Four hours with the Battlefield 3 beta

I managed to sneak into the Battlefield 3 beta on Wednesday afternoon. Right off the bat, I wasn't impressed.

First, I had to download and install Origin—great, another piece of software to complicate things when I could be using Steam. Origin refused to sign me in, citing a server error. Getting in and downloading the beta took a few tries. Attempting to launch the beta, I ran into another unexpected snag. Turns out clicking "play" opens your browser window and loads up Battlefield 3's web interface... which requires a browser plug-in to launch the actual game. One more unnecessary installation later, I was finally able to click the big, orange "quick match" button and get to playing.

Well, almost. The game inexplicably started in a window. When I went into the options to switch it to full-screen mode, it crashed. I guess they don't call it a beta for nothing.

My frustration only increased when I, at long last, got into the game. Seconds after spawning in a neatly rendered city park, I was immediately gunned down by an unseen enemy. The same happened shortly after I respawned. Then again after that. I tried to duck and move out of the area, only to meet my demise once again. Things weren't off to a great start, and traumatic flashbacks of my unsuccessful attempts to enjoy Modern Warfare 2's multiplayer were flooding through my mind. Not again!

That was on Wednesday afternoon.

Yesterday evening, I had to summon all my strength to pry myself out of the game and start writing this blog post. As I write these very lines, I'm fighting the urge to declare writer's block and play another match to loosen the words out. The rattle of my newly unlocked M249 light machine gun is fresh in my ears.

So, what happened between then and now?

I guess you could call it a rapid case of habituation—climbing a relatively short and very gentle learning curve, if you will. Point is, Battlefield 3 grew on me fast. Yes, I got taken down at the beginning for spawning too close to the action, but I soon realized that the antidote was simply to spawn as part of a squad, stay under the line of fire, and choose the right weapon for the job. In the first part of Operation Métro, the beta's public multiplayer map, that weapon turned out to be the sniper rifle. (I didn't have the stomach nor the experience to go rushing to the front lines with an assault weapon; that came a few hours later.)

Soon, I was snaking my way within view of the action, lying prone close to cover as bullets whizzed and crackled above my head. With a little bit of care and patience, I would eventually find a nice spot in some bushes or behind some rocks. I'd get an enemy in my sights and pull the trigger. I'd watch him turn in my direction, sunlight reflected in his rifle's scope as he prepared to shoot back. I'd feel the adrenaline surge. I'd pull the trigger a second time, then a third, then a fourth. He'd fall down, and the game would proudly grant me a point bonus for a kill, laying down suppressing fire, and whatever else my victory accomplished.

Battlefield 3 is a team game at its core, and players are rewarded for helping the team. Killing an enemy will get you plenty of points, of course, but skirmishes lost to a more skilled adversary aren't always without value. You'll likely still get points for a kill assist, or even for spotting the enemy, which puts a red marker above his head so your teammates can track him down. That helps you climb up the scoreboard even if you're not channeling John Rambo and turning entire enemy squads into hamburger.

After your team takes out the first two objectives in Operation Métro's park area, you must proceed underground, into the subway tunnels. At that point, the game turns into an intense close-quarter slugfest—and if you're a member of the attacking team, it's time to switch weapons. My first runs through the tunnels were done with a shotgun, and I cracked a smile as I downed, with one shell each, members of the defending team trying to overrun our position. I was getting flashbacks again, but they were good ones—memories of victorious Counter-Strike: Source matches from long ago.

I eventually got sick of the shotgun, and that's where the icing on the delicious cake that is Battlefield 3 came in. As you accumulate points, the game rewards you with ribbons, promotions, and fresh items and weapons. The weapons can all be modified and augmented with different kinds of scopes, extended magazines, different ammo, etc. You can also unlock whole new weapons, like the M249 machine gun and Glock 17C handgun. Then there are specializations, which let you, say, carry more ammo, sprint faster, or withstand more damage from nearby explosions. I haven't ascended all the way up the rank ladder yet, but I know there are more goodies in store for me still. For example, some of my foes occasionally score easy kills by temporarily blinding me with a flashlight, and I don't have one of those yet.

You might think the reward system makes the game unfair and frustrating, since more skilled and experienced players have more gadgets. But believe it or not, it seems to work the other way around. You see someone with a cool add-on, or you pick up a discarded gun you've never seen before, and you think, "Man, I want that in my loadout." In my experience, the reward system only makes Battlefield 3 more addictive.

And it's not the only thing. There's also something strangely gratifying about the way the game levels up your character. And the end of a match, all of the points you've accumulated fill up a progress bar on the screen, and a little distorted jingle plays every time you earn a new distinction or item. It's like playing a slot machine where you never lose, and you quickly start to crave the gratification of that progress bar and those jingles. That's on top of the gratification that comes from taking out a whole bunch of bad guys all by yourself, of course.

Battlefield 3 also saves web-based "battle reports" after each match... so if you did particularly well in a given game, you can save the page and use it to gloat. I'll freely admit to having flaunted a battle report on IRC just to show off my 17:3 kills-to-deaths ratio and "highest awarded" status, and I'm guessing plenty of other players are guilty of a similar crime.

In the end, the Battlefield 3 beta has proven be shockingly addictive and surprisingly well balanced. It's already eaten up four hours of my life, and it threatens to consume many more. I'm not sure how long this infatuation will last or whether the full game will prove as exhilarating after a few weeks or months. Still, this is the first time I've truly had fun playing a Battlefield game online, and that's saying a lot. From what I can tell, this title takes the best parts of the Battlefield series, Counter-Strike, and Modern Warfare, and it smushes 'em all together into one gorgeous-looking package with amazing sound effects and a neat web interface to tie it all together.

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