after a long tug of war, eventually a force might take over a base and then proceed to the next one fairly quickly.  Both require players to pick a loadout of gear, perhaps hop in a vehicle and shoot people. 

While it is true that the game is better played with friends or people of a similar mind who know what the heck they are doing, Battlefield 3 does a good job of focusing player attention.  A team’s current objective is clearly displayed both on an in game map and directly in the game itself.  Even if a wall is between the objective and a player, the game indicates on screen where the action is focused.  That way, if one is an assault style player itching for the action, they know where to run.  If someone else was more reflective, they might know that place is where everyone is headed and so could get picked off from a distance by a stealthy sniper.  Additionally, players are given the option to join a Squad to encourage teamplay.  Squads allow players to spawn nearby other squad members.  This has two advantages: 1) it gets you to the action faster as squadmates are usually closer to the enemy than the home base, and 2) you’re less likely to die in a group from enemy infantry fire (at least one member of your squad will survive to kill the encamped machine-gunner).  The maps are full of nooks and crannies to shoot people in and are fairly interesting.

On a technical level the game usually runs well when playing online.  There is a server menu that can be used to selectively choose what arena to shoot people in, and to sort by match type, but every single time I looked for a game using this option I experienced horrible lag, even when the menu indicated that it was my optimum connection.  Battlefield 3 compensates for lag by rewinding time a few seconds.  So one can think that you got the drop on one player, just to have time involuntarily rewind enough to get shot instead.  This is worse than fast forwarding in time since that is the traditional symptom of a poor connection.  At least in those circumstances one can spray the shotgun around and pray.  Just hitting the Quickmatch button put me into games with no lag.  As there are a healthy amount of players in the game, and the most popular missions are the core battlefield ones you want, there is no good reason to not just hop into quick games.  People on Teh internetz tell me that some people are having problems with the matchmaking on the 360 version of the game, that the connection seems to time out.  So long as it was a quick match, I did not have any problems like that.  Your mileage may vary.

I think the only thing that is missing from the classic Battlefield PC experience with the 360 version is the text log.  Instead of people typing out whatever foul thoughts they might have in their head, now people just get to say it.  I’ve never really been one for online voice chat in Pick Up Games.  It always sounds like a bad cell phone call with belligerent kids in middle school on the other end.  It could be that I was lucky, but there was not a lot of talking in matches I was playing.  The game does not really require it as it tells soldiers very clearly what the team’s objective is, but it would be nice to be able to type “good match” or “lucky” in with the keypad.  A headset seems like a lot for that small amount of communication.  Helicopters are also still very difficult to control, and I don’t think a flight yoke would improve things.  I am starting to think that the ability to fly a whirlybird is a genetic trait. 

Because it is a modern shooter, Battlefield 3 has the genre-standard persistent experience system.  Divided amongst vehicles and the different kits available for infantry, players will have to play the game to play the game.  If someone is getting iced by helicopters and wants to spawn in with a surface to air missile, if they are not of the right level, they cannot do that.  On the one hand it is frustrating; on the other it offers a carrot to lead one to play the game better.  More XP is granted for completing matches, winning or taking objectives as well as for acting with the rest of a squad.  There are ranks and medals and stars to show how much you’ve played the game.  This will draw a certain kind of person more into the game than others.  I feel the pull of new ranks and enjoy seeing progress bars advance at the end of every match, tempting me to play just one more match to level up, but the shine of this kind of system in shooters has worn off a bit.  If nothing else, the deathmatch modes are not super memorable or what one would want from a Battlefield game, but they are a fast way to level up.

One thing that I truly wish BF games would adopt is a licensing system for vehicles.  Human lives are a commodity on the battlefield, measured in tickets, so a person who is very bad at running around and shooting at people with a virtual rifle might cost the team a significant number of spawns, but that can be made up by a couple of good players.  Vehicles are a far more limited resource as only so many can exist at once per side and, when destroyed, it takes a while for them to come back.  People flying airplanes into the ground or getting transports stuck in an alley can really hurt one side or another.  If players have to play the game for hours and jump through all sorts of XP hoops to unlock all of the gear and potential equipment, a five or ten minute licensing exam/tutorial for helicopters and tanks would not be out of order.  Similarly, while the ability to spawn in a transport vehicle is a good start, I’d like to be able to make a driver of a smaller transport stop in a mandatory fashion.  Two dudes spawn near a Humvee and race towards it.  If the guy who wins the impromptu footrace is a jerk, the other will have to run to the battle.  The game should not let this happen, and a button press should make him slow down involuntarily if no foes are around.  The improvements I suggest would remove a lot of the frustration that players will experience in this game.  You could say, “Don’t play with jerks,” but be realistic.  Any Quick Match game on Xbox Live or any other online service is going to have some selfish, non-team players who don’t seem to get that this is very much a team-based game and when you stick together, you tend to live longer and actually win matches.  BF3’s interface takes some good steps towards corralling strangers into working together as an effective team, but the game could do more.

To contrast the gameplay with Halo: Reach, the difference isn’t just a heavier emphasis on vehicles, it is the way that players have to approach the game to be successful.  In Halo, the solution to poor performance is more often than not to either learn the map better to determine where the good weapons spawn, or to just be better at first-person shooting.  This is because games like Halo and Quake are balanced — players pop into the session with basically everything being the same.  There is nothing balanced about Battlefield 3.

Standing alone, a person with an assault kit can never kill a person in a tank.  Ever.  But in a larger conflict, say perhaps, in a battlefield, the assault kit soldier can revive the guy with the RPG and keep him up until he is in a position to take the tank out, thereby beating the tank.  But the tank might stay alive because the sniper on his team is watching him and takes out anyone with a rocket launcher going near the armored menace.  However, the sniper better look out for the helicopter with miniguns aching to rain doom upon any human silhouette plainly sprawled on a rooftop.  And the gal operating the helicopter has to make sure that no one is on an anti-air mindset, guns pointed to the heavens, eyes on the horizon.  Who in turn, who in turn, who in turn.  In Halo victory is a feeling that “I was the best, I won.” The fact that my team in Team Slayer also won is secondary because one player can carry a team.  In Battlefield, with so many players on each side and such a wide range of roles to play, victory is a feeling that “we won”.  Helicopters still seem to dominate the maps they appear in a little too much, but leet heli skillz aside, it usually is not that one person wins a match because they were the best, but because they were on the most coordinated team.  

To sum things up, the single player game is fun, but by itself really it is not enough to justify a purchase of the game new. As the “Project Ten Dollars” code in BF3 is an online pass, if the multiplayer is of zero interest to you, then consider this game a very strong rental as no additional monies will be needed to enjoy it. But the real reason to get this game is the multiplayer. While not quite up to Valve’s The Orange Box level of value, the combination of single player and multiplayer makes for an overall package with fantastic bang for your buck.

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Pros:
+ Surprisingly fun single player game
+ Classic Battlefield gameplay in multiplayer
+ Co-op campaign adds some replay value

Cons:
– Not a ton of replay value on the single player side of things
– Multiplayer can be very frustrating at times

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Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on Xbox 360; also available for PC and PS3
Publisher: EA
Developer: EA DICE
Release Date: 10/25/2011
Genre: FPS
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1 – 64 (up to 24 players on consoles, up to 64 on PC)
Source: Review copy provided by publisher

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About the Author

Steve has been playing video games since the start of the 1980s. While the first video game system he played was his father's, an Atari 2600, he soon began saving allowances and working for extra money every summer to afford the latest in interactive entertainment. He is keenly aware of how much it stinks to spend good money on a bad game. It does things to a man. It makes stink way too much time into games like Karnov to justify the purchase.