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?
You want graphics with that?
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.
The enemy AI doesn’t care about anything you do either, and works on such a bog-basic level as to acknowledge only ever one single facet of the game world. Your position. It has no problem-solving abilities. It will barely move, except between the two specific points of cover designated to it. It won’t react to your tactics. It will just keep firing directly at your position while ducking up and down. And best of all, it will do so whether it could legitimately know your position or not.
Example: I’m in the cavernous atrium of a closed-down shopping mall in the middle of the night. Inky darkness covers everything. Enemies are on their way in, having heard that I’m in the building somewhere. I have a night-vision sniper rifle and three claymores. In a modern, AAA shooter, this should be a tactical cat-and-mouse masterpiece. I should be laying traps and causing confusion. I should be using the multiple floors and densely shadowed areas to pick off the goons one at a time, before disappearing again as if a ghost.
But I can’t do any of that. Because whatever I do - even if I shoot out all the lights before anyone arrives - the second I pop my head out of cover, everyone in the building immediately, clairvoyantly starts peppering me to pieces from their static positions, however far away I am and whether they could have sourced my shot or not. These aren’t soldiers. They’re mindless, heat-seeking gun turrets wrapped in meat.
Even if I change positions in total darkness between waves, the next set of guys know exactly where I am and start instinctively firing, on an almost constant basis. This sort of thing happens all the way through the campaign, and it reduces Battlefield 3’s gameplay to a basic, desperately frustrating, attritional Time Crisis pop-shoot until everyone is dead. The level design, while very linear, is at times more open to flanking and breakaway tactics than the likes of the more recent CoD games. But the AI renders these tactics pointless. You’ll kill one guy if you’re lucky, before every gun in the area pins you down in a state of perpetual bullet-rain.
It’s a game suffering an identity crisis, trying to blend scripted, arcadey action with a brutal sense of genuine threat, and finding only a frustrating middle ground in which idiotically aggressive AI is dangerous only by way of borderline-psychic blunt force. Between the enemy’s total inability to change its behaviour patterns and its unerring ability to track you whatever the hell else is going on, the majority of skirmishes feel more like playing Dance Dance Revolution or Elite Beat Agents than an FPS. Success is simply a trial-and-error case of learning, copying and pre-empting the enemy’s repeating patterns and spawn positions. You’ll be speed-running each battle by the time you finish it, but you’ll go mad with the repetition of learning each fight’s strict chroreography in order to get to that point.
This isn’t a smart shooter. It’s a game that operates on antiquated gameplay mechanics so mechanical that you can hear the gears scraping at the start of every event trigger. Streets empty? Squad refusing to move from the spot? Then there’s one guy left still alive somewhere, and your battle-hardened buddies won’t move on until you’ve spent a few minutes trying to find him.
Above: BF3 uses so many arbitrary QTEs throughout its campaign that it ends up feeling like this
Charged with stealthily infiltrating a heavily fortified building without detection? Forget those excitable thoughts of a clever Deus-Ex-style pacing mix-up. You’ll Metal Gear your way in via a three-button QTE and a glorified first-person cut-scene. Immediately before more psychic AI forces you straight into a massive firefight anyway, however stealthy you might have been once you regained control.
The thing about scripted gameplay is that it’s a knife-edge balance. If a game is going to take a huge amount of control away from the player, it needs to mask the joins well with convincing enough smoke and mirrors, and also ensure that the lack of a real driving seat position never sends the player off course. Battlefield 3 frequently fails on the above two points. And at its worst that leads to some downright broken situations. Your squad will sometimes run straight through a door (without opening it first). Enemies you're required to kill in order to move on will sometimes get trapped behind a locked door and keep shooting at you through it (though you might well be able to fix this situation by clipping straight through the very door they're trapped behind in order to kill them).
If you need the game's failings summed up in one example, take this final stinker as an example, and then I'll get on to the happy stuff, I promise...
That’s what Battlefield is like. It’s not just two collections of players slogging away at each other until the time runs out or a kill-count is hit. It’s a living, breathing ecosystem. Playing a Battlefield match provides a very similar feeling to playing something like Oblivion. You’ll go in with a single, simple objective, but along the way you’ll get sidetracked by comrades in trouble, and new objectives within objectives born out of the chaos of the sprawling warzone.
You might stick with a newfound pack of friends you ran into while randomly drawn together by the need to spontaneously defend an objective. You might jump in a jeep together and spin off to a brand new adventure God knows where. A stricken plane might fall out of the sky and pound you to death with wreckage. Or it might hit the enemy, or provide new cover just when you need it most. It’s pure, emergent gameplay at its best, and it’s happening on a vast scale all the time.
Battlefield isn’t really about who wins or loses. The class-specific assist skills mean that you’ll level up regardless, as long as you really get involved. No, it’s really about a bunch of people coming together to dynamically choreograph the biggest, most ostentatiously epic war movie imaginable. And it happens every time you spawn in.
New stuff this time round? There are a few tweaks. Most obviously, the Rush and Conquest modes (concerned with progressively destroying bases and the taking of a map-wide spread of control points, respectively) are now joined by Bad Company 2’s Squad Deathmatch and a more generic new Team Deathmatch. The latter is obviously rather vacuous compared to the objective-based games, essentially consisting of close-quarters run-and-gun and demanding little in the way of class support skills like healing or vehicle repair. But it is rather fun on its own terms. It’s certainly the fastest, most brutal TDM I’ve played in a long time, possibly ever if we’re just talking about military shooters. There’s also the option to play infantry only, cutting out the vehicles altogether. Again, doing so feels a bit like taking the Battlefield out of Battlefield to me, but the option is there if you want it.
In contrast to the Bad Company games, you can now go fully prone when in combat. Don’t worry about this unbalancing things though. A good counter-sniper will still be able to flush out a prone camper, and the ability to spot enemies for team-mates means of course that even fleeting glances from afar can be ultimately deadly. And besides, going prone also makes you more visible from above, and with jets joining helicopters this time, the chances of death from the skies is doubled.
The only new thing I’m currently unsure about is the Tactical Light, a torch attachment for firearms which dazzles any opponent looking directly at you. At the moment it feels a bit over-powered – even moreso given that it seems just as effective in broad daylight as it is indoors – but it can technically be worked around with strong co-operative play and tight squad communication.
If I was going to review multiplayer on its own? It would be a straight 10/10.
And speaking of co-op play, it’s worth mentioning the separate two-player co-op missions too. Because they’re not bad. Little 20 minute vignettes with a particular angle or theme, they often provide little slices of what the solo campaign could and should have been. Frustrating, but at least it means that there’s a remnant of non-multiplayer quality here. They range from Horde-like defence missions to intense siege escapes over branching open-plan routes, with both players providing covering fire for each other. There’s even a rather brilliant free-roaming level, in which a pilot and a gunner must provide air support for a ground-based mission, with full control over one of Battlefield’s fiddly but rewarding attack choppers.
It’s also possible to unlock multiplayer weapons through scoring more points with better performances in co-op. That does rather feel like a bit of a carrot-dangle though. Because for their intermittent high points, I find it debatable how much replay value the co-op missions would have in and of themselves.
It’s the penultimate level. It’s been a long, long, long slog, fighting alongside a couple of AI to infiltrate a bad guy’s base. Eventually, my buddies send me off on an entirely different route for a couple of minutes. They don’t explain why. The just start blind-firing into the corridor ahead and tell me to find another way around. I look into the corridor. It’s empty. They’re firing at no-one, though there is a small fire there for some reason. Probably a token gesture to put me off investigating the empty corridor. I head to the door they mentioned (which spookily opens right in front of my eyes if I get there a few seconds before the game is expecting me). I fight my way through the alternative route and eventually end up at the other end of the empty corridor that had so intimidated my friends. Right on cue they bust through the door, having valiantly fought their way through the combined forces of absolutely nothing for the last couple of minutes.
Incredulous, I duck my head round the door just to confirm that I haven’t missed anything. Immediately catching up with them, I die in the next firefight, seconds before the end of the level. And I restart not where I died, but back in the empty corridor, alone, behind the now re-locked door, and find that the alternative route I took before is now blocked off by an invisible wall. Because staggeringly, the game seems to register checkpoints based on the AI’s progress through the level rather than the player’s. And the AI have obviously triggered the next one while I was a little way behind. And the game has made no provision for me being a little way behind, and has saved the state of the level exactly as it was when its beloved AI were in position. Because it just expects me to play along exactly as it wants me to.
There is no way to fix this problem. I have to start the whole level again. It takes another 40 minutes. Because Battlefield 3 is so obsessed with its own scripting that it hasn’t thought about me at all. And when game scripting is chokingly restrictive without being tightly enough designed, you have a recipe for an infuriating, immersion-killing shambles. This is 2011. This is a big budget, tentpole FPS. This is inexcusable.
If I was going to review Battlefield 3's campaign on its own? It would probably get about a 6/10.
But you know what the really weird part is?
The fact that the crappy nature of Battlefield 3's campaign doesn't matter half as much as it should.
Basically, Battlefield’s legendary multiplayer is as good as it’s ever been. If you’re already a BF player, then that’s all you need to know. If not, then let me explain to you exactly why this is the finest competitive FPS offering available.
It’s the sheer sense of purpose in everything you do that makes it. Where other online shooters can be a maelstrom of panic, frustration and revolving-door respawns, Battlefield’s vast scale and beautifully interrelated class and objective system means that every move you make is infused with gratifying meaning and a nourishing sense of importance.
Despite the frenetic chaos of the warzone, despite the multitude of sudden surprise deaths you’ll suffer (and you will), Battlefield 3’s multiplayer is one of the warmest, most benevolent online experiences around. Because a Battlefield match is a long, drawn-out, ever-shifting tactical power struggle rather than a simple race for kill points, the real glories, successes and victories achieved through the moment-to-moment, micro set-pieces that gradually turn the tide. Those are what matter rather than the final scorecard.
You might spawn in as a sniping Recon class, complete with long-range rifle and a radio beacon which acts as a placeable spawn point. You might set up camp on a quiet rocky outcrop a couple of hundred metres out from the objective your team is going after. You might never move from that spot in the ten minutes it takes to destroy that objective. You might only kill two guys before being wiped out. But if they’re the right two guys. If they’re the two who happen to be holding back your ground troops from rushing the building, and one of them has the rocket launcher that’s giving your incoming tank trouble… Right there, you have a huge personal and team win, however the rest of the match plays out.
So what if a scout chopper looms up behind you, and peppers you back to the load-out screen the second after you’ve made the shot? Your troops will be moving in. You might even be able to spawn straight into their squad as an Assault class and immediately reap the frantic visceral benefits of your set-up work. The tank that was being kept at bay will be able to start intimidating the incoming enemy support who are now trying to come to their base’s rescue. The friendly Engineer who wanted to repair the tank but was pinned down by rocket fire will now be able to. The Assault guy who was keeping the Engineer alive with med packs while he waited for an opportunity to get to the tank will now be able to break off and help elsewhere. You think you’ve barely made a dent in the battle, but in truth you’ve changed everything.