Last week, two RPS competition winners and myself (that being Alec, assuming the omni-voice of the hivemind for this post) headed over to Stockholm to visit DICE and see/play Battlefield 3. You’ve already read some of my thoughts on what I saw, but what about the readers? Well, one of them did himself a nasty leg injury on the first morning and wasn’t actually able to see the game, which was a terrible shame. Fortunately the other, Joe O’Connor, was left unscathed. Apart from the fact that his plane home nearly blew up, anyway. Are RPS competitions cursed? Maybe. Maybe. Anyway, he’s alive and well, so here’s what he thought of Battlefield 3: take it away, Joe.
I was lucky enough to win Rock Paper Shotgun’s competition to visit the DICE offices in Stockholm to play an early version of their new game Battlefield 3. Whilst there I played one of the co-op missions and watched the game’s Producer, Patrick Bach, play through a portion of the single-player campaign, a night-time mission featuring an assault on Tehran. Alec’s already talked about exactly what we saw, and some of the things that Bach said, but this is what I felt, as someone who’s played games for as long as he can remember, from an old, battered Amstrad to Nintendos and PCs.
One of the first things that hits you about this game is just how meaty and visceral it feels. Everything around you, from the fiery light of an explosion blossoming for a moment, to the dust and stone chips kicked up by wayward bullets, to the harsh thuds and sharp barks of battle, it melds together to form a truly impressive illusion of physical involvement in battle. The videos DICE and EA have released show how incredible it looks, but they’re not the full story: great care has gone into how the game actually feels, and it feels… right. It’s war, in every fibre of its being.
At the round-table discussion he held, Bach told us that he wanted the single-player campaign to have a similar feeling to the multi-player game, with large numbers of AI working in concert with the player. And to a very large extent it works: your AI teammates are so there, whether they’re working with you to fire a flare into the sky, or giving you a leg over a wall into the battle, that the illusion that you’re just looking through a window at a real war, with men bleeding and sweating and dying, is palpable. It’s a really great trick, and one I think you need to experience if you’re going to properly understand it. Other companies have tried it before, but none have got it quite as right.
Bach really seemed to care about the images that people keep in their minds once they’ve stopped playing. As Alec’s already posted, Bach doesn’t want people to have the option to kill civilians in- game, even as ‘collateral damage’. It’s not the image he wants people to have of the game. I was concerned that this might mean that Battlefield 3 would, therefore, be a sanitised version of war, a self-censoring Hollywood-style production, but I think what he said next is really a good point.
Bach said: “Games are where movies were in the 30s or 40s, when it went from a technical spectacle to ‘hey, wait a minute we can actually use this to tell something, be political’ and things like that. I think we are on the verge of seeing things like that.” Battlefield 3 isn’t trying to be Apocalypse Now, about the horrors of war on the civilian population, but then again it’s not trying to be. Look at “No Russian” as a classic example of how not to talk about that sort of brutality in games: although it was a tiny part of Modern Warfare 2, the image people so often take away from that whole game is the pointless murder of unarmed civilians. Much better for the things people remember about Battlefield 3 to be the things Bach and his team are interested in: either scripted moments of awesome, or emergent activities which can take advantage of the tech they’ve developed.
The best example I saw of this was as Bach played the single-player game. As he joined a charge down a hill an AI teammate was sent flying by a mortar round. As Bach ran past, his vision flicked momentarily to the fellow soldier, desperately trying to raise himself to his feet, obviously injured. The beautiful animation they’ve developed meant this throwaway moment did more to create the atmosphere of real people involved in battle and war than a dozen scripted moments. This, however, served to make it all the more jarring a few minutes later when a scripted moment drove the player into a slow-motion tumble backwards from a burst-open doorway, cocking and shooting the shotgun as he fell. For a game that tries to hard to pull you in, I was almost pushed straight back out. It was just a moment, though, and the rest of the time the sensation of reality and being a part of a real war was upheld very well.
If, in the film-making scale it’s a spectacle-filled Hollywood view of war, then it’s a beautiful, immersive, compelling view of war. Not being told anything about the storyline (Bach was frustratingly tight-lipped) it’s impossible to say whether it’s going to be strong on that front, but who knows, it could still become gaming’s first real exploration into the reality and morality of war. DICE have form with creating interesting characters: the dialogue in Bad Company 2 is good enough that there were several occasions when I halted en route to the objective to listen to the banter between the characters, and chatting to the other guys on the trip suggested that I wasn’t the only one.
That, of course, won’t matter to the legions of people who’ll buy Battlefield 3 just for the 64- man battles that the PC alone is going to get. We didn’t get the option to try this out, but if the verisimilitude of the single-player and co-op games can be carried over, then that should be a hell of an experience.
So what have I taken away from the trip? Notwithstanding memories of far too many beautiful people than is fair for one country, I remember dying the most. The moment I lost track of my co- op partner in the mélee, got a little too far ahead of the line of heavy armour, and was caught in a crossfire of sniper bullets and RPGs. Or the split-second of cockiness that let a hidden enemy pounce on me with his knife, driving it into my neck with a screen-shaking thud and terminal exhalation of breath. These are the things which come back. What if I’d done that differently, chosen that gun instead, communicated with my partner that little bit better. Most of all, what comes back is wanting to jump right back in, not to have to let someone else have a go. I want to go back to the war.