REVIEW: Battlefield 3

Battlefield 3 falls somewhat in uncharted territory for me. I am for the most part a single-player gamer. My only real exposure to multiplayer comes from co-op ventures from games like Left 4 Dead and a very brief stint with Call of Duty 4 that did nothing to alter my opinion of online gaming save perhaps drive me further from it. So Battlefield 3 was a bit of a gamble. I had never owned a Battlefield game before this and had no intense nostalgia for the revitalized jet combat and ridiculously massive maps that all the longtime Battlefield fans seemed to long for. But I had a few friends who prompted me to give it a shot and next thing I knew I had a copy showing up at my door. And in spite of my previous disdain for the online gaming realm and my trepidation about subjecting myself again to a fast-paced bullet-ridden realm of suffering, I ended up really liking the game.

But before we can delve into why Battlefield 3 won me over,we need to get some of the boring stuff out of the way, and in this instance the “boring stuff” is the campaign. You’ll notice right away that the major selling point for Battlefield 3 is not its single player campaign, as it comes on disk two of a two-disc package, with the first being reserved for multiplayer and co-op. The game’s story is told via a series of cutscenes, in which the main player character Staff Sergeant Blackburn is interrogated by… I dunno, some shady government official types. It’s all very Tom Clancy, only without the diehard attention to minute detail. The main plot involves a threat from a fictional terrorist organization operating in the Middle East with plans to bring a nuclear attack to bear against the United States and several other NATO countries.

These guys never learn

While the plot is standard fare for modern military shooters, the scenes through which it unfolds are decidedly more interesting than the overarching narrative they tie together. It’s fairly clear that DICE attempted to take a page out of Infinity Ward’s playbook when they set about developing the campaign; the almost trademark Call of Duty approach to singleplayer is patently obvious to anyone familiar with it. The campaign is incredibly short, often arbitrarily linear, and jam-packed with dramatic,over-the-top setpiece events. While it’s no secret that Battlefield is competing directly with Modern Warfare 3 for success, it seems that nobody told DICE that “competing” doesn’t mean the same thing as “do the same thing as your opponent and hope you win”.

That said, there are a number of areas where despite its emulative approach, Battlefield 3 actually does surpass Call of Duty in terms of impressiveness. This upper hand, however, doesn’t come from taking a Michael Bay approach and just making everything bigger and more explosive; rather, it comes from subtlety. For the first few minutes of one of the earliest missions all you’re doing is sitting in the back of an armored personnel carrier listening to Johnny Cash over the radio and your support gunner bitching about your orders. You then exit out onto a market street in Tehran, with AH-6 Little Bird helicopters buzzing overhead and other soldiers questioning the locals.You walk down a side street, talk with a superior officer, and then cautiously make your way through empty back alleys while you search for a missing patrol. For at least a moment, before the bullets start flying, you get a sense of what it must feel like to be a member of an occupation force in a foreign country.The memorable parts of this early mission don’t come from sudden, violent firefights but rather from tense, nerve-wracking segments where you’re trying to assist a Humvee crew that was hit by an IED while civilians (whom for all you know could be insurgents) look on from a gathering crowd. It’s like something out of The Hurt Locker.

All of these people may want to kill you.
Just stay calm…

But if people are going to remember anything about the campaign of Battlefield 3 it will without a doubt be “Going Hunting”: a mission in which you serve as the Weapon Systems Officer on an F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. Take special note of that: you’re the WSO, not the pilot. During the mission your job is to maintain situational awareness and manage missiles and countermeasures during dogfights. It is genuinely tense to frantically swivel your head around inside the cockpit, trying to keep visual contact with enemy aircraft while your pilot tries to evade and maneuver into a suitable attack position. Top Gun is one of my favorite movies, so being able to effectively play a whole mission where I step into the role of Nick “Goose” Bradshaw was a dream come true. I was literally shouting at my wingman to break left or right whenever it looked like an enemy fighter came to bear on him, nevermind my own frantic curses when the tone of an enemy radar lock sounded in my ears. But there were few things as satisfying as getting a missile lock of your own and bringing down a bandit in an enormous fireball. Try to resist saying “Splash one” when you do. Go on, I dare you.

The rest of the campaign, however, is not nearly as exhilarating. There’s a sniper mission that isn’t as good as “Ghillies in the Mist” and a tank mission that comes close to emulating the old Call of Duty 2 North Africa tank mission but ultimately falls short, and the rest is your typical first-person shooter fare. The guns do feel distinct and responsive, to be sure, and Battlefield 3 finally got rid of the absurdly long reload animation that plagued the Bad Company games. But really it’s just lather, rinse, repeat putting bullets in bad dudes for a few hours and you’re done. It’s boring, but at least it’s not infuriating like Call of Duty’s “infinite enemy respawn points” crap.

You’ve played most of this before, we know, calm down

Of course, you don’t buy a Battlefield game for the campaign. Multiplayer has always been the selling point for this franchise and that is certainly still true with Battlefield 3. As we mentioned earlier, I’ve never been a fan of online shooters, and this is primarily because of one factor: I can’t twitch. I just don’t have a fast enough response time to succeed in most online games. Most of the time I’ll end up dead because some kid who’s hyped up on mountain dew manages to freakishly spin around and put a dozen rounds into my head before I even knew there was somebody there to shoot. In a team-deathmatch based online community, there isn’t really a place for a player like me. Or rather, there is, but it’s waaaaay at the bottom of the score charts.

Battlefield 3 alleviates some of this pain by heavily incorporating into the scoring system something that most other first-person shooters are missing: tactics. Not the kind of “tactics” where you manage to figure out the most broken hiding spot on the map so that almost nobody sees you and you can take potshots at everybody without a care in the world, but actual tactics that require teamwork and appropriate tools for a given job. Taking certain key points in a game of conquest, for example, is significantly easier with the help of a tank (and a dedicated engineer to keep the tank in working condition). Sniper cover is actually useful for holding and securing points instead of just a way for people to hide and work on their kill/death ratio. Medics are invaluable in keeping your team on their feet for as long as possible before having to burn a respawn. And air units provide close air support and rapid transport for infantry. Every piece of the puzzle needs to work together in order to form an effective fighting force and when your team works harmoniously the results can be fantastic. This I can do.

Teamwork!

All of this is only amplified when you play the game with friends. The game allows you to join up with a squad automatically at the start of a game or to manually set up your own. My current setup has me joining up with two additional friends, each of us playing a complementary class (engineer, medic, support gunner) while coordinating actions through Skype as an alternative to Xbox Live’s functional but less-than-ideal voice chat function. It’s nothing short of fantastic to have our light machine gunner lay down suppressive fire as our engineer pops out of cover to fire a rocket at a tank and I dash out into the open to revive a fallen player with a defibrillator.You don’t get this kind of cooperative effort in something like Halo.

All of this is bolstered by stunning visuals and what is probably the best sound design that has ever appeared in a game. Lighting is of particular note in the graphical department, as shadows shift and move as wind blows the trees that cast them, and dust particles dance in beams of light that filter through half-open windows. Moving between interior and exterior environments will result in your vision taking a moment to adjust to the new lighting conditions, but not in a staged Fallout 3 kind of way: this is a constant, dynamic effect. Every time you walk outside your vision will flare slightly for a moment and then normalize. It’s done subtly, too, so it’s not a big attention-grabbing “Look what we can do with light effects!” moment but rather a seamless part of the presentation. And in regards to sound… well, I can’t do it justice. Everything just works. M2 Browning machine guns clank and cough their way through their ammo belts, gunshots at a distance actually pop like they’re supposed to instead of sounding like canon fire, and even the voice acting is authentic. This may be the only time you’ll ever hear me defend widespread profanity in a game. These are US Marines in combat situations and when a .50 caliber slug rips through a wall in front of you I think an “OH, F*CK!” is actually warranted.

Yeah. It’s pretty.

But there are problems with the multiplayer, as well. Or, more accurately, there are widespread issues with the game that affect multiplayer along with the main game. First of all, while the game does indeed look beautiful most of the time, it does occasionally suffer from a few graphical hiccups. Object clipping and screen tearing is not uncommon, and it can get very distracting to see half of a soldier lying on the ground when his body falls between two separate frames that end up in the same screen draw. Framerate issues are also widespread, and certain areas of the game can slow to the approximate speed of a powerpoint presentation. Of course, this will only ever happen when there’s alot of stuff going on around you so you’re almost guaranteed to end up dead a few times during these dips when an enemy soldier seemingly teleports behind you because the game was unable to display his movement path while your framerate stuttered like Jimmy Stewart.

Finally, I need to address an issue that has been remedied at least for the most part by now, but is still a point of consternation for myself and many others. A little over a month ago, DICE and EA released an open beta for Battlefield 3. While I enjoyed it well enough, it undeniably had a stink about it. For starters, the beta build was apparently something like seven months old at the time. Not only was it positively rife with strange glitches that allowed prone enemies to lapse into a “corpse” pose and gave shotgun blasts the knockback power of a decent-sized bus, but it featured only one level which was painfully linear and displayed no vehicular combat, which is a major selling point for the Battlefield franchise. Needless to say, this made a few longtime Battlefield fans… irate. There were the typical cries of “Battlefield is dead” and “I will not buy this game” from the kind of so-called “fans” the video game industry seems to have fostered somehow in recent years, though if recent sales figures are any indication I think it’s safe to assume that most of these kids gave in and bought the game anyway.

I have no qualms about shooting this

So by releasing an old, unsatisfactory build the beta arguably failed in one of the key reasons for releasing a beta: to build marketing hype. People talked about the beta, to be sure, but it wasn’t generally positive talk. So that leaves the other major factor that a beta is meant to address: user data. DICE/EA claimed that they were aware that the build was outdated and that the beta’s purpose was principally to get an indication of how many people would be playing the game so they could adequately prepare their servers. Well, given my experience with the game over the first few days, I’d say they screwed that up pretty good, too.

On launch day, there should have been more than enough data indicating what the server-side people would have to do in order to be ready. But by approximately three o’clock that afternoon the servers suffered a complete shutdown. Nobody could play. The day after, servers were back up but doing a dismal job at actually managing the flow of player traffic. About three out of every four games I attempted to connect to lost connection to the server before I could join play. And in about half of the games I did successfully join, my friends were booted back to the main menu, caught in an eternal loading screen, or plagued with a complete console lock-up. It was about 15 minutes before we successfully got all three of us into a game together (and on the same team, thanks to the auto-balancing feature that often seems to split up people in the same party).

Pictured: Battlefield 3 server room

I’ll admit that I expected server troubles on the first day, but that doesn’t make it excusable. This same problem plagued the last two Battlefield launches as well, and Electronic Arts had the data that should have given them ample information to prepare. Yet the whole launch ground to an absolute halt anyway. This is, to quote a friend, “pretty f***ing bull****, man”. Even now, with the bulk of the problem mostly resolved, I still experience far too many “failed to connect to server” messages when trying to jump in for a quick round or two. If I were writing this review on the day the game actually launched, then I would not have been able to recommend it at all because it simply didn’t work. On day one, it was an unplayable mess. Now it works again, and it’s a blast, but don’t think we’ve forgotten how much you screwed up here, EA. This is just bad business.

All in all Battlefield 3 is a very polarizing game for me. It showed me that I could have fun with online games, and even be good at them. I’ve already sunk quite a few hours into the multiplayer and will likely keep coming back to it for a long, long time. But it’s also an exercise in frustration when it comes to actually joining any of those games and trying to keep your squad together. Additional bugs and glitches can further impede your game and there are always plenty of jerks who are all too eager to run down their own teammates with an Abrams tank. If you were looking for a single phrase to define Battlefield 3 then it would be this: Fun but flawed. Luckily for us, the fun is generally enough to outweigh the flaws and can even keep you coming back for more. With luck, this should hold me over until the next game on my list comes a-callin’.

In February.

I need to find more stuff to write about.

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2 thoughts on “REVIEW: Battlefield 3

  1. Are you playing on the xbox? It seems like 360 users are having the most trouble with online.

    That said, I haven't had any issues with MP on the PS3 or PC aside from two server drops (both on the PS3).

    Anyways, great review – I think it sums up the game rather well and it's lived up to a lot of the hype. But considering it's been nearly seven years since the last proper Battlefied, I guess that's to be expected.

  2. This is indeed the 360 version of the game I'm referring to here, I probably should have made that more clear. And I know we most certainly have gotten hit worse than players on other platforms, likely due to EA's insistence on using their own servers instead of those provided by Microsoft. I haven't checked to see if they have a similar contract with Sony.

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