If your childhood was anything like mine, you would remember hours upon hours of playing “army” as a kid. It’s amazing what a kid’s imagination can conjure with the help of a few water pistols and some cardboard boxes. If what they say about men is true, ie, we never really grow up, then it’s safe to say that EA DICE will never run out of customers for their Battlefield series.
But before I get to the good stuff, let’s get the bad news out of the way shall we? Yes, Battlefield 3 (BF3) has a single player component. And yes, it’s not exactly great. But for the sake of keeping this review complete, I am going to cover it nonetheless.
The weakly written story starts off quite well, with a strictly on rails experience that ironically enough, begins on a subway train. The plot revolves around the protagonist Sgt Blackburn, out to stop a bomb from going off on said train. It’s all very standard corridor shooter stuff complete with annoying quick time events and on screen prompts. Thought to DICE’s credit, the do pull this off with more flair than anything else they have done in the single player space ever since they decided to tack on campaigns to products that don’t really need them (I’m looking at you Bad Company 2). The story is told via flashbacks that occur during Blackburn’s interrogation (oh yes, never seen THAT before have we?) and is a convenient plot device that allows for hopping across the globe and showing off BF3’s vehicle combat. The voice work is good and the music is surprisingly so. The “Caspian Border” track in particular maybe the best game score I have heard all year. As far as gameplay goes, there are occasional flashes of brilliance that nonetheless are not enough to recommend this as a single player experience. The story is garbage, the characters are entirely forgettable (I seriously do not remember more than two names) and the quick time events are horribly annoying. Add to this a stupid save system and well, you get the idea.
Let me make this clear, it’s not that the campaign is “bad”, it’s just that it’s so very generic and feels so forced, it may as well have been left out entirely. In this reviewer’s humble opinion, people looking for a single player experience and nothing else, should really look elsewhere. To those of you who insist on me saying it, here it is: The Call of Duty series still takes the single player military shooter crown.
The real reason anyone would purchase a BF title of course, is the multiplayer. It is here that the game shows us what it’s all about and boy does it deliver. To those that are bad at reading hints, this is where the good news begins. So pay attention soldier.
The Frostbite 2 engine is a thing to behold. The graphical jump from Frostbite 1 (used in Bad Company 2) is not huge, but big enough to be spectacular. This is one of the best looking games on the market across any platform. But where DICE has nailed it (again) is sound. I said this about them in BC2, I’ll say it again: no one does sound like DICE does. If you have a semi-decent sound set up, expect to be blown away to the point where every other game sounds like garbage. The rumble of tanks, the crumbling of the destructive scenery, and the distinct retort of every gun in the game all add up to an exhilarating crescendo of destruction. It is quite frankly, amazing.
Old hands will be happy to see the huge open maps that have been the trademarks of the series make a return. BF3 has a number of multiplayer modes including conquest (my favorite), Rush, Team death match and Squad team death match. Unlike most military shooters, battles in BF3 are all about team work. For instance Conquest focuses on holding certain “control points” on a map. Every team has 300 “tickets” (essentially “lives”) that run out as player die. The first team to reach zero tickets loses. If a team occupies more than half the control points on a map, the enemy team starts “bleeding” tickets. This is a game where having the most kills means absolutely nothing if objectives and squad support are not paid attention to. Squad mates act as mobile spawns, can revive fallen comrades and supply much needed equipment. Killing stuff is a small part of a greater strategy.
Each class has a specific role and every squad needs to support its members to have any hope of victory. Vehicular combat is a large part of the game and it is hard not to stare in amazement the first time you spawn in the middle of a battle. Jets are engaged in dogfights overhead, choppers being targeted by anti-air missiles, tanks roll across the field spreading death and soldiers doing a hell lot of killing and dying in good measure. To be honest, if you are new to the series, it can be a little overwhelming.
Which brings me to the game’s biggest success and ironically, its biggest flaw. So heavily are the odds in favor of a cohesive team, that an unorganized team of newbies don’t have a snowballs chance in hell of putting up even a token resistance. After spending over 25 hours in the multiplayer, I can now easily see within the first few seconds of a match if a team has some experienced squads in it. When you do get lucky and spawn with folk who know what is needed and how to go about it, each game is like a bunch of mini A Team episodes, i.e., glorious. Victory is pretty much assured and seeing a squad’s plan come together is a thing of beauty. On the opposite end of the spectrum, finding yourself in a team full of Rambo wannabes is a series of rather painfully embarrassing facepalms. It does not help that the game shipped with little in terms of in game communication aids. If ever there was title that screamed for voice chat, this is it. Typing out commands takes too long and with everything going on around you, the chances of actually reading anything typed out by a player are pretty remote.
The problem gets worse when there are some ace pilots or tank drivers in the opposition. At this point, any idea of balance goes out the window. However, let me stress this, it’s not that BF3 is an unbalanced game. If anything, DICE has done an excellent job of keeping things well tuned with its constant patches. It’s just that the game greatly rewards teamwork to the point where it can become unbalanced. The fault lies with the players not the game. But try telling yourself that when the same helicopter has owned you for the tenth time.
Your attempts at exacting winged vengeance will be short lived when you realize that yet again, DICE refused to put in a “training map” of any sort for the vehicles. Seeing how critical jets and choppers are, the fact you have to crash a bunch of em before you even begin to get the hang of flying is mind numbingly stupid. Crash enough of them and a kick form the server is pretty much guaranteed from your (rightly) pissed off team mates.
At least the constant leveling up and unlocks keep things interesting. There was more than one occasion where that was the only thing that kept me playing through some bad losing streaks.
Map design is solid, with some levels putting extra emphasis on vehicles and a couple that are virtual meat grinders. All weapons have a distinct feel and are pretty balanced though I am far from unlocking all of them. One weird thing is DICE’s decision to keep the game browser separate from the game itself. Multiplayer is launched via your internet browser of choice, an act that at first seemed completely alien. I will be honest, I thought this was stupid decision at first but, having used it for as long as I have, I can see the wisdom in it. It still feels strange but works the way it should. Stat tracking is very robust and I have to admit, the browser based navigation brings with it extra functionality that would otherwise not be possible in game (at least not efficiently). This much touted “Battlelog” system does have one big short coming however, ie, it does not make the job of finding a clan (platoon) any easier. Sure there is a build in search feature that allows you to look for platoons and friends by name, but it does not help in finding one based by region, or interests. And though the official forums can be a good place to start, finding a platoon based around this part of the world is pretty much mission impossible. That being said, finding friends is easy and the system itself has a lot of potential if DICE does it justice. My advice? Don’t go into this game alone. Buy a couple of extra copies to give to some friends and play together. It is the only way to enjoy the game. Random groups can be fun but the experience you will have playing with a bunch of guys you can depend on is sheer bliss.
The one place where a random group can work out is the Co-Op missions. Similar to CoD’s “Spec Ops”, this mode allows two people to go through some rather well designed missions. This is also, the only place where you can learn how to fly without pissing off a whole team (just the poor sod you pair up with). The missions are tense and hectic and surprisingly well done. Connectivity from India can be spotty however, another reason why you shouldn’t be doing this alone.
A note on realism: there isn’t any. At no point does BF3 pretend to be a military sim like Arma. This is a game centered around making things go “Boom!” in spectacular fashion. It allows you to pull of some insane James Bond crap like this. It is fun and frequently hilarious. Do not expect anything more than a game. A bloody good one.