Hello - Battlefield 3
Posted by Alex at 21:35 on 01 Nov 2011
Okay, well, let's get the rubbish stuff out of the way first. And Battlefield 3's single-player campaign is quite remarkably poor in its construction. It looks nice and plays just fine - when you're actually allowed to play it. But as an experience it is wonky and lacklustre, a badly designed string of missions which may very occasionally manage to feel intense - nearly exciting - but on the whole never approach something even halfway decent, let alone fun.
It also fails as a training tool for the multiplayer - something I expected at least in some regard, if only by way of getting to grips with the flight controls or the functions of a few gadgets like the little robot or the flying drone. How to spot an enemy, maybe? How bullets drop with distance, how to arm a bomb, lay some mines, give out ammo, deploy a parachute. None of these things are present. Amusing that EA are still insisting that the single-player is a way for players to "train up and get ready for multiplayer." Either they haven't even played the game themselves, or it's just a blinkering toeing of what someone deemed a necessary PR line regardless of accuracy. Probably both.
The campaign just left me wondering ... who the hell made this thing? Do they play games - do they even like games? They certainly don't understand them, or the possible delights a solo Battlefield experience could deliver. Take, for instance, one particular section where you're parachuting out of a plane. That sounds pretty cool, right? There's free-falling and parachuting in the multiplayer and it's good fun. Now guess what your personal involvement is with this entire section in the single-player. Do you get to pull the parachute? Do you get to control your fall? Do you get to open the plane doors? Nope nope nope. Your solitary interaction in this whole sequence is pressing a button to jump out. You don't actually run and jump yourself, of course, you just press a button to move this cutscene on to the next bit. Oh, and then you can look around while you're falling. What a gripping, delightful piece of work.
It's exceptionally restrictive, and restrictive isn't fun. Restrictive isn't even Battlefield. This is probably the most uninvolving single-player game I've ever played. I don't mean emotionally - I mean physically. I've never felt so passive. There are countless examples in countless flavours of design shittiness. The stodgy fibre-puck that refuses to flush when you realise that you will never get to fly a jet for this entire jet-based sequence and it's just another dull semi-interactive cutscene. To add insult to injury, they didn't even have the decency to turn the action of putting your helmet on into a quick-time event.
The stench of dribbling diarrhoea that emanates from the game's trouser leg when you aren't exactly in the right place or accidentally do something before you were supposed to. Squad-mates telling you to move up when you're already waiting for them at the objective. Enemies and friends both standing there patiently until you to move ever so slightly to the left onto the map marker so they can blow a tanker up in a sudden, exciting ambush. Invisible walls around escape vehicles until the scripting decides it's your turn to leave. Five-second suicide warnings should you stray more than a few feet from the 'zone of operation' even if you just wanted to say hello to some locals. I'm trying to win some hearts and minds over here.
The bags of flaming dogshit on your doorstep that are the endless quick-time events. I'm not really one to cock a mean one towards QTEs, although they are obviously awful, but Battlefield 3 displays the limpest of limp dicks. Half the time I didn't know if I'd done them right or not. There are a lot of fist fights going back and forth and it was really hard to tell what precise impact my tardy stab at the B button had on proceedings. My favourite one was when my buddy told me to go and knife a guy. So I ran up to him and pressed the knife button (right bumper.) Only, actually, what the game wanted to do was show my man equipping the knife, then ask me to press the right trigger to stab with it. So I buggered up the bit where I was supposed to knife a guy by trying to knife a guy. Then everyone shot me.
It's a rigid game, as tedious and eventually abrasive as an arse-wiping session which never seems to end. Okay ... maybe that's enough about poop for the moment. The only half-decent set-piece is a tank assault mission. You switch through roles as and when the game dictates, but at least you get to actually drive the thing, actually fire various weapons where you like. That's good, right? Although I can't say really if I enjoyed this section on its own merits or just by comparison to the other bits where I was - at points literally - a passenger to proceedings.
It's a real shame, because now and then you'll end up in a proper scrappy bullet mosh and suddenly the game is quite enjoyable. Squirming around on the ground like a terrified puppy on bonfire night, occasionally popping up to take a few shots as enemies return fire from god knows where. Gathering your courage for a blind run to the next piece of inadequate cover. It's not too hard to make the player feel a part of something - just actually let them get involved.
Here's an single thought which goes nowhere and serves no purpose: I liked the section fighting through an office because the colour scheme reminded me of Mirror's Edge and all those cubicles get destroyed pretty nicely. Okay, thought over.
I guess though, to be fair, it's not that whoever made the campaign is evil or useless or stupid. It is very easy to vilify the people behind something bad, but in this case I don't believe anyone thought this uninteractive guided cutscene nonsense was better like this - it was just easier. Battlefield 3's single player is less of a game and more of a ... a thing. A thing that happens to exist because someone thought it should. No love, no excitement, just the outcome of someone's employment. You can decide whether that's better or worse.
So there's that. As a side note, I have very much enjoyed the suggestion that - seeing as it's pretty wank, the campaign should be ignored during review purposes. Because Battlefield is a multiplayer game so everything else doesn't matter. As though, if the solo sections were amazing, exemplary, outstanding, the same reasoning would apply? Or would it be flaunted then as the complete package? You can't make your bed and eat it, so they say.
But let's leave such unfathomable unpleasantness behind and talk about the multiplayer. It's familiar ... but not too familiar. It's a new craze. If you played Bad Company 2 - and I did, a lot - you are not going to be too surprised or feel too out of your depth when jumping into a match. That's not a dig against Battlefield 3 as a game in its own right, I can just foresee its lasting appeal slightly diminished in the shadow of a quite recent, not entirely dissimilar experience.
The maps are nicely varied in style if not setting. It would be nice to have something in the snow maybe. A rumble in the jungle. A very brief battle to regain control of an underwater city featuring the ill-advised use of explosives. Maybe that's one for the DLC. The rolling greenery of Caspian Border is one of few bright highlights amidst a lot of dark and dusty locations.
But in terms of structure I am very much the happy bunny. I have had some reservations at certain moments - last night, for example, we absolutely destroyed one team on one of the smaller maps, Grand Bazaar (Rush mode.) They didn't even get past the first set of cash machines. I thought - this must be impossible, this map is too small and too narrow for anyone to ever win. But then the sides swapped and we won the bastard. It wasn't elegant and it certainly wasn't pretty, but it was exceptionally tense and gripping. Exhausting almost, a true joy in this victory. These matches are exactly why I love Battlefield so much - they make me actually give a shit about the outcome, get invested in the action and excited about the result. I've missed it. There are a few points on a few maps where similar thoughts have arisen - that, when everyone's got their shit together, it's going to be pretty much impossible to get past here - but for now, it's been manageable.
There's a great variety in scale and scope to the map selection. I can't say I've got any stand-out favourite at the moment, but I certainly don't have any I dislike either. Games feel very different moving between different sized maps in the rotation and this really helps keep the game feeling fresh over an evening's play. Even single matches can move between tight infantry areas and more open spaces with vehicles on hand over the course.
The actual moment-to-moment gameplay is also fantastic. I had a little trouble with the feel of Bad Company 2 - something I could never quite get a handle on and which was consequently inexplicably frustrating. Just, a little difficulty actually aiming and shooting at a target properly that has nothing to do with sensitivity. If pushed I would suggest it was something to do with the acceleration in the aiming when the stick is pushed further away from the centre position. But ... wait, what was I talking about? Yes. Yes - the actual bits of Battlefield 3 where you're shooting a man feel much better to me. The bullets go where I want them to.
There's not a great deal to harp on about really (though typically I'm giving it a good go anyway) because what makes Battlefield so great is the unexpected, the moments which aren't planned or engineered. We're just getting into the more interesting class unlocks now to add to our bag of tools, and this is the kind of stuff I love most of all. Forget shooting for now. There have been some ridiculous moments already playing around with the spawn beacon which lets you parachute in (sometimes?) from wherever you place it, even if you manage to whack it down right up next to the objectives. Sweet, confusing death from above.
This is the heart of the matter. When the weapons and classes and additional gadgets and abilities all feel great, and the maps focus and encourage and allow many different tactics - the game is almost infinitely enjoyable, rarely predictable. Amazing moments are created. And I've had plenty. What's the point, as Ariel would say. No big deal. I want mooooorrreee.
I have even been enjoying Team Deathmatch, which came as quite the surprise when I accidentally stumbled into a match. I was happy to hear of the mode's inclusion in the run up to release, if only in the hope that it would lure away some of those players who care more about the K:D ratio than playing the objective in objective-based game modes. Hard to say so far whether this has actually happened, but I have yet to shout at, shoot at, smoke out or jump up and down in front of any team-mates during a Rush match while they refuse to push up towards the objective.
TDM is basically what Medal of Honour should have been. Very fast, very intense infantry action on smaller sections of the maps. The classes and destruction add an extra dimension to proceedings as well. Good for unlocking things for your weapons, anyway.
There are ... issues, though. Nothing fundamental enough to make the game feel broken, but enough to take the shine off a little. A few fairly common glitches and annoyances - reloading animations not playing out, being spawned facing the wrong way, guns firing one bullet and then stopping (without fire mode being changed), the goddamn bipod being deployed when I just wanted to aim down the sights and shoot a man.
Weird design choices (or mistakes?) - one where the opposing sides in the multiplayer have a slightly different set of weapons (which is dumb in itself) but the customisation options off the main menu only show things from the perspective of the good guys. Maybe they forgot to let you switch to the enemy forces? It's a bit bizarre. Then, you're forced to wait at the end-of-round screen for about 30 seconds and you can't edit your classes while you're there. You can't see which map is next and you can't leave the game. And when the map starts loading, it doesn't even tell you what side you're on.
Also, there were connection woes and server problems from the outset but - depressing as it is - that almost goes without saying. Everything in that regard is slowly improving, though. I think we even played on some European servers last night instead of American ones. What a treat.
My biggest issue that I feel is a genuine negative rather than a minor problem that could / should be fixed is the unlock system for weapons and vehicles. But perhaps even this is not entirely negative. It is an admirable attempt at giving some more longevity to the game I suppose - or at least, just more things to unlock. Call it progression or reward or incentive, whichever you like. Bad Company 2 did suffer slightly in this regard, where before too long the only progression on offer was watching the experience bar fill up in a depressingly slow crawl from one rank to the next.
Now, every gun has it's own set of attachments which are unlocked as you get kills with that weapon. And there are a lot of them - scopes, silencers, barrels, grips and bipods, lights and lasers. This is rather annoying to begin with if you're someone who likes playing a more support-focussed role like me, but more importantly it completely flips the response to unlocking a new weapon. Before - a subdued excitement, eagerness to try out a new gun and see how it handles, how it feels and fits you. But now, I've been more likely to just stick with the starting weapon for which I've got a nice grip and holographic sight.
The bigger issue is with the vehicles - helicopters and jets especially. The first unlock for both are the flares which will help somewhat in the Quest To Not Crash Or Get Shot Down Immediately. But even with defensive measures keeping you in the air, until you've unlocked further upgrades for the jets - something other than the crappy starting machine gun - they're still not very useful at actually killing things or helping to win the match. It all just feels a little wonky, a little unbalanced. The helicopters feel very fragile, almost worthless in the face of just one or two engineers with stinger missile launchers at the ready. You won't last long.
These are not easy design choices to make, especially when an equal amount of people may be pleased or perturbed by any decision. But it is one of the few new ideas that I find myself not feeling fantastic about. Luckily it's an issue that will soon resolve itself for me, when I feel more suitably equipped for any particular situation - but it is an issue that will render the battlefield an increasingly inhospitable place for any potential newcomers.
So, hello there Battlefield 3. This is the 360 version I'm on about by the way - I suppose that's important enough information. There has been a certain amount of bullshit around the game's release, perfectly valid complaints sprouting largely from the twin seeds of 'EA is a bad publisher' and 'the 360 is a clunky old piece of hardware.' But once you've sighed heavily a few times and stopped shaking your head in a slow, sad, almost nostalgic way, the game itself is a very good one. The only times I have felt the console version is noticeably inferior to the PC on account of smaller player numbers is on a few of the larger conquest maps. When a fair chunk of the team are off dicking about in the sky, the rest of you can feel rather lost and lonely amongst all the buildings. A few isolated fire-fights, a death, and the thought of trekking back into the action summons a weary kind of resignation rather than any real excitement.
These odd moments aside, on the whole they have done a very good job of making maps and modes and melees work wonderfully with the console's smaller player numbers. Though I do not doubt the PC experience is often a more intense, more expansive, perhaps more involving one ... I've never felt like I'm missing out. That's the key, really. And I would feel like I was missing out if I didn't get to play with all my friends any more. Aww.
Also, I haven't had a chance to try out any of the co-op missions yet. It'll happen before too long - if only to unlock some weapons - it's just that I'd rather jump into a multiplayer match with someone at the moment than spend some quality time alone together. But here's an article now rather than a more in-depth one later, in the spirit of being a games website.
And that'll do ye. I'll be playing Battlefield 3 for a long while yet most likely, and so should you. It's a great deal more enjoyable playing with people you know, so keep that in mind, although playing solo can be a lot more manageable than in previous games. TDM is fine to play on your own, and having some smaller maps available for the other modes is good - they force everyone in closer together and it seems as though proximity makes people more likely to act together as a team. Or at least give an illusion of co-operation. Just good luck getting a stranger to give you any ammunition. I tried asking nicely, my friend. I tried shooting you with my pistol and then shooting at the floor. Don't you understand? No, don't put a claymore down that's not helping. W-wait! Please come back. I thought ... I thought we were friends.