Battlefield vs. Call of Duty is unavoidably the big battle of holiday season 2011 as latest sequels in these premier shooter franchises roll out. Battlefield 3 arrived first, based on Frostbite 2 engine that ditches DX9 and XP support for a modern DX11-based engine and building on the acclaimed Battlefield 2 as a true sequel, the pre-launch hype went almost off the chart. So is there a 22c8 cause for all the commotion? It sure is pretty, but is Battlefield 3 the new king of multiplayer first person shooters or just a tech demo?
Battlefield 3 features most aspects of the modern battlefield - just about every tool of war you could possibly think of is available to maim and destroy the opposition or at least is showcased somewhere in the single player, co-op or multiplayer game modes. Yet BF3 is not, by any means, a simulator. It is definitely "just" an action game. A very pretty, incredibly detailed and atmospheric first person shooter action game, but still a game. Not that this is a flaw in any way, just a statement that if you seek authentic realism beyond the visuals, Battlefield 3 might not qualify. Yes, there is a "Hardcore" mode for multiplayer that takes additional steps towards realism, but it still won't make it a military simulator.
But what a game... Frostbite 2 engine, even with some notable omissions (doesn't use DX11 tessellation, is held back slightly for old console hardware ports), looks stunning and gives a hint at what games can look like on midrange PC hardware today. The only thing that is needed? Game developers that target PC as the primary platform for their engine development. Yes, Battlefield 3 runs perfectly fine even on a $250 video card while looking absolutely stunning.
Mere words fail to convey how incredible some of the key action moments are in Battlefield 3 and the visuals... many other games of this holiday season instantly look technologically obsolete in comparison.
Strictly speaking, Battlefield 3 is primarily a multiplayer game but there is also the unavoidable single player campaign and some co-op missions. For single player, there is a fairly convoluted story about a terror plot involving some Russian miniature nukes in wrong hands. The campaign is played out as mission-sized flashbacks while the main character, Staff Sergeant Henry "Black" Blackburn is being interviewed by the CIA. Some of the missions feature a different playable character in the central role, yet they all tie to the overall story of PLR militia plot with stolen Russian nukes. I'm not entirely sure but... haven't we heard this story before, in one of the previous Modern Call of Honor Warfare shooters or something? Over the years there have been so many that I've lost track of the all flimsy plots featured, yet I'm fairly sure that BF3 story with stolen Russian nukes and terrorists trying to do evil things with them is a re-run.
Single player campaign has one major thing going for it - variety. It keeps hopping to different places around Iraq, Iran, Russia, Paris, New York... and while most of the action is on foot, there are also missions featuring tank warfare and jet fighter action. It also manages to sprinkle the campaign with numerous epic moments that stand out as atmospheric and effective representation of real warfare of today. Shame that the gameplay doesn't always keep up - the jet sequence, while exceedingly pretty and full of authentic detail, is little more than a simple on-rails shooter. One can only wonder... why? Can't let console gamers get confused with the task of piloting of a jet fighter? Or can't find a plausible way to keep a jet fighter following a pre-scripted path, so better take the controls away? Either way, two thumbs up for the visuals, two thumbs down for the actual gameplay.
Hero moments with big shiny scripted visuals are also somewhat rare. The rest of the action is what you'd expect from a single player mode of a modern multiplatform shooter - running through a carefully scripted and narrow path, often just following a friendly NPC tagged with "FOLLOW", shooting scripted enemies that appear from same exact places and do the same exact (dumb) things. Battlefield 3 hides the scripted nature of the gameplay and limited play areas better than most single player FPS campaigns, but it is still there and becomes painfully visible from time to time. BF3 single player also suffers from the usual flaws of scripted campaigns - there may be a massive battle going on around you but all that action is just a lot of noise. Nothing moves forward until you cross a trigger point or perform a trigger task that fires off the next section of events along the predetermined path.
Battlefield 3 also resorts to some extremely heavy-handed moves in order to keep you following the canned events as designed; in some cases it will outright kill your character without any visible reason, simply for running outside the designated area for that specific part of the scripted events. In some rare cases this may include running too far ahead and being too effective, which is just outright retarded. The only positive thing I can think of the scripted events around you is that the atmosphere and flow of the events is, for the most part, crafted with great care. If only the game could react to your actions and choices instead of just offing you if you stray from the script too much...
While character animations are simply superb, enemy artificial "intelligence" is mostly notable for the lack of it. If you end up out in the open for too long or otherwise do completely stupid moves, enemy soldiers will kill you, yet for the most part they are little more than cardboard cutouts to shoot at as you proceed through the mission content. I mean, sure, they do react to being fired upon and get to cover - only to reappear to be picked off a moment later. The maps don't really need much more than that but the shortcomings of the AI code are painfully obvious.
Overall the single player, on normal, is quite easy while the hard mode ramps things up to "annoying" as you constantly end up killed due to the superhuman accuracy of the hard mode enemies. Even on normal you'll run into some silly instagib moments where, if you do not know what is coming, it is extremely easy to get killed for no real fault of your own. The oft-quoted example is a bit at the end of a mission where your ride out arrives and just as you reach the V-22 Osprey ramp, you are told that you should instead cover the extraction zone and you are physically blocked from entering just as the area gets swarmed by hostiles. Uh, could have told that to me 30 seconds earlier, before I left cover and ran towards the landing Osprey... Luckily automatic checkpoint saves happen so often that you rarely lose any meaningful progress by getting killed.
Even with superb visuals and great atmopshere, the single player is ultimately more of the same old with extremely limited gameplay. In essence you get a five hour war movie where you get to play along as a hero according to a script and... that's it. But nobody buys Battlefield 3 for a single player, right?
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