Battlefield 3 Review
Battlefield 3 is as much as sequel to the PC-exclusive Battlefield 2 as it is to developer DICE's more recent console-friendly first person shooters, the Battlefield: Bad Company series. I say that not because there are any kind of plots being merged or anything - after all, the original BF2 was basically multiplayer-only anyway - but because the developers are trying to merge in what worked so great in both games' design philosophies. Battlefield 3 borrows just as much from its namesake predecessor as the side-quels that were created while EA tried to figure out how to bring DICE's trademark gameplay to the masses, and while there are a few rough spots here and there, the end result does feel like it mostly lives up to that goal.
Of course, it also borrows heavily from its competition, which is Activision's Call of Duty series. Sure, the Battlefield series moved the setting to the modern day first - nearly two and a half years before CoD4: Modern Warfare was released - but I think you'll find that in the campaign, the tight, linear structure of the action and the situations the protagonists find themselves in are all heavily influenced by those other guys' games that now make well over a billion dollars a year. But if you're going to borrow from someone, at least borrow from the successful guys, right?
Battlefield 3's campaign is one of those time-twisting things where (stop me if you've heard this one) a decorated veteran soldier with a somewhat iffy service record sits in a chair, being yelled at and commanded by a hostile interrogator to recall past events about some huge impending danger. He remembers battles leading up to that moment, then at some point the interrogation ends and the game busts into real time for the final act where many lives are at stake. Other than a few twists and some unique and memorable scenes, Battlefield 3 follows that same formula, but I don't fault DICE for this at all, because it's a great way to set up an interesting mystery and pop around between viewpoints in a larger, time-spanning conflict.
The action in the campaign works pretty much exactly like you'd expect a game trying to out-gun Call of Duty would do. We get the same slick action, same squad members who have terrible aim so that you can get most of the kills, about the same number of hits that can be taken before you go down, same health regeneration, and that same sense of urgency where even though you're very rarely on an actual timer, the game rushes you through everything and then purposely has to make a huge deal about slowing down when it expects you to do so. Now, every military shooter seems to take place in the modern day, and we're building up those tropes that you now see coming a mile away because you've played this before a million times. (Fallen buddies, sniper levels, tank levels, insubordination, friendly fire, and an overuse of gung-ho Army phrases come to mind.) Most of those same stereotypes of setting, style, action, and characters are reproduced excruciatingly perfectly in Battlefield 3. I'm not sick of yet, but I will be very, very soon.
One thing that Battlefield 3 delivers in its single player campaign is world-class visuals. Sure, there's probably a few too many things obscuring your soldier's view - those shimmers and glares look amazing but get annoying after a while - but it all helps build an atmosphere that is unique and looks quite realistic. Most of this comes down to the lighting and reflections, as the boys at DICE not only know their reworked Frostbite 2 engine very well, but they know how to play with light and art to put it to its best use. OK, a some of that manages to get compromised on PS3 and Xbox 360, where you have to do a hard drive install just to avoid seeing some of this generation's blurriest and ugliest textures (and instead have them replaced with only mildly impressive substitutes), but I think most modern gamers can handle a fairly modestly-sized mandatory install in this day and age. One thing I want to point out is that BF3 runs at a pretty consistent 30fps on consoles and you're going to need a decent gaming rig to make the PC version sing, but it's worth it - this is one of the best looking games ever made, and the eye candy is glorious at 1920x1080 or higher resolution at 60fps. If you're thinking of getting this game on PC to show off the beastly power of your new $2000 machine, then Battlefield 3 is the game to get this fall.
But that's just in the graphics department. The linear structure to the campaign often leaves you with only one survivable path in most enemy encounters, and the brain-dead AI with its near-perfect aim means that some firefights quickly become exercises in frustration where you're essentially finding the solution to a puzzle. Whereas I feel like a good shooter's single player campaign is open-ended enough to allow you to use nearly any weapon exclusively or any path through a level and still be able to do equally well, Battlefield 3 punishes you for thinking outside of the box and often dictates the weapons you use and the range you fight at - with a "Mission Failed" screen serving as the result when you go outside of those boundaries. It's still a slick and fun campaign overall - and the aircraft- and vehicle-based missions are a wonderful change of pace - but some shiny surfaces and next-gen-looking lighting aren't enough to make Battlefield 3's campaign quite as good as those coming in many of this fall's amazing lineup of games.
And now it's time to talk about the multiplayer. BF3 will surely be bought by many thousands of gamers who tromp through the four-to-six-hour single player mode, shelve it, and never play it again. But those who know the Battlefield series back from the beginning, nearly a decade ago, understand that these games started with multiplayer, and that's where they really truly belong. Battlefield 3 gives gamers a team-oriented mode with tons of weapons, vehicles, gadgets, and more, with the culmination of it going into the large multiplayer maps that include tanks, jeeps, APCs, helicopters, and jets all duking it out in Rush and Conquest modes.
One of the things I most enjoy about BF3 is that the class system doesn't just consist of four or five equally deadly killers; each fulfills a role, and often those are supporting roles. Compared to Bad Company 2, Assault has the expected rifles but also does all of the Medic roles, and the new Support class doles out the ammo and suppresses enemies with light machine guns that can be mounted with a bipod on a wall or while prone for better accuracy. The Recon and Engineer roles are largely the same with only a few minor changes and a couple of interesting new toys. Overall, I'm really enjoying the class system here, and the distinct gear/gun unlock paths for each class really do make you feel like you're getting "attached" to any given class.
On PC, you get the full, epic Battlefield experience: up to 64 players on large maps, limited in performance only by your wallet. But as the beta test on PC showed us, as long as you're willing to turn down some of the detail, you can build a PC and get good performance in BF3 at high resolution for as little as $1000 - including a monitor, keyboard, speakers, OS, and a gaming mouse if you budget out the right parts. (I recommend Reddit's Build a PC section for advice on what to buy/build.)
Over on the Xbox 360 and PS3, the experience is scaled down due to the limited horsepower, but it's still significantly more expansive (both in map size and player count) than you get out of most gamepad-powered online shooters, with 24 players along with all of the classes, weapons and vehicles. The larger maps have been made smaller on consoles than on PC, but what the developers did was redesign the landscape and cram the same buildings and structures into a smaller space, so the maps aren't so massive for the lower 24-player count - if anything, they're more densely packed with buildings and such on consoles. Dedicated servers power all versions' competitive multiplayer modes, including 360 and PS3. The difference is that on PC, servers are run by those gamers who pay the monthly fees to rent them, so each server has its own rules, admins, and community.
The Battlefield 3 online beta test was considered by many to be a failure because it exhibited so many obvious and ugly bugs. But at least some of this is because the term "beta test" has shifted over the years to essentially translate to "multiplayer demo". DICE maintained throughout beta that most of the obvious bugs were already fixed by the time the beta was released, and that what we were testing was the server software and various game server providers' ability to run smooth servers. In this case, it's true - not because Battlefield 3 runs perfectly or without bugs, mind you. No, this is a DICE game, and if there's one thing that always holds true about their games, it's that bugs are a given, but in the case of this game, all those beta bugs have been fixed (although quite a few new issues have introduced). And if there's one major gameplay difference between online play in the beta and the full game, it's that the overall feel of combat and damage model are a little closer to what they were in Bad Company 2, so you can take one or two more hits before dying here than in beta, and the vehicles just feel a little more solid and less squirrelly.
I haven't tested the console versions' online multiplayer extensively, but my early gameplay tells me they do work as advertised. On the other hand, I have put quite a few hours now into the PC retail version's multiplayer, and I can tell you that while BF3's online play is ridiculously fun and full of great teamwork, amazing visuals, solid-feeling action, and a scale that you don't often get in FPS games, it's also quite broken in at least a few ways. From Battlelog launching issues to intermittent stuttering on some PCs, the game's got a ways to go before it's truly stable and perfectly smooth. Once in-game, the campaign is fine on PC, but the multiplayer suffers from minor issues here and there, including often crippling lag and no way to see your ping once in-game. Admittedly, this lag could easily be the fault of game server providers tweaking their server loads, as BF3 servers are apparently pretty demanding - even when only running 32 or fewer players.
Going by DICE's past performance, they will likely fix outstanding bugs sooner or later, but it might take them a little while and a few new bugs will probably creep in with every patch that attempts to fix the existing ones. But while it's easy to sit back as a gamer (or a critic) and hurl hateful words at DICE for all those bugs and issues, we're still going to be playing the game, because there's nothing quite as fun as an intense, teamplay-filled Battlefield session with all of the elements coming together the way the developers intended.
On PC, DICE has done something very bold by having its server browser run on a web page. The game launches from the Battlelog site after you install a browser plugin, and while I do think this is probably the future of online gaming on PC, it's difficult to make a compelling argument in favor of Battlelog as it stands. Swapping between servers is slower than any in-game implementation since you have to actually quit the game entirely and pick another server from the web. You'll also need EA's Origin digital download software running in order to play Battlefield 3, and while this software has its own quagmire of issues related to the EULA's rather cavalier attitude with your personal information and overall potential for spying on customers, that's probably a subject for a different article.
The end result is that Battlefield 3 is not any better by Battlelog or Origin than it would have been with an in-game server browser and Steamworks integration, and from a gamer's perspective at least, there's just no good reason for this game to require Origin. The question then remains: does this ruin the fun of Battlefield 3? Mileage may vary, but it doesn't for me. Once I'm in the game, all those issues melt away; it's up to you to decide whether you can stomach the annoyance of Origin to play one of the best online games to come out this year.
Unfortunately, for some reason DICE did back away from one of my favorite parts of Battlefield: Bad Company 2, a game I've put hundreds of hours into on PC: building destruction. The single player mode is so busy hurling you from alley to parking garage to already-broken setpiece that you never stay in one area long enough to enact huge levels of destruction on your environment, even though that was possible in Bad Company 2. I did enjoy one particular office gunfight where the cubicles break apart when hit by gunfire, so you can easily not only shoot through thin walls like you would in other FPS games, but the walls actually break apart when you do it. (And it makes a real difference, too, seeing your effect on the world as well as its inhabitants.)
Online, the destruction is also there, but it's been toned down. Many buildings have been designed in such a way that hitting them with explosives doesn't have nearly as big of an impact on the building - or on the outcome of the match. Compare that against a good two-thirds of the multiplayer maps in BC2, where the players would level half the buildings and change how the map actually plays over the course of a session, and I feel like that's one thing that DICE is really missing here. Whether it's because the fancy, new eye candy pulled too much horsepower away from rendering crumbling buildings or they just didn't like the game design, I've no idea, but I'm not really happy about it.
Despite some problems, Battlefield 3 delivers right where it counts: online play. The single player mode looks great but is rather limited, and the competitive multiplayer might be a bit buggy and doesn't pull in all of the best features of every past Battlefield game, but it still lives up to the hype - and for those that were disappointed in the beta, it might even exceed the hype - and gives us a wonderful online experience that is unlike any other in the FPS world.
As far as the constant comparisons to Call of Duty, well, I am guilty of making quite a few right here in this review, but if there's room for three corporations to spend (and make) many billions of dollars each on their own game consoles, there's room for two FPS juggernauts to both thrive simultaneously. There are differences, and on many points Activision's baby will be the better game, but for my money Battlefield 3 has a longer-lasting online mode with more mature players, better teamwork, and the best visuals that my PC can render. I don't know if DICE really expected to be the best of all worlds with this game - because they aren't - but even with their signature lackadaisical view of bugs and issues, they nailed the one thing that really mattered to old-school Battlefield fans: playing together online.