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Platforms: 360 | PS3 | PC (Origin)
Developed by DICE | Published by EA

Let’s cut to the chase. The single player, that which I played of it, was a linear, quick-time-event filled, very pretty looking and awesome sounding interactive cut-scene with artificial difficulty. I abandoned it after a few missions, playing on Hard because I was bored. Do not play single player.  I’ve played two levels of the co-op; the first is a helicopter mission which provides the only vehicle tutorial for handling helicopters whilst the second is a “hold your ground” kind of thing. The helicopter one is redeeming because it’s it in a helicopter, the other has no redeeming features. I have not played any more of co-op, but I can see why some may be interested.

Okay, to the meat of it. The multiplayer, also known as “The only reason you should want a Battlefield game.”

Battlefield 3 is one of those games. You know what I mean. It’s great! It plays wonderfully, looks magnificent, sounds absolutely amazing and will surely be a stalwart MP game for many people for some years to come. So, here comes along a dangerous word; but. BF3 is the prime example of being so close, yet being so far away. The errors that currently exist serve to remind that the gaming industry has changed and focuses perhaps lie elsewhere. Whilst I hate to use the term, the game feels ‘consolised’. There are clear influences to make it easier to play for the consoles with less people and this ultimately damages both console and PC versions. Combine this with a blood-lust to take on Call of Duty and the most profound thing happened. One of the fundamental issues that any MP focused game could be crippled by; map design. Considering the past of the Battlefield titles, I have to ask the simple question. “What the hell went wrong, guys?”

Of the nine release maps, three are in a decent condition to support 64 players, but even these are flawed. They are nowhere near as memorable as maps from some of the older BF titles. Regardless, these three maps funnily enough happen to be the biggest. There are a few others that are in acceptable territory, especially dependant on the game mode, whilst there are a few that I would pin as simply being awful (Hi there Operation Métro!) and shouldn’t have been allowed to have existed.

In the franchise’s mainstay, the Conquest game mode is limited to a mere 5 flags at maximum, made worse by the limited distance between them [Update (2012) – as of the Back To Karkand expansion pack, the flag cap now goes up to a respectable 7]. No longer do battles feel truly large scale and important because even if you lose a few points, you can easily push up in the majority of matches. The to-and-fro of map movement remains, but there’s no pedigree to the locations you need to hold as they offer very little in terms of strategic value. Similarly, the momentum based Rush mode lacks the clarity of map design present in its inception from Bad Company 1 (which had a superior single player to boot) meaning combat usually becomes restricted.

The obvious understanding would be to say these maps were designed for, say, 24 people (the console player cap, compared to 64 on the PC) and so you have a big map that’s fully rendered by the game engine, usable by air vehicles, but is concentrated onto such a small area that with relatively few players it would seem rather grand. The Team Deathmatch is a fun infantry-focused diversion, but considering my notes above on Conquest, you could quite easily bunker down in one of the infantry focused maps and duke it out there. You may think that spending such time talking about one aspect may be a little over-kill, but this is one of the two fundamentals required for a great MP FPS (First Person Shooter) experience. The maps are just a shame.

The other fundamental is balance. I have…issues, with the way it is dealt out here. Other than a gun and basic kit implements, you must unlock everything. Optics for varying zoom on your rifle? You’ll need to grind out kills for that. For each gun you want it on. Want the smoke grenade launcher? Well, you’ll have to get enough points with the assault/medic kit to get the grenade launcher, then get 20 kills with that. It makes not a blind bit of sense. You have to kill before you can support your team…in a team based game?! For me, the worst offender was for jets. Quite hard to fly and to be useful, you require points so you can unlock flares that stop rocket and missile lock-ons. The problem is, in the mean time you only have your main machine gun. It’s okay at taking out other air vehicles, but that’s it.

For people who join the game late, they’ll find themselves trying to pilot something, without any tutorial, whilst being blasted away. Now admittedly the points required aren’t overly high, but they are hard at the start. In fact, it’s not till quite a bit of time in the jet (longer than I would deem necessary as having passed the ‘understanding’ stage) that you even become useful for ground attacks and even then…The whole unlock system reeks of issues like this. It doesn’t make sense and it’s implemented pretty badly. The older BF titles did it better; you can unlock stuff, but that changes up play-style. None of them should be an almost required feature.

Other than that, the inter-kit balance is a little skewed as well; the machine gun toting support kit has all the explosives, whilst the poor recon kit takes a disproportionate amount of time to become tactically useful, but remains taking some time in grinding out points. The engineer kit has equal stopping power for infantry as their assault kit’s brothers, but also have anti-vehicle equipment. Whilst the assault do have access to health packs and defibrillators, the former are made less useful in a game with regenerative health (apart from on the Hardcore setting, which changes a few things up). In fact, the game even encourages you to almost ditch these as the weapon attachment you get replaces only the medic kit! Fine, okay, maybe I can understand that, but at least give me the choice of smoke grenades quicker! Uch. So many bizarre decisions.

There are, at time of writing, a few quirks with certain items as well that make them almost required over optional and will most likely be tweaked. Such is to be expected, but with everything else, it’s just another unfortunate occurrence. This all said when you have kits working together and the team you’re on is working functionally, then you have this grand movement that works effectively and is satisfying to play in, highlighting part of what can make Battlefield so great.

In terms of other elements, infantry fighting control feels tight, but time-to-kill seems disgustingly short, providing little means to retaliate before death. Bar the above balance issues, the net code seems to be reasonably friendly and works pretty well. Vehicle play is made slightly more accessible as vehicles can potentially regenerate armour if they only take a scratch and back off to lick their wounds, meaning that not all the armour is perpetually rented out by engineers with their repair tools. I would say, however, that there aren’t enough ground vehicles on the whole. Sure, there are maps with a decent amount of tanks each side, but there needs to be more. It rarely feels, and this is partly due to the lack of huge open maps, that you’re part of this bigger thing with two massive forces slugging it out but, like the infantry combat, it works pretty nicely.

I suppose I should make a point of talking about the server browser. So it works in your internet browser and is integrated with a general BF3 portal where you can access a forum, look at stats etc. It works pretty quickly. That’s it. I think it works pretty well. It’d be nice to have the option to do it in-game, so to speak, but it loads the game up quick enough that I don’t have an issue.

I have a lot more to say on both sides, but I feel this will turn into more of a rant than I’m afraid it has already become. Here’s the gist; BF3’s MP component is still very, very good. At its best, it creeps towards the highs of Battlefield past. It never surpasses them, but it can still appreciate bearing the Battlefield name. When it’s bad, it gets pretty grim and it becomes not enjoyable, which is something I don’t usually associate with BF games. There’s more than enough reason to get it though, but I ultimately find the whole thing a bit disappointing. This was heralded as the great return to the main BF franchise after the spin-off of Bad Company, but instead I feel like it’s not quite what it should be. Maybe with patches and updates down the line, it will do, but it’s a damn shame it isn’t here right now.

Boring Stuff: I can’t remember where I got up-to in the single player; it was some point after the incredibly dull jet mission. Graphically, the game auto-tuned to ‘High’, second below the ‘Ultra’ setting for PCs from the future. It’s been running at 1080 resolution and seems to be running steady at a good FPS (likely 60). When I’ve been using a jet, I’ve been using the 360 controller, although the game’s interface didn’t realise I was doing this, so I had to guess work for a short time what the controller buttons did. I’ve played about 32 hours in MP, although knock a few off due to connection issues early on effectively making game-play unwieldy. Of that time, I spent most playing Conquest, a fair bit in Rush and dabbled a little in Team Deathmatch. I have not played Squad Rush or Squad Deathmatch. I have also done an awful, awful lot of swearing.

Boring Stuff 2012 (September) Update: Game-time now stands at close to 90 hours, but I’ve long-ago abandoned the game. The Back To Karkand expansion pack offered the best maps available at the time of its release, making a return to any original map being a lesson in disappointment. I enjoyed more time in all vehicles, especially the tank and jets, where I was able to obtain all their unlocks. The fact I stopped playing months ago is a crushing shame and does not enamour me to playing BF4 on its release next year, especially with a renewed interest in contemporary warfare. As far as I’m aware, there have been numerous changes to BF3 since release, but even the release of the armour-and-big-maps expansion pack does nothing to excite or entice.