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We Review: Battlefield 3

After months of hype and fanciful trailers taking stabs at Call of Duty I’m not sure I’m man enough to take the fall if this review goes horribly wrong, and the fans of either franchise aren’t quite in agreement with my opinion on the matter. So let’s see if Battlefield 3 amounts to endless hate mail, or fabulous love letters. If I’m lucky, I might just dodge a bullet. The full review after the break.

Battlefield Bad Company 2 was one of those special titles which completely caught me by surprise when I picked it up for R99 at a Musica game sale. It’s one of those rare finds that instantly makes you a fan because you just did not see it coming, and it was that surprise that got me seriously amped for Battlefield 3. Sure, the awesome trailers they released over last couple of months helped, but it’s the hours and hours I lost in the multiplayer-pudding that is Battlefield that called me back for more. In the scope of first-person warfare shooters, Battlefield falls nicely in the middle of being the extreme simulator that is Operation Flashpoint and the more Hollywood-fuelled arcade romp that is any Call of Duty title. If you had to compare the three games to racing simulation games, Operation Flashpoint would be the ultimate F1 simulator, Battlefield would be Forza Motorsport and Call of Duty would be something like Need for Speed [Ed: Or Mario Kart?]. Battlefield was always the more slowly paced, tactical shooter compared to CoD, but never quite as extreme one-shot-kill as Flashpoint. This all seems to have changed, however.

Immediately obvious from the very start of the single player campaign is that Battlefield is trying very, very hard to add some more Hollywood-flair to the mix, and in doing so drawing more of the Call of Duty into enemy territory. Out with the Stanley Kubrick/Francis Coppola style of storytelling, in with the Jerry Bruckheimer/Michael Bay over the top style of literally everything.

Someone who hasn’t played a Call of Duty title before might be somewhat surprised by the campaign, but for a veteran it will be quite obvious that the storytelling mechanic has been blatantly stolen from Black Ops, but sadly lacking all the mystery and intrigue of that game’s deep conspiracy. Every set piece in the entire single player adventure feels like it’s been done before by CoD many time over already, despite a few truly memorable moments, especially a Top Gun moment very early in the game, but overall it’s a rather forgetful business.

Graphically the game looks superb, even on the Xbox 360 where I played it. If the PC gamers are to be believed then this is the best looking game ever made, and I can certainly believe that. Unfortunately, that over-the-top Hollywood flare returns in the form of camera lens effects that are so distracting it makes you feel completely disconnected from the experience. There is so much dirt/blood/guts/sand/water/stuff on your screen all the time that it’s often impossible to see what the hell is actually going on. When I swim through a muddy river, I don’t come out the other side with watermarks on my eyes, so why would you put such a crazy effect in place? Instead of immersing you in the experience, you are constantly reminded that you are in fact playing a game, and looking through a fake camera lens. It gets worse when the lighting engine pulls it’s tricks out of the hat. Don’t get me wrong, there are times when the lighting and all other effects do an absolutely superb job and leave you almost breathless, but unfortunately the rest of the time it’s so in your face you just want to switch it all off. Lighting in particular has a very bad bloom effect in some situations, which I believe is more a problem on the Xbox 360 due to some graphical anomaly, but fine on the PC & PlayStation 3 versions of the game. Furthermore, everyone’s favourite pet hate—the good ol’ lens flare—also makes its appearance more often than warranted, so that the overall experience is akin to rubbing vaseline all over your TV [Ed: And remember, don’t try this at home, kids!].

Oddly enough, none of these effects are present in the multiplayer mode of the game, which means that even DICE, the game’s developers, found it distracting enough not to employ in the competitive side of things. It would have been lovely if they just left an option in the menus to switch it all off, and I’m sure it would have given quite the performance boost as well. Speaking of performance, the game never really falls over its own feet, but there are a few key moments where everything slows down to the point that you think it was done on purpose to simulate bullet-time. It’s especially bad in the very last chapter of the game, which makes one wonder if they ever thought anyone would actually play that far and simply didn’t bother polishing it all up nicely.

The storyline mostly concerns Staff Sergeant Blackburn and his actions, but jumps between different factions and characters throughout to fill in the details from different angles of the same events. Like I said before, this isn’t exactly a new approach, but if you haven’t played a CoD title before it might seem a bit more fresh. Locations vary from tight close quarters encounters in cities that have fallen to rubble or dense jungle areas, to massive open landscapes where you can see for miles around you.

Like the previous games in the series, the sound engine is absolutely phenomenal. When you fire a weapon inside a building you can hear the bullet exit the chamber, smack against the closest wall, and then drop onto the ground. Moving around, or going outside while firing immediately affects the echo and resonance of the sound from your weapon. Grenades exploding really sound like you expect them to sound, not that I would have any idea what the real deal does sound like! [Ed: Please don’t try this at home, either. If  you do, however, drop us a line and let us know how it compares.] Tanks popping shells have an extremely visceral noise which really makes you wince every time one lets loose, or duck and cover when they are firing in your direction. There were a few instances where the sound would simply drop from the game, almost like it was lagging but nothing too serious. It’s sad that the phenomenal aural immersion is spoiled by the visual over representation.

Controls are tight, but can be confusing on the console versions of the game as they are completely different from the usual FPS defaults. Those use to playing Battlefield won’t even notice, but newcomers to the franchise might have a hard time adapting. Initially, I found that the auto-aim assistance was very obvious and, quite literally moved my reticle on-screen without so much as a by-your-leave, but I later realized this was only a problem with one particular weapon which seems to have some sort of movement tracking. On the topic of controls, Battlefield 3 features some absolutely retarded quick-time events that I feel have absolutely no place in this game: it simply does not match the feel of the rest of the game at all, and completely breaks the flow of gameplay. To compound matters, if you get a single button press wrong: instant death! This, of course, makes no in the context of the rest of the game, considering that you’ve just struggled for minutes, killing hordes—hordes, I tell you—of enemies that require much more skill than quickly pressing one button over another.

Enemy AI feels reasonably intelligent, and the game can be particularly challenging when you face them alone. Fortunately, your squad AI is equally intelligent, and this often makes the game feel a little bit easier in the scenes where you have them around to back you up. It makes for a nice change in pace, without making it ever feel frustrating or too much of a walk-through. Thankfully, Battlefield 3 doesn’t use the same system of forcing you to get to a certain point before your buddies will move and do their thing, as is the case with Call of Duty. It always feels like a team effort, and never like you are the one leading the pack, which is a nice change from the norm.

So much for the the single-player campaign; let’s move on to what you’re reading this review for: the multiplayer section.

Simply put: superb; simply superb. To fill in the blanks for newcomers, Battlefield supports games of 24 players on console and 64 players on PC using its own dedicated servers. Conquest mode is the most popular, and tasks each team with capturing different points on each map which they can then use as respawn points should they die. Each team starts with a certain number of tickets that gradually deplete according to how many points have been lost or captured, and how many times you have respawned. Rush mode is a faster paced game mode where the teams flip between attack or defend modes and need to destroy targets for points. These two modes are highly reliant on staying alive as long as possible, and thus support classes such as the Medic and Engineer are as important as attack classes such as Assault and Recon. Newly introduced in Battlefield 3 is Team Deathmatch, which uses random respawn points and is typical of a the classic mode found in most shooters where the team with the most kills wins. My favourite new addition is Squad Team Deathmatch, where four squads of four members battle it out against each other for the most kills. This can be a very slow-paced tactical game mode, which relies very heavily on teamwork to rack up the points.

The beautiful thing about Battlefield multiplayer is the ranking system, which doesn’t simply reward you for killing people, but also for playing support and reviving team mates, dishing out health packs or ammunition, or repairing vehicles using the Engineer class. There are still only four classes, but the Medic and Assault classes have now been merged, leaving the Engineer to engage tanks and other vehicles when attacking, or repair them when defending. The Support class now provides team mates with ammunition, while specializing in heavier weapons. Last, but not least, is the favourite of many a more passive player, the Recon class; effectively, a sniper with the ability to mark targets using a laser designator.

Each class levels up individually, which unlocks various weapons, add-ons, and gadgets for that particular class, while pushing your overall rank up as well. Your overall rank then unlocks different appearance customizations and camouflage variants. As with most such games, you get more by playing more and doing well. A Medic, for instance never actually needs to shoot anyone, and can simply supply team mates with health packs, or use the defibrillator to revive them and rank up in the process of doing this. Therefore it becomes quite important to get the right mix of skills into the same squad, because everyone playing with the same class simply doesn’t work. A typical 12-player team would split into three squads of four players each, and you get special ranking bonuses for working together well as a squad and capturing or destroying objectives together. In a way there is always a game, inside a bigger game, [Ed: I believe they call this the metagame.] when playing Battlefield.

Vehicular combat, one of the big feathers in the multiplayer cap of this title can sometimes make, and other times break, a game. Unfortunately, especially when joining public games, you find that people want to play only a certain style of game, which often involves going completely vehicle-based, and quite regularly spawn camping the enemy and stealing their vehicles. This can often lead to extremely boring games where the same tactics are simply employed over and over again, and you end up counteracting them more than actually playing for the objectives. So getting the right mix of people is key to having a good game, but this can easily be solved by simply playing with friends or familiars, instead of strangers. Depending on the map, there is also generally a rush to get the best vehicles, mostly because taking down helicopters and the newly-introduced jets can be a major challenge from the ground, and for this reason your team needs its own aerial units out and about as quickly as possible. For this very reason I have not had a single opportunity to fly one of these magical jets that everyone speaks of, but I have crashed many choppers without killing anyone or anything…because they are insanely difficult to master. I’m sure one day when I manage to fly either for an extended period of time, I will have a great sense of accomplishment.

I’ve heard many murmurs on the local forums that the maps have been COD’d, but so far I don’t feel that this is a bad thing. Generally the maps feel a little bit tighter and more close quarters, but this is a good thing in my opinion as often in Bad Company 2 you had to run for miles to get to any action, if you were unlucky enough to spawn at a time when there were no vehicles available. It now seems a little less vehicle driven, and more CQC which I feel is a good thing. It’s not quite Call of Duty with the “run around corner and he who shoots first wins” system, but certainly plays a little bit faster, which was often a problem for me in the past when games started dragging on much too long for my tastes.

Then there is a co-op campaign, in essence a dedicated campaign for two-players, separate from the single-player story, which has the competitive addition of being tracking your time and performance on the game’s leaderboards. The downfall of this, and, in fact, with the normal multiplayer, is that it requires a connection to the EA servers to be played, which is unfortunately why I haven’t been able to try this mode at all, and therefore cannot comment on its worthiness: the servers were down at the time that I had a friend waiting on the other side of Xbox Live to play. It would have been a bonus if the game could revert to peer-to-peer connections like most other Xbox 360 games in those cases where the dedicated servers are simply offline or not capable of offering a favourable experience. That being said, there is now a server browser which allows you to manually choose the server with the best connection available. I’ve only ever used the Quick Match system, though, which thankfully has found a game every time in a matter of seconds, and even being stuck at the bottom of Africa I have not noticed any latency problems that made it unplayable.

So what’s the verdict?

Going by the single player alone I would rate Battlefield 3 a dismal 6/10. Maybe if you’ve never played this kind of game before and it’s all very new to you it could score a 7, possibly even an 8, but from my perspective the campaign seems nothing more than the tacked-on afterthought clone that it obviously is. If single player is primary concern, and you don’t much fancy multiplayer then rather wait for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, which lands next week, or even scour the bargain bins for CoD: Modern Warfare 2, or CoD : Black Ops if you missed those, as they offer an infinitely better single player experience. The multiplayer, however, is a completely different game, and scores a solid 9/10 in my book, deserving even more had the EA servers not gone down twice during the time I was researching this review. I will certainly be playing it throughout the rest of 2011, and we can be assured of DLC keeping it going well into 2012.

“Not bad for a bunch of Swedes, as long as you don’t play alone”

Score: 6 out of 10 prawns for the single player campaign, and  9 out of 10 prawns for multiplayer

Distributor: EA
Publisher: EA
Developer: DICE
RRP: R495 (PS3 | Xbox 360), R330 (PC)
Rating: 18
Release Date: 28 October 2011

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