Review And Giveaway: Battlefield 3

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Short version:

Battlefield 3 plays it safe and focuses on maximizing player engagement, but falls prey to a lack of variety, a shabby UI that’s clearly a holdover from consoles, plus of course the inevitable bugs, lag, and rocket spam. There’s a good game in here, but only if you’re willing to overlook some real flaws. But as it has been for years with big multiplayer games like this, the bugs tend to disappear and the players find themselves powering through bad matches for that one incredibly good one. I just wish the good ones came a little more often.

Pros:

  • Graphics, sound, and physics are fantastic
  • Tons of unlocks (though many repeat)
  • Multiplayer has potential for excellence
  • Establishing your own play style is fun and rewarding
  • Battlelog if you like that kind of thing

Cons:

  • Single player is more or less Whac-A-Mole on rails, occasionally frustrating
  • Multiplayer plagued by lag, RPG spam
  • Maps lack real diversity
  • In-game UI is simply awful
  • Battlelog if, like me, you don’t like that kind of thing

Full review:

Battlefield 3, to me, represents a missed opportunity in several ways. Guaranteed to be one of the best-selling games of the year (and it is already breaking records, with five million sold before I even started this review), it had the chance to also be adventurous and push the envelope. In a way, it does that — but I would say the wrong way.

Why is this review so long? Because a gaming event on this scale, destined to be played by millions for years perhaps, deserves more than six paragraphs and a number between 1 and 10. Oh, and I’m aware that other game is launching today. This was supposed to run last week but there was a conflict.

Graphics and Sound

The new engine really is stunning, in the right circumstances — mainly when the screen is crowded with activity. You’ve probably seen enough screenshots and videos (or played enough) that I don’t need to belabor this point. While I would say that the aesthetics and imagination of Rage and Crysis 2 put them ahead of BF3 as far as graphics alone go, BF3 is more convincing that you are part of a real world. This is most evident in moments of chaos where real panic sets in as you see your cover falling to pieces and there are bullets whizzing by, and you feel a real instinct whether to run or stay. Safety is hard to come by and legitimately comforting when you have it.

Player and NPC animations are something to behold as well. It’s easy to forget the wooden animations we endured for years, the simple static meshes and stilted interactions with the environment. While the new system isn’t perfect, it can at times be uncomfortably convincing. I’m glad DICE chose not to include overly graphic injury, because it might be literally traumatic for some considering the fidelity of the game world.

The sound is fantastic as well. I played mostly with a surround-sound headset, and it’s worth getting the setup right and testing a few modes, because it’s a brain-crushing experience. The harsh crack of a passing sniper bullet, the roar of a support gunner unloading next to you, and the crunch of masonry falling come through loud and clear. As usual, I could wish for a few more sound bites for my teammates to say (you start recognizing the ten different “grenaaade!” clips), to mix things up, though you won’t hear the exact same clips playing back to back.

Campaign mode

Let’s address the single player really quick: there have been some harsh words, but I would call it perfectly competent and occasionally exciting, but fundamentally unimaginative. The plot takes a few turns, but for the most part you are simply dropping terrorists (or cops, or soldiers), moving forward to the next piece of cover, and repeating. Sometimes it happens fast enough that it’s a fun ride, like the first Russian mission, where you’re racing through a office complex and city streets with a small team. But at other times, it feels like a slog, as when you first encounter Russian paratroopers and must fight through wave after wave, hiding behind generic walls and stacks of supplies. And the final mission is a major letdown.

You’ll be doing all the work yourself, as your mates in the game mostly fire for effect. I saw one of my guys and an enemy empty entire clips into each other from ten feet away, each perhaps trying to comprehend why the other was immortal. But it’s a fun little ride that shows off the engine and makes you familiar with a few of the weapons. Of course, you’ll have to play for 15 hours in multiplayer before you unlock many of those weapons, but that’s another story.

Multiplayer

The point of the game, as has always been the case, is the multiplayer. And DICE has delivered a deep experience — in the sense that there’s a lot to wade through, and you can’t go very fast.

Of the various modes available, Conquest and Rush are the most Battlefield-like. There are 8 maps to choose from, and here we run into the first problem. There’s just not enough variation.

Battlefield has always been ostensibly a tactical game, and most maps are very limiting in tactical terms. Sight lines are all medium-length (with a few long-range spots for snipers, though they know they’re sitting ducks there if spotting is on), and the action is concentrated at bottlenecks. In the French levels, Seine Crossing and Operation Metro, there are ways of going between the bottlenecks, but no way of circumventing them. Tactical maneuvers are more or less impossible, and it’s just a war of attrition, especially on 64-player servers.

Where is the wide-open field of Battlefield’s past? Where is the no-holds-barred warfare I had so often in Atacama Desert and Heavy Metal? Now to be fair there are larger, more open maps. Caspian Border is by far the best, followed closely by Kharg Island, both with meaningful geography (i.e. hills and roads) and a lot of potential for unpredictability. Operation Firestorm, on the other hand, presents almost no strategic element, and just turns into a churn as the control points roughly in a square get captured and recaptured. Damavand Peak can be good if you manage to get behind the enemy, but it’s largely just an endless firefight in the dark between the tunnel spawn point and whoever’s spawning outside. And don’t get me started on Operation Metro.

The problem is that, with the notable exception of Caspian and Kharg all these maps are sort of, well… medium-sized. The active part, I mean. There’s lots of set dressing but I almost never see it in play. Real elevation differences are few, and firefights always seem to play out on the same medium-sized scale. There’s little of the room-to-room, face-to-face warfare of Bad Company 2, and little of the truly large scale stuff either. So despite their different locations, cover materials, and color schemes, the maps end up feeling same-y. On a scale of one to ten, they all fall between three and seven. This is the source of my disappointment. Why don’t we have a ten, with a huge mountain fortress, or a one, on a single residential street? No, it’s all semi-industrial areas with big warehouses and a few back streets.

To be clear, it’s not that these maps are bad. I’ve had good games on every map. But it just feels like they pulled back when they should have gone all out. You can apply both realism and imagination, and the latter is lacking.

But how does it play?

Other complaints notwithstanding, minute by minute the game is pretty satisfying. Gunplay between pieces of cover gives you the real feeling that you’re actually avoiding bullets rather than the enemy just missing. Tanks and LAVs feel as overpowered as they should, and are equally powerless against a smart engineer or two in cover. The “suppression” mechanic is kind of hard to get, and sometimes it’s not really clear whether you’re being shot or merely being shot at.

There is an troubling equality in combat effectiveness between the classes. I realize these are all modern soldiers equipped for battle, but everyone seems to be suited to medium-range combat (as the maps require) rather than being truly specialized. Assault isn’t rugged enough to be at the front; Recon isn’t weak enough to stay back; Engineer isn’t specialized enough to require care; Support isn’t ineffective enough while not set up. Everyone can run in guns blazing, and generally does. Why are snipers so accurate while standing (I know they hold their breath, but they’re freehanding a .50-caliber rifle, I mean really now)? Why isn’t support naturally resistant to suppression? Why are engineers given such powerful anti-personnel weapons? Why doesn’t assault really outgun the rest, as they have in the past?

It seems that instead of giving each class truly distinct strengths and balancing them (a difficult job, done well in the likes of Starcraft and Team Fortress 2), they chose to tone down those strengths and make them all good at the basic task of running around and shooting guys — at medium range.

If that’s the kind of gameplay you like, combat amongst equals with slight tendencies toward one thing or another, then you’ll find BF3 very compelling. And to be fair, the more you play a class, the more you can specialize. There’s certainly skill involved, and you’ll be shot by people’s default weapons as much as their final ones.

And for the record, the RPG spam is totally out of control. Go play Quake, guys.

Air

To be perfectly honest, I didn’t play air vehicles almost at all. The primary reason being that I didn’t want to screw up matches with my crappy flying, and second, that I don’t trust these things in the laggy, buggy early stages. I’ve seen enough weirdo stationary or floating planes that I didn’t want to take a shot.

I will say that, as a ground combatant, I felt the air battle was more or less separate from the ground one, and a couple guys with SAMs can keep things even if your pilots aren’t the best. I never felt that we were being dominated from the air. Take from that what you like.

The unlocks

There are a lot of unlocks, that much is clear. Dice has said “years” worth but that’s an exaggeration. I saw guys with the final guns for their classes after a week or so of gameplay. Sure, it might take a month or two of hard gaming to get every accessory for every gun, but it’s not that many gamers will go for that. I’ve split my time between support and engineer for the most part and after around 18 hours of play I’m rank ___ and 2/3rds of the way through the unlocks for those classes.

The disappointing bit is that you unlock the same thing multiple times. And I’m talking dozens of times here. Was it really necessary to make me unlock the reflex, then holo, then ballistic, and so on, for practically every single gun I get? Shouldn’t that foregrip I got work on more than that specific M4? There had to be a better way to go about this. The true number of unlocks is reduced substantially when you look at it from this angle, and it feels like busy work to work your way through the sights for a new gun, just to see if it’s even effective at range or what have you. Was it really so hard to make each gun have a couple unique unlocks, and then have the rest be universal?

But it does provide that impulse to keep on playing. The next rank, the next sight, the next weapon, is always just a game or two away, and it dangles this in front of your face after every round. It really is addictive and completists will have their work cut out for them.

The UI

Someone should have told DICE that PC gamers don’t just have more powerful video cards and processors. They also have big, high resolution screens, and mice. Then maybe they would have designed an interface that acknowledges this fact. As it is, every menu is a blatant holdover from console development.

In BC2, the loadout, squad selection, and map screens were a joy to work with. They showed a ton of info, were easily switched between, and you could make lots of changes on the fly. Not so here.

Finding combat is a little closer-quarters than you expected? Get ready to drill down through four layers to change your optics. And don’t think you get to select from a menu or grid. No, you have to click an arrow a bunch of times to cycle through the options. And sometimes I would select a new class and find that my settings had been magically changed. Why is this random pistol selected?

Compare to Bad Company 2’s, which not only uses more of the screen, but uses it more efficiently:

Want to join the squad your friends are in? Too bad, it’s automated for the most part. You can leave the squad, and then ask it to find one for you, but you can’t just join one. They say this is to prevent squad jumping to cherry pick a spawn spot. Why not rate-limit squad changes, then?

Head over to the map screen and switch between spawns. The tiny blip that indicates which point you’ve selected is barely noticeable. Sometimes it doesn’t even happen, and since your squadmates aren’t labeled, you can’t be sure which it is you’ll be sprouting from. Oh, and if your spawn point disappears after you select it (it’s captured or your squad leader dies), it doesn’t tell you to pick a new one. You just spawn at your base, which, on maps like Operation Firestorm, is for some ungodly reason about a two minutes’ run from the action if there are no vehicles (but don’t worry, you’ll be sniped before you can get there).

Round over? Seems like a good time to chat, change loadouts, look at other players’ stats and add them as friends (or enemies, which would be an interesting mechanic), that sort of thing, right? Nope, you can look at your round stats and unlock progress, but you can’t look at anyone else’s. There are no awards other than personal ones, either. Why not show who got the longest headshot, who shot the most rockets, who spent the most time alive? You’re stuck looking at this static set of data for 45 seconds, which is an eternity.

Did I mention that all of this takes place in a small window in the center of your screen? It’s about 1100×600, a size that would be right at home on a living room TV, but is incredibly wasteful on a high-resolution display. Nothing is expanded to show more options, nothing is made more suitable for selection by mouse, nothing has been done that acknowledges that PC gamers have a completely different method of navigating these menus.

The bugs and the lag

I don’t want to spend too much on this, but I would be remiss not to mention that many times, servers with ping under 30 have been totally unplayable, primarily on Tehran Highway. The lag produces near-constant rubber-banding (where you go forward and get pulled backwards because the server never acknowledged the movement), warping, and undo-style kills and deaths, where it’s anybody’s guess who shot first.

There is also a fair amount of clipping and weirdo issues with vibrating cameras and display bugs like flashing screens and artifacts. I’ve had dozens of crashes and failed launches, as well. Sometimes the server browser thinks I’m still in a game. “Playing!” No, my friend. Not playing.

I’m going to go ahead and assume these will be fixed, but it’s pretty ugly right now. And while the difficulty of putting out a AAA title like this does not escape me, these are not small isolated bugs but things happening to practically every single player. I have no problem saying this game was rushed to market.

Battlelog

I want to be impartial in my judgment of Battlelog, but the fact is I just don’t like it. The “Facebook for murderers,” as Tycho from Penny Arcade calls it, just isn’t compelling for anyone but stat counters and the most dedicated of the dedicated. The streams of information are largely the same for every player: so-and-so played on this server, so-and-so unlocked this gun. Who cares? Battlelog highlights the parts of the game least likely to be interesting to others.

If anything, BF3 should have included a robust scene-capture system like OnLive’s, where you can share the last 30 seconds of gameplay. People would watch those all day long! I know I would. Instead, you have a generic-looking soldier showing the same stats as everyone else, and a feed that shows the same activity as everyone else. Why can’t my soldier at least be customizable, maybe have him holding the weapons I’ve used the most?

The server browser and friend invite system work well enough, despite a few quirks. The question is why it was done like this at all. The web interface isn’t really necessary, and on my system the various plugins and such end up using about 250MB of RAM. Shouldn’t that be used for, you know, textures and decals and stuff?

And the fact that the game must be essentially alt-tabbed into, and that it shuts down completely when you leave a server? What is this madness? Why are we loading and unloading common assets again and again? Why are we putting graphics drivers to the unnecessary stress of switching fullscreen resolutions constantly?

Battlelog simply seems extraneous, and the web-based game selection seems arbitrary. Friends and servers could very easily have been handled in-game. I really, really can’t see the benefit of a web interface. I’m not going to go as far as some have and say it’s terrible, but it’s just kind of baffling.

Conclusion

This review came off as rather negative, which is good, because I meant it to. The expectations were high for Battlefield 3, and I think that DICE advanced the wrong aspects of the game. It’s not a bad game by any means, but Battlefield players will know what I mean when I say it doesn’t live up to the promise of BC2 and indeed the original games. Lacking serious tactical options, most matches devolve into protracted firefights at choke points. The maps are too few in number and not creative enough in design. The unlock system is structured as a carrot to keep players playing as long as possible, not to make them try new things or try new classes. The classes themselves are too unfocused, which permits (and encourages) the generic run-and-gun gameplay that the maps do.

I’m hoping that the game will evolve, more interesting maps will be introduced, and the many bugs will be fixed. But while its predecessors felt fresh every round, BF3 feels rote from the start. Is it worth it for that occasional amazing match? I’m still playing, so it must be. But I still can’t help feeling a little let down.

Giveaway!!

Update: Time’s up! The winners will be selected and notified via Facebook shortly.

Many of you will have skipped directly to this part. I don’t blame you, that’s a long review. So here’s how you win:

Leave a comment below describing what role you like to play in Battlefield and similar games (tank guy, lone wolf, sniper, RPG whore) and why. Specify your platform! You must be in the US and at least 18 years old!

Two winners for each console platform and one PC player will be selected at random in 72 hours.