Battlefield is the real deal. The series has been around for a while, mostly existing within some exciting PC-oriented niche that employs large scale warfare in the online space. It outdates most current big name franchises by a sizeable margin and with over a decade of critical acclaim, it’s time for Battlefield to put up and find the masses or recede back into their comfortable niche, cutting in and out like so many abrasive advertising campaigns.
Up to expectations, DICE continue to specialize in the multiplayer front. Large dynamic team battles are their forte, finding the developer at their most comfortable and confident amidst all out mayhem. It would be underselling this component to say it’s at the core of Battlefield 3’s appeal, but match the keen vehicular madness with a compelling brand of teamwork, and you’re most of the way there.
Plot all of this onto over-sized, yet highly populated maps and the bigger picture comes into focus: the chaos of it all – the excesses, the massive expanses – are all there for immersion. At any point, you’re surrounded by unique battle scenarios (air, land, and sea), that reward a plan. Existing at this tipping point between meaningful engagement and online anarchy, Battlefield 3 usually finds its way. On consoles, Battlefield 3 undercuts itself, providing 24-player online in place of 64-player on the PC, while maps are hedged shorter cautiously to better suit the smaller scale. On occasion bigger maps come across empty and the smaller ones over-crowded, showing the inefficiency of modern consoles, though they’re still graciously balanced most of the time.
As battles play out, the game does a wonderful job of conveying constant feedback and visual cues. Rather than relying on kill-cams, so much of the feedback’s given with a kind of Valve-like penchant for design. Unless you’re eviscerated from the rear, you’ll typically know why you’re going to die before it happens. Never does it dissolve into a pattern of twitch-based reflexes. New additions such as glare from sniper-rifles help to prevent camping, telegraphing an enemy’s location before they ever get that shot off. On the flip-side, offensive additions including flashlights and high-powered laser sights allow players to blind the competition (or their teammates).
Despite being scaled back some for consoles, maps like Caspian Border and Operation Firestorm remain surprisingly expansive, with the latter holding a vivid, albeit diffused color scheme – an aesthetic informed by the large plumes of smoke rolling into the clouds and the lovely desert environs. The downside being that it’s perhaps too easy to get pulled away from the battlefield to go four-wheeling over the large sand dunes, or on an extended helicopter tour, and while the maps are still more balanced than one might expect, even with the cut content, there’s a feeling of dry areas on these maps, spots where not much happens. What makes this all right is the idea that, unlike most shooters, there’s rarely a battle over specific vantage points. While both aforementioned areas hit those marks, I find the more truncated, infantry-driven ones like Operation Metro and the Grand Bazaar to be much less fitting in the context of the game.
Two of the best new additions to Battlefield 3 alone ought to justify the update for series fans: having assists weighted by the amount of damage done and having a neutral state between flag captures. Perhaps the latter is the more significant, resulting in point bonuses for bringing the capture state to neutral, and best of all, not resetting to the enemy control if you do happen to get wiped out.
Co-op pales in comparison to the competitive multiplayer and is unexceptional. The missions are relatively forgettable, though the incentive to keep playing may be off-set by the fact that you’re unlocking weapons based on high scores. So it’s essentially that: a generally scripted sampling of some things that are worth playing before jumping into the pure multiplayer. The co-op consists of only a handful of missions, with most of the context presented through chunks of text. Inoffensive and DICE could’ve done worse, but it’s a nice start. What would be of more value, however, is a full-on co-op campaign integrating the focus of squad-focused gameplay.
Split onto the second disc is Battlefield 3’s ten hour “tutorial”. It’s probably better than it knows or even wants to be. The feeling is that Battlefield 3 always wants to do the popular thing but takes a sharp turn at exactly the right moment and vies for something more realistic. In one sequence, an AI partner stands in front of a window, signaling suggestively. Try jumping through it! So I run full sprint, fully expecting some overdone slow motion sequence. Instead, I fell straight into the dumpster below.
These are Battlefield 3’s best moments and occasionally its worst. Apropos of nothing, there’s a sequence in a fighter jet in the middle of the game with the most intense buildup while you’re in the plane, testing all the buttons inside. The tutorial sequence is the climax. And the actual mission – despite being one of the most visually impressive of the game – is missing the point, leaving you to do the rail-gunning while AI flies the plane. It’s a sensible decision, really, but is really only mitigated by the game’s unwieldy flight controls. Playing the co-op helicopter mission with randoms – after about 10 attempts – it becomes clear just how few people really understand how to fly Battlefield’s aircraft.
The campaign’s a collection of borrowed set pieces and story elements lifted from most modern shooters and military traditions. Although it’ll unfortunately be overlooked for the multiplayer by most of the community, there’s enough to like and it cuts away from purely mimicking other shooters just long enough to show a different, better perspective.
Written with a terse militant voice, the story doesn’t take us anywhere new, leading through New York, Iran, Paris, etc., before coming full circle. The conflict is about some fictionalized modern nuclear war with the Russians. The characters more closely resemble actual soldiers than most games and while never made to be unpatriotic or overtly emotional, it’s occasionally clear they’d rather be doing other things. Not everyone is necessarily excited about war or America – most are stable, strongly voiced characters; though none are given enough time to develop much of an attachment for.
If nothing else, Battlefield 3’s audio is representative of war in the most jarring, nearly tactile feel possible. It is the essential thing that sets the game apart. For most games, just shut off the volume and it makes no impact. Be advised, with Battlefield 3, you’ll be missing all types of helpful squad commands and crucial contextual sound effects. Turn up the volume and put your sound system through its paces, this is one of the only games that really justifies that deep audio setup.
As Battlefield continues to become more gritty and marketable, it’s lost some of the fun that was perhaps last evident in Battlefield 1943. Most of that color’s washed out and nothing’s lighthearted. Rules of engagement have shifted towards an emphasis on individualizing stats (through the newly featured Battlelog), and there’s much less emphasis on playing as a team. It’s too bad, because while the series’ identity has become more individualized in terms of its presentation, the actual experience is of the same cloth: the team comes first and even if you’re not killing anyone, as long as you’re making an effort, you’ll place well on the team.
More recently, deaths started being counted in match and Team Deathmatch has been added. This represents a shift for the series, with DICE having gone outside their wheelhouse and working on the things they’re not necessarily the best at, but look good on the back of a box (“real-as-hell single-player”, for one). But this has always been a niche series, more interesting when it goes against the grain than with it. Perhaps Battlefield Heroes could be used as justification for going the other way. What’s most surprising about Battlefield 3 is that even the things that are assumed to be poor are at least tolerable, if not conflicting with the scope of the multiplayer. Regardless, this is a well-focused shooter in almost every other respect and there’s something to be said for realizing the need for broad appeal without losing touch with the past.
All said, Battlefield’s still very good at being Battlefield.