24th Oct 2011 | 09:15
Penning this Battlefield 3 review has been tricky because the problems lay in conveying BF3's manifold strengths and weaknesses without resorting to the inevitable COD comparisons.
Sure, to ignore Activision's Unicron of an FPS would almost be to deny Battlefield 3's raison d'être, especially when you appreciate how EA has been aggressively marketing its title as a bona fide COD-killer, but - that said - we'll try to keep those boresome direct comparisons to a minimum. We're all friends here, right. Right?
For a console and multiplayer verdict read our Battlefield 3 Xbox 360 and PS3 review.
Bad Company 2's a more relevant title in a way, because this is such an improved single-player campaign that's it's almost impossible to believe the pair hailed from the same development stable.
It's also tricky to write a 2000+ word review without, y'know, spoiling anything - so we'll try to be as informative as possible while keeping the hard deets to a minimum. Anyways, enough with the disclaimers and on with the fun...
There are shades of Black Ops in the flashback-heavy, interrogation structure that neatly frames the narrative - but BF3 feels a lot drier, more adult in its execution. Whether you prefer this po-faced exposition to the Michael Bay-ian sound and fury of COD is probably a matter of personal preference, but it's all equally as confusing - in the traditions of the best cinematic potboilers you likely won't have a flying fig what's going on until the big 'ah!' moment near the climax of the adventure.
In retrospect, BF3's story is actually pretty damn smart - but its presentation lacks a certain je ne sais quoi slickness and - despite a couple of pathos-inducing/COD-alike 'shock' segments - neither the characters nor the storyline will likely resonate as a classic.
Personally though, we found it a marked step up from the idiotic banter of Bad Company 2 and it's certainly a more mature, sophisticated counterpoint to the increasingly mental exploits of Messrs MacTavish and Pricey. In short, it's entirely possible to equally appreciate both approaches; they certainly both have their own place in the FPS pantheon.
Price is Right
Compared to the outrageous scale of the grander multiplayer maps, BF3's campaign might initially - surprisingly - come across as rather claustrophobic, despite the convincing smoke and mirrors and illusion of sprawling battlegrounds. In short, there's tons of handholding, and at times it frustrates.
Some of the larger-scale shootouts - of which there are admittedly a fair few - emancipate you to some extent, but at heart this is just as much of a high-tech, set piece-heavy shooting gallery as COD; you won't find anything that compares to an epic multiplayer map like, say, Back to Karkand, here.
Would that be an unrealistic expectation though, and/or have we just been spoiled by the multiplayer? Probably, but it's ever so slightly disappointing nonetheless. However, we reckon we can see exactly what DICE/EA were thinking of here - we wouldn't go as far as to say BF3's single player apes COD, but it's patently been designed to poach as many players from Acti's series as is physically possible.
So perhaps there's a cynical method in the madness, with the big battles and tactical gameplay coming chiefly from online, and the Hollywood moments stemming from campaign. Ergo, on the one hand it'd be easy to criticise BF3's campaign for its unoriginality - sniping, bombing, flying, tank-driving, one-man army, squad-based sections all say 'hello!' at one point or another - but, heck that's the nature of war... and the way the majority of these are executed is mind-blowing.
For instance, when you're actually punching through buildings in real-time in a rumbling Abrams tank you realise that although you might have sat in the belly of many a metal beast before, but you've never truly appreciated what these war machines are capable of... and that philosophy probably encapsulates what Frostbite 2 and Battlefield 3 best bring to the military shooter table.
Several other moments resonate in particular - emerging from the darkness of the troop transport into the wincingly strong sunshine of Sulaymaniyah to the strains of Johnny Cash at the commencement of 'Operation Swordbreaker'. The pounding waves of the Persian gulf or the ascent through the clouds in a supersonic F/A-18F Shark in 'Gone Hunting' and sweeping across the plains of Tehran in that hulking M1A2 Abrams tank during 'Thunder Run', or the seismic judgement call at the climax of 'Kaffarov'... They're all unforgettable gaming moments, forever seared into our retinas.
The there's Frostbite 2. It deserves its own article, much less its own paragraph. Put simply, it's every bit the revelation DICE boasted, though it's true impact is most telling on the small-to-medium scale rather than the epic one EA felt compelled to show off in the game's marketing.
For instance, the much-vaunted ability to level tower blocks manifests just the once, and still feels inorganic - much like the way the tech was deployed in Crysis 2, for instance. Our favourite mission in the entire game - the peerless Parisian foray that is 'Comrades' shows off Frostbite 2 at its most devastatingly effective.
As you work your way up from car park-level to haute couture office space, you'll gawp as near-photo realistic explosions shake the screen, sending sprinkler systems into panic stations... before our trio of Ruskis emerge into the workplace and reduce the snazzy bureau to a particle-packed wasteland. The theatres of war - from deserts to skies to civvie streets - have never looked this... real. It's almost scary; the terror feels tangible.
BF3 appears to signal that the next step in videogame realism - at least when it comes to blowing stuff up - resides in destructible environments, making a rival shooter like, say, Rage feel both painfully antiquated and impotent.
It's an idea that the original FEAR pioneered half a decade back, but it's finally come to jaw-dropping, bombastic fruition thanks to Frostbite 2. Okay, so the physics engine sometimes has the tendency to go slightly haywire, but these comedic WTF moments are only sporadic.
There's also a visual breadth to, well... battlefields that's simply unparalleled. We bought the farm countless times just because we were too busy standing in stunned reverence at the sheer destroyed majesty of our surroundings.
Crucially, core gunplay is also up there with the class leaders - with kills being particularly, crucially, satisfying. No bullet sponges here either; nick somebody in the vitals and they go down... and stay down. While - if pressed - we'd still tend to lean towards COD when it comes to incredible rag dolls, spot-on hit boxes and 'punchy' gunplay, BF3 is sooo close now... and infinitely nearer to breaking the hegemony than predecessor Bad Company 2.
That said, the mechanics at times feel slightly archaic compared to the engine driving them, almost as if the tech is so special it almost demands similarly ground-breaking gameplay to complement it.
For instance, do we personally think BF3 may have benefited from a sticky cover system? Perhaps - at times the game feels decidedly old-school in its core mechanics - but we'll no doubt get shot down in flames (mostly by the hardcore PC crowd, natch) for even suggesting that, chiefly for the massive impact it'd have on the way multiplayer plays out. Still, it's something for DICE mull over when they do the inevitable deep dive after BF3 has been sitting on shelves for a bit...
Incomparable audio contributes immeasurably to the immersive experience. DICE have always enjoyed a massive reputation in this department, but they've truly surpassed themselves here.
Underpinned by an awesome synth soundtrack (did anyone else immediately think Mass Effect? Perhaps it's not entirely surprising given the two devs - both part of the EA stable - apparently collaborated on sound design), BF3 prefers to eschew the usual rock guitar riffs to focus firmly on the sounds of combat.
The fabulously fleshed-out weapons roster all sounds dizzyingly authentic, explosions rock the room, screams rend the battlefield... gamers with a decent 5.1 (or better) surround setup will revel in an aural feast. Sound design is often underappreciated by gaming critics and gamers alike, but even if you're fairly ignorant when it comes to the various booms and bangs it's impossible not to be smacked of gob here.
The Battlefield series' campaigns have always been unapologetically tricky; fail to respect the enemy and the screen will rapidly fade to black. For this reason it's a mite tricky to discern BF3's length - there are twelve missions in all, but two essentially frame the narrative and whiz past in a jiffy.
Also - even on medium difficulty - we, er, died a hell of a lot. Sorry 'bout that. Eight hours minimum wouldn't seem out of the equation, though... so for you saddos that actually give a fig, it probably beats out Modern Warfare 3 in that department. More importantly, we reckon BF3 could easily stand - and be sold - alone as a beefy single player experience: that's some statement considering it's also packing arguably the greatest multiplayer on planet videogames (more on that post-US release)
Everybody knows it's the girth not the length that counts though (ahem) and, in terms of the missions, around half of the twelve are - for differing reasons - as good as anything we've experienced in the genre. The aforementioned 'Comrades' and 'Kaffarov' are the pinnacle of FPS drama, while - despite its aforementioned disappointing linearity - 'Gone Hunting''s jet segment is - from a visual and immersive standpoint - pant-wettingly exciting.
If BF3's vicariously violent thrills don't help military recruitment drives across the Western hemisphere, we'll eat our sopping-wet trolleys...
Stop Bugging Me
Now, an admission - we deliberately wanted to play this game on PC rather than console. All hyperbole aside - and excuse us if you believe this isn't a fair comparison (it probably isn't) but BF3 on the beige box is a genuine glimpse into proper next-gen gaming, at least from a technological angle.
If you leave ideas like artistic direction and choreography at the door and simply concentrate on pure engine ability, textures, lighting, geometry etc. then the likes of Gears 3, Assassin's Creed: Revelations, Rage and even Uncharted 3 are simply left gasping. It's a patent generational leap and the kind of experience you could easily imagine as a launch title on the next batch of consoles.
BF3 on 360 and PS3 might be super playable and a formidable programming achievement in its own right but - and this is a feather in the cap for the PC gaming elitists - BF3 on a pimped PC is inarguably the definitive way to experience this masterpiece.
(As an aside for the tech-heads, we were able to play BF3 at a steady 30+fps on an i5 750 overlocked to 4.1GHz, 4Gb of DDR3 PC3-12800C7 1600MHz Dual Channel RAM and a Radeon HD 6850 with Catalyst driver set 11.9 with all settings on Ultra plus full antialiasing and anisotropic filtering with ambient occlusion set to HBAO but Vsync off. In other words, damn-near full eye candy. Not bad for a machine that's powerful but hardly bleeding-edge. Considering that BF3 looks significantly more impressive than any other game we've played on our rig this year - Witcher 2 arguably aside - that's all credit to DICE).
Alas, the PC version also comes with its own unique problems. For one, controller support is bizarrely still only half-integrated, so while you can run-and-gun from the comfort of your plush sofa, you'll need to leap back to the trusty keyboard/mouse combo when it comes to firing turrets or participating into the (massively incongruous) QTEs. Inexplicable, and crap.
When a prompt that takes up a massive chunk of the screen appears telling you to bang the spacebar to avoid being stabbed in the face by a foe, it's also a real immersion-breaker. Definitely something to fix in a future patch, DICE.
It's also impossible to pen this PC-centric review without touching upon both EA's Steam-alike Origin download manager and Battlelog - a browser window from which you're forced access the game's various campaign, co-op and online modes on PC.
The former seems... /okay - it's still in Beta and obviously comes with all the caveats that entails. Whether Origin is a good thing in general is a debate for another time, far outside of this review.
Battlelog, meanwhile, is surprisingly slick, intuitive and handy when it comes to communicating with other BF3 players, match-making and so on. What's not so hot is the irksome effect it appears to have on loading times - it takes upwards of a couple of minutes to get into gameplay from the initial Origin boot-up palaver through Battlelog and the yawn-inducing splash screens. Ho hum. Hardly a deal-breaker, though.
It's also probably worth mentioning that, during a couple of the game's latter missions, we experienced some irksomely regular crashes that threatened to sour the experience. While we're cognisant that this could have simply been down to our particular hardware config, we thought we'd throw it out there.
That's a bit of a horrid note to end on, though. Battlefield 3 is a dazzling achievement in almost every respect... and a true glimpse into the future of videogames. Rather than a COD-beater (both games have their hardcore fans, their own compelling arguments to play, their own unique pros and cons), Battlefield stands proud as the perfect companion piece.
In other words, there's absolutely no reason why even the most ardent Acti fan couldn't appreciate the brilliance on show here, and presumably vice-versa. Perhaps most importantly, DICE deserve to be appreciated for its pioneering approach to engine tech, and the ensuing impact on gameplay, as well as the manifestation of that tech. After Frostbite 2, it'll be almost impossible to return to the staid, indestructible environs of rival shooters.
Battlefield 3 then, from a campaign perspective, delivers the goods and then some. It's not perfect, but it's bloody close... infinitely more impressive than Bad Company 2 and irrefutable proof that DICE have now firmly stepped into the hallowed ranks of the absolute top-tier developers. COD or not, this deserves a place in your collection - not to mention a place in your heart.
CVG reviewed the PC version of Battlefield 3. For a more in-depth verdict on the multiplayer portion of the game, check back later this week for a post-US release update, when the community is fully established.
We also played in 1080p resolution, but it's worth mentioning that campaign isn't handling nearly as large maps as the multiplayer beta, which probably explains why we were able to maintain a high frame rate with full bells and whistles.