Just two months ahead of release, Battlefield 3’s singleplayer mode remains something of a mystery – oddly so, given this game is DICE’s attempt to make their biggest franchise as appealing to lone gunners as team gunners. So getting eyes-on with a never-before-seen singleplayer level yesterday went some way to explaining BF3’s approach. That approach: MEGA-GRAPHICS, MEGA-EXPLOSIONS, MEGA-WAR. And yet, somehow, it's also far more subtle and convincing than COD and its recent raft of wannabe crown-stealers.
The mission in question was named Operation Guillotine, and is placed about halfway through the singleplayer campaign. No, they’re not saying exactly how long said campaign is, but executive producer Patrick Bach intimated that he’s not sure games with “movie-style narratives” and no sandbox elements are unwise to exceed 10 hours if they want to sustain “high quality”.
Guillotine is a night-based mission, “something we haven’t done before”, and aims for a different sort of tension and action to the big street battle I played earlier in the day (more on that soon). Nonetheless, it’s not exactly a quiet affair. It kicks off with a clutch of soldiers crouching on a hilltop amidst the ruins of unknown buildings, staring down at Tehran, vast capital of Iran, windows in its towering city blocks twinkling in the night. It's a hell of a sight: ugly and beautiful at the same time. One of the soldiers whistles in awe. “That is a biiiiig city.” And they’re going in, obviously.
Their orders are to capture an apartment complex on the other side of a canal, but that’s a whole lot easier than it sounds. First up is charging down a forested hill towards the city below, which would probably go more smoothly if said hill wasn’t being bombed to hell at the time. Thunderous explosions lead to trees aflame, which you and your comrades dash past to reach the relatively safety a gigantic concrete overpass. One chap is sent flying in the air from a shell that lands dangerously close – while key storyline characters will either live or die according to predetermined narrative decisions, other soldiers could dynamically bite it at any moment. This feels dangerous.
All the while, Tehran itself grows closer: this really is a remarkable spectacle, the Frostbite 2 engine doing remarkable things with lighting even on what, for this demo, is just the console build. With DICE bullish that the PC version will be about as bleeding-edge as videogames get, I can’t wait to see how this looks on a decent graphics card. The sound, too, is top-flight stuff. I'm far too uneducated in the mysterious ways of the recording studio to be able to tell you why, but everyone here's been enthusing about how meaty and involving BF3's audio is.
There’s also a sense of vastness and openness to the level, despite this being an essentially linear experience. Tehran seems enormous and all around, not just a series of flat bitmaps painted behind impassable walls. And, at this point at least, the game doesn’t seem to be pushing characters or dialogue too hard: clearly it’s war-as-entertainment, not any kind of simulator, but it does seem militaristic, not melodramatic.
Amidst the noise and screen-shaking explosions, there’s an emphasis on silent team-work. When you set down a mortar to soften up (and, perhaps more usefully, illuminate) a distant target, another soldier is on hand to put it in place and prime. When you and your comrades scale a wall to finally drop into the city proper, you’re all giving each other leg-ups. Then it’s down into the canal, all crumbled mortar and spilled water, and a tense, terse run through the night. The combination of darkness and smoke makes visibility limited, but the noise of battle is everywhere. Fire and explosion highlight enemy positions as you charge through, taking out who you can but mostly trying to stay alive. This does seem like a war, not an Arnie character elbowing his way through all and sundry. Crouching and crawling and staying near your allies is the way to get through, not dashing chaotically around the frontlines and cackling.
Then it’s time to infiltrate the apartment block, with a laser-sight-equipped shotgun proving surprisingly adept at picking people off from medium range. A grenade through a window leads to a door bursting open, an enemy soldier wreathed in flames falling through it. This small moment, as are others in this run, is scripted in the name of drama and progression, though Bach claims the grenade that caused it could have been thrown either by you or an NPC ally. Not that you can rely on NPCs doing all the work for you: “We want the player to be active and not just be a coward, you need to fight to win.”
Inside the apartment block, things feel a little City-17: crumbling, stark architecture, but packed with incidental detail like litter, puddles and snazzy light and reflection effects. The scripting aims largely for subtlety rather than overt puppetry too – for instance, breaching a door (yes, you do this yourself rather than watch an AI do it for you) sees a filing cabinet on the other side knocked over with a startling clang. Come the next door, things aren’t quite so low-key: an armoured enemy kicks it open, sending you sprawling onto your back and leading to a slightly jarring slo-mo sequence in which you have the time to raise and unload your shotgun as you fall.
Then it’s back outdoors for a short street sequence, walking past this battle’s wounded. A medic desperate applies a tourniquet to a fallen comrade, another soldier is being dragged away, and all-told there’s a sense of devastation and panic. For you, though, it’s off to a Humvee under orders from a Captain Brady. There things wrap up, with Bach determined not to reveal any of the context for this incursion into Tehran. “You’re going in to… do… things” is all we can get from him. Oh, and he also confirms none of the game will be set in Scotland.
And so we end with almost as much mystery as we began, but what we do have is more reassurance that BF3 is quite possibly going to be 2012’s most spectacular-looking game while resisting the urge for open excess. Obviously, its singleplayer is exploring some similar territory to the recent raft of post-COD modern military shooters, but it does seem to be taking a more low-key, less rollercoaster-like approach. Bar a couple of over-obvious brief scripted moments, it seems pacier, a little more subtle, a little more tense, more like a battle and less like a pop-up shooting gallery.
While still a linear run'n'gun game (in this section at least), it seems a long way away from the overtly prescriptive play and tone of Medal of Honor or Homefront - clearly determined to be its own game with its own feel rather than just try to keep up with the modern combat Joneses, or to simply be a ludicrous action film in disguise. There’s still much left to be seen, however – Battlefield’s trademark vehicle play will make its way into singleplayer at some point, while Bach has made repeated reference to the narrative taking a sobering look at the realities of war.
I suspect the multiplayer will remain BF3’s biggest draw for me - that's where the real stories happen - but I’m an awful lot more interested and impressed by the core Battlefield series' first foray into solo play than I ever expected to be.