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Altum Videtur's blog

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Altum Videtur avatar 11:52 PM on 11.04.2011  (server time)
Battlefield 3: On Scale, Freedom, and Wookies

Yeah, "Wookies."

Veterans of Bad Company 2 are probably nodding their heads in solemn recognition already, but for the rest of you, the label above applies to the individuals below:


Not that the phenomenon hasn't existed in prior Battlefield titles (the ones where you couldn't drive a tank through dilapidated shacks and the commanders informed us "man down, man down" as calmly as a movie helicopter pilot, even when their stomachs had been torn out by a shotgun), but the continued prevalence of these formerly furry miscreants highlights something I find somewhat curious, somewhat ironic, and - even if it's perhaps a little obvious - something that makes Battlefield 3 simultaneously the most and least enjoyable multiplayer shooter I've played.

One of Battlefield's big selling points, both now and in the past, is the concept of each multiplayer game feeling less like a small skirmish and more like an all-out war. To this end, they add land- and air-based vehicles, large player counts (traditionally 64, although the Bad Company series and BF3's console versions take a bit of a dip down to 24), stellar audio work, and so on; but most notably, Battlefield is inherently a team-based game - there is no free-for-all game mode, and even Team Deathmatch only features in its first and most recent entries. Each core class, alongside its traditional person-killing implements, is equipped with something designed to make brains and vital organs remain inside bodies - the Assault class gets a magical wizard defibrillator and a medkit, the Support class gets a big box of ammo, the Recon class comes packaged with a mobile spawn point, Engineers get their all-purpose blowtorch - and points are showered just as liberally and frequently for things that don't involve creating virtual widows and orphans.

Fortunately, this one was still single

In that respect, Battlefield 3 succeeds - even though it's certainly not anything like a real war, it manages to feel like one without resorting to the incredibly cautious and punishing motif of the world's Red Orchestras and ARMAs. Where the inherent difficulty - and, consequently, my frustration - lies is in that team emphasis. When everybody is working together and the game's systems interlock seamlessly; when you're frantically holding a capture point as an Assault trooper, reviving falling teammates as Supports lay down covering fire and Recons pick off other Recons hiding atop high-rises; when an enemy tank barrels through a concrete barrier, aiming squarely at you, only to be lit up and blown to bits by a friendly helicopter; when you and your squad flank the M-COM, set up a charge, get defensive, and narrowly save the day; when you and your fellow teammates are, in essence, "doing it right," the resulting excitement, exhilaration, and euphoria is unmatched by any of its peers.

But then you get people like those I spoke of way up a couple of paragraphs. It's not just people who think you can't spell "Recon" without "Useless Sniper" - the wide spectrum of players who prefer to lurk in the shadows and stroke their K/D would make any affirmative action program proud, and while their actions might suffice in your Halos and Call of Duties and even some of your Unreal Tournaments, where player counts are low enough that one person can reliably keep the majority of the opposition down, in a game as massive and team-focused as Battlefield, it turns the experience into the proverbial exercise in frustration.

Two more than you usually seem to see

I'm sure this is nothing any of you haven't heard before, but what makes this particular contrast interesting to me is that what I believe are Battlefield 3's most uniquely defining characteristics - large scale and team emphasis - can serve to make the game feel completely different depending on how they are approached. If everyone "plays by the rules" and heals their teammates, captures points, drops spawn beacons, and so on, it's more fun than anything on the market. If people are hiding in a window, keeping one eye on the kill count and another on the crosshairs and never moving, it's an infuriating and tedious slog.

I guess you could call it a case study of the benefits and consequences of open-endedness, complexity, and freedom in a multiplayer setting. In more focused and concentrated shooters, there's so little room to do anything but what you're supposed to that people end up forcibly railroaded into the "proper" course of action; in a King of the Hill match in Halo, for example, one person gunning for the enemy team independent of the end goal still manages to keep them from scoring simply due to the lower player counts, while more tight and closed-off level design (along with a slower pace) gives them a narrower range of options and tactics to, for lack of a better word, exploit. The Headquarters gametype in Call of Duty, assisted by the same low-player-count ideal, shifts around the balance of attack-defend mid-match so that those who prefer to sit back and rack up kills can do so during a defensive round and still help prevent the enemy team from scoring.

This is nearly 20% of the entire map

But it seems that for each new core element and each new layer of complexity a developer adds to their game; for each new vehicle, piece of equipment, and scoring mechanic, a new way to exploit it to the team's detriment opens up. One person out of 32 camping in a bush is hardly an issue. Put him in a tank and have him park atop a hill, where he can safely shell far-away bases instead of more pertinent locations, or put him in a helicopter where he uselessly ferries around just under a fifth of the team to simply strafe around and camp the enemy spawn, and all of the sudden what would have been a minor annoyance becomes a major setback. That Recon dude who's taking potshots at pixels in your base could be dropping spawn points near a hotly contested capture point. The Support trooper who's happily tossing mortars around Seine Crossing could be dropping ammo and laying fire to keep the guys across the bridge from shooting back.

I'm trying (and probably failing) not to make this sound like a rant against campers, which is difficult considering how much I'm loving BF3 and how much this kind of thing makes me want to shout naughty words at people who can't hear me; what I'm trying to do is analyze why Battlefield 3 can simultaneously be so awesome and so butt-chafingly frustrating, and in doing so, I believe the answer is, simply, its scope, scale, and the options it grants to its players. In essence: the more you give the players, the more they can do - be it flawlessly capturing a territory using a wide combination of vehicles and equipment or lying ass-up in a bush with a sniper rifle, occasionally going:

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