Battlefield 3 MP Preview: Final Days of Beta
Playing the beta test of a DICE game is a test of your patience and sanity, especially if you're a picky and easily-annoyed player like me. I spent quite a few hours with the Battlefield 3 beta on PC coming off of putting at least a few hundred hours into Battlefield: Bad Company 2 over the last 18 months, and while I'm generally very impressed and excited for the final release of the game, I'm a little concerned, too. I may not care about whether my field of view is just right or whether mouse acceleration is on - I can adjust to "wrong" settings in either situation, and admittedly the game has settings for both of these particular things - but I do like a rather obscure control configuration that the BF3 beta made a real challenge to set up.
Just setting up things like display options and controls in BF3 is a huge pain in the ass, mostly because you can only change these settings while you're on a server, in the game, and alive. If you die, the game actually closes the configuration menus so you can watch your soldier's glorious transition to ragdoll physics, and you can't open them again until you've respawned. We've heard that this is fixed in the final game, but we've heard that a lot of bugs players have seen in the beta - screwy character models, problems with aiming down the sight, clipping through the ground, flickering, and a myriad of technical problems - are either fixed already or will be fixed in time for Battlefield 3's October 25th release date.
But this is a DICE game, and we know better, don't we?
I don't want to sit here and just talk trash about DICE, as they have made some of the most ridiculously fun multiplayer games ever made, and I've clocked in many, many hours starting back in 2002's Battlefield 1942, but let's face it: DICE has made some pretty bug-ridden games. Often two bugfixes come at the cost of a new bug getting introduced, and only after months and months of post-release patching could some of their games be considered really ready for the bigtime. But that doesn't stop us from playing, because these games are highly ambitious and exceedingly fun to play.
And it's the same with Battlefield 3. I held off on writing a preview until I was able to get in a good several hours of uninterrupted time with the 64-player Caspian Border map, because I felt like Operation Metro, with its smaller player limit and lack of vehicles, didn't really capture what makes Battlefield games so fun. Operation Metro gave us all of the bugs and none of the wide-open spaces or mixed infantry and ground/air vehicle war. So with the opening of Caspian Border in these final days of Battlefield 3's open beta, I readied Autohotkey (macroing software that I used to put my "aim" key on the spacebar) and Logitech drivers with Uberoptions modification (to put "walk forward" on my right mouse button - hey, that was the default option for mouse controls back in Doom, before WASD was even invented!), then spent about 20 minutes getting killed while trying to rebind the rest of the beta's dozens of key settings. After two hours of fiddling with control settings, I was ready to play.
I then managed to die in about 20 hilariously awful ways without a single kill. Wow, skills brought over from Bad Company 2 might apply at some point, but not immediately, that's for sure. Eventually, I got the hang of it, and was able to start eking out a kill here, a point capture there, and by the time that the last day of beta hit, I was able to hang with the rest of the guys, plugging tanks with the RPG launcher in my preferred Engineer kit, quietly and quickly taking out whole squads of unaware enemy soldiers, and bringing down helicopters from the machine gun on the top of a tank.
Origin is EA's distribution platform that, as of this writing, is still going to be the only way to launch Battlefield 3, and it needs a lot of work to even start to compete with more mature platforms like Steam. Beyond that, Battlefield 3 has no main menu structure; you play the game through Battlelog that runs in your browser, so there's another possible point of failure. To me, it might have been better to put a Steam-like web page interface into Origin and operate Battlelog from there, as now EA and DICE have to essentially also deal with support issues for every major web browser, along with Origin, along with the game itself. Anyway, connections to game servers is done from the web, then control is given to the game, but with the odd DirectX error, fullscreen-switching issue, alt-tab problem, and more, I found that this process was just needlessly difficult.
Sure, switching between servers may require you to close the game, swap back to the browser, then restart it once you pick a new one, but it doesn't take much more time than if the game had a standard main menu and in-game server browser. But I have to ask: what, exactly, are the benefits of all this? Everything that's done through Battlelog on the web could have been done through the same Battlelog system inside the game, too. Overall, I think that the idea of launching a game from a browser is gutsy, but if we're just launching a huge, monolithic client the same old way anyway, why bother with the separate interface? On the plus side, all of these issues melt away once you're comfortably on a server, all your options are set, and you're killing fools left and right. Getting there is a challenge, but it feels worth it once you're in-game.
I should also point out that while Battlefield 3 looks quite nice on consoles, the PC is where this game is at home. To get silky-smooth action at 60 frames per second and the kind of visuals that EA and DICE have been showing us in trailers, you're going to need a pretty solid PC for this; a gaming rig that can only barely muddle through Fallout: New Vegas isn't likely going to cut it. The alternative is on consoles where the hardware costs you a fraction of what a solid gaming PC would, but over there, 24 players is the most you can get into a game and 30fps is the smoothest action you're going to get,
Many hardcore Battlefield veterans will immediately point at those last two stastistics as the reason for why the core experience will undoubtedly be compromised on consoles, but I can't say I agree, because I feel like vehicles, teamplay, and the tension of both Rush and Conquest gameplay modes are the important parts (rather than player count, mouse-based controls, and frame rates), and those are perfectly intact on consoles. It's not as good as on PC, sure, but if the alternative is to not play at all - or to play a decidedly different military shooter that's coming out late this year - then no, I won't be steering people away from BF3 on 360 or PS3 if those are their only choices.
As BF3's beta winds down, I find myself thoroughly hyped and excited for the game, although I'm also wary of how this is all going to go down on launch day. I found that the 64-player servers performed well enough, sure, but piles of bugs remained and even if DICE does address every single one of them, it's reasonable considering the company's history that not all of them will actually be fixed - they may manifest in different ways or at different times, and new bugs will almost surely appear. Of course, just like with past Battlefield games, we'll all be playing anyway, because the alternative is, well, Call of Duty.
Now, there's nothing wrong with Activision's yearly franchise. It does exactly what it sets out to do, which is to supply gamers with a lighthearted multiplayer experience that's all about aiming your gun and moving quickly, learning tight and small multiplayer maps and hitting all possible angles with your guns. But Battlefield brings in a much more ambitious and large-scale style of play with hard counters, often-overpowering vehicles, a critical dependence on teamplay, and less of the kind of attention-deficit play where you can spawn, kill, and die repeatedly in just a five-second span. I don't begrudge anyone for playing Modern Warfare 3 exclusively for their online FPS experience this fall, but I'm not eighteen anymore, and my reaction time isn't what it used to be. For a game that still gives me fast gun-on-gun action but tempers it with tactics, vehicles, and teamwork, Battlefield 3 is going to be my game of choice this year.
If you agree with that assessment and don't mind dealing with DICE's happy-go-lucky approach to dealing with bugs and issues, join me on October 25th.