Battlefield and Call of Duty were never meant to be rivals. Yet here we are – the biggest multi-player shooters of the year are releasing practically head to head, with marketing campaigns so aggressive you’d think the top brass from Activision and EA were literally butting heads. It’s strange to see how far Battlefield has come from its early days as the wonky PC-exclusive upstart (the same beginnings of Call of Duty, no less), especially given the hordes of people now playing the game on consoles vs. the PC crowd. Old holdouts will nonetheless find plenty to prefer about the PC version – for one, the insane graphics are even crazier, and the prospect of playing with 64 people (as opposed to 24) feels much more… well, it feels like Battlefield.
But is Battlefield 3 really Battlefield? Huge maps, teamwork, vehicles, etc.? Unfortunately for newcomers interested in the single-player, the campaign doesn’t think so. The campaign is Call of Duty, and a poor imitator at that. Sure, the ingredients are there: a highly cinematic presentation, a story full of twists and betrayals, context-sensitive events up the ying-yang, and of course, shooting dudes who pop up in front of you. Unfortunately, Battlefield 3 does these things badly, with none of the finesse of Call of Duty. Say what you will about this kind of gameplay, but there’s a clear difference between doing highly-scripted action games well and whatever goes on in Battlefield 3. In fact, the grandeur of the game’s visuals often stifles any excitement that could possibly be drained from it – only allowing you to man the gunner’s seat in a fighter jet has got to be one of the worst cases of blue balls a video game has ever given. A quick-time event in which our hero stabs an angry rat in a sewer pipe comes across as borderline parody, but if it is meant to be a joke, it comes at the expense of the game being any fun.
Chances are, mercifully, most people are coming to this game for the online experience. Battlefield 3 takes place in a vaguely contemporary world, which means modern weapons and vehicles and locations. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before, but it’s also the best we’ve ever seen in many regards – everything is shockingly beautiful on a capable computer, and the scale of many of the multi-player maps is breathtaking. The presentation is impressive enough to allay any fears of the game simply following the Call of Duty lockstep. Granted, Battlefield 2 was doing present day multi-player combat before it was cool, but Battlefield 3 has been poised so belligerently as a competitor to Activision’s military series that comparison is hard to avoid.
Of course, the actual game is nothing like Call of Duty, so any comparisons of the multi-player that go beyond marketing are apples and oranges. Battlefield 3 is, at its best, slow-paced and methodical, filled with bursts of intense action that are far more exciting than anything in previous games in the series. On the bigger maps like Caspian Border and Operation Firestorm, games of Conquest (the standard capture-and-hold mode) are determined by squads who work together to drive tanks, or capture flags with coordinated assaults, or skilled helicopter pilots who can harass the enemy team – or, on the flip side, the engineers who can keep aircraft at bay with missiles.
Unfortunately, there are quite a few kinks that need ironing out. For every Conquest game that takes advantage of a huge map, there are matches of Conquest that try and jam players into a map clearly balanced for Rush, the more controlled attack-and-defend mode that focuses the action in smaller areas. Operation Metro, a fine map for Rush, is completely broken in Conquest mode, funneling 64 people into a subway tunnel that always turns into the most boring meat grinder imaginable. Likewise, Rush games can be entirely uninteresting on wide open Conquest maps, limiting players to small sections of sprawling vistas. Luckily, searching for a server with agreeable settings is a snap, so these problems are avoidable. Most of the multi-player is golden, and is hugely enhanced by the presentation.
The graphics and sound are, in a word, breathtaking. Not only is each map incredibly detailed; it comes apart with just as much detail. Firefights leave debris everywhere, and on a powerful PC, the results can be phenomenal. The system requirements are a little steep, but the game scales fairly well, too – and unlike many recent PC games, a proper options menu is included, so tweaking settings to get a perfect balance between looks and frame rate is possible. Sound, however, is where the game truly shines, outdoing even the top-class visual design. The gunfire in Battlefield 3 is harsh, loud, and constantly being affected by the environment – a fight in an alleyway and a fight in the middle of an open desert are going to sound completely different, and the filtering is even a step above Battlefield: Bad Company 2 – a game that already received heaps of praise for its atmospheric sound design. The sound even stands as a positive part of the dull campaign – Battlefield 3‘s soundtrack ditches the typical Hollywood strings for minimalist electronic beats, with dashes of 80’s synth over the top. It’s a completely bizarre choice, but it really sets the game’s presentation apart from other games that use the same setting.
The last PC-centric thing that bears mentioning is Battlelog, the Facebook-esque service that replaces the frontend of Battlefield 3. It’s a curious feature, and while it usually works, it has a frustrating tendency to launch the game into a blank screen (or not at all, as the many people complaining about crashes on the official forums would have us know). The game lacks any sort of server browser within its own menus, and while Battlelog is certainly effective as a social tool – adding friends to games is a snap – it means simple things like disconnecting from a server to find a different one require closing the entire game, not to mention the fact that playing Battlefield 3 effectively requires two separate programs (EA’s Origin service and a web browser) before the game itself even starts. Battlelog isn’t necessarily bad, but it’s definitely worth bringing up, even though it doesn’t really have anything to do with Battlefield 3 itself.
On its own terms, Battlefield 3 is an odd beast. On the one hand, it features some of the most engaging multi-player available this year, warts and all. On the other hand, it sports one of the most insipid and boring single-player modes around – oh yeah, there’s co-op too, but that isn’t really worth playing either. What to do? If you’re part of the majority of fans who just want to skip straight into the online modes, there’s no question: Battlefield 3 is stellar. The same can’t be said for the rest of the package, so people uninterested in internet warfare would be best advised to stay away. Despite the extra flak, though, Battlefield 3 remains a thoroughly compelling game with one of the most awe-inspiring presentations in gaming history.