The comfortable return: an in-depth review of Battlefield 3’s multiplayer (PC)
As we all know, EA’s been hyping up Battlefield 3 as the game that’s going to take down Call of Duty. The internet fanboy legions have been sadly easy to manipulate, and now battles wage across forums and blog comments as to which series is The Best.
It’s a clever marketing strategy, but it doesn’t reflect reality. The fact of the matter is that the Battlefield series has never had any direct competition. Sure, it competes with other online games for gamers’ time, but its design has always been entirely distinct. If you want a Battlefield style team-based, combined-arms game of territorial domination, well, there’s nowhere else to go; the closest thing is a couple of derivative Halo gametypes, and the player cap on those means it’s no substitute for Battlefield’s sprawling 64-player matches.
So really, Battlefield 3 is competing against its own legacy, against Battlefield 2 and (to a lesser degree) the more recent Bad Company 2. The question is not “Can this offer a distinct gameplay experience from other games on the market?” but “Is this a significant improvement of the series formula?
After spending many hours playing the game, I’d give a hesitant “yes.” It’s clear that DICE has put a lot of thought into every aspect of the game’s design, and I can see good reasoning even when I disagree with some of the changes, with a singular glaring exception I’ll get to lower down.
Battlefield: Makeover Edition
Probably the worst thing you can say about Battlefield 3 is that there’s nothing truly original about it. Battlefield 1942 was a multiplayer revolution, taking team combat beyond capture the flag by introducing the territory-holding Conquest mode, upping the player count to 64, and integrating a wide variety of vehicles. Battlefield 2 significantly enhanced the design by facilitating better teamplay. It introduced the squad system, 3D spotting, and integrated voice chat to allow for real coordination even on public servers. It was also the game that introduced unlocks, now ubiquitous in online shooters. Even the Bad Company series made an addition with its tightly-designed Rush mode.
Battlefield 3, on the other hand, focuses on tweaking all the details and mechanics without introducing any significant new features. It’s certainly disappointing, and I hope the series will one day return to its innovative ways, but it doesn’t bother me as much as I would have thought. The reason is that these tweaks add up to a significant improvement over Battlefield 2; the technological upgrades alone make for a noticeable difference. This is very much its own game, not a remake, but there’s an underlying conservatism to the design. This is DICE trying to make the traditional Battlefield formula as good as it possibly can be without fundamentally altering it. So how does it hold up?
The Combat Experience
The first thing you’ll notice upon joining a game is the graphical detail. I don’t just mean the technical splendor, though this is certainly one of the best-looking games I’ve ever seen. I mean that the levels are filled with objects, hidden locations, and pieces of cover. The levels feel much more organic and lived-in than the more spartan environs of previous Battlefields. This also increases their longevity: there’re enough hiding places and alternate routes to ensure you keep finding new things even after playing the level a dozen times. Each of the nine maps is distinct in its visual aesthetic and in its strategies, and there’s not a bad one in the bunch. While long-term players will certainly want the new maps EA will aggressively sell, there’s enough content in the base game to satisfy players for months to come.
The second thing that struck me is how good the infantry combat is. It’s hard to put into words just how right it feels: the best I can say is that is always seems fair. Bad Company 2’s soldier-to-soldier battles were satisfying, but were plagued by some inconsistent hit detection; every once in a while I’d shoot a soldier in the head only to miss, or get killed by a machine gunner who somehow shot around the corner. In BF3, I’ve yet to encounter a single instance of a “cheap kill.” In a straight-up duel, the winner is the guy who shot first and with more accuracy almost every time (the exceptions being when one of the weapons is less suited for the situation). There are a huge variety of ways to kill, but all of them have accessible counters. DICE deserves particular accolade for balancing snipers. The large maps are naturally advantageous to long-range weapons, but snipers make their location known via scope shine, tracers, and the killcam, meaning that they are easy to locate and counterattack.
This sense of balance extends outside of infantry. There is no singular dominating force: vehicles are weaker than they’ve been in previous games, and need support due to the prevalence of rocket-toting engineers, but are still an integral part of the game and can break a stalemate when properly used. In fact, the only possible balancing issue is where you’d least expect it: air power is a little weak. In Battlefield 1942, fighter’s near-infinite supply of bombs completely nullified ground units in the hands of skilled pilots. DICE tried to fix this by giving only a couple of bombs to jets in BF2, but their incredible speed and fly-over reloading meant they still dominated the game. In Battlefield 3, bombs are removed entirely, leavings fighters really only good for taking out other fighters and helicopters; high-speed strafing with underpowered guns will only be effective for the absolute best pilots. Helicopters fare better, but the fact that any engineer with a stinger can take them out means they don’t usually live long. At the end of the day, Battlefield 3 is a better game for putting aircraft in a support role, but it’s a little disappointing that the planes are largely superfluous.
The Hills are Alive with the Sound of Unlocks
The unlock system is a sight to behold. Never has a shooter had so many weapons, abilities, and accessories to gain, and so many ways to gain them. Each of the four classes has 9-12 weapons and items to unlock, and most weapons have a whopping 18 accessories you can unlock with them. Add the plethora of vehicle unlocks and the new abilities, camouflage and weapons you get with each level-up, and you’re looking at a bulging piñata of military hardware.
The good news is that the system is generous with points. Sure, you can get experience by killing lots of people, but you don’t need to be a great player to steadily level up. You get points for healing other players or supplying them with ammo. You get points if you spot an enemy unit later destroyed by someone else. You get points for taking control points and defending them. You get points for suppressive fire, for saving a teammate, and for killing someone who just killed you. You even get extra “Comeback” points if you make a kill after having a long run of dying. The points system also incentivizes team play by giving bonus experience for helping out squadmates and following your squad leader’s orders.
Yet throughout the play experience, I kept thinking of a quote from Eurogamer’s review of Battlefield 2142, the first game to introduce wide-ranging unlocks. Reviewer Graham Swann wrote “From my perspective, it’s a case of either starting playing now or not playing at all, because if you arrive later when there are far more experienced people playing… well, it’s going to be disheartening. It’s bad enough in a multiplayer shooter when you find yourself being outplayed….Introducing a mechanic where someone else is just better in absolute terms seems like a betrayal of the genre, which is based around competition of skill not persistence.” No shooter since has really solved this problem, and honestly, there’s no incentive to them to: publishers WANT gamers to feel like they have to buy the game up-front at full price rather than waiting for price drops. The system has its advantages: it allows the player to learn abilities slowly rather than having them all dumped on them, and there’s no denying the thrill of leveling up and the continuity between matches that unlocks provide. So far, the infantry weapons seem pretty balanced: later additions are either operating in parallel and merely offering different strategies, or are only slightly better (though I’ve yet to get the top-tier unlocks, which may prove me wrong.)
Vehicles are an entirely different story. Remember how I said planes were largely superfluous? Replace that with “absolutely useless” if you haven’t unlocked anything. The base planes are so gutted that they don’t even have IR flares or missiles, meaning any plane with missiles (or any infantry with a stinger) is going to kill you, and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it. The best you can hope for is to sneak in a few kills till you unlock these basics, but it’s a slow and painful process and a positively stupid design decision. The flip-side is that planes later unlock air-to-ground missiles, which are a complete game changer; relegating what may be the most powerful ability in the game to players who are already better pilots than most is grossly unbalancing. This problem affects all the vehicles unlocks, though none as bad as the aircraft.
So I end up with mixed feelings about Battlefield 3’s much-touted unlock system. All the details are brilliant, and it’s not nearly as unbalanced as it could be; but it doesn’t address the problem that it lets the best and most experienced player become even better. It is, in my eyes, not a gap that needs widening.
The Anti-Social Network
Battlefield 3 isn’t just the sum of all the series’ features. DICE chose to take it in a different direction by implementing the server-browser-meets-social-network, Battlelog. It has a lot of potential, but right now…well, frankly, it sucks.
Let’s start off with the basics: the server browser is just as bad as it was in previous games. It only allows you to sort by pre-defined options: no putting in a minimum player count, or searching for servers with specific options (say, no friendly fire). It will only ping servers you’re looking at, meaning you have to scroll down through the list for a while just to get a decent amount of pinged servers for sorting. A third of the time it won’t ping them at all. On top of that, about a third of the games I tried connecting to never materialized, either because the game crashed to a black screen or because Battlelog suddenly lost the server. It also lies about server location: I don’t for a minute believe that there are a dozen servers in Antarctica.
In theory, Battlelog is a lot more than a server group. It allows you to friend people, see what games they’re in, and join them. It also allows you to look at your stats and see what unlocks are coming up. But all the most active components are simply absent. I can look at my unlocks, but I can’t actually customize my loadouts. I can form platoons (clans), but I can’t host events or even send messages to the people in my platoon. Battlelog is where DICE’s normally thoughtful design is just absent. It’s like they didn’t even try; one suspects that they spent so much time getting the server code half-functional that they never got around to actually adding features. All of these things can be easily fixed in a patch, and some of them certainly will be (DICE has already said they’ll probably add loadout customization) but it’s lack of functionality is striking.
Perversely, the worst aspect of Battlelog is one of the features it DOES have: party chat. You can party up with up to 7 other friends, join a game, and have your own dedicated in-game voice channel. Nothing wrong with that. Except to make room for this feature, DICE entirely eliminated voice chat from the game proper.
Think about that. This is a game that demands coordination with your teammates, but doesn’t allow you to talk to them. This isn’t just a disappointing absence, but the removal of a key feature from the last game. The “commo rose” that allows for preset radio communication is hardly a substitute, being loaded with largely useless localized voice clips that don’t even appear in chat. Necessary commands like “I need ammo” are entirely absent, and I frequently found myself without bullets yet unable to communicate this to my squadmates. You can type in chat, of course, but few people actually read it in this day and age, and since it’s not localized it’s generally hard to tell who is addressing whom. In a game that makes so much effort to be reward good teamwork and foster a spirit of camaraderie, the removal of squad voice chat is devastating, and in my eyes the game’s single biggest failing.
Battlefield is Back
You see why my endorsement is hesitant. This is a game that had the potential to be one of the greatest multiplayer titles of all time, and falls short not through widespread failings but through a few isolated cases of flabbergasting incompetence. It’s a game as notable for what it’s missing as for what it brings to the table. It’s Battlefield 2 without the voice chat. It’s Bad Company 2 without the fully destructible buildings (why they took this feature out, I’ll never understand). And yet it plays so well on a moment-to-moment level that it’s a legitimate success. Battlefield 3 gets so many of the little things so very right that I’m inclined to forgive its sins. I’m still having a blast on public servers, and I can only imagine how awesome it is playing with a cabal of friends on voice chat. The fact that the game runs so smoothly with an organized team should make it excellent for clan games, and for the first time in 8 years I’ll be joining a clan to do just that. Battlefield 3 compels me to play, and when I play I consistently have fun. This, I suppose, is what really matters in the end.