E3 2011 Preview: Battlefield 3
EA is coming out swinging this year. They know that Activision is going out pretty far on a limb with this year's Call of Duty - it's not made by the same key creators of the series like the previous Modern Warfare games were, and now Activision's planning on charging a monthly fee for the highest level of extra features for pro gamers, and even though few actually will want or need those features, gamers are not receptive to the idea. EA is going to try and capitalize on this confusion and vague feeling of betrayal as they launch Battlefield 3, an ambitious first person shooter that embraces much of what made past games in the franchise so fun. All of it runs on Frostbite 2.0, the latest version of their engine for delivering building destruction and wide-open vehicle warfare on a scale that Call of Duty's aging technology simply can't hang with.
It's a bit strange, though, basing your whole marketing strategy and even some fairly major parts of your feature set on what another developer is making, but it's not that odd once you realize that the game you're competing with is one of the best-selling franchises in gaming history. Still, after having gone hands on with Battlefield 3's multiplayer mode, I'm much more excited for DICE's teamplay than the frantic pace (run-kill-die-spawn-kill-kill-die, all in six seconds) that Call of Duty's online play often devolves into. Battlefield 3, much like its predecessors, values teamwork over tight-knit quarters, selfish play and instant gratification, and it requires teams to work together in ways that a twitchy tweener is going to have to get used to. But once they grow into this style of cooperation, the pure cooperative-fueled satisfaction that Battlefield's online play offers is far more rewarding than a few golden-skinned guns or ridiculous killstreak rewards could ever be. (I doubt Modern Warfare 3 will rest entirely on the laurels of number two, but it's surely nothing like BF3.)
We played on a map set in Paris, as we fought our way east to take back several landmarks the Russians had captured. This was a Rush-mode map, so we had to capture two points at a time, then move up to the new base, a total of four times to win. It wasn't really a vehicle-centric map, but there was an armored vehicle with a cannon on it - still, the fights happened mostly on foot as we went into the Paris subways and tunnels, re-emerged into the light, and went back underground.
The classes have changed just a tad since DICE's last release, Bad Company 2. There are four classes, and the Engineer and Recon classes are mostly unchanged but with a few new abilities. Now, the regular Soldier is gone, and the Medic has kind of taken his place, while there's now a Support gunner class that doles out the ammo and uses light machine guns (hand-held or on the bipod) to suppress and kill enemies. The support gunner's suppressing fire feature is interesting here, as the game doesn't just randomly give you points for firing near enemies in multiplayer; sustained fire will actually reduce enemy effectiveness in combat and the game detects when you've done that successfully, only giving you points when it's been detected that you've done your job.
We played this demo on high-powered PCs with mice and keyboards, and the game (along with the revamped Frostbite engine) look fantastic. The lighting is superb both inside and outside, the destruction is better than ever, and the frame rate and scope of the maps are very solid, too. One interesting new feature we learned about is the customizable dogtags. Now, you set up graphics and your favorite stat for your soldier's dogtag, and when someone melee-kills you to take your dogtag, they'll see the design and stat that you set for it. It will even dynamically change based on what you set as your favorite, and for everyone that has your dogtag in their collection, the numbers and stats self-update automatically.
We also got to see some hard-hitting single player action out in the outskirts of Tehran. This tank-heavy mission has you driving, gunning, and even switching screens inside the tank to mark targets for gunships. The smoke effects were the most realistic I've seen in a game and the battle was really intense with a lot of firepower being thrown around, yet it didn't feel so over-the-top like Call of Duty does. It was heart-pounding and exciting, but it wasn't so full of action in all areas of the screen that it became numbing; if there was one thing I'd fault Modern Warfare 3's campaign with, it's that the action they've shown out-Michael Bays Michael Bay himself.
But that distinction may not matter much, as the multiplayer is where we'll all be after what I'm sure will likely be an explosive five-to-eight-hour campaign. Online, Battlefield 3 shines - and it's even better than its direct predecessor, BF2, as it enables the soldier classes to work together even more closely than before, and the Rush mode doesn't spread everyone out on a map so evenly. Now, you're likely to actually have 20 or 30 people all trying to attack and defend one point at the same time.
While I'll likely have a good dose of fun with the ridiculous-yet-enjoyable campaign in this year's Call of Duty, I'll probably be spending a lot more time playing Battlefield 3's online mode due to its increased focus on teamplay and tactics. DICE already has a great-looking product on their hands, and they are opening it up to everyone this coming September, just short of the October 25th release date. It's at home on the PC, but the footage we've seen of the console versions looks fantastic too, especially considering that the 360 will be nearly six years old by the time BF3 hits stores.