The challenge of a first-person shooter is the same title from title. Put your crosshairs over the enemy soldiers and pull the trigger. The speed at which you can accomplish this task represents your aptitude in this particular branch of game. It’s odd that this simple and repetitive action could make up the foundation of the most popular genre of this generation. It led me to believe the most compelling aspect of any FPS lies more in its aesthetic quality as opposed to its mechanical quality.
How wrong I was.
Having never engaged fully with a Battlefield game in the past, I was led to assume the strict topography of modern combat FPS games was resigned to the sad and staid blueprint originally drafted by Call of Duty 4; and in many ways, Battlefield 3 does exactly that. In a similar fashion to CoD 4 you begin your campaign in the dusty boots of an American soldier on the hunt for desert dwelling extremists. As you progress, the story navigates its way though missing nuclear warheads, covert conspiracies and nondescript villains with biblical surnames until the fairly tame finale which sees private jarhead saving Times Square from another overtly generic apocalypse.
Whether you’ll like the campaign depends on how many Iraq based war film/television shows you’ve enjoyed/grown weary of in the past ten years. Green Zone, The Hurt Locker, Generation Kill, even back to Three Kings; they’re all in there somewhere coughing tango-talk over radio bursts or cursing as long range rifle rounds clang off armour plating. Whether you want to call it theft or homage, it does build towards a believable level of atmosphere albeit; not something that is either comfortable or charming, but war is neither of those things.
The campaign is short, disappointing and bland. Its limited range is compounded by the lack of any real emotional impact from the characters and whilst the core mechanics are very well presented, the layout and structure of the levels forces your hand when deciding on strategy. In many ways, the campaign feels like an awkward introduction to the superb multiplayer mode.
Far from having the most variables in a FPS multiplayer, Battlefield 3 has added a great sense of depth and stratagem to its fairly meagre number of play modes. Far removed from the twitch-shot reaction tactics of Call of Duty, Battlefield relies more on the range and breadth of a conflict zone to add scope to the many different styles of player interaction.
That’s really the main ethos of the multiplayer, although it’s not specifically depended upon and more assumed. Simple team deathmatches are focussed and taut affairs that rely upon good communication and considered approaches. Having a strong awareness of your surroundings and moving between cover is as imperative as a steady aim and a good supply of RPGs. Traversing your environments becomes as integral to the experience as firing your weapon; luckily, DICE have taken into account what they have learned from Mirrors Edge, and made movement a breezy and effortless enterprise.
The true genius of Battlefield’s dynamic battlefronts only becomes fully apparent during the larger scale Rush mode. Here, your team is charged with either assaulting or defending set checkpoints on an enormous and ever evolving map. Far from focusing on actually killing anyone, it is much more important that you provide enough support and communication to launch a successful strike on a rival emplacement. This drive to constantly assist others bonds the team and creates focal points on maps that could otherwise be lost to the generous amount of open ground. Taking the time to replenish ammunition, repair transportation and launch spawn points is usually a better way to collect points than simply ‘going dark’ and parachuting into the enemy’s kill-zone.
Battlefield is in a rather unique position, in that without a strong user-base, it would be difficult to eke much joy out of the multiplayer. Whilst in team deathmatch it is possible to approach combat with very little heed to the works of Sun Tzu and come top of the leader boards with a necklace of ears as your prize, this is not at all possible in some of the more refined modes. I’ve played some games where everyone has a headset and everyone knows what they are supposed to be doing, but on the flipside, I’ve had games sided with eleven idiots who resembled a ragtag collective of Serious Sam enthusiasts.
Despite my early concerns, I’m sure the suicidal aerial acrobatics and Duck Hunt style formation parachuting displays will cease as time passes and the more refined process of disposing of the enemy in the most resolute and clinical fashion will take centre stage. Battlefield 3 gives us both the tools and the scope to accomplish victory whichever way you see fit, but ultimately good planning and patience will see you honest in most matches.
Many of the theatres of conflict present in the multiplayer were used at some point during the campaign. Calling them bland would not be hugely fair as they are expertly laid out and highly functional (in that they all blow up), despite this barrelling around a maze of transporter units in either a dry dock, warehouse or quarry smacks of unoriginality. The characterless features of the environment carry on in the design of both the soldiers and the weapons they carry. Whilst it would be remiss to include wildly varying rifles as balancing would become an issue, many of the guns in Battlefield 3 look and fire quite similarly. As you progress, your hardware and inventory slowly grows and becomes more user friendly, but ultimately these never serve to supplant a keen eye and a ready trigger finger.
One thing you will notice, however, is that whilst you fire your nondescript assault rifle at a generic enemy model, is that it sounds rather impressive. Muzzle cracks echo down corridors and empty casings chime from the ejection port and off nearby walls and set dressing. This only tells half the story: being shot at is far more exhilarating. White-hot parabellum tears the sound barrier just past your left ear whilst the crack and crumble of shredded plaster of Paris sprinkles your right. Somewhere between the thump of buckshot and clawing pops of small arms fire, you’ll begin to realise how integral the superb sound design is to the overall experience of Battlefield 3. It folds you into the action much more than any other aspect of the game, and it’s a shame the bland visual design isn’t as well thought out or presented as the audio.
When you consider Battlefield 3 as a complete package and evaluate its components as individual enterprises, it may not come off as favourably as you would expect. In fact, for every excellent feature, there resides an annoying bugbear that holds it back and makes you re-assess its standing. It has dynamic and engaging multiplayer, but an insipid and stupid campaign mode. It has repetitive and uninspired visuals, but alluring and uncommonly good sound design, tight controls but a staunch reliance on intelligent teammates. The list goes on.
Be that as it may, when all the components come together and you learn to love shipping containers, and can forgive the moron with the RPG dependency, Battlefield 3 provides an experience that is superbly crafted and honed towards fun and engrossing online combat. The inclusion of both destructible environments and workable vehicles are not overly relied upon, but their subtle inclusion supports the framework of a game, that, whilst not ground breaking, is both compelling and progressive.
Many will question whether Battlefield 3 will topple Call of Duty as the final word for console first person shooters. Perhaps with time and the word of mouth a shift of power will slowly take place, and it will be the simple things that Battlefield does really well that will aid this. The ability to jump out of a burning helicopter and fire off an RPG as you silently spiral towards the Earth destroying an Abrams tank and its two occupants will always sell games.
Whilst I questioned the mechanics of a game like this being the most valuable component, I am finding time and time again that when juxtaposed against the more alluring and decorative Call of Duty, I would rather spend my time prone in a ditch with my teammates on Battlefield 3. The challenge of Battlefield 3 remains the same as all the other brown/gray military shooters; what DICE have shown though is that what’s really important is how you fill the spaces in-between the shooting.