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Wot I Think: Battlefield 3's Campaign

"When unarmed, try to avoid confrontation"

I'll get to that multiplayer stuff soon enough (although not until I have Europeans to play with), so for now let's have a bit of a think about Battlefield 3's single-player campaign. (No significant spoilers.)

The attempt to challenge Call Of Duty's ridiculous hegemony is now completely transparent. What is happening here is pure linear-shooter action designed, seemingly without any other consideration, to do what Modern Wafare is doing. Only prettier. As such there's almost nothing you haven't seen before, and the most exciting moments are often those in which you've pressed "E" to initiate an animation, and then you watch it play out. "Cinematic" is the word that gets applied to this stuff, I suppose. It's often thrilling, and often frustrating. And like it or not, this is what sells. You can sort of see why.

This is the formula: you play through a storyline of contemporary combat, involving a potential conflict between Russia and the US, from the perspective of a number of combatants. Cutscenes lace together the action bits. You generally get told what to do. The challenge lies simply in using cover at the right time, and shooting the bobbing heads of the endless shootermen who stand in your way. Battlefield's campaign does all this, and also throws in a couple of vehicular experiences, and even a stealth bit, to provide some variety. When it works, it's an easy thrill.

But, like my accuracy with an AK, it's hit and miss. There are some brilliant firefights, and some hair-raising (also like to typo "hare-razing" here) moments. Yet for all that there are some serious frustrations, including the astounding rigidity of the scripting, the occasional flailing about in darkness, the purely checkpointed progress (no manual save) and the peculiar inclusion of some genuinely tedious point 'n' click shooting galleries, the worst of which was the one aboard a plane. It goes on and on. Let me off!

Most of the game, however, sees you fighting on foot. As a rifle-carrying soldierman you blast your way through corridors, gullies, offices, ruins, ditches, riverbeds, more ruins, bank-vaults, with a couple of other guys alongside you. These NPCs offer a continuous angry and incredulous commentary on what is going on, allowing you to avoid having to worry to much about what's happening. Fail to listen and, no problem, waypoints are there to direct you, too.

Despite all this support, Battlefield 3's campaign doesn't work too hard to sustain the incredibly pretty illusion it establishes. It suffers from many of the worst aspects of scripted games. Early on, for example, it's possible to find a place where you can shoot enemies as they run into the combat arena. And you can do it forever. Kill the one single guy you are meant to kill, however, and the assailants stop coming, and you move on to the next part of the game. Try to go where the baddies are coming from and "you are leaving the combat area". There's even a bit where if you shoot enemies you are not meant to shoot, you just lay down in the street and die. No getting shot, no attempt to justify the consequences of your mistake, just voluntary, obligatory death. Your soldier has such faith in his mission that he stops his own heart if it goes wrong. Something like that.

The more excruciating stuff comes with doors. Oh, doors, why are you always a problem for games? In this instance it's the fact that doors can't be breached until NPCs arrive. Sometimes it's down you you to kick the door in, but most of the time the other NPCs who do it. Which will it be? Get to the door ahead of your chums and stand around waiting to find out! It's not very good, and it happens over and over and over...

This, of course, is balanced out by the sheer audio-visual bandwidth of the game: it pours out destruction in noise and visuals. There are points at which the game gets the balance of these exactly right, too, such as the Russians' attack on the enemy HQ in Paris, where a small team of hardcore commando types assault a building, with you in the midst of them. It's brilliantly paced, and you charge forward through the sparks and disintegration of a corporate office block, and then out into the Paris streets, where the battle takes on the seriousness of that bit after the bank heist in Heat. Yeah, that bit. It's the best shooting gallery in a game for years. Ferocious, beautiful. Just what this sort of game should be doing.

It's also, sometimes, quite disturbing in its violence. The close-quarters killing of baddies (and their stabbing of you) is quite horrible. Gruesome, chilling. Brr.

The tank ride bit is pretty good, too. Out in the desert, blasting your way into the city. It's lavish. There was even a bit where I was able to destroy great stacks of money with a shotgun. Ah, we can only dream.

The plot? Well, it doesn't make a lot of sense, but basically amounts to the baddy stealing some nukes, and then getting foiled by an American guy and a Russian guy. Lone mavericks who don't play by the rules. You know the sort of thing. I won't drop any spoilers in here, because it has some lovely scenes and some splendid twists, but none of them will actually surprise you, because this is pure mil-porn pulp.

It crashed twice. I gasped at the spectacle of what was taking place a couple of times. My graphics card screamed with delivering the exquisite visuals. My eyes dazzled. It was all over pretty quickly. I prolonged it enormously by taking pictures of plants and corpses.

It's okay. You'll probably enjoy the noise and the fury. This campaign probably isn't going to put much a dent in Modern Warfare 3's enormous sales and general popularity, but - as a number of readers have pointed out - for those of us who actually give a damn about FPS games, that isn't what matters. What matters is what happens with the multiplayer. I'm going to get stuck into that next.

Battlefield 3 is out now in North America and will be out on Thursday in Europe, and Friday in the UK.

For some reason.


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