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Frostbiff: Battlefield 3 Revealed At GDC

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I was there for the reveal event. Read on below to find out what happened.
The Temple Nightclub in San Francisco was full to the stylish mezzanine with the world’s gaming press. We waited. DICE producer-man Ben Cousins came on stage and admitted that he was the support act. Poor Ben. He talked about Battlefield Play4Free, which will be released on April 4th. Okay, fine. It will also be getting a server browser after launch. So that’s good.

WHAT ABOUT BATTLEFIELD 3?

That question was to be answered by producer Patrick Bach, who was going to play a chunk of the single-player campaign live in front of the crowd. Yes, the single-player game was what was shown at GDC. What we are looking at here is nothing less than DICE taking on the military manshooter genre and trying to win the war. The first salvo was strong.

Before there was any playing of games there was another DICE man (whose name I ignored, because I am almost dead) who showed us the new Frostbite engine. I gasped at one bit. It was when an earthquake ripped up an entire road. Yes, they were showing off the destruction tech, and it looked formidable. The capacity to shoot chunks out of things has been ramped up so that blowing holes in walls or knocking individual bits of scenery to pieces is far more effective (and far more possible) than it was in BFBC2. But the destruction goes much further: we were shown a big, built up area – Paris – with massive damage being wrought on the buildings. DICEman talked about being able to take out entire buildings. Then the camera cut to vast landscape: the maps Frostbite can do are big and, judging by that panning camera, big on quite a serious scale. There was also talk of animation. It’s the animation tech from the latest FIFA game, apparently. I don’t know what that means, but it looked pretty animated to me.

However, said DICEman, the engine was not what mattered. And he was right. The full game will be single-player, multi-player and co-op, and how all that plays out is going to validate the tech, one way or another. What we saw was the PC version of the game.

Bach’s demo was a play through a linear bit of single-player game. We’ve all seen this stuff before, but the impact was nonetheless impressive. A team of American soldiermen dismounted from an APC into a humming, vibrant city, and the environment was staggeringly realistic – both in its visual details and in the incredible depth of the audio. DICE games tend to sound good, but this entire demo was whatever the aural equivalent of glistening is.

The soldiermen walked up to their office type, who was down an alley for some reason. He pointed at his map: dudes were going to get shot, he said. Well, something like that, I didn’t write it down. Anyway, the gist of it was that dudes were going to get very shot. With this in mind the four man fireteam ran off down a further alleyway, giving Bach the opportunity to show off more of the astonishing lighting and other visual subleties.

The soldiers found themselves at a doorway, and ventured out into the sunshine. A sniper opened up. Now, I keep mentioning DICE’s capacity to make impact effects visceral and physical, but there MUST be a point where they can’t get any more impressive. This might be it. The air seems to scintillate with the impact of the bullets, with the usual chaos of particle effects selling it to your eyeballs. It’s as impressive as pretend bullets smacking into stuff as ever been, and it was only going to get more impressive later into the demo.

This bit involved killing a wave of AK-47s and their attached men, while finishing things off by blowing out a balcony where a man with an RPG was sat quitely rolling 20-sided dice. Only joking, it was the other type of RPG.

Then the scene cut to a rooftop where a sniper had to be a eliminated. Up on the rooftop the cityscape was – perhaps predictably – breathtakingly pretty. Anyway, the sniper wasn’t really a sniper, as it turned out, but a man in a nearby tower block with a .50 calibre machinegun. He did like to shoot at the marines, which was good, because it meant that we got to see more things blasted into particles, and more of the animation. The crawling of the marines was, well, extraordinary. You could tell it was convincing because I can see here that I underlined “crawling” in my notepad, to remind me to tell you about it, and emphasize its excellence. Anyway, the soldiermen used a rocket-launcher to deal with the .50 guy, and that was the end of him. And of much of the building he was hiding it.

Then there was a scene of some interior events. These involved crawling down an air duct – in what I suggested to the silently large man next to me was clearly a clever homage to Half-Life – and then bashing a hapless enemy’s head in via brutal close-quarters melee, seemingly resolved by clicking the mouse until the assailant was dead. The audio during this fight was staggering, seemingly getting across the very distortions and pressures you’d get inside your head if you were struggling to murder a man with your hands.

The final sequence saw the marines storm a pedestrian bridge over a freeway. AK-47-carrying rascals scampered below, and helicopter above. The shooting of men became seriously intense that this point, culminating in some big gun action from the back of a commandeered jeep and then an earthquake. Yeah. The whole demo had been teasing it with tremors, but the demo ended by dropping a building on the protagonist. Crikey.

Three things became clear that this point: firstly, there wasn’t really much AI going on in this demo. Baddies were shooting at the player, yes, but they were also waiting to be shot. It was very much a shooting gallery. Also, it was definitely being played live, because there were bugs on screen: a couple of characters popped out of existence as the demo played on. I could hear the hearts of the assembled EA marketing people stop for a moment there. Don’t worry guys, we won’t mention it. The third thing is: holy crap it looks good. The graphics, as Kieron would once have said, are high.

And that was it.

As the crowd dispersed to the bar, Will Porter, former editor of PC Zone came over to me. “What did you think?” he asked.

“It’s very pretty,” I said, non-committally. “But then games are very pretty these days.”

“I think I was more blown away by it than anyone else!” said Will, ruefully. I didn’t say anything, but he was right, it really did look like something else. If DICE can stay on target, they’re going to trouble Call Of Duty and also produce a multiplayer game that I can give a crap about. Heady propositions, both.

Here’s that trailer again.

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Jim Rossignol

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