Battlefield 3 is really two completely different games meshed into one product. On one hand, it features what very possibly be the best multiplayer game this year. On the other, however, it also features a campaign whose focus feels misguided and overwrought in its apparent ambition to out-do genre rivals.
It is hard to talk about Battlefield 3 without mentioning Call of Duty. Comparisons to the two games have been made for months now and EA has marketed has taken that associability a few steps more that it may have necessary. Ostensibly, DICE’s third core game in the Battlefield series should stand and be judged by its own merits and what it brings to the genre. Infinity Ward and Treyarch’s style of shooter, however, have irrevocably changed shooters, and so has player expectations. Playing into these expectations, DICE has crafted a single player campaign that tries to play to the beat of Call of Duty’s drum, but does so at half tempo.
After a tutorial cold-open, the campaign is structured as series of flashbacks. The player, assuming the role of SSgt Blackburn, recalls how events went FUBAR – and he was conveniently present at all critical junctures of things going from bad-to-worse. After an earthquake rocks Tehran, SSgt Blackburn and his squad try their best to regroup and find extraction. While DICE has made public that Evan Wright’s book-turned-miniseries Generation Kill served as a tonal inspiration for the campaign, it is not all too interesting. Squad dynamics, for the most part, feel ham-fisted and melodramatic. It felt as if I had played this game already. I felt as if it is replaying notes I’ve heard and played already in other games.
I was more drawn into the peripheral character arcs and scenarios: namely a female jet pilot, a tank gunner, and a Russian Special Operations soldier – the latter of which proved to be where I had most my fun. It is in those few Russian levels that reveal a degree of ambiguity. The player doesn’t know if they are “the good guy” or not. Can a person who shoots police in the streets of Paris be a “good guy”? While the game certainly implies a pseudo-moral dilemma, it fails to dig any deeper. Much worse, it feels a bit too much informed by Modern Warfare 2’s then-controversial “No Russian” level. This is the underlying problem with the campaign – not the scripting errors, inconsistent AI, or the ridiculous quick time events. Rather, it is the game’s lack of a clear voice. There is not too much in the campaign that feels uniquely native to the Battlefield series or what the series has represented to its player-base: choice.
This philosophy is intact in the game’s multiplayer. Spanning 9 maps, two core game modes, and a superfluous Team Deathmatch, the multiplayer offering of Battlefield 3 is stunning – to a fault. All of the maps are scalable and are interoperable with an array of different game modes and player count. While thisis impressive, on the surface anyhow, the practicality of DICE’s map design force maps that are better suited for Rush mode to be shoe-horned into the rule-sets of Conquest mode. The result is a frustrating quagmire, making a few game modes on particular maps a complete meat-grinder of a shooter. This is not Battlefield. This isn’t what it’s legacy was either.
When it works however, Battlefield 3 has no peer. The shifting of class abilities feels right. Recon soldiers have little counter-measures to enemy armor – nor should they. Engineers have to make a decision in their toolset that completely changes their use on the map and how they utilize themselves. Assault class’ new medic abilities sustain a fierce front-lines dynamic – making then the tip of the spear. These changes, while subtle, are huge when 64 players are in motion.
Battlefield 3’ scale of warfare is well matched with the game’s fantastic graphical fidelity and best-in-the-industry audio design. While the game features some of the best lighting and animations, the game takes a few aesthetic liberties that don’t make too much sense: namely its lens effect. The effect does indeed look interesting; its affect on the player’s perception of film is what makes Battlefield 3’s presentation second to none. On a performance level, I never had a problem – granted, I am running on an overclocked Core i7, 16gbs of RAM, and a GTX570. Framerates were at a low 70 in campaign and at 50 in multiplayer with nearly ever setting on Ultra @ 1920×1080. Any dips in performance I experienced came when there were an inordinate amount of screen activity.
There is enough in Battlefield 3 that makes it unique. Besides its leaps in graphics, presentation and sound, their tweaks in class systems and leveling mechanics makes the game stand tall amongst the genre’s other multiplayer offerings. It is a shame that the single-player doesn’t follow suit.