Publisher: EA Games
NB. Please note that this is a review of the console versions only. Carl will have a PC review soon.
It's EA's own fault, really. With their 'Beyond the Call' marketing, they stepped up to the plate, squaring off against Activision's record-busting series and poured scorn upon their adversaries. Since Epic's 'Duty Calls' video earlier this year (let's not forget who helped publish and distribute Bulletstorm), Call of Duty has come under fire for being boring, linear, uninspired and repetitive. The smack talk in the press has been absurd, everything geared towards EA trying to beat Activision at their own game.
Sadly, as anyone in the sporting world will tell you, you don't beat teams by getting sucked into their game or playing by their rules. You have to play to your own strengths. When Battlefield 3 does just that, it is a near-peerless title. Sadly, it's only possible to say that for a third of the game.
Those of you familiar with the Battlefield series will know that DICE's strengths lie in multiplayer, and this was proven last year with that particular aspect of Medal of Honor proving to be the redeeming factor in a package that hyped up its own seriousness and realism, then managed to squander its credibility and became 'just another military shooter'. It makes sense, then, to kick off a Battlefield 3 by talking about the aspect of the game that will most appeal to longtime fans and newcomers alike: the multiplayer.
When it works (and we'll come onto that in a bit), Battlefield 3 is probably the one of the finest console FPS multiplayer titles ever. No, that's not an exaggeration. This is a game that really represents a synthesis of everything DICE have created over the past ten years, an attempt to marry the scale of Battlefield 2 with the immediacy of Bad Company 2, helped along by the Frostbite 2.0 engine, which is drop-dead gorgeous...as long as you install that HD textures pack.
We're going to ignore the superior PC version for the moment, but there's something to be said for the scaled down console battles. Player count is limited to 24, with maps made smaller to kettle the action a little better and, indeed, if you play the two separate versions alongside one another then you'll be left dissatisfied, but on its own terms, the console version of Battlefield 3 stacks up very well against its peers.
Part of that are the fundamental concepts that have made this series so popular in the past: excellent vehicular combat, well-defined player classes, and an experience team and game modes that challenge teams to truly co-operate, refine play to each individual's strengths and level up through means other than simply gunning down everyone in sight. There are four classes, with the Assault and Medic classes from the previous games now one glorious whole to make way for the heavily-armed, ammunitions pimp that is the Support class. Beacon-toting, sharpshooting Recon and tank-fixing Engineer classes return to round out the diverse quartet very nicely indeed. Less of a skilled marksman than your friends? Fret not, there's still a place for you on this battlefield.
And that's what makes the whole experience so very enjoyable, finding players willing to engage in a spot of tactical gameplay is far easier in this game than can be said of nearly all of its competition. You're not constantly spammed with Battlelog on the consoles either, which is lovely.
Team Deathmatch is a new addition, and it's enjoyable, sure, but you'll probably largely ignore that in favour of Rush and Conquest. The former is all about attack and defence, with teams switching between entrenched opposition and assaulting forces. Conquest, meanwhile, is the ultimate take on the game's name: a large map, a bunch of checkpoints to capture, a handful of vehicles (including jets, which are fantastic, even if I'm utterly rubbish at controlling them) and two teams of twelve. No, it can't stand up to the PC's 32-on-32 insanity, but it does provide some of the best action to be had the home consoles. This is what DICE do best: it's a testament to their skill that whilst I cannot stand the Big Team Battles in Halo: Reach, this is something that I'll be coming back to time and time again for months.
Or at least I would be if it worked consistently.
Most games have the occasional issue as they spill out onto the shelves, god knows that Activision have had their fair share of occasional gripes around this time of year. But across all three platforms nearly a week after release? Something is wrong. Consumers love confidence and there is nothing worse than handing over £40-50 and having half of a game denied to you because of 'server trouble'. Over-subscription is not an acceptable excuse. A lack of readiness is unacceptable too, particularly considering DICE's and EA's insistence upon making sure that the experiences were the same for reviewers and consumers alike. On top of that, DICE's response to criticism of the beta made a point of stating that things were a bit buggy because they were trying to make sure everything was ironed out for launch. Well the game has launched, and the experience swings from fleeting brilliance to all-too-conspicuous frustration. Such are the dangers of massaging expectation.
The continuous comparisons to, and belittling declamations, of Call of Duty created another issue: the singleplayer. Previously in Battlefield games, not counting Bad Company and its sequel, offline material had basically consisted of the same maps with often hilariously bad AI bots. It was an excellent way in which to learn one's way around the maps, but that was it, an option so negligible that to buy the game for its singleplayer would have been a cause for hysterical laughter at such an obvious joke.
But someone at least was insistent that Battlefield 3 should have singleplayer component. How will DICE do it? We thought to ourselves. How will they bring the open, epic nature that defines this series' very name to bear in an offline mode? The answer is simple: they didn't.
Battlefield 3's singleplayer campaign is Call of Duty by numbers, parroting and mimicking every inch of Activision's series and forgetting to inject any of DICE's own flavour into proceedings save through the excellent Frostbite 2.0 engine. The lighting is exceptional, the environments breathtaking to behold. The sound design and effects capturing should be commended too, bullets zip and ping around in delicious Dolby Digital, changing subtly depending upon the nature of the room or weather outside. Aesthetically, at least, Battlefield 3 treads ground that few others can dream of, the advantages of using the PC as a lead platform clearly evident.
It's just no fun to play.
The script is awful, with none of the charm or over the top characters to be found in Bad Company. None of the central protagonists stand out at all, there's nothing to hold onto early on, no hooks to keep us particularly interested at all. Clichés and f-bombs abound, but there's no emotional resonance whatsoever, none of COD's heightened melodrama, everything here is dry, dusty and stale. The drip-fed narrative concept would be a nice idea, but only if placed in better hands. Here it serves only to confound and confuse, offering neither attachments nor interesting mystery to engage us.
This wouldn't be so much of an issue if the game wasn't intent upon making the actual experience of playing as trying as possible. These might be the worst QTEs I've seen in a game, with takedowns usually requiring only two buttons presses, normally at moments that in no way correlate with the action onscreen. The AI is a mess, sticking to preset patterns but with punishing accuracy. This makes for scenarios which play out near-identically every time, making the game one giant gauntlet of die, memorise, repeat.
Then there are the vehicle segments, most disappointing of which is probably the jet. You don't get to fly the jet, oh no, you're simply painting targets. That's right, in a game that's supposed to make you feel like a badass, you're Goose, not Maverick. Goose. Frostbite 2.0 makes the takeoff a very impressive one indeed, but when the best thing you can say about a sequence in a fighter jet in an action game was that the takeoff was pretty, there's something wrong! Firefights can occasionally be pretty engaging and tense, but you're never really sure what you're doing apart from progressing from A to B, nor why you're doing it. There's just no real sense of achievement or satisfaction to be gained from this mode at all, it's perfectly pleasant, it does the job, but there's a large dollop of personality missing. However, it is very shiny, very shiny indeed, although the singleplayer is hardly safe from the occasional glitch.
There is co-op to be had, but it makes all of the mistakes that the singleplayer campaign does, with the additional fact of not having any plot at all. We're not quite sure if this isn't actually a bonus. Either way, playing through with a friend makes the experience more enjoyable, but there's not really much reason to simply start playing the proper multiplayer, it is after all on the same disc.
At the end of the day, if you treat this like a proper Battlefield game, that is to say you should ignore the singleplayer campaign entirely, you will have an absolute blast. The multiplayer component is truly excellent and really attempts to bring an authentic experience to the consoles. The visuals, sound work and side salad of Battlelog are excellent, the latter acting here almost identically as Bungie.net did - as an unintrusive supplement to one's activities. But there are two questions that should ask yourself before you buy this game. The first is do you have a PC that can run this at a decent rate? The second is can you wait until next week for your shooter fix this year?
- Looks great
- Sounds better
- One of the finest console FPS multiplayer experiences EVER (when it works)
- Significantly better on PC
- Singleplayer is bland and soulless
- Buggy servers
The Short Version: Battlefield 3, on its own terms, ushers in an absolutely stonking multiplayer experience, albeit with a few teething difficulties. Where it takes on Infinity Ward and co.'s finest, though, it just reminds us of why Modern Warfare is so good to begin with, and I'm pretty sure that wasn't in the script.