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Battlefield 3 Review

To answer the number one question: Yes, it is very pretty. Battlefield 3 has been wowing us for the last several months with screen shots that make us go all giddy, and gameplay that includes the possibility of using jets to bomb your online friends back to the Stone Age. The new Frostbite 2.0 engine has become something of a synonym for great graphics and destructible environments, and all before the game was even released.

The wait is over, and the results are in. This review specifically covers the console version of the game, which has some significant differences from its PC counterpart. Most notably, PC version can handle up to 64 players online, making it totally different — not better or worse, just different. There are also some differences with the graphics. That isn’t really surprising though. To make Battlefield 3 run at the resolution we’ve seen in some of the trailers, you would need a computer that shames other computers. It is the new Crysis.

While the console version is slightly modified, it remains an exceptional game. The graphics are among the best of any console game, and the online that worked so well with Battlefield Bad Company 2 returns in all its glory. BF3 isn’t without its stumbling points though.

For as amazing as the graphics usually are, there are some moments where they don’t quite measure up, and the occasional glitch doesn’t help. And while the online is as solid as ever, it is almost identical to BFBC2 with a few minor improvements. Then there is the campaign, which is something of a sore point. So while BF3 might not be the game of the year that people have been expecting, it is still a solid entry — at least for fans of multiplayer.

Wait, we need a campaign?

The best thing about the BF3 campaign is that it’s pretty. The lighting effects are great, the particle physics are sometimes astonishing, and the textures are beautiful. The problem is that the campaign is the equivalent of the stereotypical dumb blonde. It is all flash and very little substance.

From the first moment the story begins, it’s hard not to have a sense of déjà vu. A dark room, a pair of unidentified no-nonsense interrogators and a soldier who has been accused of something awful, but who claims to have done everything for the right reasons. If that sounds familiar, it should. Call of Duty: Black Ops used the same setup, and it wasn’t original then either.

From there, the game takes you to the Middle East, where an insurgent group is rumored to have a chemical plant in the middle of a city. Things go FUBAR when an earthquake hits and devastates part of Iran and Iraq. In the confusion, the insurgents seize power, but a second group is working behind the scenes to move a trio of stolen nukes.

It boils down to the most generic of possible stories. It also borrows heavily from Call of Duty’s campaigns over and over again. Despite the primary focus on the soldier, Sgt. Blackburne, who is being interrogated, the game shifts focus to a handful of other characters, just like CoD. It even has you chasing a Russian named Kaffarov, a name that even sounds like Makarov, one of the antagonists of the Modern Warfare series. An incident about half way through feels so extremely similar to one of the big moments in CoD 4: Modern Warfare that the big shock it’s supposed to carry turns out not to be a shock at all.

It isn’t even just CoD that the game borrows from. Going back even a bit further, BF3 is almost a remake of Criterion Games’ classic last-gen title, Black, and reminiscent of every current military-themed shooter. You won’t discover a single original level in BF3’s campaign. It looks amazing at times, but never original. All that being said, the campaign is still fun to play for a few hours.

The levels are linear and the missions, while sometimes vague in their objectives, are solved by following an icon throughout. The enemy AI can offer a challenge, thought. Sometimes a ridiculous challenge. It basically has two settings: Mutant and emo. At its superhuman best, enemies almost seem to have mutant powers that allow them to be running for cover 50 yards away, and still hit you squarely in the head to kill you with a single shot. Even if you are quieter than a fart in a church, breaking cover for even for a second, even if the enemy is nowhere near you, can lead to getting popped. On the other hand, sometimes the enemies will simply stand there, happy to embrace death. The latter moments are rare, though. Usually the AI is ridiculous and can hit you with deadly accuracy through clouds of smoke and rubble. 

Ultimately, the campaign is fun to play, if you can ignore the cliché and unoriginal story. It’s not a bad distraction for seven or eight hours, but obviously not what DICE was focusing on.

Bow before Frostbite 2.0, puny humans

Now, there is no question that BF3 and the Frostbite 2.0 engine powering it look better on the PC. That being said, it also looks fairly amazing on consoles. The world looks incredible at times, and you can argue that BF3 is the best looking game out today — but you would still have to argue it.

While things like dust and the lighting are consistently shock and awe inspiring, a few glitches keep popping up to mar the experience. Characters will disappear through walls and reappear, doors won’t open for you, but your AI teammates will walk right through them causing you to restart, trees will fall and cause the graphics to split, and the sound effects will occasionally cut out — but these glitches are minor and infrequent, and it would be fair to call them nitpicking.

BF3 looks good in almost everything it shows, but it occasionally lacks detail. The best head-to-head graphics comparison on console is probably Crysis 2. In that game, New York is in ruins, and everywhere you look there are reminders of that: ripped posters, fallen street signs, things that show there was life there until recently. It just adds a touch of authenticity and character. BF3 doesn’t must that lived-in feel. There are plenty of piles of rubble that look great, but the environments also feel sterile at times. Again though, this is a matter of the best console graphics versus arguably the second best graphics. BF3 still looks great.

But Frostbite 2.0 is about more than graphics. The destructible environments and particle physics are a huge highlight. While not every single thing can be destroyed, you could waste hours destroying the things that are. It adds a level of strategy to the game as well, as you can now turn environments against enemies. That was possible in BFBC2 as well, but it has evolved in BF3. If someone is hiding behind a concrete barrier, you know what to do — it should only take a few shots to get to the enemy. Rockets are also a huge boon against enemies hiding indoors. Your opponent hiding in a building? Destroy the building. That’ll show ‘em.

The particle effects also change the way you play. If you are hiding behind a wall, and that wall is destroyed, the dust will make it hard to see for a moment. The lighting is also key, as standing in direct light can make it harder to see inside dark windows. Keeping the sun to your back while playing online is going to become a major tactic.

Taking the action online

While the campaign is forgettable, the real game is to be found online. To put it in perspective, many people may play the campaign and spend eight hours or so on it then be done with it. There will be a lot of people playing the multiplayer for hundreds of hours.

Before we get into the competitive multiplayer, it’s worth noting that’s not all there is. A new addition to the franchise is the inclusion of a handful of co-op challenges for you and a friend. These missions are separate from the main game, but use many of the locations you will have seen in the campaign. They serve as a good distraction, but with only six offerings, they don’t offer much. That’s what the multiplayer is all about.

If you played Battlefield Bad Company 2, then you will be right at home — the setup is the same, from the game modes to the weapon loadouts. Both Rush and Conquest return, and a Team Deathmatch has been introduced into the mix. The four classes are all back as well: Assault, Support, Recon and Engineer, and each class has a primary weapon, a secondary, two gadgets unique to the class, and a specialization option, which is essentially an ability perk.

In terms of gameplay, it is identical to BFBC2. In fact, if there were any criticisms to be leveled at the online multiplayer, it is that there weren’t enough changes. But then again, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. It is hard not to compare BF3’s online to CoD’s, but they really are fundamentally different in several ways. BF3 is all about the freedom to approach a scenario however you like. If you want to snipe, there are plenty of options. If you prefer to hop in a tank, you can do so. And of course, then there are the jets.

Like the helicopters, the jets are a bit tricky to fly, but once you get used to them, they are an incredible tool on the battlefield. The console version limits the number of available jets so you won’t see too many squadrons, but getting into a dogfight or strafing the enemies on the ground is a blast—at least until a stinger missile hits you. There are plenty of ways to take out a jet, so there is a good balance to the games.

The maps are huge and offer a lot of ways to approach them. Some of the new locations are a sight to behold and they move well, but others feel nearly identical to BFBC2. It is easy to get a sense that you have been there before while traveling through yet another dock filled with metal containers, or a construction site.

The game does do a better job of breaking the massive maps into sections though. When playing Rush, each new area feels like a new area, where in BFBC2 it could feel like just more of the same. The BF3 maps offer a lot of variety, they look great, but they also will feel oddly familiar. Maybe that’s a good thing though. 

One welcome addition to the competitive side is the ability to select exactly the server you want. You can customize your search options and choose where you want to go, what type of map, the region the server is located in and even the number of people in each game. For console fans, this is a nice addition.

The weapons have also seen a needed upgrade, and you can now add three attachments to each weapon. You unlock them by getting kills with each weapon, as you would expect. Once you have done that, you can add scopes, grenade launchers, grips and several other options. While the unlockables may not have radically changed from BFBC2, there are plenty of new options to use, and the amount of things to get your hands on means you can keep coming back for a while.

If you liked BFBC2, you will like BF3. There haven’t been too many changes (not counting the technical changes, of which there are plenty), but there wasn’t really much need to remake the gameplay. It may not win over CoD fans who prefer the smaller, more frantic games of that series, but Battlefield fans probably won’t miss them.

Conclusion

Battlefield 3 is a technical achievement for a console games, with more of the same award-winning competitive multiplayer that fans of the series love. The campaign, however, is a clichéd mess, rife with borrowed plots and uninspired level design. It is fun for a bit, but quickly forgettable.

But the campaign is a footnote. The online play is where the game will really shine, even if it hasn’t changed much from previous iterations. The classes are the same, the loadouts are very similar, and several of the maps feel like the BFBC2 maps with new graphics and a new skin, but it all still works and offers one of the best online games around for consoles. There are already DLCs in the works as well, so the online support is definitely there.

Battlefield 3 was obviously intended as a PC game first, but the developers have done a great job porting over a technical juggernaut. That’s where the game really shines — the technical side. It is a highlight for this generation  of consoles, and despite a few minor blemishes, the Frostbite 2.0 engine has made its case for being the premier engine of the next wave of first-person shooters.

A technically impressive offering, Battlefield 3 is a game that campaign fans can skip, but fans of the online style should definitely sign up for.

 Score: 8.5 out of 10

 (This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360 on a copy provided by EA)