Let's sit down for a few minutes and talk about Battlefield 3.
Let's step outside of the hype, the constant back and forth between fans of the series and fans of, you know, that series. Let's leave the baggage attached by EA's masochistic desire to sidle right up against that game, and we can ignore that beta too. I know it's hard. But let's do it anyway.
Instead, let's talk about what we've been told is DICE's most ambitious, biggest game ever. And let's talk about how Battlefield 3 is simultaneously disappointing in that respect, and brilliant in others, and why that might be OK anyway -- maybe even great. It might be hard to see it initially. Multiplayer is Battlefield 3's sharp edge, but the singleplayer is the point of its blade. DICE and EA have shown it repeatedly, and you can see why – it shows well. Everything is put together like DICE expected you to look at it. Characters move naturally, the lighting is beautiful, and explosions are often scary in scope and impact. It sounds like a proper warzone, with the most terrifyingly authentic audio I've heard in a game.
But it's not much fun.
Battlefield 3's campaign isn't just a straight line, it's tactically linear. Firefights almost always unfold the same way. This is partly due to enemy AI that often seems stuck to a six foot leash from where they initially appear, but it goes deeper than that. For all the talk of destruction and immersion, Battlefield 3's campaign is a step backward from the manic calamity of Bad Company 2. There's no more blowing holes through walls to make an alternate route. Environmental destruction is cosmetic or scripted.
"Battlefield 3's campaign never quite figures out what it wants to do."
None of that is a death sentence -- Modern Warfare drew the blueprint for the modern linear shooter, and it still managed to be fast, fun, and exciting. But Modern Warfare always gave you something to do, and enemies that were fun to shoot. Battlefield 3 is clearly referencing that blueprint, but it fails in this regard. There aren't that many enemies to shoot, and DICE has made up for that by allowing them to fire through geometry with pinpoint accuracy. It leads to a lot of trial by death and memorization. It's not fun.
Battlefield 3's does occasionally do something cool. A jet sequence made the de rigeur death-from-above sequence exciting again. As the FA-18 was catapulted off the deck, I felt a hint of that twinge of panic that hits me during take-off in real life. I forgot my sidekick disappointment as I turned my head left and right in a panic trying to spot the fighter aircraft trying to kill us. The sniper sequence later on was panicky and desperate and exciting ... until I failed the mission several times trying to figure out exactly what Battlefield 3 expected me to do.
These and a couple of other moments are light peeking out from the depths of the campaign's otherwise mediocre trappings. Amidst all the bombast and wub-wub ambient/mild-dubstep underpinnings of the soundtrack (which I liked quite a bit), Battlefield 3's campaign never quite figures out what it wants to do, and it frequently goes for emotional resonance that it doesn't earn. The quicktime events don't really accomplish anything. Story moments that should be shocking struck me as exploitative.
The console versions also suffer in particular from some fairly serious technical issues that aren't considerations for a well-spec'ed PC, or that occur much less frequently on that platform. The framerate in the campaign usually hovers around a completely playable 30 or so, but often drops noticeably, making Battlefield 3 an unresponsive mess. Meanwhile, scripting errors are pervasive throughout the game, which often necessitate restarting from an earlier checkpoint. There are also sound glitches, where music will stop entirely, or certain sound effects will repeat endlessly. Also, there are disappearing AI characters. It's enough to make you wonder how Battlefield 3's campaign got out of the proverbial door.
Then there's the cooperative campaign, such as it is, which suffers from all of the same design issues of the main game. There are six scenarios that are laid out roughly like campaign content without the exposition, which means it's often even more unclear what you're supposed to be doing, or what the stakes are. The enemy AI remains as murderously un-fun to fight as it is in the single-player campaign. Theoretically, things should be more fun with a friend, but I found it doubly frustrating.
Taking only the campaign and the co-op into consideration, Battlefield 3 is a mess. It feels like a developer way outside of their comfort zone, trying to catch someone else's lightning in their bottle. It lacks any identity or soul.
Battlefield 3 finds that identity and soul in its multiplayer.
Battlefield 3 marks DICE's attempt to marry the scope and scale of Battlefield 2 with the destruction and close quarters dynamics of Battlefield: Bad Company 2, and it mostly works. The console versions of Battlefield 3 have slightly smaller maps than their PC counterpart, and one less flag on certain Conquest map, as well as a player count roughly a third of the PC version. But this isn't quite the problem that it might sound like. I prefer the slightly smaller maps of the console versions, as they trim the areas of the map that felt the most like unused space. It feels like there's more going on, even if there are far fewer players.
That out of the way, Battlefield 3 is the most fun I've had playing a shooter online since Bad Company 2. The class based play allows for players to select a role and succeed in it outside of the basic "kill more guys than guys kill you" model. If you can step out of an obsession with the mythical kill/death ratio, you can die again and again and still have fun. Maybe you'll be a tank commander ... or maybe you'll be the guy fixing it, making sure your team's tank ace can keep the pressure on indefinitely.
"Battlefield 3 is the most fun I've had playing a shooter online since Bad Company 2."
It's telling that Battlefield 3's multiplayer emphasis remains on objective-based game types Rush and Conquest. Both feel distinctive. Rush's alternating attack or defend mentality against entrenched positions makes for a very distinct experience for either side, every game, making for interesting tactical play. Conquest's constantly shifting possession makes for a more frantic experience. Both of them are a ton of fun, and every map plays completely differently from one mode to the other, which gives the feeling of twice as many maps to play on. Operation Metro, the map that players had access to in the Battlefield 3 beta on all three platforms, is an exercise in frustration in Rush. But it's a fantastic map in Conquest.
There is less destruction than I had hoped, though. It's not Bad Company 2, and levels won't start out intact and end looking like the surface of the moon the way they often did in that game. You might get a little wistful when you find walls you can't put a rocket through, but you'll probably get over it after the first couple of hours.
Diving into Battlefield 3's more robust team deathmatch modes seems like a waste of time with the work DICE put into re-balancing classes. Their decision to give Medics the Assault class' weapon set means health is being laid down on the front lines, sustaining forward momentum, while making the machine-gun wielding troops the beacon of ammo resupplies forces consideration of resources and tactical retreats. Suppression is a great addition, and another way to be useful.
There are some minor things that I think will become issues later on; Recon players have entirely too much ammunition, and engineers feel woefully underprepared for enemy armor. Meanwhile, planes make too short work of opposing tanks and troop carriers, which can lead to bizarre stalemates on some maps.
There are also, at the time of this writing, some fairly significant server issues plaguing Battlefield 3 on consoles. This isn't new to Battlefield 3, exactly – both Battlefield 1943 and Bad Company 2 had pronounced birthing pains. But the fact remains that Battlefield 3 is not consistently available, with regards to multiplayer. I strongly urge players concerned about this to check around online in the coming weeks to ascertain how far along DICE is in making their game as stable as it needs to be. And to speak frankly, it's infuriating after EA and DICE's comments last week about wanting to make sure reviewers and and players were on equal footing. In a way, we are. The same uneven, could-crumble-at-any-moment footing. I'll go on record saying that I am confident that DICE will fix these problems, but after four days, they aren't fixed yet.
But the feel of Battlefield 3's multiplayer combat is unmatched. Forget the beta -- there have been subtle changes and fixes to damage models and netcode. Combat in Battlefield 3 is now closer to what it was in Bad Company 2, with an emphasis on tactical decision making and smart shooting over twitch reflexes (though there is some of that). The reintroduction of going prone to the series allows for more fluid strategic movement, as running across an open space and diving to your belly is a totally viable option during some firefights. It's another of those Battlefield Moments. You can't get it until you play it but, once you do, every game will have at least one.
Finally, I suppose I'd be remiss in skipping over Battlelog. On consoles, it's more of a discretionary choice than it is on the PC, a Battlefield 3 parallel to Bungie.net and Call of Duty Elite.
In a way, your choice should be simple. As a solo game, Battlefield 3 on consoles is even less the sum of its parts than the PC version, due to compromised visuals and a legion of technical issues, some of which might stand in the way of actually finishing the game. When Battlefield 3 does its damnedest to go toe-to-toe with Call of Duty are the times it stumbles the hardest. But when DICE is doing what it's always done best, Battlefield 3 is a uniquely mesmerizing multiplayer game with a seemingly endless number of ways to feel like a success. It's not revolutionary, but it's the best Battlefield game, and that's saying a lot.
This review is based on retail Xbox 360 and PS3 versions of the game, provided by EA. Multiplayer was played on public servers, post-release.
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