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Battlefield 3 Review (360)

Listening to EA Executive Frank Gibeau talk of Battlefield 3 is a sobering experience. For those who mistakenly think that games are about fun or art or escapism, he makes sure to reinforce that they are not. They are about business and money. Big, big money.

“We consider Battlefield an online service,”
“First and foremost, that brand was built on its multiplayer prowess and the technology really lends itself to that.”

Services. Business plans. Brands. This is what big, modern games releases are about. You get Kanye, we get Fiddy. You’re on Leno, we go on Conan. You advertise on Time Square, we paint our logo on the moon! There’s no amount of money we won’t spend on advertising to MAKE SURE this game is a success.

With big money and big business comes risk, and the management of that risk becomes the key concern for the whole project. Can we risk this great new idea? No, people might not like it. Can we leave THIS out? No, the market leader has THAT so we have to have it too. This kind of thinking is anathema to innovation. Its the kind of thinking that makes McDonalds food and Michael Bay movies popular even though no sane person would admit to liking them.

And its funny to think that in 1948, Richard and Maurice McDonald had a dream of making their customers happy with a tasty meal they didn’t need to wait too long to get. Michael Bay meanwhile may be a soulless purveyor of vapid, grotesquely profitable bilge today, but in 1975 he must have been playing with his toys (pretending they were exploding) and imagining to himself what it would be like to make a movie his friends would enjoy. Finally, in 2001, a little Swedish developer called DICE were finishing up work on a hugely ambitious and original game and they were excited to see what there small community of fans would think of their groundbreaking new experience.

But money changes everything. Once something gets too big the originality is ground out, refined into a lowest common denominator mush, a bland unsatisfying paste intended to offend no one but exciting no one either. Design by committee is the rule and steering and focus groups determine every move made as the money men take every step to ensure that a product they don’t care about and a public they secretly despise come together in an apathetic purchase at the pay point.

And the fingerprints of the money-men are all over Battlefield 3. From the orange and blue packaging (“science says its more appealing!”) to the online pass code in the box and the “deluxe” edition with some extra maps, every aspect of the games marketing and presentation to the public has been engineered to get money out their pockets as efficiently as possible. Before that, there was the desperate attempts to massage public opinion; the pathetic goading of Activision’s Modern Warfare franchise and the strong-arm tactics used on the gaming press to make sure the “right people” at any given site or publication were reviewing the game.

And once you start playing the singleplayer campaign the feeling that they hate you never goes away. The whole thing reeks of money. From the high production values, (I’m sure Johnny Cash would be delighted to be featured in the campaign soundtrack) to the gorgeous visuals, you quickly realise you are witnessing something both superficially attractive and creatively bankrupt. The 360 version that I played was a little buggy with some visual weirdness, but the lighting and detail are almost enough to distract you from the fact that not a single original idea is present throughout.

You’ve seen it all before. The interview interspersed with flashbacks. Slow motion breaching. The air mission played out with aerial cameras. The turret section. Exploding red barrels. Quick time events for close quarters combat. Not a single genre trope is missed. When EA released Medal of Honour last year it was rightly criticized for being an unoriginal Modern Warfare knock-off. This is much, much worse. Rarely has a game showed such little imagination in any aspect of its gameplay or structure. In truth, it made me genuinelly angry until I thought of the poor developers who had to work on this. Talented young people, working on one of the biggest releases of the year who probably thought they could finally make something they could be proud of, then quickly realising that they would be working on the equivalent of Transmorphers.

I don’t know what’s more depressing, the games slavish devotion to aping every aspect of Infinity Wards monster, or how unexciting it is to have another Modern Warfare clone to play. These games are essentially asset tours; fairground rides where enemies pop up like targets and you go from one explosive visual spectacle to the next. Pulling at the seams of the game world shows how staged everything is; there’s no room for experimentation of any sort. Do not put your arms or legs outside the carriage during ride.

The combat itself is fun enough, but sometimes doesn’t seem as well tuned as the games it aspires to copy. You die quickly and the visual indication of your health sometimes shows almost nothing before its game over. In small, closed environments blazing through enemies is enjoyable, but in the open levels whole lines of little heads pop up above cover for you to laboriously shoot down. The frostbite engine is wonderful to interact with and to look at, but in game it results in lots of half ruined scenery and visual obfuscation that your enemies can shoot through but you can’t. There’s nothing worse than being shot by enemies who you can’t shoot back at because the game engine is flaky. Added to this, the AI is awful and frequently breaks and the scripting is easily thrown off. In a game world where you always wait for your friend to open a door or lift a fence to get to the next area, its frustrating when they freeze in place and look at you with dead eyes. Regressing to a previous checkpoint is your only escape from this limbo-world. As the game went on I found myself cheating as much as I could to avoid the same old firefights; hiding in cover and going to make a coffee till my teammates cleared an area, or running past enemies I was supposed to fight to get to the next checkpoint.

The dialogue meanwhile is risible. There was a much ridiculed line in Gears of War 2 which went something like “Looks like a shitload of Locusts”, “More like 2 shit loads!”. Every lines of dialogue in BF3 is like this. If I was a terrorist, the only thing worse than being shot by one of these assholes would be hearing them shout “Suppress those muthafuckers, give them the muthafucking LMG up their asses. To fuck!”

Playing the BF3 campaign into the early morning, I came to two revelations. The first is that despite the game being pretty, at times enjoyable and in truth full of impressive spectacle, it is simply not for me. In the same way that I cannot sit through a terrible blockbuster movies even if the explosions and action scenes are good, I cannot stomach the terrible characters, story and tone of a game like Battlefield 3. I also realised that despite my disgust at the lack of originality and innovation in the game, many people will probably enoy this. It is EXACTLY like Modern Warfare but not quite as good. If you are the kind of person who loves Modern Warfare so much that you want to play a version thats almost as good, Battlefield’s singleplayer campaign will probably keep you amused for five or so hours of mindless “America, Fuck Yeah” globe trotting carnage.

Battlefield 3 comes on two disks. To make it clear where their priorities lie, disk 1 is the mulitplayer disk. After playing the campaign, popping this into the Xbox and booting it up is as black-and-white as you can get. As bad as the singleplayer campaign is, multiplayer battlefield is….. well its Battlefield! This is what DICE do, and they do it well.

From the opening moments of your first multiplayer session the whole experience is slick and rewarding. After choosing whether to automatically join a team or not you pick your class and wait for a timer to count down. There’s a build up of tension then as the countdown reaches one everyone races to the chopper, then when they fail to get that they all pile into APC’s which role off to the nearest capture point. Its pure Battlefield; vehicle focused with large maps, distinct character classes, command squads and random tank sheels killing you from the other side of the map. In other words, its glorious.

Where it sits within the series is a little difficult to place. The maps are bigger than the Bad Company games but it still feels and plays a good deal like those games. Despite being well focused though, some of the maps are truly huge and far more reminiscent of the best parts of Battlefield 2. Seeing jets dogfighting, helicopters strafing and tanks battling while infantry scurry from place to place delivers on the promise made over eight years ago of an immersive virtual battlefield where the players have the potential to make amazing stories of their own and earn their stripes.

The actual on foot combat has never been better either with a huge variety of weapons and equipment available. Despite the variety, every class is effective in its own right and it can be just as exciting to play a hard working medic on a struggling side as a ruthless sniper decimating the enemy team from afar.

Progression is well handled and the satisfaction you get from the medals and badges you earned throughout a game is inhumanly satisfying. To see your progress bar fill is to see every heal, resupply and capture rewarded and it feels good. Weapon unlocks meanwhile seem balanced enough to reward without unbalancing things too much, but its a little early to say if this will always be the case. Suffice it to say that extended play will reveal all sorts of sneaky tricks and tactics, and personally I can’t wait to see them develop.

The map design is strong. From a mountainside tunnel to a long road that stretches over the desert horizon, there’s a good range of different types of terrain and setting to fight across. The frostbite engine meanwhile looks as good (if not better) in multiplayer than in the campaign. From time to time you forget how interactive the scenery is, that is until the building that you shelter in is ripped open by a tank shell. The number of options for flanking your enemies by blowing your way through gates and walls makes for genuinely emergent gameplay strategies and the changing face of the battlefield means that hiding places and cover changes dynamically from moment to moment.

The net performance seems stable and responsive despite some problems with EA servers being down, which I assume is a launch problem and not something that will last beyond the first few days of release.

So what’s left to say about Battlefield? While the PC version is obviously the one to go for, this is the best console BF ever made. The core experience strikes a balance between the ambitious but unpolished Battlefield 2 and the slick but safe Bad Company games. The on foot combat is better than ever before while the vehicles offer something that most other modern shooters don’t do. Even the other games that have vehicles can’t seem to match DICE’s expertise in this area. They have been doing large scale multiplayer games like this for years, and they are really fucking good at it.

So what about all this singleplayer nonsense then? Best to put it to one side and concentrate on the real game. Consider it a DVD extra, something worth trying out on a dull Sunday and afterwards discarding. Multiplayer Battlefield 3 meanwhile is something that you will be playing for a long, long time.

Singleplayer – 5 broken AI routines out of 10
Multiplayer – 9 mandatory flight classes for noobs out of 10

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