Battlefield 3's single player campaign checks all the required boxes, but fails to better the offerings of its competitors. Multiplayer is where the game finds its purpose, offering a raw experience that's both technically outstanding and masterfully balanced.
EA promised the world during the build-ip to Battlefield 3's release. It was going to reinvent the first-person shooter, provide an unrivalled modern military experience wrapped in visuals from a future generation. The reality — perhaps unsurprisingly to the cynics among you — is not quite as groundbreaking as EA's eager executives predicted. Make no mistake, the final product's a visual show-stopper that includes some of the most technically impressive, and downright fun, team-based competitive multiplayer available on PlayStation 3. However it falls short of offering the complete package, rounding out with a derivative single-player campaign and a so-so co-operative mode.
Battlefield 3 hits all the right beats for a game trying to make Call Of Duty irrelevant, but it does so without any of the refinement found in Activision's games. You play as Staff Sergeant Henry Blackburn, a plain-faced militant pulled into questioning by a duo of predictable police intelligence archetypes. Accused of turning on your own nation under unbelievable circumstances, you're forced to relay your story to the good-cop-bad-cop interviewers in order to prove your innocence. The narrative pays a little nod to Treyarch's recent Call Of Duty: Black Ops, which used a similar questioning device to unfold its story. It's a formula that works and allows DICE to pick out the best parts of Blackburn's narrative without forcing you through the more tedious moments.
The problem is that, like Call Of Duty, Battlefield 3 is almost always turned up to eleven, and it rarely makes time to drop the bombast in order to make the set pieces more surprising when they eventually arrive. Within thirty minutes of the campaign's opening you'll have hijacked a train, and witnessed an earthquake. It's the exact same formula adopted by Call Of Duty, but without the element of surprise.
Ordinarily we'd attempt to avoid spoilers in a review like this, but Battlefield 3's so predictable that we're not sure it really matters. Yes, there's a nuclear bomb, and yes, there's an AC-130-inspired mission. It's a bit like ruining the conclusion of the Titanic — of course the ship goes down at the end.
The campaign has its moments, but it rarely captures the essence of the Battlefield franchise. A sprint down an open rural farm boasts multiple NPCs and vehicles, but for the majority of the campaign you'll find yourself on rails or funnelled down corridors. It's surprising that, even though the engine is perfectly capable of letting you control vehicles in multiplayer, you sit as a passenger for nearly the entirety of Battlefield 3's campaign. Should you ever dare to explore outside of the game's linear pathways, you'll be punished by a glowing red error message informing you to return to the action or forfeit the mission. Great.
Thankfully, Battlefield 3 lives up to the hype when it comes to presentation. DICE's spangly new Frostbite 2.0 engine not only looks sensational, but also sounds great too. Battlefield 3 never quite hits the heights that EA promised, but it's still easily one of the best looking games on the platform. It struggles to better Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception, but it stands up next to Killzone 3 and makes Call Of Duty look old by comparison. Though we should point out that Battlefield 3 runs at half the framerate of Activision's series.
Battlefield 3 is arguably at its best in darkly lit environments. One missions sees you supporting an AI-controlled unit with a sniper rifle from an adjacent rooftop. Here rain beats down on the surrounding urban streets, reflecting soft streaks of light into your scope. There's a real sense of depth to the image, enhanced by striking particle effects and realistic fog. Brighter environments don't hold up quite as well, but utilise similarly impressive use of lighting. Perhaps most noteworthy is the way that lighting works as hindrance in Battlefield 3, with bright sunshine realistically impairing your vision. It sounds frustrating, but it's really not. You'll want to adjust your position in order to get the best possible look at your targets, and it adds to the realism of the game's scenarios.
DICE has some of the best audio technicians in the business, so it's no real surprise that you feel the impact of every explosion and every bullet in the game. Dynamic processing means every scenario has a great sense of place, with tunnels adding appropriate reverb effects to the dialogue and weapon samples, while filters recreate the muffled effect of wearing a helmet or standing too close to a particularly damaging bang.
Given the sheer quality of Battlefield 3's presentation in single player, DICE could be forgiven for toning things down in multiplayer, but impressively the Frostbite 2.0 engine holds up. Despite boasting just 24 players (a significantly reduced player count compared to its PC counterpart), Battlefield 3 feels tight and tense in multiplayer. The excitement is compounded by the sheer chaotic nature of the gameplay, with skylines punctuated by dogfights, and on-foot battles enhanced by the appearance of jeeps and tanks.
You'll need to work as a team if you want to get the most out of Battlefield 3's competitive multiplayer. The game is not as easily accessible as Call Of Duty, offering a more communicative experience that contrasts with its competitor's lone wolf mentality. That's not a slight against the game, merely an observation. Once you've embedded yourself in a good squad, it comes together better than Call Of Duty could ever hope to. Riding shotgun in helicopters before parachuting down to ground is an unparalleled experience, and it prompts its own dynamic set pieces by virtue of the freedom it affords you. Within our first hour with Battlefield 3's multiplayer we'd witnessed a jet crash-landing at our feet — a moment far greater than anything the single player campaign musters within its entire six hour running time.
The multiplayer game types are nothing original, with Battlefield's common Conquest and Rush modes represented. While that might sound like a negative, we're of the opinion that these are two of the best modes currently available in competitive multiplayer, so it's hardly a bad thing. The defend-and-attack nature of Rush has been slightly tweaked since its debut in Battlefield: Bad Company, requiring you to plant charges at enemy stations rather than destroy them with vehicles and weapons, but the clever ticket system remains. What's great about Battlefield 3 is that the game is more about vitality than it is death — you're richly rewarded for staying alive and helping your team in the smallest ways possible. Spotting an enemy for example, is almost as rewarding as killing him for yourself. That's what makes Battlefield 3 fundamentally different, and, most importantly, fun.
DICE has made small tweaks to the multiplayer class system, augmenting the Assault group with Medic abilities to make things more appealing and balanced. As in every other modern multiplayer game, there are dozens of upgrade paths and unlocks to keep you hooked. You'll even get custom dogtags based on other EA titles you've played on PS3 to customise your profile. We're currently sporting a classy pair of Mass Effect-themed dogtags. Steal them if you dare.
Rounding out the game's trio of gameplay modes is a two-player focused co-op diversion. The missions here — which last between ten and fifteen minutes a piece — play similarly to the single-player campaign, but are significantly more challenging. You'll need to work as a team if you want to progress, but we didn't quite feel the incentive. Without checkpoints the missions are punishing, and the lack of split-screen means you'll never quite strike the required camaraderie that you would with a friend sitting next to you in front of the television. There'll definitely be players that like what DICE has crafted, but it's just too unforgiving for our liking.
It leaves Battlefield 3 feeling a little deflated. Despite the promise of three, industry leading campaigns, DICE has only managed to come good on one of them. Thankfully the competitive multiplayer boasts some of the most technically impressive, and downright enjoyable gameplay we've experienced in years. The addition of vehicles, coupled with the scope and sheer ambition of the mode is outstounding. Factor in Battlefield 3's immersive visual and audio qualities, and it becomes some of the most involving too. It's just a shame that the game isn't able to replicate the success of its multiplayer campaign in single-player, and indeed, co-op. A larger, more open campaign would have done more justice to the mechanics that the franchise is associated with, but trying to emulate Call Of Duty has done more harm than it has good.
Hopefully EA reconsiders its approach to toppling Call Of Duty in the future, and allows its games to develop their own personality, rather than imitate something else.