Intervention: Battlefield 3's single player campaign


— 11:09 AM on November 4, 2011

Hi Battlefield 3. How're you doing? Please have a seat. We're here today because we care about you. We're your friends, your players; your fans, and your customers. With a heavy heart, we've—

...can you put down the gas duster can for a minute? Please, just listen, okay?

We've arranged this intervention because we want you to seek the help that you need. We want your children, and your children's children, not to end up in the bargain bin within weeks of release, their DVD jackets adorned with "50% OFF!" stickers. Most of us have enjoyed your multiplayer mode, and we think you've done a good job there. It's really just your single-player campaign we'd like to talk about.

Battlefield 3, your SP campaign has hurt me in the following ways.

I was hoping for a deeper, more meaningful, and more enjoyable experience than what I've gotten from the Call of Duty series lately. Your preview videos looked wonderfully tantalizing, and I figured that, after Modern Warfare 2 jumped the shark with that whole Red Dawn scenario, everyone else would get the message: over-the-top, on-rails shooters have been done to death, and it's time to move on. I know that game sold literally jillions of copies and allowed Activision to install gold toilets around its offices, but I didn't expect the Battlefield series to sell out in the same fashion.

Imagine my disappointment when I realized that, while you looked like the prettiest girl at the dance, your gameplay was essentially Modern Warfare 2 on steroids—or canned air. From the outset, you coaxed me along set paths filled with dreary cut scenes, endlessly respawning enemies, and unforgiving quick-time events (you know, those things where the game randomly gives you half a second to click a mouse button... or else).

All attempts at initiative or creative thinking were mercilessly quashed. I had to progress at exactly the pace you determined. Any slower, and infinite spawns of enemies would pin me down; any faster, and quelling those infinite spawns would cost my character his life. Sometimes, even when progressing at the designated pace and crouching behind the designated cover, I would be gunned down by an unseen enemy, a hail of bullets turning my vision into a blurry, splotchy mess that extinguished any hope of a timely counterattack. Time and time again, I would progress through your levels by trial and error, obediently awaiting the next instruction. "Run over there," you'd say. "Pick up that machine gun!" "You have three picoseconds to hit E so that your character doesn't die!" More times than I can count, I had to move out of the way so my team could follow its scripted path to the next objective. I wasn't leading or following; I was trying to stay out of their path and not get myself killed.

Battlefield 3, I know that being a real-world soldier is largely about following orders, sticking with your team, and trying really hard not to get shot. But I don't want to be a real-world soldier. That's why I'm sitting here at my computer and not thousands of miles away in Afghanistan, cold and tired, mourning lost friends and hoping my squad doesn't run into an IED. I don't have the guts for any of that. I just want to play video games and pretend I can take on a whole platoon of bad guys all on my own.

The fact of the matter is, people play video games to get a sense of achievement. It feels great to complete an objective against all odds, using your wits and skill to outmatch the enemy. That's why open-world games are so much fun. They create the illusion that you're left to your own devices, making it all the more satisfying when you clear a dungeon or advance the storyline. Trial and error still comes into play, but succeeding after repeated failures is all the more enjoyable, because you had an active part in the decision-making process.

What you've done, Battlefield 3, is rob me of that enjoyment. At no point in the campaign did I feel like I, the player, had any part in what was happening. How could I? The scripting system so transparently pushed me from point to point, barking orders at me and punishing me with instantaneous death whenever I failed to respond in time. My problem-solving skills were left untapped. Instead of determining the best tactic for a firefight or coming up with the best way to infiltrate a building, I simply tried to make sense of the game's instructions. Whenever I died, I questioned not my strategy, but whether I had interpreted those instructions correctly.

Playing your single-player campaign, Battlefield 3, felt like watching a very expensive action movie where the main character kept forgetting his lines, walking off-shot, or misinterpreting the script. The director kept yelling "cut," and I was forced to sit through each ruined take. Somehow, I felt guilty about those takes getting ruined. Also, the movie cost $60, and I needed a pretty fast graphics card to watch it.

Scripting shooters to that extreme extent is just a recipe for disaster. At one point near the end of the game, I walked into a mansion and the game took the reins. I watched as my character walked into a Russian special forces guy, who started a long expositional monologue. I took my hands off the keyboard and mouse to pay closer attention. Eventually, another character entered the scene and asked the Russian guy to put his hands up. The Russian guy turned to my character and said, "You don't shoot him, millions will die." I waited for the cut scene to continue, but my character suddenly and inexplicably died. After starting over, I realized that I was supposed to take control and shoot the other character right there and then. I had to click the left mouse button at just the right time within a one- or two-second window. Any other course of action was punished by instant death—and being forced to re-watch the whole cut scene. Unlike previous quick-time events in the game, this one provided no on-screen instructions, either.

That wasn't the only instance where I was forced to go through the motions and punished for not following the script—far from it—but it was definitely the most puzzling and frustrating.

Battlefield 3, I wouldn't have complained if you had supplemented your multiplayer mode with a cheesy in-engine action movie. I probably would have watched it. But you had to get all Call of Duty on me and awkwardly pad a cheesy in-engine action movie with heavily scripted gameplay portions that weren't any fun to play. I can tell it all took a lot of effort, and I feel so, so sorry that you persevered in that path without realizing the error of your ways.

I've booked you a ticket to rehab clinic in California, but I don't think you'll take it. However, perhaps your example can serve as a warning for future Battlefield titles. Perhaps your offspring will realize that not having a single-player campaign is okay, especially if it means more development resources allocated to multiplayer. They may even figure out that single-player campaigns can be enthralling without being scripted to the gills. Rage, Borderlands, and Deus Ex: Human Revolution are great examples, and there are many others. More importantly, I hope they understand that, if a certain game franchise with an awful single-player mode sells zillions of copies, aping that franchise's worst traits isn't the way to make a good game...

...and making good games is still what it's all about, right? Right?

   
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