OXCGN’s Battlefield 3 Massive Review
Multiplayer Masterpiece on PC?
©2011 Alex Baldwin
We have the sci-fi Halos, Resistances, Killzones and Half-Lifes; the run-n-gun Serious Sams; the tactical Rainbow Sixes and Ghost Recons; the RPG-like Bioshocks, Chronicles of Riddicks and Deus Exes; and the booming popularity of the war shooter with Medal of Honor and Call of Duty.
Battlefield 3 belongs to this last group, but goes a bit further to the point where it can be classified as a massively-multiplayer shooter (at least on PC) with numerous smaller gunfights taking place across a massive battlefield indoors, outdoors, on land and in the air all initiated by the social Battlelog system.
In the beginning
For starters, Battlefield 3 is significant simply for the fact that it returns to the core Battlefield series after years of offshoots including the Bad Company spin-off series, Battlefield Heroes and 2142.
Unlike these other titles that share the franchise, the core Battlefield games have always been about the multiplayer experience involving large numbers of players, huge environments and numerous vehicles. In fact, both the biggest and most insignificant addition to number 3 is the inclusion of a dedicated singleplayer campaign.
As is the trend, the story story takes place in the current day (or near future) focusing on the Middle East as an American soldier recounts the events that lead to a threat on American soil.
What it boils down to is an excuse to throw in a variety of environments including crumbling Iranian cities, deserts, forests, urban jungles and stealthy night-time escapades.
Unfortunately, the environments is where the variety ends.
Encounters are scripted to the point of constantly feeling as it you’re simply being pulled along on a rope without a chance to truly ‘play’ the game. Enemies will always appear in the same places, friendlies will perform the same actions and the game will forcefully push you back into line if you attempt to stray outside the often literal corridor.
Far too often it comes down to going through the motions with a strangely detached feeling.
What doesn’t help are the occasional forced quick-time events, prompting for a click of the mouse or keyboard as you are wrenched from gameplay while a beautifully animated and irritatingly intrusive cutscene goes through the motions.
To compound this, the few times where the carrot of a controlling a vehicle is dangled it’s only to find that you’ll simply to taking the mounted gun. A drivable tank is a treat, but once again it boils down to simply moving forward through an empty landscape and shooting largely stationary enemy tanks without strategy or thought.
There are some impressive set-pieces and, providing you can shake the feeling of simply pressing the right buttons at the right time, it is a suitably interesting journey.
However, if you are not interested in multiplayer then there is not enough here to justify a purchase.
Being a Battlefield virgin (other than Bad Company 2 singleplayer) I dipped my toes into Team Deathmatch to start which provides smaller versions of the maps for the maximum of 24 players in this mode.
Playing out as US versus Russians, I began with the ability to choose from the four classes of Assault/Medic, Engineer, Support and Recon (sniper) with only one primary weapon choice for each.
Being the all-rounder than I am, I chose Assault and tried out each of the maps with a full 24 players.
For most maps the spawn points for team deathmatch are random, which gives a decent chance that you may spawn right in front of an enemy. This definitely caused some frustration when it occured four times in a row in a match, but it did not detract from the excellent experience.
Having largely focused my multiplayer time in Halo and Killzone, this was a much more controlled experience with run-and-gun gameplay more likely than not to get you killed within a few steps.
Sticking to cover and making sure your back is always protected is the norm, with intense breaks as you sprint to better positions. It becomes a game of movement alerting you to enemy positions and short, controlled bursts of fire to maintain accuracy.
More than any other game I’ve played visibility was crucial.
With explosions throwing up choking clouds of dust and looking into light sources able to temporarily blind you to anything behind it, I quickly learned to use this to my advantage for either sprinting to a different location or staying still and searching for any signs of movement in the haze as it cleared so I could get off shots before my opponent saw me.
Sound is also a major factor, as gunshots ring out extremely loud and can be located in 3D space by the slight muffle from behind or drop in bass caused by distance.
Taking a shot can be just as hazardous as staying quiet and letting that enemy live, as it can instantly alert all nearby to your super-secret hiding place. The large sparks and muzzle flashes are also dead giveaways.
Playing cat and mouse
The latter two increase your accuracy and lower recoil, making the process of dropping into a crouch before firing second nature surprisingly quickly after Halo’s constant movement while engaging.
The prone position, while a staple of war shooters, is far more important than most other games for your ability to minimise your exposed body for snipers and distant targets.
Looking around corners while flat on your stomach is very common.
Additionally, while in tall grass or rubble this is a very effective means of hiding. I had a very successful streak in one match lying prone in a pile of my teammates’ bodies as opponents ran past only to be shot in the back.
I was a sitting (or rather prone) duck when the grenade came however…
Other visual cues are also of critical importance. A small white glint off a weapon’s scope helps alert you to an enemy targeting you from the shadows, while using a flashlight or laser in close quarters will effectively blind an opponent (while unfortunately giving away your position to everyone else watching).
The visual element of play becomes incredibly important, and makes the brightly-coloured spartan armour of Halo seem much more like holding a flashing neon bullseye over your back.
This is where the player limits get upped to the full 64 for PC and vehicles control the flow of a battle.
The danger of tanks becomes all the more important when it can crumble the cover you hide behind or blast a hole in a wall next to the objective.
Stretches of open space, of which there is a lot with objectives spread hundreds of metres apart, becomes an adrenline-filled sprint for survival as helicopters and jets scream overhead, hopefully too distracted by each other to notice you.
While vehicles allow multiple players inside, being the early days after release you can only hope the driver knows what they’re doing.
First-person control of most vehicles is a challenge as they bump and skid across land with unforgiving suspension.
Air vehicles are even more hazardous, as mastering control of them takes a lot of practise with keyboard and mouse. It’s all too common to see helicopters and jets falling from the sky as their pilots display no knowledge of how they work.
It is therefore unfortunate that Battlefield 3 provides no means for practising.
You are unable to create your own empty server to practise on, and connecting to an empty dedicated server gives the message that you will not be allowed to move until 8 players are present (unless modified by a custom server).
Best ever seen Multi?
The multiple modes of engaging enemies and small fights around objectives in the midst of the larger battle occuring across the entire massive environments make it something very special.
However, there are some issues still.
Some environments need further adjustment for balance, as they favour a certain team very obviously and result in many players switching to what will obviously be the winning team.
Similarly some chokepoints, once held, can not under almost any circumstances be passed and end in stalemates that last the rest of the match.
Through tracking all your stats down to the tiniest details you are always able to monitor your vital info (eg: kill/death ratio, accuracy, score per minute) as well as a plethora of other information such as your performance with each weapon, progress towards unlocking new weapons or weapon modifications for each class and comparing your stats to friends.
Platoons (clans) are also created through Battlelog, allowing a team logo to be made and providing a Facebook-like wall to post, comment and ‘Hooah!’ (Like) statuses.
Platoon stats can also be viewed, as well as a listing and leaderboards of the members of that platoon for various significant categories such as Best Assault or Best Helicopter Pilot.
Players can also become ‘fans’ of platoons to further build a community around Battlefield 3.
For the PC version of Battlefield 3, all matches are launched from Battlelog with full dedicated servers, server lists and quick match (matchmaking).
Filters are provided for finding your ideal matches, and clicking Join Server makes a small box appear in the corner as the game loads and connects to the server. Friends can be dragged and dropped from the chat interface into this box to bring them into the game with you.
Your PC will only transition from your web browser into the full-screen game itself seconds before it finishes loading so you can continue to browse the Battlelog as the game invisibly sets itself up in the background. It really is an excellent system that makes it easier than ever to jump into a game at any time.
Often after regular internet browsing I opened the Battlelog bookmark to check stats or my platoon, and ended up jumping straight into a match.
Battlelog takes away the barrier of need to start up a game with the intention of putting time into it by making it an impulse since you can join matches stright from your internet browser.
The Fabulous Frostbite Five
But finally, the icing on the cake that DICE talked up so much at the EB Expo 2011 and in our exclusive interview is the new Frostbite 2 engine that promises to take the 5 elements of: sound, animation, rendering, scale and destruction to new heights.
All in all, it manages to do most of this admirably.
The sound design in Battlefield 3 is the best I’ve ever heard in a game.
Each weapon’s gunfire sounds unique, and the ability to work out the location it’s coming from as mentioned above is testament to the care put in. Those with subwoofers or high-quality headphones are in for a treat as each shot is extremely punchy.
One of the best touches are the sounds when bullets whizz past your head, with the slight whoosh clearly audible.
Tank rounds and rockets quite literally scream past your head, and are appropriately loud for their close proximity. The first time a rocket flew directly above my head I leapt back in my chair from the terrifying shriek of air.
While we have all heard the signiture rhythmic thumping and static that plays everytime the Battlefield 3 logo appears in trailers, it serves as positive feedback in the game whenever you rank up, finish a match or at key points in the campaign.
While some further music would have been welcome in the campaign, the industry-leading sound effects and spatial layering more than make up for it.
Animation is also difficult to fault, as soldiers transition between stances, firing, turning, scaling walls and more with remarkable fluidity.
It’s only in multiplayer that a few issues appear with clipping as parts of soldiers stick through solid objects or appear occasionally to be vibrating.
The view distance is extremely long, pop-in is largely absent and lighting is some of the best ever seen in a game.
The standout feature are the various lens effects, as light sources illuminate dust and smudges on your visor (your view) that give it a much more gritty feel. Literally.
Particle effects are outstanding as smoke and dust filter light and make visibility an important gameplay mechanic.
Textures look great and shaders are impressive, but sadly this is not the absolute pinnacle of graphics in all areas.
Some objects still betray low polygon counts, and there are numerous ground details that are very obviously flat such as leaves, paper and rubble.
Other games such as Gears of War 3 and Uncharted 3 provide much better close-range detail, but obviously they are not throwing around the same view distances and scale as Battlefield 3.
Scale is definitely an area developers DICE have focused on, with the massive open battlefield in multiplayer allowing clear visibility from one side to the other and the ability to spot enemies from hundred of metres away (providing you are using a high enough resolution).
Destruction is a mixed bag. Battlefield 3 does not provide the same building-leveling chaos of the modern Red Faction series by any means, other than the occasional scripted sequence in the campaign.
Instead, destruction is more of a tactical mechanic for blowing holes through certain walls (not all are affected sadly) or removing a building facade to clear out snipers hiding in windows.
The general rule is that destruction is only applicable for vehicles and rockets, and only in certain obvious buildings or walls.
All in all, Battlefield 3 provides one of the best multiplayer experiences found in games.
The singleplayer is largely unnecessary and forgettable, but with the degree of care all other aspects of the game has had this can safely be ignored with no value lost.
NOTE: There have been a few teething issues with the game in the days after launch relating to Origin game activation, slight Battlelog downtime and the Punkbuster anti-cheating system.
These appear to be resolved now, and have had minimal impact on my experience. Unfortunately other sites have blown these issues out of proportion and it should be noted that none of these are dealbreakers as they were resolved by EA and DICE within hours after they appeared.