For the past few years, Electronic Arts has desperately been attempting to gain a leading share of the first-person shooter market. Games like Medal of Honor and Crysis 2 have been selected as champions to take down Activision and its Call of Duty franchise, but they've never been considered serious threats.
Battlefield 3 represents EA's first real chance at carving out a competing niche. With its huge marketing budget, gorgeous visuals, and an army of fans ready to argue in its honor, this is a game with some serious muscle behind it.
Whether or not it's actually a good game, however, is something that couldn't be discussed until now.
Battlefield 3 (PC [reviewed], PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [reviewed])
If military shooters were ice cream, Battlefield 3 would be a neapolitan, since it seems to sum up every fundamental aspect of the genre. You've got your short campaign with a focus on multiplayer, you've got every standard-issue gun conceivable, and you've got plenty of explosions. Also, just like a neapolitan, Battlefield 3 boasts various flavors, and not all of them are palatable.
The single-player campaign is not something I'd recommend starting with if first impressions are important to you. It's a lifeless collection of corridor stages that hold you by the hand and often treat you like more of a bystander than a participant. You're surrounded by invincible squad mates who do most of the work while you're stuck looking for the one bit of cover that actually is cover and doesn't exist as an aesthetic prop for the A.I. partners to use.
There are a few atmospheric moments, but the game's vanilla story about terrorists doing stereotypically explosive things doesn't get interesting until the final mission -- a mission that is far too short and arrives too late to make a difference. It's a shame because those atmospheric sequences hint at what could have been an incredible experience, but instead are squandered on slow-paced ranged combat against dim-witted enemies who are almost impossible to see among the smoke effects, falling rubble and aggressive lens flare.
I'd be hard pressed to say I enjoyed the single-player for more than a collective five minutes and would almost prefer it to not be there at all, since clearly nobody at DICE cared much about what is increasingly seen as an obligatory gesture more than a full-fledged game mode. Furthermore, with a completion time of around four hours, it really wouldn't have been missed.
Those poor first impressions are negated however by the game's true focus -- multiplayer. Make no mistake, if you're a fan of single-player games, there is nothing for you here. It's all about the online combat, and I have to say that most shooter fans will get what they're looking for with this one.
Battlefield 3 takes the groundwork laid in previous installments and expands it to something larger and more intense than before. With up to sixty-four players hashing it out across huge maps (on the PC version), this is the biggest and the most chaotic first-person multiplayer experience on the market, bar none. The speed and ferocity of the online component is like night against day when contrasted with the mundane single-player and I have to say that the scope of ambition on display is genuinely impressive.
There are four classes to choose from -- the health-conscious Assault, machine-friendly Engineer, gun-toting Support and sneaky Recon. Each class fills its archetypal FPS role with a range of unique gadgets and weaponry, with Engineers able to repair vehicles, Assault soldiers able to revive fallen players and Recon units employing sniper rifles to take out foes from the distance. While they fill roles seen in almost every first-person shooter released this generation, DICE has done a good job of refining them. No one class is overpowered, since they have access to similar -- but still distinct -- weaponry.
As well as the standard Deathmatches, there's a Conquest mode in which teams capture various flags on the map to help reduce each other's respawn tickets and the ever-popular Rush mode, in which one team attacks and has to destroy the defenders' M-COM stations in order to push their lines further back. Both Conquest and Rush work superbly in the huge stages, with the various objective points creating an ever-flowing game that takes players to varied environments that could have been maps in their own right. The feeling of fighting across an expansive battlefield in Rush, capturing points and marching forward, is a damn good feeling. If huge matches aren't your thing, you can also play these game modes with smaller teams, or even engage in squad-on-squad fights.
Helping players along the way is an obligatory selection of vehicles, and as with previous Battlefield games, their influence over the game is felt in both good and bad ways. Good for those in them, bad for anybody left outside. In some of the bigger battles, the only way to guarantee much of a fighting chance is to get into a tank and so many games become races to see who can get to them first. Anybody not in one faces a rather boring experience since their main job will be to spawn, run for a very long time across a huge open space, then bump into a tank and die. The ability to join and spawn next to squads mitigates the wait time, and you might be lucky enough to spawn inside a tank, but it's still frustrating to constantly deal with huge vehicles on such a regular basis.
It doesn't help that the vehicles just aren't all that enjoyable to use, either. Tanks are sluggish and alienate one from the atmosphere of the match, while airborne transport is a nightmare to use thanks to some rather dodgy controls. When inside any of the war machines, I feel significantly disconnected from the fight and I feel the focus on them undermines the genuine excitement that infantry combat provides.
Maps with vast interior sections, free of vehicles, are a lot more fun as far as I'm concerned, though they suffer from rocket launcher domination at times. A huge amount of players wield explosive weapons which take little effort to aim and kill with thanks to their devastating splash damage. Still, infantry fights make for far more involving warfare and provide a level of immersion that you don't see in many shooters these days, online or otherwise.
Rounding out the game modes is a co-op feature, in which two players team up to tackle a variety of missions. Based on the single-player maps and suffering from many of the same issues as the campaign, the biggest problem with co-op is its weird linear structure. There are six stages and the only way to unlock them is to beat the prior stages. Considering there's barely any plot, I don't know why this is the case. What's worse, the second co-op mission is strictly helicopter based, with one player as a gunner and the other as a pilot. I am yet to join a single game where the despicable helicopter controls haven't caused a crash. There's a reason why there's no forced helicopter stage in the narrative campaign -- they're terrible, and shouldn't be anything more than an option.
The console and PC versions are quite different and I'm going to honestly tell you that the console variant is a pauper's choice. With less impressive visuals, horrendous texture pop-in (even after installation) and smaller battles, the Battlefield 3 console experience is a shadow of what is offered on computers and not something I'd recommend. I found the whole game distinctly less fun on the Xbox 360, feeling sterile and looking almost ugly. One would hope that the Frostbite engine could at least make a game that's visually impressive compared to other console titles, but this is not the case. With games like Crysis 2 able to create graphically stunning games on the Xbox 360 and PS3, Battlefield 3 should be capable of better and it truly is not.
Naturally, the opposite can be said of the lead platform. Running at full spec, Battlefield 3 is a jaw-droppingly beautiful PC game and there's no denying that it's the new leader in terms of raw, unadulterated power. This has its drawbacks -- as stated, the graphics make spotting enemies incredibly difficult thanks to how much visual information is crammed into every environment. With the swirling dust, blinding lights and chunks of freshly-destroyed scenery filling one's immediate surroundings, actually getting a bead on something important can prove challenging. Don't get me wrong -- having such a visually stunning game is fantastic, but it can actually get in the way of gameplay, and that should never happen.
The PC is the obvious choice for Battlefield 3 -- if you can run it -- but there's a catch. A very large, significant, infuriating catch that may prove a deal breaker for some people. The name of this catch is Battlelog, and it's by far one of the worst ideas in videogame history.
For the few of you unaware of how Battlelog works, it's a browser-based system of menus and functions that act as a portal into the world of Battlefield 3. To get into a game, one must do it through a website which manages all server and matchmaking information. It is also the only means of setting up voice chat, friend invites and profile settings. Interestingly though, it doesn't handle the really important stuff, like video and control options, which can only be handled when a game session starts -- even if that session is an online one and players don't really have time to be messing around with their video settings.
As well as proving an unnecessary barrier between player and game, Battlelog is simply poorly designed. Its unintuitive system makes a mystery of handling friend requests (you need to manually import your Origin friends, for example, by finding the correct web page) and obscures some very basic settings. It's also full of useless "explanation pages" that seem to exist only to tell you how great Battlelog is and need to be manually clicked through each time they're accidentally opened (which is easy to do, since the veritable army of links on every page can take you to all sorts of unforeseen places). Fortunately, there's a prominant banner for the Battlefield shop on the main page, so if you don't know how to send friend requests or set up voice chat, you can at least go buy yourself a T-shirt!
The Battlelog is a crucial, unavoidable part of the Battlefield 3 experience and it does nothing but get in the way. It's a weird, proprietary attempt to turn a videogame into Facebook and it's so forcefully imposed on the player that it chokes everything else. Once in a game, everything's okay, but the overall experience is constantly hampered by this awkward, shoehorned "service" that nobody asked for.
Battlelog is really a reflection of every problem Battlefield 3 has. It's a game that can be incredible fun, seemingly designed by people who were trying to make it not fun. At it's core, there's a great little game there but so many contradictions swim around in the finished product that the fun can be very easily obscured. You have a story campaign that is littered with examples of terrific atmosphere yet wasted on lethargic pacing and CPU-led corridor combat. You have an intense multiplayer game that has the intensity consistently stripped out with a focus on vehicles. You have a a co-op mode that is restricted and locked into a senselessly linear structure.
Ultimately, you have Battlefield 3 -- a game that is equal parts stunning and exasperating, inspiring and infuriating. At heart, it's truly a good game, but one that requires the player to overlook a lot of problems that pollute the entire venture.
Many players, of course, will be more than happy to gloss over the issues because there truly is something worth playing when you get in deep. Ignoring the mediocre campaign and wasted co-op, the multiplayer is an authentically engrossing affair, one that fans will love and one that single-handedly remains worth the price of entry. DICE's would-be triumph often fights with its users, struggling to not be enjoyable when it quite clearly is. When wrestled to the ground, Battlefield 3 can be a very enjoyable and absorbing experience, but it's not always a fight worth having.
THE VERDICT - Battlefield 3
Reviewed by Jim Sterling