Review: Battlefield 3 (Console)
Before I go on, I’ll have to say that I’ve been a huge fan of the Battlefield series since the second game hit the original Xbox back in 2006 (nope, never really been a PC gamer). It’s one of the few series that’s had an online mode which kept me going back for well over a year after release, and not the month or so I usually spend online with other games of its type. With that in mind, I, like everyone else, have been eagerly awaiting the release of DICE’s new effort, getting more excited with every passing trailer.
Well, it has finally hit shelves, and with EA eager to make sure that all critics got the day-one patch before reviewing, I spent all week on the Xbox 360 version to see if it lived up to the hype. What I found was a game of two sides…
The story that we’ve all heard before…
As many of you know, DICE were never focused on providing anything resembling a story until the start of the Bad Company series, but it now seems like a mainstay. Where Bad Company took a more light-hearted and, at times, comedic route, the campaign included in Battlefield 3 is a 4-5 hour ride that takes things a little more seriously.
It starts when you, an unnamed man, starts a daring assault on a moving New York train. After jumping on the roof, smashing through the back window and disabling a balaclava-wearing fella that we assume is a terrorist, you grab his gun and start working your way down the carriages mowing down anything that’s a threat.
We know nothing at this point, but the odd clue is there as you gun down all the bad guys; your right arm has a broken handcuff still attached, you’re highly skilled with firearms and in hand-to-hand combat, and you’re wearing a military uniform. As you get to the end carriage following several attempts from the enemy to stop you, you get your arse kicked and find yourself staring down the barrel of a gun… we then cut to eight hours prior.
It’s in this precursor that you discover that you had just been playing as Sergeant Henry Blackburn, a man accused of betraying his country for something we’re not quite clear about yet; through the medium of flashbacks, though, we’re about to find out. Cue a short tale from the eyes of the few protagonists involved, as you try stop a terrorist plot aimed at rocking Paris and New York.
The story in-between missions is told through pre-rendered cut-scenes, which take place in the world’s dustiest office building, where Blackburn is being questioned heavily by two pencil-pushing superiors. It seems that DICE were going for a bit of a Bourne vibe here, evident by the tone, lighting and visual effects, and it’s something they just about achieved. The thing is, though, it’s polished but a bit soulless. Well written, but dry. It almost hits the dramatic high-notes, mainly down to the atmosphere created; but still, I couldn’t help but miss the humour and characterisation from Bad Company.
While I definitely offer DICE kudos for trying to weave in a plot that’s more meaningful than just loosely tying unrelated missions together (as is usually the case in military shooters), it’s one that’s born of an industry trying to oust Call of Duty from its undeserved pedestal, and unfortunately as a result, we’ve seen this plot many times before.
They may as well have not even bothered with a campaign…
For any shortfalls in story, you can be assured it plays okay over the campaign, though it’s very far from perfect. A big problem is that while you do all the exciting stuff you saw in those gameplay trailers and more, it’s just not as interesting or as exciting as you’d have been led to believe. Take the jet mission as a prime example, where you play the co-pilot in an aerial dogfight before leading an assault on an enemy airbase. While it looks thrilling and action-packed to watch, it sadly lacks much involvement and interaction when playing it yourself; if I’m brutally honest, it was tedious.
It also highlights another issue with the campaign. You see, the Bad Company games may have each had their own issues with the single-player component, but they at least succeeded in giving you a taster of what was to come when you hit the real reason for the game’s existence: the multiplayer. Here, Battlefield feels too preoccupied in mimicking Call of Duty’s mission structure, leaving the campaign feeling derivative and desperately out of place in the package when compared to the multiplayer.
While in a way it’s more focused than what’s come before, it lacks the scope that Battlefield is known for and thus doesn’t feel like Battlefield. It’s a series that’s famed for its huge, open maps that could take an age to traverse on foot, with lots of options at your disposal, but the campaign here is so contained. In Bad Company, you’d often jump in a truck or tank and head to a distant location and tackle it from any angle you want; here you don’t really have that luxury. In fact, you barely control any of the vehicles yourself (except for a tank), which is both a surprise and a disappointment, considering that vehicles are a major part of the Battlefield experience.
This also lead me to shake my head at some of the conveniently located mission objectives, especially when it pertained to the main storyline. Without spoiling it for you, it all came across in a ‘we need to find something quickly; oh look, there it is!’ kinda way, especially towards the end where Blackburn just happens to be in the right place at the right time. That, or the terrorists made a massive oversight.
The absolute worst part of the game comes in everyone’s favourite industry bugbear; quick-time events. Done well, quick-time events can add urgency to a scene; done badly and, well, just play Battlefield 3 and you’ll see. At regular intervals throughout you’ll enter either an action sequence or a one-on-one physical fight that you can have no real active participation in. In fact, for the amount of times you actually have to press something in them, they may as well have made them cut-scenes as it would have left you with the same feeling of hollow detachment from the action.
The other mechanics are undoubtedly solid though, feeling slightly tighter and more responsive than in previous Battlefield titles, and the general A.I. performance is definitely better than in Bad Company. Unfortunately there are still times where your teammates will let you down, by just jumping in your way when you’re firing or pushing you out of cover into oncoming bullets, because they can’t break their own animation when you’re in their space.
Then they can also glitch, of course. Generally, when you have completed an objective, a designated colleague (who you aimlessly follow throughout) will then trigger the next waypoint for you, keeping the game flowing as much as possible. I had one instance where I’d done what was asked, even went ahead and cleared the next objective unwittingly long before being told what it was, and then found myself stuck with no indication of what to do next. I then discovered it was because my teammate was still upstairs a way back, firing relentlessly on an unarmed and seemingly harmless photocopier. I had to throw a grenade at it to clear whatever was upsetting him, and then I was allowed to move on.
Still, the game does some stuff really well. The combat is unquestionably fun when at full pelt and some of big set-pieces are absolutely spectacular, especially when it comes to the destruction. The combat is significantly helped by the feeling of high impact from the weaponry, with each gun feeling powerful, offering lovely feedback when you’re opening up. The shotguns in particular have this robust feel to them that makes them very satisfying to use.
Another thing I did like in combat was the feeling of momentum. Sprint at a wall and vault it, and you’ll see your supporting hand go down with real force and your legs come over as you take the jump at speed. Run towards some low cover and go prone, and you will almost feel the movement as your character throws himself hard to the ground.
With each new Battlefield release, we see significant improvement in destruction, and here is no different. Cover chips away realistically and differently dependant on the material, and there are some really nice debris and smoke effects that further sell its effect to you. Punching a hole through walls sees more believable damage than before, with crumbling concrete and exposed iron bars. Again, though, the destructible cover never really shows itself all that often in the campaign, to the point where at times I’d forgotten it was even a feature. There are one or two moments that leave you completely in awe, but on the whole it’s pretty underused.
In spite of all my complaints, I have to admit that the campaign did just enough to keep me entertained throughout, simply because the core combat is nicely refined, but it didn’t really wow me in the way I would have thought. It amounts to a short distraction that’s mildly fun and only occasionally impressive, ultimately feeling shallow and underwhelming.
You’ll be pleased to have Frostbite…
Having not played the PC version, I’m unable to comment on the differences between that and the console version, but I can safely say that the console version looks great. For the 360 version, you can install an optional HD content pack, which I whole-heartedly recommend doing as the difference in textures is staggering. Following on from RAGE, I don’t understand how this has suddenly become a ‘thing’ when we’ve had great looking games on the format for years, but do it; you’ll value the imagery a lot more if you give up that HDD space.
There’s just a lot of detail all round, from the environments to each individual soldier; although, if you’ve played Bad Company 2, you’ll know the characteristics of the Frostbite 2 engine quite well and recognise them in action here. Everything is brilliantly animated too; though the squadies don’t move quite as fluidly as they did in any of the trailers, it’s a definite step up for the series.
The environments you’ll encounter feel lived-in and rich in atmosphere, and there’s a lot variety in design over both the campaign and the multiplayer. The lighting and the way it interacts with the particle effects is impressive tech in its own right, and it’s even more amazing when you factor in the destruction.
Unfortunately, you do lose a lot of graphical fidelity when you jump into multiplayer. This disappointed me as it really wasn’t the case with the Bad Company games, which, I might add, didn’t require a graphics install… it still looks good, mind, but just not quite as sharp as you would have hoped having sampled the campaign.
The best sounding game… evaaaar…
I remember saying in my Bad Company 2 review that sound was a major highlight for me, and Battlefield 3 is no different. In fact, in purely audible terms it’s probably one of the best sounding shooters on the market online and off, especially when it comes to the sound effects behind the guns. From the deep ‘thup-thup-thup’ of a rifle as you free-fire, to the loud crack of a sniper rifle as you take a shot at someone who’s scrambling to get to cover, it’s a game that offers satisfying feedback when you pull that trigger. It’s done so well that it really helps you feel the raw power behind the weaponry you’ll get your hands on.
You’ll also enjoy the effects when under fire as the air around your head whistles and cracks, and when you narrowly avoid a grenade you’ll get an awesome reverb effect that results in temporary deafness. None of that is really new, though; but polished it certainly is. It’s a game that sounds amazing at every turn, and it’s really a large part of what makes the multiplayer so immersive.
I did find some audio problems in parts of the campaign, however; and they were mostly during the quick-time events and the in-engine dialogue scenes, where the audio would seemingly run slightly ahead of the action. You would hear the punches land before they did on the screen, and at times a character’s mouth would move long after they’d finished talking. Further evidence of a lack of care taken in the single-player game.
Soundtrack wise it’s the same static-driven pumper that’s been featured on all the trailers for most part, though there are some different themes throughout, including a gentle track during loading screens that reminded me a little of Mass Effect. There is one licensed track too, as the campaign kicks off to Johnny Cash’s ‘God’s gonna cut you down’. As much as I adore that song, it felt out-of-place with the rest of the soundtrack and the general direction that the game took.
The one true reason to buy this game…
Okay, so upon sampling the online mode, all that’s wrong with the single-player campaign instantly melts away. This is the real deal; another truly great online game from DICE that is unrivalled in scope. There have been some teething issues, but there have been with previous iterations and with their track record, you can totally trust that DICE will sort these as soon as humanly possible. If you’ve played Bad Company 2 online before, then you’ll probably slot right in here without too many complaints.
On consoles, Battlefield 3 supports up to 24 players in glorious combat over several modes. While, yes, the PC can handle 64 players, you need to consider that no other concessions have been made in terms of the maps and their features in transition to console, and there will always be more than enough carnage to be involved in.
There are five modes here to keep you busy (six if you count the co-op, but I’ll cover that shortly). Back once again is Conquest, where teams try to capture all the designated spawn points before either the time runs out, or they run out of available respawns.
Rush is easily the best mode in the game, which sees one team attack the map to destroy communications units, while the other team defends. Failure to defend an area will see you forced to fall back to the next point, and once all the points are destroyed or the attackers successfully held off, the teams are swapped and you get to do it all over again from the other side.
The maps for both these modes, as usual, are huge and sprawling, allowing you to attack how you see fit while making good use of the available vehicles. The vehicles are fun as hell to play with, but even on foot it’s just so awesome to see them in action on the field. It adds a deep sense of drama to see a tank roll over a hill while foot-soldiers dart and weave between cover around it.
The jets, as much as I’ve not got the hang of the controls yet, look phenomenal dog-fighting in the skies above, adding yet another lair of dramatic atmosphere that is usually only possible in single-player campaigns. Another nifty feature here is that if there is a vehicle waiting to be used, you can spawn directly to it. Hell, you can even spawn into a vehicle that’s out in the field if there’s a spare spot for you on it. Just don’t get into the habit of spawning into already-plummeting helicopters, like I did… still, if you do, you can always parachute safely to the ground.
With the vehicles, the ‘health’ and conditioning are now managed differently. If you take minor damage and can avoid being shot for a small period, then the condition of the vehicle will recover, much like when on foot. Should you take too much damage, you’ll find yourself immobilised and in need of repair. The sound of a tank having automatic, regenerating health sounds really dumb on paper, but honestly, it surprisingly works well, feeling fairer and more balanced than in the previous offerings. It also offers you that slight chance for survival, getting around those horrible moments where you jump in a car and have it explode just seconds later.
The other modes take place on smaller, more contained maps, and are Team Deathmatch, (self-explanatory), Squad Deathmatch (multiple teams) and Squad Rush; a smaller scale version of the Rush mode detailed above. All three are fun, but are simply sideshows to Conquest and Rush. They do, however, offer cleaner and less fussy matches that help to the keep the combat intense, thanks to their smaller scale.
Across all modes it handles brilliantly. Like before, it’s a game that caters for every single type of player. From the run-and-gunners to the cautious; from the tank drivers to those obsessed with only using RPGs as their main form of weaponry; everybody is welcome, and all styles mesh together really well.
Whatever your style, you’ll be rewarded for being a team player, helping downed teammates, and tagging enemies you’ve spotted with a tap of the select/back button; all these things will help you bring victory. The scale is really sold to you as well. You might well be fighting your own little battles on the ground, but there’s action going on all over the map that you aren’t even a factor in, helping you feel like you’re a small part of something much bigger.
The core combat, as is the case in the single-player, is fluid and effective, while the controls feel natural and are well mapped-out. You still get that same satisfying feedback from the guns, and that awesome feeling of momentum is still very much present. There are some other new quirks and tweaks you’ll need to take into consideration, which sound strange at first but subtly help balance the game nicely.
For example, there is a new suppression feature in play, where if you’re under heavy fire, your vision will blur slightly, not only indicating that you need to put something between you and the oncoming bullets, but levelling the playing field in those one-on-one moments. Again, it sounds like something that would detract from the experience and hinder you, but it actually enhances gameplay, acting as a decent warning system in spite of affecting your aim, leaving you to take a more considered approach to bagging those kills.
It also rewards those moments of team work, as a couple of times I was able to flank an enemy who was under heavy fire from a teammate. The ability to go prone is finally back too, something that was desperately missing from previous instalments, meaning that you can use cover more effectively while minimising the amount of you the enemy has to aim at.
One major improvement comes in the form of knife kills. In the previous games, the knife was always a one-hit kill, but here you can only achieve that by sneaking up behind someone. This prevents people from just running at you, being crap shots but still getting the kill because they were first to the knife button. It puts more of a focus on being a better aim, rather than just getting up close and spamming the instant death button.
Class unlocks and level progression also return, and as in Bad Company 2 they are individually tied into the four available classes. In this sense the game rewards you for playing how you want to play it. If you spend more time playing as a Support class, then you’ll unlock more gadgets and weaponry related to that class; it’s a better set-up than unlocking the weapons that you’ll never want to use.
Even the individual guns level up along the way too, unlocking new items specific for them. Some of the cool gadgets you can unlock include a defibrillator for reviving fallen team mates, new scopes, bi-pods for extra stability when prone, and even portable spawn points. The levelling does seem pretty slow, though, but it will keep you going for a while; especially if you’re like me and like to change your class mid-game depending on what’s going on.
The one thing I’m not yet sure on is the tactical torch. Aside from allowing you to illuminate dark areas, it lets you blind other players realistically when you’re aiming your gun at them, which although is a benefit to the attacker, can make the game a tad punishing for newcomers. When you’re just starting out and have been a victim to it a few times, it makes you feel like you’re not really on a level playing field until you’ve had chance to level up a few times. Plus, using it you’re just as likely to confuse your own teammate as you are the enemy… still, this is a minor gripe.
Destruction still plays its part too, only it’s been reigned in a little, and that’s to the game’s benefit. In Bad Company 2, all the urban areas could be pretty much leveled by the end of a match, so while there appears to be less buildings keeling over, destruction is used much more realistically. As a result it has greater impact when it actually happens, both tactically and in effect on the player. The trade-off is that you’re delivered more believable urban areas than ever before, which in previous games smacked a little of the cookie-cutter variety.
In the time I’ve been playing, it’s easy to see that this is the best Battlefield has ever been on consoles, and considering it was great before, you can see what a compliment that it is. It’s an online mode that won’t get boring for a long time, will keep evolving and rewarding you for playing. This is the reason to buy game. This is where you’ll get your money’s worth.
Finally, a quick mention about the self-contained co-op missions, of which there are just a handful included in the package. This mode puts you and one other into scenario missions, where you might need to hold a bridge under heavy attack, or jump into an aerial assault, and I had mixed experience with it in the admittedly short time I’ve spent with it.
With the right person alongside you, it’s undoubtedly a worthwhile mode to jump in on as you try to work with each other to beat incredible odds. With the wrong person, it can be a nightmare. Aside from what can naturally go wrong with a co-op game where you don’t help each other, both players can opt for a mission change at any point. In one case this left me not actually being able to stay in a mission for more than 30 seconds, even though I was the host. What ensued was myself and the griefer battling for control of which mission we played, until I had to quit and try to get someone else.
Thankfully, with one of the games I played, I was lucky enough to get a team player. The experience was absolutely flawless and tons of fun, in spite of neither of us using the mic and the fact that we lost (my fault). Just bear in mind that if you want to experience this mode to its fullest, you’re best to grab someone you know, trust and can communicate with. With that, it’s a shame to find that there’s no split-screen option to play with someone locally, but it’s a dying mode, right?
On the whole, it’s a nice little addition where the biggest problem lies in the paltry number of missions included, but by doing them you can unlock new stuff for the main online mode, so they’re certainly worth checking out.
Battlefield or Battlefailed?
So, overall, Battlefield 3 is not quite all things to all men, and possibly even behind Bad Company 2 in terms of being ‘the complete package’. The campaign, for all the hype generated from the studio, comes and goes with nothing more but a limp whimper, serving only as a disappointing-but-not-wholly-unappetising ‘hors d’oeuvre’, wheeled out before the redeeming and succulent chef’s special that is the online mode (I’m going to stop this cliched food analogy as it’s both awkward and making me hungry…)
That said, it’s a game that lives and dies by the quality of its online mode and would never have been remembered for the campaign, no matter how good or bad it may have been. Thankfully, DICE have nailed the mulitplayer as they always do, providing an unmatched online playing field which is not only grand in scope and caters for multiple play-styles, but also succeeds in providing an expansive, progressive and evolving experience. The online mode is really worth the money on its own.
It’s on that basis that Battlefield 3 gets my recommendation. It’s an online experience that you just can’t get anywhere else. Be careful if you’re looking for single-player thrills, though, as you’ll likely be left disappointed.