Sunday, 12 February 2012

Battlefield 3 Review

'Battlefield, Battlefield, Battlefield'

Battlefield 3 is serious fun. DICE have contrived to create the most unforgiving and challenging, yet engaging and enabling, on line first person shooter experience on consoles to date. If you want to do it the hard way, and reap the rewards thereafter, then “It's on you Marines”.

Battlefield 3 is a game of two parts, one forgettable, the other a work of exquisite design.

Battlefield 3's single player campaign is far removed from that of it's close cousin, Bad Company 2. Upon release, BFBC2 was lauded for it's not too serious, camaraderie oriented, vernacular. Likeable characters would exchange 'Tet a tet' to lighten the gloom, the emphasis laid square on the shoulders of 'team' and the collective, rather than that of the the lone wolf. BF3 makes no such commitment to character or story.

You'll play as Sergeant Henry Blackburn, a decorated U.S. Marine. Returning from recent overseas operations, he has become aware of an impending terrorist threat to New York City.

The blot on BF3's copy book is the limp single player campaign, easily completable in a not so terrible eight hours. This would be dramatically reduced if cut scene usage were minimised. In an ironic twist, the cut scenes themselves, at least from a technical standpoint, could be considered the most impressive pocket of BF3's campaign coating. The voice acting therein, and the facial animations in particular are perfectly done. Amid the dank and drawn office backdrop, Blackburn, who dominates most of the campaign play through, is temporarily retired from duty as he answers some taxing questions following his squad's recent operations in the middle east.

The opening frame, in which you hurl yourself through a subway train carriage window and drop kick your balaclava clad foes to the floor, before equipping and making your way forward, begins proceedings. The train, plagued with post mortals, slumped in their seats, permeated with bullet holes, is an eerie but enjoyable start.

It is a real shame that the BF3 campaign has so few moments of such excitement. There are shocking moments however. While BF3's single player is much like an overly milky cup of tea, at points the caffeine kicks right in. The ultimate fate of one or two soldiers in the story is adequately reminiscent of the true nature of war. The key failing of the narrative is that it doesn't deliver any connection beyond simply fighting a war, for the sake of winning a war. When these impactful happenings occur, there is never any reason to care. Battlefield 3 does little at all to make it's central characters either memorable or likeable, and when your squadies are consumed by the fog of war, it feels like no more than the unavoidable statistical inevitability that is war in the modern age.

DICE shouldn't be faulted for their humble attempts at creating a varied campaign. Use of no less than four separate protagonists on foot, in tanks and by air, across the middle east, Paris and New York all sound good around the brainstorming table. On paper, it also sounds good to include quick time events and levels with varying content to break up the rote nature of extended first person play. It is in the execution of these fine ideas that BF3's biggest failings are exposed. Paris and New York are visited, but for one notably brief foray each. The time lapse directive throughout the story adds no drama or suspense. The quick time events are overly straight forward, sparsely used and uninteresting.

Some of the variety DICE attempts, for example, a stealth mission under the cover of night, through down town Tehran, feels like a watered down silhouette of some of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare's stand-out moments. 'Night Shift' in particular radiates emotionless, tick box grinding. Told to take cover before being hit by the swelling glare of enemy vehicular head lights, seems to be a suggestion, rather than an imperative. Further on, you will be instructed to sneak up and complete a stealthy knife kill on a stationary insurgent, a trying test of patience and a shattering slice of broken gameplay. As you reach a certain point, a few feet behind him, whether or not you are spotted, you will trigger automatic insta-death. Keeling over and submissively adopting the foetal position without being shot is one thing, doing it without even being looked at is another, but doing it four or five times (especially with BF3's not particularly swift loading times) before you get it right, serves only to sabotage any feelings of suspense you may have had. Dwelling in Battlefield 3's attempts at variety, you will catch yourself wistfully recalling the halcyon days of Modern Warfare's outstanding, suspenseful Chernobyl missions. Moments that, unlike in Battlefield 3, will live with you forever, at least for the right reasons.

Beyond the bright but poorly executed ideas, lie some flaws worthy of rather more vehement criticism. Battlefield 3 has a malnourished narrative, it's sobering weaponry and gratifying gun play serve to fatten up single player, but the lack of technical coherence, and in truth shoddy workmanship, do more than enough to render these qualities mute. You might well gaze upon the plethora of BF3's single player bugs and glitches, with wide eyed, slack jawed abandon as other worldly failings punctuate the campaign. Moments like when your squad should kick down a door and move forward to cover, before taking on the encroaching enemy forces. Instead, running straight through the unopened door, they leave you behind. A few seconds pass, before of it's own volition, the door pops open, complete with the sound of it being kicked by a size 16 military boot. Already acquainted with the outdoors, the friendly AI, confused as to where they should be, rush headlong in to the sights of the enemy before changing tact from outright suicide and adopt a rather more reserved approach, returning to their cosy doorway where they re enact their manoeuvre as originally intended. That kind of military set play is quite likely to leave you flailing on the floor, covered in your own blood, picking bullets out of your face. Either in game, or at home if you have quick access to a loaded gun. These bugs should prove laughable, but in a game built upon the foundation of EA studios' financial sinew, more often they deliver a frustrating single player experience. Every time you are engaged, there is a reason to disengage, every maniacal smile you dare to let creep across your features, will be antidoted with a confused frown, as story is reduced to incoherent babble.

Even when the friendly AI does what it is supposed to do, sometimes it isn't all that helpful. At one point, bogged down, defending a supporting character fighting for his life, you must fend off waves of advancing enemies with the able assistance of a fellow Marine. Assistance that is, or lack thereof. While the critically wounded character exchanges H2o for Co2 for possibly the last time, and you send bullets with intent over multiple levels and in many directions, support is not forthcoming. While you hard-headedly defend your station, under particular duress, your partner stands firm, rifle ready but ultimately unused. He has a big old rifle all right, but he's absolutely not using it, for anyone. Not only would some assistance in situations such as these be helpful, but it feels a little rude to not fire a single bullet, or even attempt to administer some basic CPR. 'Oh you didn't bring a bottle? No, no that's fine. Come on in and help yourself to the buffet.” What a Dick.

The climax of Battlefield 3 is entirely deflating. DICE would do well to take note of the fact that the difference between a 'cliffhanger' ending and a bad one is extremely fine indeed. Several hours of solid gun running is not enough to make the vague warble of the ultimate scenes even remotely plausible. A confused and slightly pretentious final stanza awaits, you have been warned.

The laundry list of technical misgivings and BF3's flawed fable aside, it bares mention that at the core of the solo playthrough, lies some genuinely well balanced and intuitive gun gaming. A run through on 'Normal' difficulty will prove challenging enough, and while the icing has gone bad ,the cake in the middle is still pretty tasty. There are two very important elements to BF3's core chronicle that make it more or less enjoyable, gripping weapon mechanics and simply stunning audio. While they are the two parts of single player, they are just two of the fantastic ingredients that make up the exceptional on line experience. Battlefield as a series has never been synonymous with plot, it has however, always been a champion of online combat to compete with, and often outdo, the very best.

Battlefield 3 has nailed it. Delivering not only an enjoyable on line partition, but one more than worthy of the series' thoroughbred lineage. Up to 24 players on consoles, and more on PC (depending on your choice of mode) are deployed across nine maps at launch. These vary, from the arid 'Operation Firestorm' to the urban 'Seine Crossing' and 'Operation Metro' or the rather more leafy 'Kharg Island' and 'Caspian Border'. There is great variety in scale as well, 'Tehran Highway' for example, is shackled by tight, claustrophobic corridors, the sprawling expanses of Caspian Border or Operation Firestorm, are a welcome contrast. As you might expect with Battlefield 3, how you choose to navigate your terrain effects your gameplay experience greatly. Vehicular combat is a hook that Battlefield has carried with it for a generation, and never has it been more effective and important than in Battlefield 3. There is no hand holding if you are taking your first, tentative steps. The first face you see might be that of an opponent with the best gear, the highest level and god-like familiarity with the map you frequent. Battlefield 3's vehicles act as a fantastic equaliser for the uninitiated. So long as you can press 'forward', 'back', 'left', 'right' and 'shoot', you have every chance of effecting the flow of battle. As well as serving as a gamebreaker, the vehicles contribute aesthetically too. Don't be surprised, when as you spawn, the sky is painted red with dogfighting jets or helicopters transporting troops and raining vengeance down from above. Nothing gets a sniper out of his comfort zone quite like shrapnel from a nearby mortar. Destructible buildings crumble and crack as the force of each bullet or shell leaves lasting impact on the environment. While buildings can't be entirely destroyed, each multiplayer canvas will inevitably be painted a darker shade as each skirmish progresses.

It's no surprise that BF3 has a healthy variety of modes to play. Death Match and Team Death Match aside, Squad Death Match provides a place for the truly team oriented. In this mode you can compete in a four-a-side, sixteen man bloodbath where the pack animal is king. Possibly the two most well worn modes in this year's instalment are 'Conquest' and 'Rush'. The former an outstanding capture the flag format. Spread over three or four bases, each successfully defended, neutralised or captured flag will yield experience with an ultimate goal of capturing all available flags and triggering a bleed effect on the enemies reinforcements. If you have less than half the flags, then even if no one's getting shot, your backup resources will gradually deplete, faster still for every base that escapes you. Rush is a last line of defence back and forth. You must capture and destroy two separate enemy M-COM stations, doing so will allow you to advance to the next set and so on until they're all neutralised, or your forces have been squashed.

It is rare to find two runs that feel the same. Conquest and Rush alone, spread across the nine available maps, provide hour after hour of excitement and the exquisite level design never feels restrictive or too open and roomy. This can change in the rare instances that you find yourself waiting for a vehicle to respawn, while the passing seconds can feel like a lifetime in the heat of battle, it is unlikely to spoil your fun. If passing time is your thing, extensively customisable appearance and loadouts, depending on your level, are a nice way to pass the time. You also have the option of playing as one of four classes, 'Assault', 'Support', 'Engineer' and 'Recon'. The first two will generally carry assault rifles, MP5s, Ak 47s and the like with engineers specialising in heavy weapons, explosives and repair. Recon carry sniper rifles and a generally more cautious disposition. Each class has his own array of unlockable gadgets that can turn the tide in your favour. Mobile spawn points, ammo, medic kits and rocket launchers among the tricky treats available.

Battlefield 3 online gives you reason after reason to return. You might be shot down with frustrating frequency over a forty minute blitz, but BF3 rewards the overall impact you have on the game, more than it rewards kills to deaths, as is often common elsewhere. As is commonplace in the on line FPS market, each kill of any kind, with each individual weapon and each base defended or captured will bring reward, as ribbons are dished out like candy at a piƱata party. Repeat these feats enough and you will receive medals and dog tags to commemorate your achievement. As in previous instalments, dog tags can be procured from any unwitting foes who let you get behind them. This adds some nice tension at times and helps to encourage those of a pro camping disposition to kick up some dirt. Experience is given out in spades, but you never feel like you are being fast tracked through the early levels. BF3 is a grind. Xp is there to be had when you capture or defend a base, kill someone, assist a kill, blow up a vehicle or follow an attack order to name a few. If you keep busy, that bar will raise fast enough, but it's unlikely that you'll feel that you ever had it easy.

Beyond levelling, BF3 rewards your commitment to you closest friend out in the field, your gun. The longer you play on with your weapon of choice, the more unlocks will become available. This can lead to you being vastly outmatched against more experienced players initially, but over time the playing field levels out nicely. As you invest time with your boomstick, new sights, scopes, grips and gadgets will become available. This acts as a nice stop gap between the times your character's actual level increases. If you choose to take advantage of the vehicles at your disposal, their frequent use is rewarded as well. A tank for example, can be modified to include, gun turrets, smoke grenades or zoomed in reticules among others.

Battlefield 3 is a fairly good looking game over all. If you have a nice, shiny, high end PC, then that should represent your platform of choice. While it's not the only game that looks better on PC than on it's console counterparts, unlike most games released this year, there is a distinct and noticeable visual up step from console to PC. On console, when the dust of multi disk installation has settled, BF3 looks okay. More than the pure graphical fidelity, it is the scale and nature of the happenings in your periphery that make up BF3's visual biography.

Battlefield 3 carries two particular qualities across all platforms and game modes. DICE has a long standing tradition of ground breaking audio design and BF3 happily continues this trend. If there was an award for 'Best Aural Ear Candy 2011', I would not hesitate, for even a second. It is absolutely spectacular, bullets whisper sweet nothings in your ear as they whistle by. The far off crackle and pop of gun fire and explosions is quite removed from the violent, in your face, vulgarity of a proximal detonation. The muted score when sat behind the wheel of a tank is abruptly burst, noticeably so, upon your exit or even worse, it's explosion. A rocket launched nearby will sound quite different when fired in an open desert environment as opposed to the confined space of a subway tunnel. If you like listening to things, you owe it to yourself to experience this jaw dropping audio first hand.
BF3's gun play is intensely rewarding and equally gratifying. The variety of weaponry at your fingertips is part of the appeal. The feeling that every rifle, shotgun or explosive you carry is distinct from it's closest cousin, defines BF3's quality. Bipods and grips will steady your aim, every weapon has different sights best suited for varying ranges of combat. Recoil feels realistic and taking shots from the prone, crouched or standing position feels tangibly different. BF3 feels fair at every turn too, at no point are unrealistic weapon mechanics responsible for withdrawing you from the utter immersion that BF3 online provides.
Battlefield 3 has to compete with Call of Duty, it's no secret. Modern Warfare 3 is a shoo in to be Christmas number one this year, odds on with any bookmaker, not run from a cellar somewhere. As such, more than ever before, Battlefield 3 is coated from head to toe in glitter. Shiny distractions from it's spectacular core. In truth, Battlefield 3's story mode is poor, it's inclusion was never warranted. Perhaps, after the relatively warm reception BFBC2's narrative and characters received, it felt like a logical step to break ground and include the mode in a 'Battlefield' game for the first time. It was a misguided decision, whether in it's conception or in it's execution, it feels like nothing more than a kiddies run of what MW3's campaign promises to produce. When the glitter is stripped away however, and Battlefield 3 goes back to what it has always done best, the shrinking violet at the heart of BF3 finds it's voice. And what a voice it is.

BF3 is a ballet of beautifully orchestrated violence and earth shaking audio. While it's single player portion is flawed to the core, so it's multiplayer component is a pulsating drum beat of well crafted weaponry, enthralling action, constant gratification, and spectacular variety and replayability. Steer as clear of the campaign as you can but you owe it to yourself and your friends to get on line together and experience, what so far at least, is the best on line FPS endeavour of this year. When Battlefield does what it was born to do, nobody does it better.

Mecha Score 8.5

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