I will start off my review for Battlefield 3 telling you a story. Back when Battlefield 1942 was big, I found myself on an empty server practicing my flying skills. Another player joined and asked what I was trying to do as I crashed my plane into a factory smokestack for the third or fourth time. I explained that I was practicing trying to fly well enough with my Thrustmaster Flightstick to slip the plane in between the two smokestacks on the desert El Alamein map. I also said I wanted to master being able to land at the top of the mountain and take off safely. He said it was impossible and he’d give me 10 bucks if I could do it. I laughed knowing that he’d never pay up. Several crashes later I managed to roar through both objectives, landing on the nearby runway. The other player asked what my PayPal address was and I gave it to him again knowing that I’d never get paid. I woke up the next morning to an email from PayPal letting me know that an Engineer from NVidia had indeed paid up. The cash just ended up going towards future Battlefield titles – I was hooked.
The folks at DICE have been cranking out titles peripheral to the main series, but it is with Battlefield 3 that they threaten the hegemony of the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare series. Featuring the state-of-the-art Frostbite 2 engine, a completely reworked animation system, and the incredible support of their publisher EA, the game has sold over 5 million copies in the first week alone. With Zampella and West joining EA, a change in development houses on MW3, and the most visceral depiction of war I’ve ever seen, Battlefield 3 is poised to step up to the challenge.
“In War, truth is the first casualty.” – Aeschylus
Battlefield at its heart is, and always has been, a multiplayer venture. That said, we’ll start this review at the campaign. For reference, I’m reviewing the digital download version on two PCs – an Intel i7 960 processor with 24GB of RAM and a Geforce GTX 570 on Ultra settings, and my Dell L501X laptop. The laptop has a Q740 proc (1.73 GHz) and 8 GB of RAM with an integrated Geforce GT 435M. I wanted to see how the game looked at its best and at its worst.
Battlefield 3 is the first title that is exclusive to the new Origin service. Like any new service, it isn’t without it’s issues. Launching the game to play the Campaign mode meant doubleclicking the icon which kicked off the launcher. From the launcher I again selected that I wanted to play Battlefield 3. The launcher then opened my web browser. The browser required an update to the Origin client, and then a subsequent update to the manager client. Unfortunately that is where the game halted. Stuck at “Initiating game” for over 40 minutes after a reinstall of Origin (which forced a re-download of the 10GB+ game in addition to the client), a reboot of my machine, an update of all of my drivers, and switching to Internet Explorer from Firefox to no avail, I contacted EA Customer Service. Going round and round with the level 1 tech, I received literally no help. He suggested that my Windows 7 install was corrupt and that I reinstall the OS. Inexplicably the game launched after another 7-10 attempts. For whatever reason, this was the last issue I had with the campaign launching, but let’s not pretend that won’t frustrate most folks to death.
The odd launch issues behind me, it was time to see what the Campaign had to offer. The campaign puts you into the boots of four military members – USMC SSgt. Henry “Black” Blackburn, Army Sgt. Jonathan “Jono” Miller, Lt. Jennifer “Colby” Hawkins, and GRU operative Dimitri “Dima” Mayokovsky. The mission structure of other titles typically puts you on mission set X, then mission set Y, then mission set Z, in that order. Battlefield 3 does a bit of mix and match, popping in and out of missions with each character. Blackburn serves as the primary focus of the missions as he is retelling it in the past tense while under investigation. Essentially, he’s trying to unravel the events of the past few days that lead up to an incredible disaster. Miller gets his action thanks to a fantastic tank mission that really shows off the draw distance of this engine. Dima spends his mission running at high speed through a city landscape, but it is Lt. Hawkins that wins the prize. While the final mission is certainly a big highlight, getting to play as Wizzo (that’s slang for Weapon Systems Officer and coincidentally my callsign when I was in the Air Force!) during a high flying combat mission in the F/A -18 was the highlight of the entire single player game for me. The low point is unfortunately the AI.
As I mentioned, I took Battlefield out for a spin on my laptop. Despite turning the graphics down to low across the board, the game actually looks quite good. Sure, some of the graphical bells and whistles are missing, but it still looks like a great Xbox 360 title.
“Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here. This is the War Room.” – Dr. Strangelove
You didn’t buy Battlefield 3 for the single player. You know it, and I know it. Back in the launcher I can select either Co-Op play or Multplayer. Like eating the brown Skittles before you get to the delicious Red ones, let’s look at Co-Op first.
Cooperative multiplayer is based on the singleplayer game, so any issues you had with the AI there will be present and amplified for the cooperative campaign. There are a total of six stages set up with pure cooperative play in mind. The missions themselves are a little bit more difficult than the single player game proper, but completing them does unlock a few weapons for use in multiplayer. In a first for the Battlefield series, there are Quicktime events both here and in the single player game.
There is an incredible oversight in Battlefield 3 – the aircraft. Flying the planes is awesome, and the mission in the Campaign mode is a memorable highlight, but there is no way to practice flying the helicopter or jets other than to find a semi-populated server and spend time crashing until you get the hang of it. Sure, there is a mission in co-op that puts you in the gunner / pilot role in the helicopter, but it’d be nice to have some sort of tutorial / training mission to acquaint yourself before you end up as a multi-million dollar lawn dart of smouldering slag.
“His name’s Preston. Preston Marlowe. And he’s not dead. Right, soldier?” – Battlefield Bad Company 2
Let’s get to the meat and potatoes of why you purchase a Battlefield title – multiplayer. This is what DICE has always been good at, and they know it. Splitting the character classes into four types, you get the Assault class, an Engineer, Recon, and the very important Support class. All of the classes start off pretty simply with very balanced weapons to allow you to learn the game mechanics. All of the characters have a primary weapon, a secondary weapon, and a gadget of some sort. The Assault can bring downed players back from the brink with a defibrillator, the Engineer can repair any mechanical device with his magical propane torch of awesome, the Recon specialist can set a mobile spawn point to push the battle closer to the front, and the Support class can drop ammunition packs. Thanks to the extensive beta and thousands of balancing reports, all four character classes seem very balanced.
As you complete your multiplayer missions you’ll earn points that eventually result in new ranks and weapon / gear unlocks. With larger maps supporting up to 64 players, you’ll have plenty of chances to try out new gear when you pluck it from the corpses of downed players. Just as before, the game supports several classes of weapons. You’ll have unlocks in Assault Rifles, Sniper Rifles, Machine Guns, SMGs and Carbines, Shotguns, Pistols, Rocket Launchers, Scopes, and attachments. In fact, there are a total of 63 weapons at launch that you can earn, as well as 10X as many ribbons, medals, and dog tags than any previous tile. Literally anything you can do in the game counts in some way towards some sort of reward. Even your vehicles will level up if you use them consistently, unlocking additional rewards on that front. With Battlefield 3 you’ll never feel like you aren’t earning something for your effort.
Multiplayer comes in several flavors, though Conquest is and will likely remain the most popular choice. Conquest is the classic Battlefield mode where teams square off to capture strategic objectives. Holding more objectives than the enemy means you’ll drain their tickets faster. When you or your foes hit zero tickets, it’s game over.
It’s no shock that Deathmatch appears in the game. We have Team Deathmatch, pitting two teams against one another, and Squad Deathmatch which faces 4 squads against one another. The next mode, Rush, comes across from the Battlefield: Bad Company series. In Rush mode you’ll start off attacking an objective as the other team defends. At the end of the round, you’ll switch sides. It’s a fairly simple mode that gives a break from the ticket draining options of the other modes.
For all of the things that Battlefield 3 adds, there are a few things that they’ve taken away. In fact, there is a very large omission – the removal of Mod support. Looking at some of the great mods like Forgotten Hope, Operation Peacekeeper, BF Pirates, and Desert Combat, you’ll have to agree that the mod community has taken the incredible work that DICE put in front of us and turned it into something spectacular. The Frostbite 2 engine looks like an incredible piece of tech, so it’s painful to think that players won’t be able to harness it for future mods.
There is a second item that I know I’ll personally miss – the Commander mode. The players that knew how to be good Commanders could lead their teams to victory, calling in support and spotting enemies to ensure battlefield supremacy. A good Commander could take unorganized chaos and sharpen it into a force capable of taking down objective after objective. The DICE team stated that they wanted to make sure the game was easy for anyone to play, and that the Commander mode was just too complicated to include. Those of us who have logged hundreds of hours in the Battlefield universe wholeheartedly disagree. Having unlockable mortar strikes for the Engineer just isn’t the same.
One aspect of Battlefield has made a sad reappearance. Looking at the leaderboards and seeing folks who have a 600+ to 1 kill ratio, it’s clear that there are entirely too many people cheating their way to the top. This twinking has been present in any game with unlockables, and Battlefield 3 is no exception to that rule.
“A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon.” Napoleon Bonaparte
At its core, Battlefield is about cooperation and competition. Working together as a team to accomplish objectives is a necessity to win, so playing Battlefield 3 with friends is the best way to play. Pickup groups can be equal parts frustration and anger as you watch empty vehicles drive off or your ticket count bleed out as the entire team stands on the runway to crash the jets into the ground. On the other hand, when you have a team that knows what they are doing and coordinate their efforts, the results are a blast. There is no doubt that Battlefield comes with some warts courtesy of a few mission features and the forced inclusion of Origin, but once these are ironed out we should have a title worthy of carrying the series name.