In late 2011, the clash of two major FPS (First Person Shooter) franchises shook up the shooter market. The intense competition for the best FPS title was culminated by the publisher of the Battlefield (BF) franchise, as Electronic Arts (EA) had increased the stakes at which it would attempt to overcome the competing Call of Duty series and its popular Modern Warfare (MW) shooters. The Battlefield series, which is developed by the Swedish company DICE, has traditionally been the underdog in comparison to MW in sold copies, but has persistently grown more prominent with the introduction of each new game. At the time of writing this review, Battlefield 3 (BF3) has been out for several months and its first DLC pack, “Back To Karkand”, is available with familiar maps originating from Battlefield 2 (BF2).
Comparisons of the BF and MW series cannot be avoided, although the comparison aspects should emphasize differences in the games instead of attempting to prove which choice is superior. Battlefield has traditionally offered a wide range of controllable vehicles, such as attack, scout and transport helicopters, jets and variety of tanks and mobile anti-air, while MW offers non-player controlled vehicles that are e.g. available upon a successful kill streak. BF has featured maps that have been very large (such as in BF2) or mediocre sized (such as in Battlefield: Bad Company 2, BFBC2) while MW focuses on more confined, close-quarter battles. Modern Warfare single player campaigns have been (to my experience) of epic proportions with excellent story, scripting, and map design, while the BF series has been known to offer either no single player campaign at all or one consisting of rather linear bot killing.
As one would expect from a major FPS title, the graphics in BF3 are top notch. What really stands out are the polished animations that really contribute to the adrenaline rush of a fast paced military encounter. Even on lowest level graphic settings, the game looks impressive. The destruction engine has been fine tuned in comparison to BFBC2, and no longer will smaller explosives such as grenades take out big chunks of buildings or walls. Heavy fire, explosives and tank shells rip apart concrete like paper and the new suppressive fire feature – that blurs the screen of a player being shot at – motivates the player to advance steady instead of mad bunny jumping. The audio-visual experience is perfected by voice acting and sound effects that support interactions with the environment, as the effects hint of possible directions of enemy fire as well as report current situations in the battlefield.
Single player is, as expected, BF3's major weak point. The story appears inane and the maps sometimes feel like they've only been designed to show off the best parts of the game's destruction engine. The campaign features several characters over various places in the world with a main focus on US marine Sgt. Blackburn, whose story is told in a series of flashbacks in connection to the present moment, where a major catastrophe threatens the US. Although at times graphically impressive and admittedly the cinematic events sometimes serve the story well, the experience as a whole is rather shallow and boring. The enemies are dumb, do not coordinate as a team and often one even observes enemies spawning out of nowhere, which really kills the authentic feeling. Lengthy scripted animation sequences propagate the campaign onward, and at times I felt like I was playing Heavy Rain due to the player being walked hand-to-hand through a cinematic experience instead of a major FPS title. The action sequences consist of rather narrow pre-scripted corridors or tunnels, with no possibility for creativity, and this creates a feeling of the campaign being just an over-stretched tutorial. For anybody buying the FPS for the sole purposes of an enjoyable single player experience, I would suggest steering clear of BF3. On the other hand, for players looking more towards the multiplayer, the campaign offers a decent introduction to the game, and the co-op maps offer a casual opportunity to play with a friend. The co-op maps lack story altogether, but they do offer unlocks for weapons for the multiplayer mode, a decent helicopter training map, and I did find the covert hostage rescue co-op portion quite entertaining.
Luckily, the rather short single player campaign is not the main content in the game, as one can focus on the multiplayer mode that supports up to 64 players in a single map on PC. This is really where the Battlefield-series has always shined and BF3 does not fail to keep me content as a fan of the series. With experience of over a thousand online hours in Battlefield-games, it wasn't hard for me to get into the flow of the battle, as majority of the gaming features are familiar from previous BF titles or otherwise intuitively clear. The game has gone through a series of adjustments since BF2 (no more commander dropping artillery or transports, less strategic command options for squads) and BFBC2 (updated destruction engine and graphics, no exaggerated use of bloom and dust effects). Especially the vehicles appear to be less powerful in BF3 in comparison to BF2, which is in my opinion good for the overall gameplay experience. While in BF2 even jets could take out infantry (due to infantry spots being visible also in high altitudes), the jets and attack choppers in BF3 are more concentrated in taking out other aerial vehicles as well as armored vehicles on the ground. The changes are so immense, that it would not justify the title to call it a direct sequel to BF2 or a continuation of BFBC2. Veterans of the series will find new intriguing aspects and new players will not be overwhelmed by a heavy learning curve, although there is much to be learned of the vehicles in comparison to other major FPS titles.
Battlefield 3 multiplayer features a ranking system according to the accumulated score and the player is rewarded with new weapons, weapon specific unlocks such as scopes as well as updates to the vehicles. Teamplay is promoted with extra rewards for e.g. reviving, providing covering fire, and supplying ammo for fellow players. Squads consist of maximum 6 players from the same side and the player is again rewarded for coordinating as a squad with increased rewards for squad-mates as well as the opportunity in most game modes to spawn to live squad-mates instead of the predetermined spawn points. The score based reward system allows hundreds of hours of unlocking for all players and for the most part works well, especially for people who like unlocking new gadgets. However, some unlocks that are available for vehicles can be rather inconvenient for new players facing more seasoned players. For example, reactive plating which unlocks for various armored vehicles gives a clear edge for players that have had the patience to go for the high-end gear. Air radar is a real treat for a jet in a dog-fighting situation and the laser-painter combined with guided missile for scout helicopters turns this innocent looking small chopper into a fierce killer. If BF3 follows BF2’s path, the last TV-missile unlock for the attack chopper may be essential, but I am yet to see this unlock in wide use. New players should thus be cautious that they will not only be required to accumulated the vehicle control practice attained by more experienced players, but that they may also need to grind some unlocks to be able to fight better. Luckily most of the dire essential unlocks, such as flares for the aerial vehicles, can be easily unlocked. Additionally, DICE does appear devoted to ironing out unbalanced issues in the game, which was recently observed in the nerfing of the night-vision infrared scope that is available for most weapons.
As BF3 is a FPS with realistic aspects and a competitive online community, it may feel inconvenient for more sensitive players. Rage and frustration often outbreak in the BF3 multiplayer chat, and sadly, there appears to be no trivial ways of disabling the chat or controlling the profanity levels, other than filters performed on the server side. The voice acting does not treat the player with silky hands either, so prepare for a good amount of swearing. Although the game features rather minimal amounts of blood splatters, the beautiful yet cruel knife animations for slitting the throat of enemies leaves no guess-work for the autopsy. Upon dying, the soldier’s hand grasps the air for the last time in desperation while the heart beat slowly fades. On the other hand, Battlefield 3 does not manifest or feast upon death. In war people die. This fact is exhibited in the game, with no exaggeration but no censoring either, in a cold but realistic manner. This aspect should not be neglected, and BF3 does not attempt to hide the cruelty of death with a cloak of humor (e.g. Team Fortress 2) or by trivializing death by offering a mind-numbing abundance of it (e.g. Dead Space). Instead, one should acknowledge that in the wars past, present and future, actual people with actual dreams and fears die with no respawn timers, no reviving access to medic paddles and no chance of pressing Alt+F4 to shift back to the comfort of our homes. God does not take lightly fates of those even far from salvation (Jonah 4, Ezekiel 18:23), and I believe here lies a potential risk of dishonoring this as there can be an inflation of the concept of death.
Battlefield 3 installs for PC with two obligatory side-products that require mentioning. First is EA’s own digital distribution store software Origin, which is intended as a major competitor for Steam (hence no BF3 available on Steam). Origin has raised eyebrows due to the fact that it has featured a rather shady EULA as well as potentially scanned the user's hard drive content, even if this issue remains controversial (ref1). Although I am no fan of conspiracy theories and I have nothing to hide on my computer, I have prejudices against DRM solutions that really only make life harder for honest customers and possibly report private information to third parties. This is especially annoying for software that I cannot avoid in case I want to play at all, in similar manner to Steam forcing itself to be installed with games of the Total War franchise. Origin’s been so far a necessary evil I’ve learned to live with, but I would certainly prefer BF3 shipped without it. A second side product is a Facebook-like multimedia interface for BF3 called Battlelog. Although initially I was hesitant to the fact that my game should launch and join servers through a web-browser, I’ve learned to have a little fun on all the statistics in reports on my previous game sessions, friends’ progress, as well as customize avatars and dog-tags for my soldier profile and clans I am playing with. Battlelog and the complexity of the Frostbite 2 engine sadly prohibit mod support for BF3, which is a major let-down as BF2 had produced some excellent mods.
Online shooters have been plagued by overall rude behavior and BF3 doesn’t seem to be an exception. Even if one does not pay attention to the player chat, one relatively often encounters humiliation in the form of teabagging. Although intentional teamkilling has been reduced in comparison to BF2, e.g. no longer in normal mode can people throw their soldier under a friendly jet taking off in order to produce a teamkilling penalty, people still leave fast transport vehicles just before hitting a teammate to produce empty vehicle team kills. The overall atmosphere is very competitive and taunting, which can apply to both the opposing team as well as members of the same force. Are you easily provoked by the rush of a moment or e.g. competitive sport into saying or doing acts you would not normally do or act? As a rule of the thumb I would advise avoiding Battlefield 3 if you consider yourself to be easily an over-competitive player or rather sensitive to feeling put down by the arrogant or hostile attitude by fellow players. More than once I have quit Battlefield for a few days just because a rage storm aimed at me has started harming my enjoyable casual gaming experience as well as provoking questions as to the overall usefulness of playing such a game if not all games. As a social interactions environment, shooters generally do not offer a fruitful ground for a Christian. There are no deep conversations between players and there are rather minimal chances of sharing the gospel. Instead, the overall mentality observed quite universally in such online shooters has a great chance of becoming a plague creeping into the mind, something that can be quite opposite to our calling (Romans 12:1-2).
It is rather hard to make a conclusive statement about Battlefield 3. In worldly terms, it is one of the best if not the best multiplayer shooter experience I’ve had solo or with friends. In Christian terms, it has often left me feeling rather puzzled with what I was spending my time on. It is up to spirit-led guidance for one to ponder on whether or not they should go for Battlefield 3. It may lead to hundreds of hours of multiplayer fun, but it may also lead to a darker mind-set, one that may produce rather rotten fruit (Matthew 12:33-37).