It’s easy to become cynical when casting an eye over the increasingly bloated catalogue of first-person shooters foisted upon gamers every month. In 2011, even the announcement of a sequel in a major franchise is met more with a sense of inevitability than of excitement.
We don’t ask ourselves what the game is; we ask how it’s different from what we’re already playing – what we have been playing for many years – and more often than not, the answer is aesthetic and iterative.
For all its shortcomings, Homefront can at least be praised for daring to portray Americans doing something other than bringing a superior arsenal to bear on an oil-rich country.
On Thursday, publisher Electronic Arts held a showcase event in London, headlined by Battlefield 3.
There, I asked Patrick Bach, the executive producer of Battlefield 3 at DICE, if he thinks there’s such a thing as too many first-person shooters. “Yes and no,” was his measured response. “There’s always competition in a genre that is popular. All competition is good competition so there can never be too many. But then again, if you’re a consumer, it could be a case of ‘what should I focus on?’ People spend a lot of time playing these games, so if you invest in the wrong game, you might waste your time.”
With that in mind, our demo of Battlefield 3 hits the ground limping as four non-descript American soldiers trade military clichés in the back of an armoured personnel carrier.
The vehicle comes to a sudden halt and our heroes file out onto a dusty street in an Arabic city. As another soldier forces a civilian to his knees on the periphery, one member of our squad wonders aloud, “What are we doing here anyway?” Another quips, “Don’t ask me, I just work here.”
Down an alleyway we group up around a coffee-drinking, map-tapping officer who informs us that a patrol has gone missing in a hostile market district. Naturally, it’s time for us to unholster some shock and awe on the loyal patrons of Balaclavas, Bombs and Beyond.
It’s not much to invest in, and, like his digital soldier, Bach is reticent when asked why we’re here. All we know is that it’s the year 2014, the Americans are deployed on the Iranian-Iraqi border and an insurgency group known as the PLR is making things rather difficult.
It’s hardly surprising that Bach is unwilling to show his whole hand, of course. This industry has very few scruples when it comes to copying and repackaging successful titles, and there can be no doubt Battlefield is one of the most successful.
Instead, I ask the diplomatic Bach where other first-person shooters go wrong and how Battlefield 3 addresses these issues. “I wouldn’t say games go completely wrong,” he began, “but in general I think first-person shooters need to have a good first-person shooting experience!”
He added: “I think that’s where some games fail: they miss the opportunity to create a great shooting experience. It doesn’t matter if it has a great narrative or pretty graphics or great sound if it’s not fun to aim and shoot. That’s key.”
And he’s right. Even if there’s not enough exposition for us to get behind this ensemble of military husks just yet, it doesn’t mean there won’t be at release. More importantly, as we trot down the tall alley away from the officer and towards our objective, Battlefield 3 springs into life.
Without a doubt, Battlefield 3 is the most visually satisfying first-person shooter we’ve seen. We’re looking at the PC version – the lead development platform – and we’re taking a first look at Frostbite 2.0, DICE’s latest proprietary graphics engine.
Particles of dust hang in the air. Light refracts around the limbs and weapons of our squad-mates, the texture of clothing is fully rendered if you care to look close enough. The glass on our weapon’s sight, held at ease in front of our chest, reflects the city behind us. As we advance into a car park, a swaggering soldier turns to address us. The animation is so fluid as to be uncanny. He might as well be a friend I’m following to a bar on a Friday night. Then he’s lifted off his feet by the impact of incoming rounds.
Bullets crack, whistle, fizz and snap from all sides before thumping into mortar, shattering terracotta and chipping concrete. In full 5.1 surround sound, the aural experience is overwhelming. Small wonder DICE recently won a BAFTA for sound design. As we drag our comrade into an adjacent building the sound of the battle outside is dampened.
Once back outside, it’s our turn to get airborne when an RPG fired from a second story balcony twirls into the car we’re crouching behind. As we do so, our own feet appear before us – a subtle touch that adds great depth to the experience. Subtler still is the user interface. Already as minimalistic as possible, the user interface also shakes when the screen shakes, removing another barrier to greater immersion.
DICE is still at the pre-alpha stage of the development cycle, meaning that even in-house there isn’t a full game to be played. As a result, our demo skips forward to a rooftop scenario that ably demonstrates how destructibility is implemented in Battlefield 3.
A sniper has taken up residence in an adjacent hotel and has our squad pinned down. We crawl on our stomachs as large calibre rounds punch chunks out of the wall we’re sheltering behind and showers rubble on our heads.
An RPG is rolled towards us by another squad-mate before the rest of the team burst out from behind their defences and strafe the hotel with suppressing fire. Our RPG round slams into the hotel, its neon sign swings downward. When the dust clears, several storeys have been exposed.
Seeing Battlefield 3 in action does indeed make the Bad Company series look like a developmental playground, a place where DICE could experiment with new ideas, without jeopardising the reputation of the core series. Destructible environments are a perfect example. “A lot of the design choices we made for the Bad Company series we’re not doing now,” says Bach. “Also we learnt a lot from the Bad Company series, destructibility is something we had in Bad Company that we didn’t have in Battlefield 2 for instance, for many reasons!”
Our demo skips forward a final time to a claustrophobic sequence wherein we defuse an improvised explosive device in a laundromat. We crawl through an air duct as a minor foreshadowing tremor shakes the city. Once we’ve followed the cables to the basement, and as we pull the first wire, an insurgent lunges upon us from behind. What follows is a visceral quick-time brawling event requiring us to click the left and right mouse buttons when prompted. It’s perhaps a little disappointing to see quick-time events implemented here – this industry needs to find a better way to embed cinematic sequences into core gameplay. But however one feels about the system, it’s short, sharp and over in a hurry.
When asked to what extent the game is open or scripted, Bach replies, “Our goal is to create a dramatic and interesting narrative experience. Whether that’s done by open sandbox gameplay or super-scripted, hard-controlled set pieces, then – I think there are benefits in both, no right or wrong.”
We pull the second wire and head outside for a grand finale that brings these elements together and adeptly demonstrates DICE’s dualistic aspirations. On the highway we find our squad heavily engaged in a firefight with the PLR. We choose to take up a position on an overpass as a helicopter swoops in overhead in support, its mounted guns roaring into life and showering the ground around us with hot shells. But just as we’re gaining supremacy a mighty shock ripples though the city and the highway beneath us begins to roll. We’re thrown to the ground and look up to see a skyscraper lurching forward. As it topples sideways it collects the helicopter. We’re enveloped in a cloud of dust and returned to the title screen.
Taken as a whole, the demonstration has proven to be generous and unpredictable, both cinematic and interactive and even if it’s hard to comprehend how all the pieces will ultimately come together, at least the foundations have been laid for a game that could very well reinvigorate a corpulent, wheezing genre.
It’s good to taste those first drops of excitement once again.