A sincere thrill ride: a review of Battlefield 3’s single player campaign

“The most realistic shooter yet.”

This line from an early review has been heavily quoted in EA’s aggressive marketing campaign for Battlefield 3. It’s absolute nonsense. BF3’s single-player campaign belongs squarely in what I like to call the “theme park warfare” genre, and consists of a series of entirely linear levels filled with set-pieces and high-octane thrills. There’s nothing realistic about it. This is a game in which your singular soldier will mow down thousands of enemies before the day is done. Your health regenerates, and all your named allies are invincible. Unused bullets from a cartridge magically transfer over to the next one upon reloading. And the game seems convinced that your soldier’s head is actually a camera, what with the dirt caked on the screen throughout half the damn campaign.

So those looking for a genuine military simulation should just go and buy Arma II.  But, of course, EA isn’t really trying to sell realism. After all, the steep learning curve and glacial pace of a true simulator would turn off the vast majority of shooter fans. What developer DICE has aimed for is a certain measure of narrative authenticity, and most of the time they pull it off.

The game has an explosive cold opening (is that an oxymoron?) that sees the player taking a one-man battle to unidentified train hijackers. It serves as the game’s tutorial, and is more than a little reminiscent of the opening of Uncharted 2, with the climbing replaced by gunplay. Yet the true intro is much more relaxed. A marine, one Staff Sergeant Blackburn, has been yanked out of military prison for a friendly interrogation session with the CIA. He claims he has information on an imminent terrorist attack on New York City, and the skeptical interrogators demand he recount how he came by this info. This is the framing device that links the disparate levels of the campaign, and is surprisingly engaging; a combination of excellent acting and believable dialog (no, really) kept me interested. What’s particularly notable, and what separates it from similar sequences in other games, is that there’s no good guy/bad guy dynamic. The CIA guys are typically shady, but it also seems clear that Blackburn was locked up for a reason.

This moral uncertainty permeates the game. Blackburn starts his story nine months ago in Iraq, where he and his squad are battling the PLR, a generic radical-Islamist-insurgent group. It isn’t long before the PLR takes power in Iran, and the United States commences a full land invasion in response. Yet in all of this there’s never any talk of justice, any weight attached to the reasons for war; you’re a soldier, and you follow orders. It’s completely amoral, and the background details are made intentionally blurry to keep the focus on the experience of battle and not the larger reasons for it. Every shooter operates within an ends-justify-the-means framework (otherwise you wouldn’t be killing people, would you?) and Battlefield 3 takes the idea and runs with it, forcing the player into ever deeper levels of complicity. I’ll avoid spoilers, but suffice it to say that the generic-bad-guy-PLR are intermittently replaced by more sympathetic targets. There’s never a good way to avoid killing them – this isn’t Deus Ex – and the player is, for better or worse, dragged to ever greater levels of complicity with the genre’s endemic disregard for human life.

These themes are there if you want to see it, but DICE knows that most players won’t give a damn, and their restrained enough that – with the exception of one pivotal late-game scene – the player is never forced to really think critically about their actions. It’s not a polemic, and is playable as a straightforward shooter if the player so desires.

So how is the shooting? Pretty good. The game uses the same weapons and hit modeling built for the multiplayer, and I’ve rarely played a shooter that felt more fair. Previous Battlefields have been plagued by moments of bullets missing when they should have hit and vice versa, but here there’s a clear cause-and-effect to every death. Fire in burst or while prone and you’ll consistently hit what’s in your sights; stand up in front of a sniper and you’ll die an instant death. The damage modeling is realistic on hard and only moderately forgiving on normal.

The game’s weakness is in its enemies: they’re not very smart, and will as often shoot you standing in the open as they will actually try to use cover. As they pop up at regular intervals, the game can start to feel like a shooting gallery. Yet Battlefield has always taken a “more is more” approach to content; while Battlefield 1942 featured infantry combat worse than its peers, it was the wide array of vehicles and tactics that made it the great game it was. The single player wisely adopts this formula, and every time I was beginning to tire of more head-popping it’d throw a curveball, ranging from an early on-rails jet sequence that makes up for its simplicity with jaw-dropping production values to a full-fledged desert tank battle (in my eyes, the game’s standout sequence). Throw in a huge variety of environments and some character-switching and you’ve got a campaign that’s consistently varied for the eight or so hours it will take to beat.

The excellent pacing only gives out at the end, with a rushed conclusion that, while entertaining, left me with more questions than it answered. It’s not a shameless cliffhanger, and doesn’t leave an obvious starting point for the inevitable sequel; it’s just really short. The addition of a melodramatic and unearned epilogue didn’t help.

Despite its flaws (which include a regular helping of awkward QTEs in addition to those listed above), I can honestly say that I haven’t enjoyed a linear shooter this much since Half-Life 2. Battlefield 3 isn’t nearly as confident in itself as Valve’s masterpiece, and it often seems torn between aping Call of Duty and cutting its own path. When it does the latter it’s marked not so much by gameplay wholly distinct from its competition as it is by a tonal difference, a colder remove more in line with actual military operations. I, for one, prefer that to Call of Duty’s schizophrenic “War is hell and also fun” attitude.

At the end of the day, how much you enjoy the single-player is going to come down to expectations. As mentioned before, it’s not realistic. It also doesn’t begin to allow for the sort  of tactical variety and open environments I like in my shooters, the open islands of Far Cry or S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’s Zone. But it never was going to, was it? EA and DICE have been completely honest about the fact that they’re going after the Call of Duty audience, people who are happy to trade some freedom for spectacle and production values. Likewise, there’s no arguing that the plot is a product of the Tom Clancy Plot Generator, with a lot of style pointers from that other military thrill ride series. But to dismiss it wholesale as “pure mil-porn pulp,” as Rock Paper Shotgun’s Jim Rossignol did, is a mistake. The fact of the matter is that any set-up for a global war in the traditional WW2 combined-arms model is going to be ridiculous; despite what Ron Perlman keeps telling us, war does change. But people like the gameplay of war, the more clearly defined tactics of army-on-army battle rather than the morass that is counterinsurgency operations. Battlefield 3 does the best it can within its frame: it de-emphasizes the scenario and focuses on the human element as much as possible while remaining a fun ride.

In short, Battlefield 3 both entertained me and got me thinking a little bit; I expected the first and not the second, but I’m glad it’s there. The fact that the single-player campaign is basically a free bonus in a multiplayer-focused package only makes its surprising quality more satisfying.


Battlefield 3 was reviewed on a PC running the game at 1920 x 1080 on High settings.