DICE’s Battlefield series of first-person shooters has been heralded by PC gamers for its deep, engaging multiplayer that tries to simulate all aspects of a true battlefield, complete with medics, various classes of vehicles, and a map that evolves based on the flow of battle. The Swedish studio dipped its toes into both single-player storytelling and console development with its Bad Company sub-series, but with Battlefield 3 DICE aims to provide a complete package that can take down the console FPS juggernaut that is Call of Duty–or at least put a significant chink in its armor. (Ed. Note: this review is based solely on the PS3/Xbox 360 versions of the game. A separate PC review is coming soon.)
Like its rival military shooter, Battlefield 3 stands upon three core pillars: Campaign, Multiplayer, and Co-Op. While multiplayer has traditionally been DICE’s field of strength, the studio has made a concerted effort to deliver a cohesive, engaging narrative. The results are decidedly mixed. One thing that stands out throughout the campaign is that it appears that DICE put up the word “visceral” in bright neon letters while crafting it because the campaign is littered with segments trying to capture that word. At times, the implementation is successful, such as when an enemy soldier blindsides the protagonist for a quick close-quarters sequence that fully takes advantage of the first-person perspective. Often, though, these sequences can be gratuitous or flat-out dull. One perfect example comes up in one of the early missions as the player must crawl through the shadows for minutes on end while enemy soldiers search the rubble around him. Near the end of this drawn-out sequence, the player must deal with–of all formidable foes–a rat. This particular moment also encapsulates another of the campaign’s major shortcomings: its quick-time events (QTEs). The QTEs in Battlefield 3 are among the most basic and disinteresting ever implemented in a game; the button prompts are unimaginative and only pop up once in a while during what are often complex physical sequences. Instead of making the player feel more involved with and invested in the action on-screen, it only emphasizes how detached the player is from these glorified cutscenes. Worse, the prompts ignore the “normal” control scheme, such as when it demands you press the right trigger to knife even though the knife is usually mapped to the right bumper. The player’s failure to execute the basic QTEs results in flabbergasting death sequences that often amount to the protagonist simply falling over and dying without tangible cause. While many of these QTE sequences have some cool things going on, the lazy implementation of the QTEs themselves severely detracts from the experience. This is unacceptable in a post-Heavy Rain world, especially given that these QTEs are so rudimentary they are outclassed by even the original God of War’s.
As vehicles are so important to both a real battlefield and DICE’s flavor of multiplayer, it is no surprise to see the studio try to incorporate them into the narrative. The vehicle segments of the story put the player in the shoes of a minor side-character and–like much else about the campaign–offer mixed results. One of the highly-promoted aspects of the game is the ability to fly a jet. DICE does a phenomenal job in orchestrating the build-up to “the jet mission” and even guides the player through an exhilarating mission that includes dogfights and supporting ground troops. This entire mission is one that captures that “visceral” aesthetic very well, with one major caveat: it never lets go of the player’s hand. Despite all the build-up and well-implemented scripted sequences, the player is relegated to a supporting co-pilot role and never gets the chance to let loose and actually fly the jet. Again, the set-up to this mission is great and what’s there is outstanding, but it was definitely disappointing for this mission to wind up being a glorified on-rails shooter. Other parts of the campaign are also heavily dependent on scripted segments, but this offers both good and bad. Like its competition, the scripted progression of each mission allows for some truly awe-inspiring moments, but little things continually chip at the experience. Friendly AI just pushes you out of the way if you are in its scripted path, which more than once meant they were exposing me to enemy fire. The same AI also routinely runs in front of your established line of fire, which brings up an annoying “Friendly Fire Will Not Be Tolerated!” message. Enemy AI does its job well as bullet fodder, but the movement patterns never change between playthroughs, a fact that becomes increasingly evident after repeated respawns thanks to their deadly-sharp aim. Even on normal, the enemies will be able to hit you with pinpoint accuracy through the smallest of openings, forcing you to frequently rely on not-so-fun prone-and-crawl tactics.
As for the narrative itself, DICE continues to offer up a mixed bag. The story shows a lot of promise with political commentary, clandestine intrigue, and political subversion plotlines that are woven into a semi-realistic (but fictional) Middle East conflict. However, for most of the game DICE opted to go with the tired trope that is telling the story through flashbacks while the protagonist is being interrogated. Political commentary, which could have been an interesting layer on an action-packed game, comes off as way too brash, as if the developer wanted to beat the player over the head with the morally grey aspects of warfare. The effort is novel, but a more subtle execution would have benefitted the story and characters greatly. Unfortunately, the general plot doesn’t hold up well to strong scrutiny, and while it offers up some interesting twists and turns along the way, the flow of key information is abominably mishandled. The reveal of key plot points is totally arbitrary, especially when coming from the two interrogators, and the story trips over itself on several occasions while trying to come off as sophisticated and mysterious. Because of this, several late-game moments fall flat on impact and come off as being unrealistic in terms of being a viable consequence to the preceding events. As a package, the campaign is a better-than-average experience comprised of several cool and fun moments, but falls far short of its potential.
Another shortcoming of both the campaign and multiplayer is the staggering amount of bugs still present in the final game. Granted, we are in the Internet age where bug-fixing patches are commonplace, but even so Battlefield 3 is extremely buggy for a “AAA” product. Several times in the campaign the player seemingly completes a set-piece by killing all the enemies, yet the friendly AI the player is told to follow does not move from their cover. It takes running out wildly into the open to draw out the one remaining enemy that inexplicably got stuck in its script somewhere and didn’t join the battle before the player can proceed, and sometimes this tactic results in a frustrating death. Another frustrating bug is the frequent failure of the A/X function to jump over low obstacles, which, especially in multiplayer, can lead to more frustrating deaths.
Of course, multiplayer has always been the strong suit of any Battlefield game, and BF3 is no exception. Few games offer a suite that is this deep on customization and tactics. The maps are utterly massive and stand out in Rush mode in particular as the map progresses based on the accomplishment of in-game objectives, much like a real battlefield would. The series also has a reputation for being more of a team-oriented affair than its competition, and BF3 continues that trend as it rewards players generously for accomplishing team objectives while frequently providing the context to do so effectively. Battlefield 3 certainly captures a more realistic version of warfare than Call of Duty for its multiplayer, which can be good or bad depending on personal taste. The controls are slightly looser compared to Call of Duty and players can be frustratingly hard to see at times with the mini-map/radar offering little help. Firing from the hip is all but useless, the airborne vehicles have intimidating steep learning curves, and the wide-open nature of the maps can make it extremely difficult to discern where enemies are coming from, resulting in a lot of “WTF!” deaths. Again, these are all things that add to the “realism” of the battlefield experience, and for most people it will be a matter of taste whether these core mechanics are superior to those in Call of Duty.
The class-based multiplayer of past Battlefields returns as fine-tuned as ever, though. FPS fans will wonder where all the hours go while playing this game as they are constantly awarded with a bevy of unlocks for everything imaginable. There are performance-based unlocks for individual weapons and vehicles, for each class, and for the player’s overall level. The level of customization is staggering, though the volume of things to tinker with can be daunting and even confusing at times, especially with the game’s less-than-friendly menu system that can make it cumbersome to sift through options. What would be a minor complaint becomes excruciatingly annoying as the game’s knack for being schizophrenic rears its ugly head in multiplayer with the developer’s inexplicable decision to provide the competing teams–Russians and Americans–with different starting arsenals. The Russians’ initial arsenal is disastrously inferior to the Americans’ as its Assault and Engineer classes are comprised of short-range submachine guns versus the Americans’ mid- to long-range rifles. Compounding this horrendous design decision are the gun-specific unlocks that turn a player’s current team into a factor, which can make it very confusing when trying to build custom loadouts. Worse, players are not even able to customize the Russian loadouts from the front-end menu and can only do so while playing as the Russians in-game. The much-hyped, Frostbite-powered destruction is muted in comparison to the Bad Company games as far fewer objects in the maps are actually destructible, though the destruction remains very impressive where it exists and adds to the realistic aesthetic.
Other minor gripes are the inability to quit the multiplayer mode in between matches (the player must wait for the next map to load first) and the relatively small selection of game modes to play. Additionally, the console versions’ limited player count of 24 can be a nuisance at times as the maps were clearly designed with far larger player counts in mind. This can lead to lots of running around looking for people to shoot and makes short-range weapons pretty useless. The dearth of players is also most evident in the wide-open Conquest mode, but Rush does benefit from having fights focus on smaller portions of the map. Perhaps the most egregious flaw in the mostly-stellar multiplayer suite should have been one of its standout features: Battlelog. For some reason, publisher EA appears to have completely neglected the player’s system-wide friends list in favor of trying to force them to add friends through the Battlelog website. This extra step is inexplicable, especially since the similar Autolog feature from the Need for Speed series had no such handicaps, and in truth completely defeats the point of the Battlelog in the first place. While, like in the campaign, Battlefield 3’s multiplayer has some head-scratching flaws, as a total package it is still one of the deepest and most fun experiences to be had on a console.
If there’s one thing that stands out about Battlefield 3 more than anything else, it is unsurprisingly the graphics. The level of visual fidelity in this game is nothing short of astonishing as it thoroughly outpaces other games considered to be “good-looking” and emphatically sets a new bar for what is possible on the consoles (provided you install the 1.5GB texture pack on 360). While the PC version certainly impresses in a side-by-side comparison, console-only players will not feel like they are missing out on anything as they will find it hard to keep their jaws off the floor. This is true across all the game’s modes, including Co-Op, which is a welcome, if shallow, addition to the package. The Co-Op is very much like Call of Duty’s Spec Ops, requiring a team of two players to work together to accomplish objectives in out-of-context missions centered purely around gameplay. While interesting, the Co-Op mode would have benefitted from some narrative of its own, even if it could have been a big-picture side-story to compliment the single player narrative. Without that context, Co-Op serves as more of a novel throw-in that is most attractive for the exclusive weapons that can be unlocked for multiplayer.
Despite its many shortcomings and well-publicized launch issues (which appear to have been fixed by the time of publication), Battlefield 3 is truly a remarkable experience on this generation of consoles. The game is flat-out gorgeous and offers up plenty of the engaging FPS gameplay DICE is renowned for. DICE’s attempt at creating a cohesive narrative has its highs and lows, but ultimately comes out faring no worse than the past two Call of Duty campaigns have, and thanks to the impressive visuals and well-implemented vehicular combat BF3 can offer a more varied and at times spectacular experience. DICE stumbles repeatedly in its execution of some truly great ideas, and even though some of those slips can be head-scratching, overall Battlefield 3 is not an experience for FPS fans and graphics aficionados to miss.
Recommendation: Buy It! (Unless you are interested in the campaign alone, then Rent It!)