In the overpopulated world of military shooters, two titles/series (and their respective developers) have risen above the rest and become synonymous with the genre: Call of Duty and Battlefield. Both series have their roots in World War II shooters, both made the transition to the "modern" variations, and both are a blast to play! Oh yeah, and both have their own loyal fans who will defend their preferred game to the virtual death. Silly fanboys....
While I've enjoyed the annual Call of Duty game the last several years, I've struggled with a faint feeling that's it's more of the same with a slightly different coat of paint. I know most people won't agree with me on this, but I think the series has become stagnant. The Battlefield: Bad Company series came onto the scene with it's own shtick: destructible environments. Suddenly camping was no longer the safe option as the building or cover you were hiding behind could simply be destroyed given enough time and firepower. However, with the latest installment of the series, Battlefield 3 is attempting to not only halt the Call of Duty leviathan, but also improve gaming and shooters in general. Boasting a brand new graphics engine called Frostbite 2 and some truly amazing dynamic lighting and particle physics effects, it looks phenomenal. This is not just "this year's version." EA and DICE are trying to truly take these sorts of games to the next level. And for that, I thank them... because they succeed.
Battlefield 3 tells the story of Sergeant Blackburn as he
attempts to foil a terrorist plot. Problem is, he's currently being held
by the CIA for "what he had done." The narrative then unfolds in a
flashback, flashforward style as you go back to the beginning and find
out how Sgt. Blackburn got into this pickle. After the PLR (the bad guys) stage a coup
in Iran, Blackburn and his squad stumble across a nuclear weapon... in a
box built to hold three of them. The question is, where are the other
two? Oh yeah, and the nukes are Russian. What do they have to do with
this? The search takes you takes you to battlefields all over the world
and even the air above it.
You won't just control the
good sergeant either: multiple characters join the fight, telling the
tale from different perspectives. It's a great tool, keeping you
wondering what's going on, what will happen next, and most importantly,
what you'll get to do. This decidedly bucks the trend of sub par story
telling in the shooter genre. Rather than simply providing an excuse to shoot things, Battlefield 3's story is engaging enough to provide a motive. Also, the campaign is one of the more meaty offerings we've had in a while, lasting a solid 7 to 8 hours. Sure, it's a little cliched as these stories often are, and the leap of faith you're expected to take towards the end is far fetched, but overall it's easily the best "story" to a game like this since Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.
Battlefield 3 is beautiful... simply beautiful. I think my first impression involved texting my friends and calling it "sexy." The new Frostbite 2 engine creates some of the most impressively realistic graphics I've seen in a game. The lighting in particular is awesome. Throw a grenade and the way the light filters through the dust will change depending on your point of view. The attention to detail is amazing. At one point a sniper shot through a window... there was a bullet hole in both the window and the drapes. Then there are the destructible environments the series is known for. Be it chipping away at a concrete barrier with a machine gun or simply blowing the crap out of it with a tank, the resulting damage looks amazingly real. And this is all without putting any emphasis on the cutscenes that drive the story mode. While not active in any way, these dialogue scenes look great in their own right.
While I could go on and on about the graphics, I will add just one more thing. As impressive as it looks on consoles, if you have a good gaming PC, that's the way to go. I have a good friend with a beastly rig and let me tell you, it's like night and day. Plus, multiplayer has more people in one match on PC. I sincerely hope that the Frostbite 2 engine becomes available for other developers to utilize-this is the future here people.
The sound work it excellent too, but we've come to expect that from DICE. The music is somber in all the right places, dramatic in the others. The voice acting is surprisingly good, but as is always the problem with military shooters, it can be hard to hear orders mid-firefight with all that is going on when you're firing a 50 cal. from the back of a Humvee.
I don't need to tell you that the game play is your standard first person shooter. We've been there, and Battlefield 3 performs as you'd expect. The gunplay is tight and responsive, although I did have to adjust the aiming sensitivity. And while the firefights are just as intense and harrowing as you'd expect, what really sets Battlefield 3 apart is the vehicle sections. My favorites were the mission where you control a tank in a massive battle, and then the one where you fly a fighter. The fighter section is essentially on rails (as opposed to the multiplayer where you actually fly the jets), but that's okay, I'm happy to be along for the ride and enjoy the scenery. These moments break up the pacing nicely, and are truly breathtaking to look at.
To be honest, there really isn't a whole lot to find fault with Battlefield 3. I guess if I had to get really picky I'd tell you the checkpoints might be a bit too far apart and you'll sometimes restart with enemies already shooting you, but that's more or less par for the course. The ally AI, while decent, is by no means particularly helpful... they're just kind of there. The game is also surprisingly difficult, with not only some rather random difficulty spikes in the course of the main game, but also a large disparity between the difficulty levels. I played through the campaign on easy and normal, and normal was a damn sight more difficult than I expected.
From a technical standpoint, whenever you have such high end graphics there are bound
to be some glitches, and Battlefield 3 is no exception. Minor warping (when
either you or the NPC's are moved or slide super fast, like it's trying
to catch up), while not common, is easily the most noticeable issue. For such a complex system, I didn't encounter too many texture issues or framerate drops. To be honest, it runs surprisingly well.
Now, for those of you who are regular readers, you know I'm not a huge fan of online multiplayer. However, for Battlefield 3 I decided to take it somewhat seriously. And I have to tell you, it's fantastic. The maps are massive. One time after getting caught in a cross fire in a rather daring (if I do say so myself) attempt to run to cover, I respawned and literally had no idea where I was. I had been fighting on a hilltop and woke up under an overpass. Following the mini-map I figured out I was a looooong way from the battle. After mentally calculating how long it would take to jog back into the fray (and feeling mildly disgruntled), I suddenly noticed a tank sitting next to me. "Right on!" thought I, climbing in and driving back to the conflict in style.
This is just one example of how Battlefield 3 multiplayer actually feels like a battlefield. Tanks, choppers, and planes can all be piloted and driven by anyone at any time (as long as they are available). Sure, the controls can take a lot of getting used to (especially the helicopter, my only kill with that bad boy was accidentally crashing into someone... poor sod), but they add a whole new dimension that keeps things fresh. When everything comes together at the end of the round (all the players are fighting over the last objective, planes are flying over head dropping ordinance, helicopters are rattling their machine guns, pulverizing buildings, and tanks are finishing the job), it's actually kind of scary. I hope and pray I'm never in combat, but I wonder when things get really bad, if it isn't at least a little like this. While I know it's cliche to say it, it really does make me respect those who do this for real all the more.
The rewards from ruling the battlefield involve a pretty straightforward XP and upgrade system. There are four different classes specializing in different aspects of warfare, and as you use each one you gain XP and can then unlock different accessories and weapons to use the next time you choose that class. It's a nice, well put together system, plus it adds a feeling of accomplishment as you rank up.
Outside of your standard matches, there is a tacked on co-op mode that allows you and a friend to basically replay smallish sections of the campaign with waves of enemies attacking. To be frank, these distractions are far too short and not really all that fun, nor do they have the inherent intensity that comes with the standard multiplayer.
All told, Battlefield 3 is probably the best shooter I've played since Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. From a technical standpoint it's the best, most advanced, and prettiest shooter I've ever played. I really hope other developers are allowed to use the Frostbite 2 engine, it's phenomenal. The campaign is a high octane roller coaster that is surprisingly well told. It's engaging, providing not just an excuse to shoot people, but rather a compelling reason. With the stigma of being CoD's main competition, DICE and EA have gone all out. The result is something special: they've gifted us something new in gaming's most overcrowded genre. That, in and of itself, says something. If you are at all a fan of military shooters, Battlefield 3 shouldn't be missed.
Score = 9.4 / 10