Tricky review to write, this one. Tricky review indeed. You see Battlefield 3 is really two separate games fighting for attention in the same package. One of them (and arguably the one that most of the series' core fanbase are interested in) is very, very good indeed. The other, despite looking very pretty and seeming to have the best of intentions, is a formulaic, often-shambolic mess of a thing, which stumbles into the territory of the downright broken at times.
So the question is, does one ignore the crap and rate the game based upon the best bits, or take Battlefield 3 as an overall package and adjust the score accordingly? I'm going to have to do the latter, because Battlefield 3 is an overall package, and a review cannot simply be written for a selected group of gamers. I will however, be breaking things down a bit in my text so that you can contextualise what the final number means for you personally. My position clear, let's get on with this, shall we?
First, one very important point. For whatever reason, the Xbox 360 version of Battlefield 3 that runs off the main disc uses a seriously downgraded texture set for a noticeable amount of the game's graphics. I'm talking standard-def, last-gen or worse here. It's hilarious in places. Check out this video I made and you'll see what I mean.
Above: The installed versions of the textures come first, obviously
The real textures come by way of an optional 1.5 Gb installation taking around three minutes. I say optional, but it's not really. The SD textures look so bad that you will not want to play BF3 with them. Problem is, that so far it seems that if you have a 4Gb Xbox, you might be screwed. BF3, you see, refuses to recognise the 4Gb internal Flash memory as a legitimate storage device, and will not attempt the installation. It seems that unless EA and DICE sort this, without a bona fide hard drive, you're getting BF3: PS2 Edition. We've contacted EA about the issue, and obviously we'll keep you updated. That clear, let's crack on. How about we stay on the negatives for a bit and get them all out of the way?
Battlefield 3’s campaign has a few inspired set-pieces – chiefly the semi-free-roaming tank battle you saw in Grimm's FAP, and a quite tense section inspired by Hitchcock’s North by Northwest – and the core experience of firing a gun is a meaty and satisfyingly affecting one throughout, boosted to no end by DICE’s rattly, mechanical gun handling and sumptuous sound design. Also, it’s one of the best-looking, most visually atmospheric shooters of the generation so far (when it isn’t trying too hard to prove that by throwing a borderline hilarious number of combat-obscuring light, shadow and smoke effects at you).
It’s resolutely linear, but usually does a good job of feeling open. Urban areas in particular effectively funnel you along the right route without feeling too constrictive, though some rural spots jar rather horribly by using a clumsy “Get back to the fight or die” mechanic if you stray past the invisible and often chokingly tight boundaries it has in place. Overall then, doesn’t sound too bad. One thing you should know though.
Battlefield 3’s campaign does not give a shit whether you exist or not. That Skynet-like disregard for the pathetic, fleshy human form is its defining characteristic. It doesn’t matter what you think. Things are going to play out how Battlefield 3 wants them to. Understand that from the start. If you’re really good and do everything it says, exactly as it tells you to, then if you’re lucky it might just let you feel like you’re involved. If not? Then you’re in for a whole lot of disconnected frustration.
Above: For all its graphical wonder, BF3's campaign is as lifelike as these guys
Experiencing a convincing, narrative-driven video game world is like being the only non-actor amongst an improv troupe charged with accommodating your input while pushing towards a pre-set story outcome. By contrast, Battlefield 3’s campaign is like wandering around a museum full of animatronic waxworks which repeat set, pre-programmed patterns whether there’s anyone in the room or not. Call of Duty takes a lot of deserved flack for its over-scripted, on-rails experience. Indeed, playing CoD is often more like being strapped into a rollercoaster at a Michael Bay theme park than partaking in genuine interactive entertainment. But in trying so damnably hard to ape its biggest military shooter rival, Battlefield 3 almost operates as a parody of it. In fact thinking of it like that was the way I actually got through its worst parts with sanity intact.
Above: Ever felt you're not actually part of the group?
In Battlefield 3’s campaign, we’re talking about a game in which your own AI squad-mates won’t just hog cover, they’ll invariably actively force you out of it if you happen to be sheltering behind the one specific rock or crate that the scripting has decided is theirs. No hint of adaptation. No care for the other six rocks they could take without risking your immediate death during a heavy salvo of gunfire. No acknowledgement that you’re even there. Because to Battlefield 3’s NPCs, you’re not.
Squad behaviour is so prescribed that at one point my team decided that the cover wall I was using was the designated grouping spot. They bunched up around me, locked me in position on the spot, and by some glitchy quirk of clipping, forcing me to stand up (even though they were crouching). I remained a sitting duck until the last enemy was dead. And strangely, by that point I wasn't even surprised.
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