Battlefield 3's a great game, but not up to unrealistic expectations

Battlefield 3's a great game, but not up to unrealistic expectations

It's not always a good thing when a game is highly anticipated, because invariably, it just can't live up to the unrealistic expectations of gamers and game journalists.

"Battlefield 3," the latest first-person shooter from Electronic Arts' acclaimed developer DICE, falls into this trap.

Objectively speaking, it's on par with the best of the FPS games released in recent years. Beautiful visuals, top-notch audio, an action-packed campaign, optional co-op missions, thrilling multiplayer combat — what more could a player want?

Yet subjectively, it just doesn't scratch my itch as well as I thought it would.

I keep looking for fresh ideas in the single-player campaign, but I'm not finding many. Tank-driving missions have become exceedingly common in this genre. Sneaking around and sniping? Same problem; I've done it a hundred times in a hundred different games. Am I being fair in expecting DICE to reinvent the wheel? Definitely not.

Doesn't mean I don't want something other than the same old story though.

And that's a big part of "Battlefield 3's" problem. It doesn't dare to be too different.

The single-player campaign tells a typical story of the war on terrorism, seen through shifting viewpoints, winding around the central narrative of a Marine being questioned about a terrorist plot U.S. intelligence mistakenly thinks he's a part of. The virtual actors in this little drama behave convincingly — everyone earnestly acts their part, hero or villain — but they're all betrayed by the nature of the script they are acting out.

Putting it simply, the story makes sense overall, but it frequently veers off on tangents that lack meaningful connection with the overall plot.

For instance, in one scene our put-upon Marine, Staff Sgt. Blackburn, is asked about an anti-terrorist sortie flown by an Air Force jet. The player then steps into that pilot's shoes and engages in some admittedly thrilling airborne dog-fighting, as well as the too-typical bombing run, complete with infrared targeting. Mission completed, we return to Blackburn's interrogation. He never heard of the pilot or the mission, and it has nothing to do with anything he's talking about. In other words, what we just went through has no real bearing on the story. So, other than to give us time in a jet, what was that mission there for? No reason apparently; a few other missions throughout the game strike a similar wrong chord.

But while the story fails on multiple levels, the action rarely falters. Enemy forces dog the player's every step; there's very little time spent wandering empty hallways, waiting for something to do, something to kill. Controls are responsive, regardless of if the player has aim-assist enabled or not. Weapons and ammunition are plentiful. Allies provide meaningful audio cues of where to go and what to do next. On-screen indicators guide the player unobtrusively if necessary.

And, one of my favorite things in a first-person shooter, bullets actually kill effectively. A quick burst, accurately placed, will mow down an opponent realistically. There's no playing around, no artificial challenge created by the seeming invulnerability of the other side.

As far as action goes, "Battlefield 3" has nothing to be ashamed of.

However ...

OK, I won't claim that the enemy AI here is all that great. For that matter, the player's AI-controlled allies aren't that smart either. Many times throughout the game, I found it was up to me to kill the lone soldier standing suicidally exposed in the middle of the battlefield. My guys would always ignore him, and he'd always ignore them. There's also not much of the enemy taking cover or even throwing many grenades. However, their bullets are pretty effective too, so staying alive isn't always a cakewalk on normal difficulty.

Also, the campaign is way too heavily scripted for my taste. It's very much in the ouvre of "this will trigger when you reach this point." And it's even got quick-time events — unavoidable, completely unnecessary quick-time events. Come on DICE, FPS games don't need QTEs.

They're all almost the same. The player will round a corner or kick open a door, and suddenly he's locked in close-quarters combat with a lurking foe. Hit the right on-screen indicators in time with on-screen prompts and the player survives; mess up and die, then do it all over again. Yuck.

Let's be honest though. Most players these days don't pick up an FPS for the single-player campaign. "Battlefield 3" is no exception.

As a multiplayer experience, it doesn't disappoint. Well, it mostly doesn't disappoint.

The online game offers a very varied experience, with matches blending standard run-and-gun gameplay with vehicular ground- and air-based combat. Some maps are more geared toward the standard toe-to-toe slugfest, with gunmen dueling for supremacy in both open fields and underground tunnels. Others really center on vehicle combat, with tanks pounding away at each other while jeeps race around the battlefield, troop carriers trundle along and jets and helicopters duel in the sky and rain hellfire on the ground. Hey, there's even at least one map that makes use of gunboats.

Right now, most players seem to be focused on two of the several game modes available: Rush and Conquest.

In Rush, the attacking team fights to trigger explosives at a progressive series of checkpoints, while defenders do their best to stymie the advance. Those on offense get a limited number of tickets to start, each one representing a chance for a slain player to respawn. When the tickets run out, it's game over. But more tickets are granted every time the attackers manage to advance to the next checkpoints.

Conquest, on the other hand, is very much a game of "king of the hills." There are multiple hills to fight over, in other words. Holding onto territory earns each team points, with the team that finishes with the most points the victor.

Other modes include the standard deathmatch and team deathmatch, as well as a few squad-based competitions where organized teams compete against each other for supremacy. So there's something for everyone.

For the most, I'm really digging "Battlefield 3's" multiplayer as a pure gaming experience. Yet I've found a few flaws — some DICE's fault, some not — to harp about.

The weirdest one has to do with the game's leveling system. Performance in online matches earns the player tangible rewards for future matches, including new weapons, add-ons for those weapons and improved physical abilities. Oddly enough, among the first rewards I earned were add-ons for the AK-74M assault rifle ... except I hadn't unlocked the AK-74M assault rifle. My rewards were unusable. Except, sometimes the game gives me an AK-74M with all the trimmings while at the same time telling me I can't have one.

Another flaw occurs when a graphical problem — clipping — interferes with the game's tactical subtleties. In other words, it's hard to hide effectively in the dark corner of a small building if an enemy outside the building can see your limbs sticking through a solid wall.

But the strangest issue I've had isn't a software problem. It's a community one. I've seldom played in any matches that feature anything approaching teamwork. I'm playing on Xbox Live and yet I've seldom heard anyone talking over a headset — whether I'm in a squad or not. I've never experienced such a thing in any other online game. Every other multiplayer game I've played, it seems there's always someone talking, even if they aren't doing anything other than spouting off ethnic slurs. But not here.

That's certainly not a game-breaker. Just odd.

Hmm. Have I forgotten anything? Oh yeah. I did mention "Battlefield 3" looks really pretty, right? Dust floating in air; smoke wafting up as guns pop-pop-pop; flashlights glowing dimly as they search about unhurriedly or flaring bright and blinding as they focus right as the player's eyes — the game is great on presentation.

Curiously, though, I had to purposely install the HD graphics onto my Xbox 360's hard drive if I wanted the game to look so pretty. What's up with that? Seems like a slight misstep. A game shouldn't have to hog up my storage to look pretty.

That said, "Battlefield 3" is a solid, worthwhile first-person shooter, an excellent example of the genre. No, it's not as good as the pre-game hype, but few games ever live up to that.

 

"Battlefield 3"
Publisher: Electronic Arts.
Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3, PC. Reviewed on Xbox 360 using a copy sent to Playing Critic by EA.
Price: $59.99.
Rating: M for mature.
Recommendation: A good purchase for gamers focused on multiplayer, especially involving vehicular combat. For people who aren't going to go online, though, it's a rental.

Images courtesy of Electronic Arts
First image: The player and his squadmates run through an Iranian city while searching for terrorists.
Second image: The player takes out an entire building in order to swat a pest.

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