Over the past few days I have, along with tens (perhaps hundreds) of thousands of other people, been blasting my way through the initial hours of Battlefield 3's post-launch multiplayer. The game has certainly benefited from the time spent in beta, but it still has some way to go before it reaches the kind of polish and balance we're going to enjoy in the coming years. Nevertheless it's been predictably thrilling, and getting to grips with this new Battlefield has been one of the highlights of my year so far. That said, it's also provoked some other, bleaker thoughts...
Yesterday I was sat here showing off Battlefield 3 to a friend of mine. We marvelled at the concussive audio, discussed the odd animation and physics bugs that popped up - acknowledging that a game of this complexity must be a nightmare to bug-fix - lamented the control-seeking rigidity of Origin, and marvelled at the general technical achievements of the game itself. What really struck us about our little session, however, was the inadequacy of showing off a thing like this on a chaotic, public server. To evaluate - as almost all reviews will - this game on the experience of jumping into a random server and playing for a few hours, really only grazes its depths. Further, perhaps, any attempt to critically evaluate it based on situations where one guy regularly jumps in a tank and races off over the horizon without a thought in the world for what's going to happen next seems like it's only going to tell half the story.
The point here is that gamers like myself and chum have tasted organised, competitive gaming many times over the years. From running a Quake III clan, through playing Battlefield 1942, and operating Eve fleets - I know what this stuff entails, and how much more it makes of a game. My friend is a little more hardcore, even, preferring Desert Combat and Arma. But the same feeling is true for both of us: we're going to feel distanced from games like Battlefield 3, because we know we can't and won't have time to become fully immersed. Fully committed.
Playing Battlefield 3, then, is actually making me feel a little sorry for myself. Yes, I will be able to jump in and shoot men in the face from time to time. I probably will sink hundreds of hours into it, as I did with Bad Company 2, but I won't be getting the most out of it. I won't, except in the brief moments where I'll play with voice-comm'd chums in a squad, get to taste real competition, or genuine co-operation. I simply no longer have a lifestyle where regular practice and competitive play is possible. Instead I'll idly plunge into these nightmare worlds of whirling, freeform destruction, where soldiers run solo in the hills, trying to find a sniper to stab.
But perhaps that's okay. The public server experience will, after all, be what most people who play the game will end up experiencing. They're also the people who are most likely to have a bit of a read of my words before jumping in. So, with that unnecessarily self-pitying preamble produced, let's attempt a review of some kind. I've broken down this Wot I Think into some helpful categories, which you can see below.
i.) THE SHOOTING MEN IN THE FACE
The fundamentals here build quite elegantly on a decade of Battlefield's shooting men in the face. Battlefield's approach is to supply a wide spectrum of combat possibilities, which in this case ranges from a knife through to a jet fighter. It's the diversity that makes it so satisfying to explore and master. Side-arms alone span a huge range of potential ordnance from pistols, through sub-machineguns, and into sniper-rifles and heavy machineguns. All can be used to turn annoying, jittery alive people into nice, calm dead people.
The diversity of what's possible in Battlefield 3 is improved significantly on, say, Bad Company 2, but is in some ways closer to Battlefield 2 - you are able to go prone, for example. But there's more, too, because movement has been expanded: you can mantle over low scenery and even, in specific locations such as window-sills, set up your bipod for extra steadiness in firing. This can be vital for a sniper, or someone with a light machinegun. At least until someone walks up behind you and stabs you in the head.
What constrains your activities, however, is the unlock system. You do not have access to all the possible equipment for the four classes, but instead have to unlock it as you progress. This means that while you can quite effectively shoot men in the face from the moment you start playing, you don't actually have the best weapons, or the widest range of equipment to do so. I'm acutely aware, too, that critical judgements of the game can't do much to discuss the balance of these weapons - which will inevitably change over time - because right now we're just in a race to unlock them all. That said, I am finding the unlock process a little less satisfying than I didn't with Bad Company 2. Perhaps the novelty has worn off. Or perhaps the basic kits are too basic, and I haven't yet had enough toys to play with.
Never mind though, because the four classes are, I feel, a better choice this time. Bad Company's machinegun toting medic never really sat right with me, and making the assault classes carry medic kit, while the support class delivers ammo, makes a lot more sense. The recon, that sneaky sniper bastard, remains much the same, but can now drop a spawn beacon for remote spawn-pointing, while the engineer remains ludicrously satisfying to play in a map with a lot of vehicles in it.
As for the general "feel" of Shooting Men In The Face, well, it's mostly excellent. DICE know how to make first-person experiences convincing and compelling. I love the fierce recoil on the most primitive assault rifles, and the sparky, punchy kick of a pistol at close quarters makes a lot of sense. Melee seems a but awkward, and I am not totally convinced by the new "suppression" system which reduces your aim when bullets are landing close to you, but the sheer affect of explosions and bullet impacts are what really underscores it all as an experience. Of course I'll come to that in a moment.
ii.) THE GRAPHICS ARE QUITE GOOD, AKA "A VOYEUR OF UTTER DESTRUCTION"
Actually yes, let's talk about that /right now/. The most satisfying aspect of Battlefield 3, beyond the solidity of the Shooting Men In The Face, is the environment it creates to do that in. This is a mixture of the brilliantly lit, rendered, and textured imaginary-but-real-world environments, the possible destruction that weaves through that world, and the soundscape which frames it in a giant, seething jungle of keenly-judged audio. This means that while you might have been impressed by the thump of machineguns and ear-pulping pop of grenades in other games, you probably won't have experienced it in quite the same way that you will here. It's monstrous, in the most positive sense that word can be used.
Battlefield 3's achievement is one of all-out ferocity. No game has managed to portray the damage being wrought by 64 explosive-wielding soldiers this convincingly, and it will no doubt be a long time before we get the same density of shattering concrete, collapsing huts, or billowing burning bits of stuff swirling through the air.
Yes, despite the carnage, DICE's levels often get described as "painterly" and there's really no stepping back from that here. Laying out on a ravaged mountainside and scanning the complicated mess of structures in an oil-refinery in the valley below is one of those raw videogame experiences that you will remember and think about long after you put down the game for the last time.
iii.) "BATTLELOG" SOUNDS LIKE A BADLY NAMED ENT
Let's not beat around the war-ravaged bush, here. There are two reasons why game-launching, stat-collecting "service" Battlelog exists in the form that it does - a web-browser plugin - and neither of them are really to do with convenience for the player. The first is to compete with Call Of Duty Elite, essentially enabling players to indulge in stats browsing and achievement surfing, as well as delivering some social tools to smooth over the process of hooking up with chums for either a casual blast or more co-ordinated competitive play.
The second reason is control. Battlelog being a website run by EA means that EA have control. Or at least that was the idea. The issue with that, of course, is that it takes control out of the hands of players. If their web server goes down then there is no game for you.
That said, it does seem like a good game browser. I find the process of launching a game from a browser baffling, and I really don't understand why it couldn't have been included within the game itself, but it has got the options you need to get into a game quickly and easily, and the stats breakdown makes for interesting browsing with a pre-work cup of tea. So that's as far as I am willing to complain about that.
iv.) WORLD WAR CONCLUSION
There are some other problems, of course. (Aren't there always?) Right now you can still hit Q to spot and enemy, and bring them up in everyone's HUD, but holding Q down calls up a "communication rose" which you can then produce a number of emotes from. It's horrible and clunky. Apparently already on DICE's list of things to redo, too, so I feel justified in complaining about that.
I also understand that control rebinding has not really been finished, and stuff like getting helicopters working with a joystick is still basically impossible. A minor issue, but frustrating for a few.
So yes. I should conclude. And in the attempt to do that I keep coming back to a single idea: diversity. What I think is going to be in Battlefield's favour in the years to come is not just the visual fidelity, but the complexity of the options it offers. There's so much here, in the different maps, the different game modes (nothing new, but Rush remains brilliantly dynamic, and the 64-player "large" conquest maps are something else.) Try playing on hardcore maps, and you are suddenly playing a different game. One where, I would speculate, you will start to get a game closer to those organised, competitive clan experiences I was lamenting my absence from at the start of this piece, because you are just going to die so easily. That said, from what I have seen of hardcore mode, there needs to be a few mote options available, because it just randomly strips out UI elements that make it more confusing, rather than more "hardcore".
v.) ACTUALLY, FINALLY
1. It's imperfect but extremely beautiful. Balancing and bug squishing will no-doubt continue. And when complete, it will be something exquisite in the history of games.
2. The lack of modding support is a travesty and seriously hurts the PC gaming community.
3. It's probably worth upgrading your PC for, too. But you knew that already.
I suppose what I am trying to say is that if you can't find something to like in Battlefield 3's multiplayer then you are living in a world where multiplayer first-person combat is an unhappy experience. That would be a shame. Ultimately, I think most of you will get something out of being under fire, behind a wall, with your comrades yelling through the dust and the smoke, as snipers try to give you covering fire, with a grenade landing nearby, with an APC exploding like a collapsing star just yards away...
All other considerations be damned. It's the thrill of battle that really matters. And it's right here.