Battlefield 3 review
A helicopter just buzzed over my head, thirty feet above the ground. It was moving quickly, skirting around a hill, firing its main gun at an enemy I couldn’t see. I stopped running and just stared at it.
I do this a lot. Battlefield 3’s multiplayer makes me want to place a deckchair in the desert and watch the chaos happening all around. On its best maps – like the 64-player Caspian Border – every pixel on screen flickers with battle. I’ll climb to a rooftop and just freeze. In the distance, smoke stacks rise from a burning forest. In the air above me, jets twirl, chased by artillery. On the ground below, a tank has smashed through the lower floors of the building. I’ll spot a glimmer from a hillside 300 metres away, and it’ll be a sniper readying to kill me.
If someone had told me 15 years ago that this is what online gaming would be, I wouldn’t have believed them. Battlefield games have always been grand, ridiculous, futuristic designs. Wouldn’t it be cool if deathmatch had vehicles? Wouldn’t it be cool if it wasn’t deathmatch at all, but teams, and squads, and objectives, and dozens of players? Wouldn’t it be cool if there were tanks and jeeps and helicopters and jets? Wouldn’t it be cool if the maps were enormous and buildings could collapse?
Yes, it would. Yes, it is. No other modern combat shooter provides the feeling that playing Battlefield does. I love to watch that helicopter fly overhead and wonder where the person inside is going. To know that every thing I see is being controlled by another real person, each playing director and star in their own miniature war movie.
Battlefield 3’s singleplayer is not a movie. It’s a waterslide with pictures scrawled on the insides. It’s a ten-hour long exercise in contractual obligation: here are the multiple protagonists; here are the vehicle sections; here is the terrorist intrigue and appropriate level of moral grittiness. It’s an undercooked potboiler. It’s the world’s most expensive audition tape for the job of developing a Call of Duty rival.
You play Sergeant Blackburn, who starts the game by leaping onto the roof of a moving train, kicking in the back window and then shooting his way through each narrow carriage filled with terrorists.
The game never gets any less linear. At the end of the train, we’re taken back eight hours to where Blackburn is being interrogated by two government agents. He’s telling them tales of his adventures in Tehran, fighting the PLR, and you play each of his missions in turn. His story goes like this: “I shot a man, and then I shot ten men, and then I got shot and my eyes felt like they had jam on them, so I hid behind a wall for a bit and then I felt fine, and then I shot three more men, and then I threw a grenade into the next room, and then I shot six hundred more men, and then I realised that they were infinitely respawning.”
When you find the right weapon, and in moments where the level design is particularly fine, all the shooting is great. The guns feel punchy and responsive, and enemies mostly go down with just a couple of shots. A section set in Paris in the middle of the game is the best it gets. But too often, making your way from area to area, from cover to cover, feels like a dismal slog through uneven checkpoints. Death can be instant, and you’ll play through the same three or four rooms again and again until you crack the one area that’s giving you trouble.
The government agents never flinch at the ridiculous, super-soldier adventure either, but instead play good-cop/bad cop and occasionally interject with their own war-flavoured anecdotes. “What about Lt. Jennifer Coleby Hawkins?” asks one. “Hawkins? Never heard of her,” replies Blackburn. At that point you leap in to her story: she’s a jet co-pilot, and it’s one of the most beautiful looking on-rails gun sections I’ve ever played, and one of the least interactive bits of game. At its end, after you’ve fired all your rockets, launched all your flares and bombed some targets with the expected black-and-white bombo-cam, it cuts back to the room. “Nice story,” says Blackburn. “But I don’t see how it’s relevant.”
It’s not relevant, and Hawkins is never mentioned again. Battlefield 3 is desperate to hold your attention by constantly throwing new experiences at the screen.
To its credit, it never reaches the manipulative, frothing madness of the latter Call of Duty games, but it never aims higher than providing a pretty looking slideshow, either. The jet section is beautiful, but you’re merely the game’s co-pilot, along for the ride. The tank section might put you in the driver’s seat, but only so you can be the game’s taxi driver. You survive an earthquake, rappel down a building, and skydive from a plane – but in every instance, you’re a puppet going where you’re told so the game can show you the next razzle-dazzle animation.
There isn’t a single interesting decision to be made in the entire campaign. If you ever try to deviate from the script, even during that touted moment of moral greyness, you simply fall over dead. The only reason to even keep your eyes open during most of these scenes is the terrible risk they might turn in to another tedious quicktime event.
If someone had told me 15 years ago that this is what singleplayer games would be, I wouldn’t have believed them. It would have been too depressing.
The co-operative mode isn’t much better, either. It provides six unique missions specifically designed to be played with a friend, but they serve as a kind of hardcore mode, and each is much harder than the regular singleplayer. I found them more frustrating than fun, and subject to the same connection problems as the regular multiplayer.
If you want your games to be games, don’t play Battlefield 3’s campaign. Play the multiplayer instead, where the spectacle is far grander, more exhilarating and more cinematic for being entirely under your control. It makes you want to sit back and watch.
But you can’t. Your friend just blew up the last M-COM station in the area and the defenders are falling back. You need to move up fast, so you sprint towards the cliff edge, jump and free fall. Fifteen feet above the ground, you open your parachute and land safely. It’s a moment that happens to you in the singleplayer, but here you get to do it all by yourself. It’s like graduating to big boy school.
If you’ve played Battlefield: Bad Company 2, the last game in the series, the multiplayer will be familiar. Conquest and Rush return, and so do many of the weapons. The most visible and talked about change is the welcome addition of jets, returning to the series for the first time since Battlefield 2.
You’ll spend only a fraction of your time piloting them – they spawn at base, but it’s first come, first served, and you’ll be lucky to get there before everyone else. They’re also ineffective against ground units, meaning that jet pilots are almost playing an entirely different game from everyone else.
Page 2: Multiplayer - Where it succeeds and fails.