It's loud. So very, very loud.
The first public showing of Battlefield 3 took place this evening at an off-site event at the Game Developer's Conference. There, select press were shown the first chunk of a the single player campaign, and what the technology behind the game; the Frostbite Engine 2, is capable of.
Last year, EA attacked Call of Duty's hold on the Christmas shooter market with Medal of Honor, with limited success.
This year, Battlefield is going to mount a full blown assault on CoD's dominance. The good news is: it's built for the PC, to showcase what the PC is capable of. And it's the best looking PC game in the world right now.
The demo opened with a precis of the tech. Frostbite 2 uses animation systems developed for sports games to give characters heft and weight. As the soldiers turn into doorways, you can see the weight shift on their feet. The destructability of the old Frostbite engine has been ramped up; bullets can chip away at masonry and concrete, while full bore explosives can tear down entire buildings. And when buildings collapse, they don't vanish in a cloud of smoke and magically transform into burning husks - the destruction is more complex - signage wobbles and shakes, concrete awnings tumble down. The sound is as violent and deafening as Bad Company 2; bullets echo and snap with nightmarish cracks.
But it's the sheer visual quality that's the real star. I think it's down to the lighting - the bright sunshine of the Iraq level was extremely impressive. When the demo transitioned to the indoors, shafts of sunlight shone through any open windows, creating gorgeous pillars of dust. It absolutely looked a step ahead of last year's big shooters.
The game demo was split into four sections all taking place in Iraq. The storyline states that the PLR are involved in an insurgency on the Iraq border. US soldiers are sent to blow them up. Or something. I don't think the Battlefield 3 team are overthinking the story.
The first slice saw the team drive into a staging area in a APC, while one of the lead character's team-mates complained of not doing his taxes, the other worried about how they were disembarking way off their expected position. As they exited the APC, they walked through a very busy US checkpoint. Following a briefing from a commander (find the missing US soldiers. they're.... over here somewhere) the team run through abandoned buildings, kick in a few doors, and dodge a PLR patrol. At one point, the team pause as the ground beneath them begins to shake. “We're on a major faultline,” remarks one. That's called foreshadowing.
As they exit a garage, the game enters slow-motion, and one of your friends is sniped. Nooeees! The dev playing dragged him back into cover a mini quick time event. Minor point - it was pretty cool to see the usual Press A or B replaced with WASD. Then, a full bore firefight broke out.
This is where the demo was less impressive. Battlefield's single player campaign is clearly a tightly scripted, tightly controlled shooting gallery. In the demo, there was little evidence of enemy soldiers using their own brains to find cover and avoid getting shot. Nor did your team-mates do anything to really help out. The player simply pointed the gun at the baddies heads until they fell over. There was a brief moment when the developer used a grenade to blow a chunk of balcony away to reveal a sniper (complete with satisfying ragdoll wheeling through the air), but mostly the player lined up headshots until the PLR began to retreat.
Following the retreat, the player attempts to track down the source of an IED, following a long wire into a basement bomb factory. He crawls through a ventilation shaft (yay, shafts! it's a PC game alright!) before finding the remote detonator. As he tries to unplug it, he's punched hard in the chest by an enemy. There then follows a vicious no holds barred fight from first person in which prompts to click the left or right mouse button in the appropriate corners of the screen are followed by punches, kicks, and a quite brutal knee to the tummy. It reminded me of a more controlled version of Mirror's Edge's melee fighting. In fact, the whole game reflected DICE's experience with Mirror's Edge - there was a real emphasis on maintaining the first person perspective while constantly reminding you of your own physical presence. It's always good to look down and see your legs.
The third section of the demo was more interesting, and used the destruction tech in a more creative way. The player's squad comes under heavy sniper fire on a rooftop. Each rifle bullet creates a shockwave in the air - and pings off plantpots, concrete, and the pipes and air-conditioning units that offer your only cover. The player crawls to the edge of the rooftop with his squad who, on a count of three, all offer suppressing fire while you fire an RPG into his spider hole. The RPG round is a little bit too effective - the entire frontage of the hotel the sniper has been hiding in collapses. “Good effect on target,” jokes your team-mate.
The final section of the demo was a full blown ground battle in the heart of the city. Infantry were joined by tanks and helicopters in holding a vital pedestrian bridge. Now I write that, I'm wondering exactly what was so vital about the bridge. Is the green cross code considered destabilising?
The player lay down and used a machine gun to mow down dozens of soldiers, while the helicopter hovered above, hosing incoming jeeps with round after round of tracer. As each wave was pushed back, the player shifted to another side of the intersection, until finally, he leapt onto the back of jeep, and used the mounted turret to hold back the hordes.
“Great,” I thought. “A mounted machine gun bit. That, right there, is the future of games.”
But, immediately, the ground begins to shake violently. It's an earthquake. The concrete splinters and shatters in a terrible wave, infantry are knocked off their feet, and the player is bounced out of the jeep. Then, the buildings around him start collapsing, one by one. At the final moments of the demo, a skyscraper falls directly onto the helicopter, which crashes onto the player.
I was impressed with almost everything about Battlefield 3. It's beautiful, sounds awesome, and has some impressive destruction tech. But I wasn't entirely convinced. For all the fire and fury of combat, the AI of the enemy soldiers didn't impress, nor did your team-mate seem to want to help. That needs work. And I'm desperate to see what the developers do with Frostbite 2.0 in multiplayer. But, I came out grinning, if deafened. I can't wait to play it. And I can't wait to play it on PC.
Battlefield 3 is out in Autumn. You'll hear it coming.