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Battlefield 3 Preview

By Jeff Buckland, 3/16/2011

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At GDC earlier this month, EA did a world premiere event showing off in-game action for their upcoming flagship first person shooter, Battlefield 3. Developer DICE insists that the PC version is the "lead" version of the game, and our demo was indeed played on a PC - with a mouse and keyboard, even.

What we saw was part of the story-based single player campaign taking place in 2014. DICE only really started doing true single player stories with the Bad Company spinoffs, but admittedly, they have been a blast to play. This is a new story, though: you play as Staff Sergeant Black, an American soldier in Iraq, on the Iranian border. A new group of terrorists called the PRL have started to launch coordinated attacks, and the player's mission in this demo was to find a squad that had gone missing. It was in three main sections, the first of which showed the PRL launching an ambush on the squad, with the player ducking behind cars and sliding around to flank the enemy (on his own, not as part of some scripted requirement) and take out a good ten to twenty enemies. A sniper, overhead, takes out one of the player's squadmates right next to him - and then it's time to drag the poor guy out of the line of fire, even has he's spurting blood on the ground.

Eventually, the player makes it into a building to try and defuse a bomb. Tracing the wires, he finds the device, but before he finished defusing it, he's, well, "interrupted" by an enemy insurgent. A melee brawl ensues, with Black getting the upper hand, pulling a Muay Thai clinch, and delivering a knee to the face that knocks out his enemy. After that, defusal is quick. It was hard to tell, but I don't think any of this was delivered with Quick Time Events, and frankly, I'm of the opinion that pretty much every QTE would be better if the button prompts were just removed entirely and the cutscene went as normal - even in first person. So if that really is the case, then I'm happy.

We skipped forward to a scene on the rooftops where the player is forced to deal with that same sniper from earlier. He's in one of the rooms in a high-rise hotel, and he's keeping the player's squad pinned down. Building destruction played a heavy part in this scene, as it's difficult to counter-snipe someone who's already established in a good nest. One solution is to go heavy, and that's exactly what happened in this demo. While staying behind cover of a low wall, Black crawled, grabbed an RPG launcher, and exposed himself for a second to fire it at the face of this rather tall hotel, into one of the windows, blowing out a ton of the concrete and trashing the front of the building quite nicely. The sniper was toast.

The next scene joined a battle out in the streets, with tons of soldiers and armor, all in a huge firefight that looked amazingly sharp, with explosions and gunfire flying around all over the place. After the player takes out a ton of enemies while ducking the heavy armor that the PRL started to bring, the demo ended with a rumble as an earthquake hits the city, and one of the skyscrapers comes toppling towards the player.

We've seen building destruction tech before. Red Faction: Guerrilla did it well, but that game didn't really have the large-scale team battles that some people were looking for. The Battlefield: Bad Company games had the first Frostbite engine's building destruction, but it had some limitations and quirks to it, like only being able to destroy external walls and angled parts of some roofs - internal ceilings, floors, and walls were indestructible, and when enough damage was done to the exterior, the game decided the building would collapse entirely. And it's hard to tell here whether the new Frostbite engine fixes this - after all, this was a highly-scripted chunk of single player action - but it would surely make an important difference in how the game's played.

One thing that's on a lot of PC gamers' minds is whether DICE really means it when they say PC is the "lead platform" for Battlefield 3, seeing as it's been a few years now since that's really been true for the franchise. After seeing this live demo, I can tell you right now that it's very unlikely this was built on console first and then slapped onto the PC, because the effects, polygon counts, and texture quality we saw are only possible on a top-notch modern PC. The tech looks fantastic, the destruction was on a massive scale, and the action was slick. Now, the question isn't whether DICE is going to "upscale" this game from the console to the PC; it's whether they can downscale it from the PC to get it running on consoles.

The trademark Bad Company sense of humor that happily seeped its way into so much of those two games seems gone in Battlefield 3 - for now. I wasn't surprised or amazed one bit with the actual shooting and story, as this was a classic tale of playing toy soldier in a big video game war. It's well-treaded ground and it doesn't look like, from a thematic point of view, DICE is going too far out of bounds. I fully anticipate a campaign that's five or six hours long - the new standard for FPS games, it seems - and full of Rambo goofiness. I think we can expect things like ducking behind a convenient waist-high concrete barrier for a couple of seconds to regenerate health, waves of dark-skinned dudes with AKs popping out from behind cover to fire off an inaccurate burst, RPG-carriers on the rooftops and balconies, the abilty to shoot the hood of a car and have the whole car magically explode, and all the stereotypical trappings of a war-themed first person shooter that's set in the modern day. Considering the recent success of these games, it seems silly right now, at least in a single player mode, to even try anything different.

Where DICE seems to be innovating is in the production values and technology, and hopefully these innovations can be brought over into the multiplayer arena properly to make huge battles seem bigger and more hard-hitting than we've ever seen. Even though we saw an important snippet of what Battlefield 3 has to offer, the game's true target audience has a while to wait to see anything they're really interested in. Battlefield 3 hits PC and consoles at the end of 2011, and we hope to see plenty more action in the coming months.



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