Much like any military campaign, the war between Electronic Arts and Activision for an upper hand in the first-person shooter market has produced its fair share of collateral damage.
While Activision has been more or less content to engineer Modern Warfare 3 in a fairly predictable manner, Electronic Arts wasted no time in firing a salvo directly over their bow, claiming Activision were now at the helm of a "Disneyland abstraction of a war game". This is not an industry that generally rewards such candour, and certainly with the similarity between Battlefield 3's campaign and that of every Call of Duty ever made, reviewing such a statement with the benefit of hindsight identifies no small measure of irony.
It's all about the execution. Battlefield 3's campaign begins with a frantic race through a hijacked metro carriage, as our hero Blackburn summarily dispatches terrorists in an attempt to stop the train and save the day. It's railed in as much as the train is – terrorists appear, shots are fired and they go down. Occasionally, and worryingly, Blackburn exits the carriage by way of the always-ham-fisted quick time event, the space bar performing mashing duties until he's safely moved to the requisite position within the sequence.
This is not an isolated mechanism to gradually introduce the game. Most hand-to-hand combat revolves around these events, and are largely choreographed by the game engine leaving the player with little to do but stab a key, or furiously click the mouse until the desired outcome is achieved. For all the smack talk, EA has bizarrely failed to endow Battlefield 3's campaign with any real point of structural difference to the vast majority of shooters available now. Even the campaign narrative follows the hazy post-traumatic recollections of
Black Ops Blackburn as he alternates between different theatres of war.
The first aerial mission begins with a palpable sense of anticipation, not only for the welcome inclusion of a female protagonist, but for the opportunity to revel in expectancy; the knowledge that a whole new form of combat will be available within seconds, and the assured confidence that developer DICE will craft a superlative airborne mission full of fierce exchanges of lead, tears, and homoerotic dialogue. Emerging from the bowels of a pitching aircraft carrier, expectation grows as the deckhands ready for the take-off procedure, the salty sea air and white wave tips a mere breath away as a glimmering bird of prey sits with canopy open.
Before mentally choosing between assuming the role of Goose or Maverick, the game deftly deflates any assumption of real control, and instead entrusts the player such back-seat duties as checking the flaps, firing a few flares and ensuring a crosshair stays on target as missiles are launched. The lack of trust is perhaps the most stinging insult here: Battlefield has always prided itself on large-scale simulation. Any lack of skill on the player's behalf has always been corrected with practise, and faced with the opportunity to extend this control to a campaign mode for the first time, it's instead removed entirely and handed back to the game. Sadly, the player is relegated to the unenviable role of observer and part-time clicker-of-mouse.
It's a trend that continues throughout the campaign, however anyone willingly expecting Battlefield 3 to offer a coherent, open-world singleplayer environment has been seriously misinformed. The campaign exists as a sideshow to the real point of any Battlefield release; full of missed opportunity and staid tropes as it is, the campaign is irrelevant in the face of the overwhelmingly excellent multiplayer.
Controlled by EA's Battlelog service, servers can be filtered by geographic location (the catch-all for this region denoted as "Oceanic") as well as mode, free slots, pre-set difficulties and parameters, map type, and whether or not the server is ranked and/or supports Punkbuster. Battlelog itself is web-based, requires a dedicated plugin to be downloaded, and despite appearances is relatively robust at locating servers and launching the game proper. Those torn between Conquest Large, Conquest, Rush, Squad Rush, Squad DM and Team DM can merely reach for the Quick Match option and trust in the system to sort it all out, with predictably random results.
It is hard to imagine however that players would be worse-off using an in-game browser, or the functionality on offer with Steam. The Battlelog service concept is sound; the delivery ill-advised.
The 64-player maximum for this PC release heralds a welcome return to massive, structured battles spanning huge swathes of territory, and each of the nine maps included – perhaps with the exception of Operation Metro – are clearly structured to eke out every last bit of tactical skill. This is a far more considered experience than most: players wishing to go gung-ho in an infantry role will likely become familiar with respawn points, as the true path to victory lies with co-operative strikes at the enemy position. To aid this, players can spawn directly into vehicles, removing a lot of the tedium associated with locating a chopper in the heat of battle.
Prone is back, thankfully and somewhat necessarily, as all manner of snipers and assorted airborne threats encourage a small profile in the heat of battle. Jets and helicopters are exceedingly difficult to control using the traditional keyboard and mouse setup, which won't be a problem for grizzled Battlefield players typically used to hot-swapping between peripherals. Those unwilling to drop decent dollars on a capable joystick can still get a tactical airborne advantage by using an Xbox 360 controller or similar, otherwise stepping up to strafe targets using the many alternate seats available in the majority of vehicles is a supremely rewarding experience.
Here, another strength is revealed – the acquisition of targets, be they airborne, vehicular or ground-based troops, follows the best design philosophy possible: easy to learn, hard to master. Having sighted an enemy player – a pleasingly regular occurrence given the sheer number of them in the map – guns are accurate, recoil appropriate, and there's never a sense that the failure to achieve a kill is in some way related to poor game design. More reminder that this is a PC-led game; there's no sluggish port from console, nor wildly compensatory auto-aim on offer here.
The modes currently in play on the extremely populated Oceanic servers are a fairly good mix of those available in the game, with early players keen to experiment across each one in order to get the full Battlefield experience. Team Deathmatch and Squad Deathmatch are new and currently popular additions to the series, however it seems likely that as Battlefield 3 settles into a more predictable phase in its deployment the Conquest modes will rule supreme.
When the din of battle has subsided, EA's Battlelog tallies the results and awards the medals. The Battle Report feature will list the top players in a variety of fields, such as Top Jet, Aim King, Best Engineer and more. Kill/death ratio and score are also ranked, and it's even possible to drill down to discover ever more detailed metrics, such as killstreaks, accuracy, and weapon statistics on an individual basis.
Naturally, players will rank up to gather unlocks, which are separated out by weapon, vehicle and class. New features are seldom out of reach for long, particularly for those wishing to really invest time, and as the fruits of labour are presented in such detail at the end of each round, the compulsion to keep playing is always at the forefront. In addition, by offering such a diverse selection, it really feels as if an affinity with each class can be created, be it Assault, Support, Recon, or Engineer, each have their own perks and foibles with which to challenge and enthral.
At some stage, perhaps several hours after digesting the scope of the multiplayer, co-op may be chanced by some. Much like the campaign, this is a tacked-on feature that really bears little relevance to the meat of the package. By teaming up with a companion also willing to extract themselves from the real point of the Battlefield series, missions consisting of the same over-delivered duck-shoot mentality can be attempted. The six on offer really only exist to distract, and without solid comradeship they quickly become tiring, as the outcome depends largely on which player is randomly assigned which role.
In addition, enemies have a tendency to appear from the same hiding places with each play-through, making it more of a memory challenge than anything else. There isn't even the option to team up locally with another player; this is an online feature relying on an individual's inclination to maintain a friends list and invite appropriate support for each run.
Much has been made of the visual nature of Battlefield 3 on PC and the technical capabilities of the new Frostbite 2.0 engine. Make no mistake, Battlefield 3 is stunning. The campaign may struggle to offer anything new, but it's an incredible visual triumph, and one that carries over to multiplayer. Battlefield 1942 and Battlefield 2 were rightly regarded as ground-breaking upon release, and if it were even possible, Battlefield 3 extends this further with incredibly detailed character models, extensive use of multiple light sources and huge draw distances. Tested on an i5 2500k with a GTX 580 at 1680x1050, as well as a laptop running an i7 with a GT 540M at 1366x768 revealed a rock-solid framerate at all but the highest settings. Clearly those wanting to push the limits of the engine may need to invest in an upgrade, but for those with medium-spec machines built in the last year or so, even modest graphical configurations are capable of revealing surprisingly impressive quality.
Often overlooked, particularly in the face of such visual splendour, the audio keeps pace with the player, offering just the right amount of distant machine-gun staccato and close-up footsteps to bring the fight to life.
The campaign may be pants, and the co-op may struggle to find a niche, but DICE knows multiplayer – that much is evident. In this regard, Battlefield 3 exceeds expectations. Whether flapping about above the conflict in an airborne steed, or wriggling slowly through the undergrowth as a hated sniper, Battlefield 3 evokes its ancestral excellence in all things multiplayer to once again up the bar, and herald in a new age of technical dominance over the first-person shooter genre.