Visually stunning, but bland in an effort to conform could describe a lot of people. It is also fitting of DICE’s Battlefield 3. For now, we’re going to focus on the single-player component of the game, so the two-player co-op and multiplayer review will have to wait. These are more time-consuming affairs that we want to do justice and not offer a perfunctory review of.
The single-player campaign story follows a fairly standard formula for the genre. A worst-case scenario of world events involving the Middle East, nuclear weapons and a villain bent on world destruction make appearances. They had to come up with some reason to keep the fighting going, so sticking with the same mad-lib as most of the other shooter titles released over the past several years wasn’t a surprise. Like those other games, with all the combat, you’ll forget about most of the story and what little sense it might make.
I was not expecting I’d do too much different that what I do in similar FPS titles. Shooting and explosions were promised, but there are only so many times and places those will be appropriate in the large quantities grizzled gamers want. Battlefield 3 uses the same style of linear missions with several encounters involving up to a few dozen soldiers on either side, while the player shoots, lobs grenades, runs and crawls to the next checkpoint. There is occasional variation, such as a mission as a gunner in a jet and some time spent with an infrared-scoped sniper rifle. Mostly, players will find themselves with assault rifles or submachine guns with the occasional shotgun in the unusual case where the situation calls for it.
Aesthetically, the game can be beautiful. Expansive cityscapes and countrysides rendered in great detail are just the start. Nearly everything in the environment including palm trees, telephone poles and walls are destructible. As battles progress, cover is reduced to rubble, piece by piece. Unfortunately, all the detail can also get in the way of spotting enemies in the organic settings, which is often the hardest part. Once you find the guy trying to take cover behind a piece of plywood, it isn’t long before he is standing in the open. For some reason, much of the campaign takes place at night when you can’t appreciate much of the beautiful city they have designed. Instead, glare and lens flare become the most notable graphical elements, further making target acquisition difficult. These might be technically impressive, but they don’t make for an especially distinctive or impressive setting. Showing off the lighting seems to create an especially high contrast and every shadow seems to have an unusually large penumbra.
I was hoping for a new angle on the “modern FPS” genre, but I found none. The emphasis on teamwork found in multiplayer isn’t even hinted at in the single player, and DICE seems to like throwing in quick-time events anytime they can make an excuse for it. The gameplay ended up feeling disjointed and I found myself often confused or falling back on my experience from other games. In one particular mission, many members of the TBGSE staff had the same death resulting from miscommunication when it came to shooting a rocket launcher at a sniper. Your squad mates count down from three but when they get to zero, that’s not when you’re supposed to shoot. Reload mission, try again. Time and again, I found myself wanting to ask for clarification, only to be forced to use trial and error instead. Rather than creating a distinctive single-player game, Battlefield 3 plays just like other FPS titles and assumes players already have a certain amount of experience. Poor design choices, however, shouldn’t be the most challenging aspect of the game.
What players are looking for in difficulty will surely vary from player to player. However, Battlefield 3 errs strongly on the side of being too easy. It’s typical for FPS games to have four difficulty settings. I normally use the second most difficult setting on my first play-through and the most difficult for my second, because I like the challenge. With only three options, my Battlefield 3 play-through was on “Hard” but I found it too easy and there was no harder difficulty unlocked. Computer-controlled squad-mates can’t die and are useful, but they will thin the enemy ranks to the point that there is little the player actually has to do. The game isn’t long enough to have a difficulty curve to speak of, and the most challenging parts are usually very forcibly constructed by the game. The final mission includes the very first mission, played exactly the same way with just a bit more tacked on at the end. This part was only hard for me, because I was pushed out of a programmed action or cut scene directly into the line of fire multiple times. Not dissuaded, I proceeded to my final, epic
gunfight quick-time sequence.
It’s not just that the game is too easy, it’s that it reeks of lazy game design. There are lengthy cutscenes disguised as gameplay. A two-minute sequence manning a light machine gun atop a tank requires no player interaction while squad mates yell out commands as if something actually needed to be done about the guy with an RPG on the roof over there. There are also a fair number of bugs I encountered on my play-through, from small things like having a cutscene play twice, to game and console freezing or just not having the enemies appear where they were supposed to. Thanks to the autosave, I never lost much progress and reloading resolved the issue.
The single-player campaign is essentially a token inclusion with the rest of the game. It’s short, even by the standard of FPS games with multiplayer as the intended focus. But with Battlefield 3 being a notoriously challenging multiplayer game, the single-player campaign offers little to bring new players up to speed. There aren’t even missions where players can practice their helicopter or jet piloting skills. I seriously question what DICE thought about their target audience when creating this game.
The Good: Large, detailed environments that you can destroy
The Bad: Laughable game design with limited difficulty
The Ugly: What happened to fighting during the day?