Battlefield 3: Frostbitten on the big screen
8th Apr 2011 | 16:00
As we filed into the 12 minute screening of Battlefield 3 at EA's showcase earlier this week, we were excited. We were more than excited; we might have squeaked a bit, we're not sure.
This is Battlefield 3 we're talking about, the EA and DICE FPS that looks so good it could blow COD out of the water, never mind kill it. We have, of course, already seen a fair bit of Battlefield 3 footage; the nuanced, slick animations, the spine-tingling destruction - big and small - and the blinding shafts of light that somehow manage to beat the real thing only served to fuel our anticipation for this day.
We were a bit disappointed then, to find out that the 12 minutes of gameplay footage that EA had prepared for us was more or less the footage we'd already seen on the internet tacked together. Our hearts sank, we'll admit.
But they didn't sink too far because it wasn't long before we realised this was going to be a completely different experience. Firstly it was an extended version of the Battlefield trailers that we were being made privy to; there was some extra gameplay footage bridging some of the sections to feast our eyes on. All was not lost.
Secondly, we weren't watching this on some tiny computer monitor, sitting on unforgiving office chairs with the threat of the whip if we blinked for too long; this was big screen, HD, surround-sound. It was how Battlefield 3 was meant to be experienced, and then some.
With a full-blown showing of Battlefield 3, we were able to witness all the subtleties of the gameplay for the first time: Things kicked off with a scene that was new to what we'd seen of Battlefield 3 but a well-worn classic for the military FPS; the old 'sitting in a jeep with your squad while the one with the loudest mouth talks through the situation' scenario. Except this one was the best we've seen by a long way, not because anything particularly revolutionary happened in terms of the scene's structure or mechanics but because it was absolutely flawless. The animation was smooth, fluid and detailed with the slightest movements putting the characters well beyond the slightly puppet-like movements you could accuse much of DICE's competition of still exhibiting and closer to human replication than ever before.
The best bit is that the briefing followed not with a fade out and a loading screen but with the jeep arriving at its destination and the CGI cutscene quality squad standing, leaving the vehicle and stepping onto the streets of Iraq, beginning the mission. There wasn't even the slightest of pauses in the flow of the scene as control was handed to the player, those cutscene quality graphics doubled up as in-game visuals with a shrug of the shoulders and a "What of it?" from Frostbite 2.0.
A TOUCH OF FROST
That lead us into the opening of first gameplay trailer released at the beginning of March, only this time our tour guide took a little bit more time to look around. It gave us the chance to really drink in the incredible draw-distance and the surrounding detail. The war-torn city was brought to life as fellow soldiers stood watch, searched civilians and generally got on with tasks that the player wasn't involved in at all - it felt like the player was just a small part of something much bigger, and largely unnoticed, really adding to the feeling of authenticity.
What also added to the authenticity was the absolutely stunning scenery which, on a big HD screen, looked as close to photorealistic as our brains could comprehend any in-game graphics ever doing.
If you were to take away the character models which, while also impressively sharp and detailed, obviously can't match the fidelity of a largely still background environment, you could tell us the dusty, sun-drenched, washed-out urban surroundings were photos and we'd believe you like a dog believes you really did throw that ball for a few seconds.
Another addition to the gameplay we've seen so far was an extended briefing from who we're calling 'the chap with the map', who set the player the task of finding a group of stranded brothers in arms. While his movements were just as fluid and detailed as what we described in the jeep, it was here we realised that the Battlefield boys looked better with their helmets and shades on. Don't get us wrong, the facial animations and hair rendering was as good as any other, if not slightly better, but when everything else surpasses "any other" by some way, it just reminds you that developers still find natural faces difficult to pull off, despite all their wizardry elsewhere. Perhaps Team Bondi could lend a hand?
Skulking down the narrow alleys showed off Frostbite 2.0's amazing ability to handle light. Beams of sunshine scorched exposed sections of wall and shot through openings as the player passed, it actually made us feel a bit warm.
Then, moving into one of the buildings we came to that darkened room with the high-up windows letting in perfect, penetrating shafts of light. It's our most memorable bit from the videos on the net, oddly, and it was an even more effective set-up on the big screen, clearly designed to really accentuate the lighting effects.
Eventually we came to the car-park ambush which, as you know, soon escalates to an all out fire-fight. A team-mate is quickly taken down and as the DICE dev went over to drag him out of the line of fire (it's clearly not something he thrives in afterall) the quality of animation and level of detail was again brought to the fore.
As he got right up close to his fallen friend, every detail in his clothing was shown to be stark and solid. The player's arm didn't snap out with some quick, snap animation either, there was a lot of deliberate movement - some of it wasted (as it would be in real-life) - that went into just taking the injured soldier's arm. The player's hand reached out and curled around the soldier's left arm until gun fire caused him to make a jolt reaction before continuing to pull his friend out of danger.
The extended footage continued at this point in a way that the internet videos don't, as the player props the injured troop up against a wall. Again everything is smooth and detailed, it almost looks like a cutscene in itself.
The battle outside played out similarly to what you'll already have seen, the difference being that we weren't cut off prematurely when the RPG blows the player across the car park. He was ok, obviously, and picked himself up to take cover before chucking a grenade onto the balcony where the enemy was nested.
We were slightly disappointed to see that the RPG soldier didn't react to a grenade landing by his feet, but we'll give DICE the benefit of the doubt since this is pre-alpha code and there's a good chance that we wouldn't notice a small explosive landing in our vicinity in such chaos. It'd be nice to see some sort of attempt to escape from the balcony dweller in the final build though.
FIRE IN THE HOLE
What didn't disappoint though was the damage that the grenade did, blowing the best part of the balcony wall clean off and spitting out a massive black cloud across the car park. With the threat neutralised, our player turned into the curtain of smog to show off that golden sun again. It seared through the cloud with a deep, angry orange. We're not sure how many times we can reasonably pour compliments over what's essentially a ball of gas and flame before it becomes a bit weird but we were more than a little impressed once again.
The footage moved on to that sniper scenario that sees your group slithering across a rooftop under fire. The main thing to add to what you've already witnessed is that with proper surround sound engulfing your ears that sniper shot is flinchingly snappy. It really adds to the tension, making sure there's no doubt that if one of those bullets hits you it's going to rip you in half.
We've already talked about our admiration for the little bits of damage on show for this section; the splinter plant-pots throwing soil everywhere, the dust flying off the walls, but the original video cut just after the player took the sledgehammer approach to the sniper by firing a rocket propelled grenade at the hotel he was firing from. We never did get to see just how much damage Frostbite 2.0 was capable of and the cynic in us pondered whether DICE had chosen to cut the video short because, despite all the dust and debris, the damage sustained by the hotel wasn't all that spectacular.
Thankfully the cynic in us got a stinging slap in the face at the showcase as the dust cleared to reveal a gaping hole covering in the side of the building with flames pouring from pockets of destruction. Frostbite 2.0, we yield.
The final section we were allowed to peek at is, of course, the scene where the player is tasked with locating and disarming an improvised explosive device. The key part of this section for us was the fist-fight that ensued between the player and an interrupting enemy. It was quick, blurry and still difficult to tell exactly how well the melee system will work in practice.
We did have another facial issue at this point, however. As with our commander previously, there was a discrepancy between the quality of NPC faces and the surrounding environment. While we have to stress that the problems we have with Battlefield 3 faces probably owe to the fact that we've been spoiled by its environments more than anything, we couldn't help but feel that the bloke punching us in the head looked almost cartoony. At least, he looked like a game character in a photorealistic world.
In any other title it wouldn't be an issue and indeed, it was quickly forgotten once we were back outside, battling on the bridge over what was once probably a busy main road. Battlefield 3 was back at its finest with a seemingly endless draw-distance, scorching sunlight flooding into every possible space and even the leaves on the palm trees bowing ever so slightly in the gusts of wind expelled from grenade blasts.
And it's those little details that impressed us throughout. The snap of the sniper bullet, the slap of your boots on the concrete floor, the way strong beams of virtual sunlight somehow managed to tamper with our real-world climate. There's so much more to be had from DICE's FPS and the stunning Frostbite 2 engine that really shines through under the right conditions.
You already know that Battlefield 3 is beautiful but, trust us, until you've seen it on the big screen, with some big sound, you don't know the half of it.