One man's return to the Battlefield

I got an early start on the Battlefield series. When the BF: 1942 multiplayer demo hit in August of 2002, a couple of friends and I holed up in the squalid basement suite that served as my Benchmarking Sweatshop at the time. Test systems were transformed into gaming rigs, and fueled by a combination of take-out and Slurpees, we played into the following morning. Finally, with the sun rising and our hands cramped from hours of non-stop fragging, we tore ourselves away only to repeat the ritual the following weekend... and the weekend after that... and the weekend after that.

We continued these once-a-week sessions with the demo for some four months before finally springing for the full game. Student-loan payments took priority back then, and the gameplay was so good we didn't mind spending endless hours toiling back and forth across the beaches of Wake Island, the only map in the demo. Years spent in crudely networked dorm rooms had us well-versed in the art of first-person shooters, but Battlefield's grand scale and seamless vehicle integration added new depth that kept us entertained for hours.

As the franchise shifted venues and eras, both in official releases and through mods like Desert Combat, we followed the Battlefield series religiously. Inevitably, though, girlfriends and real-world responsibilities eroded our weekly schedule. The squad ultimately disbanded before Battlefield 2142 hit, and I just couldn't get into it or the subsequent Bad Company releases. Perhaps Battlefield 3 would be different, I thought.

In some ways, this latest chapter in the franchise represents a radical departure. The game starts you off in a web browser, and that means sitting through a couple of plugin installs before you can do anything. This is really no more annoying than the miscellaneous updates attached to seemingly every new Steam game, and the browser-based interface lends itself well to stats tracking and social networking. Being able to browse battle logs and upcoming unlocks while waiting for the game to join a server and load the map in the background is really quite convenient. The problem is the timing; after transitioning from the browser to the game, there's still up to eight seconds of additional load time on an SSD-equipped system. Cut that to less than a second, make the transition seamless, and you might be onto something.

The web front-end makes more sense for multiplayer than it does for Battlefield's single-player component. Then again, the solo campaign doesn't really feel like it should be a part of this game at all. Before Bad Company came along, the Battlefield name was free from any association with the on-rails shooter genre popularized by the Call of Duty series.  To be fair, I enjoyed BF3's single-player missions more than I did the last Modern Warfare game. The pacing feels less frantic, and perhaps due to my aggressive tendencies, I tend not to get stuck behind trigger points facing endless waves of enemies. There were some memorable sequences among the missions, even if the gameplay feels formulaic.

The quick-time events simply have to go, though. They might seem like a good way to make in-game cinematics more interactive, but nothing breaks immersion like being told to press an arbitrary key at a specific moment.

Expecting a Battlefield game to ship without a single-player component is probably unrealistic. However, the Michael Bay theatrics should be reserved for Bad Company and other spin-offs. There's nothing wrong with Battlefield's single-player roots, which pit the player against computer-controlled bots on multiplayer maps. If a storyline and missions are a must, why can't they channel more Operation Flashpoint and less Call of Duty? I suppose the sales figures for those two games provides the answer.

So, what about the multiplayer? That's the main course, and after making my way through the infantry-centric single-player campaign, I was a little worried that Call of Duty-itis had infected the rest of the game. Fortunately, it only took a few rounds to confirm this is the Battlefield I know and love. I've been playing the game's classic conquest mode almost exclusively, and apart from struggling to learn the ins and outs of the massive maps, I feel right at home.

Honestly, I expected to die a lot more than I have thus far. There have been times I've cursed campers and grenade spamming, but they've been rare. My casualties are largely my own fault for thinking I still have the mad skillz of an early-20s university student.

The multiplayer isn't perfect, of course. The deployment map is a bit of a mess, and the one in the HUD isn't much better. Squads are difficult to coordinate, as well, although I'm admittedly used to having my team assembled in the same room—a tough act to follow. At first, I also experienced quite a bit of frustration after getting gunned down by higher-ranked players with superior weapons. Upgrades are unlocked quickly, though, and there's a certain satisfaction to pulling better guns from the cold, dead hands of your victims.

Battlefield games have always looked pretty good, and this one is particularly gorgeous. The visuals are stunning, and I'm particularly impressed with the smoke, fire, and explosive effects. You'll see a lot of them, because the game's levels are littered with enough burning cars to fuel a Stanley Cup riot. The environments aren't quite as destructible as I was expecting, but I've had my cover quickly reduced to rubble right before my eyes on more than a few occasions. I was also rather impressed when the giant antenna tower from one of the multiplayer levels fell on top of me.

While Battlefield 3 doesn't have nearly as much unique detail as Rage, the textures are sharper up close. The lighting looks pretty good overall, even if some of the effects feel overused by the campaign's penchant for peppering night missions with loads of blinding headlights and baddies with flashlights. If I didn't fear being gunned down, I probably would have stopped more often to take in the view.

When piped through headphones with the virtualized surround-sound of a Xonar sound card, Battlefield 3 sounds amazing. The audio packs a solid punch and offers good directional cues without getting too muddied in big firefights. Somehow, the subtle tick of a sniper's ricochet is more terrifying than the bombastic din of a tank battle.

With a pre-order DLC freebie on the way that includes my beloved Wake Island, plus other Battlefield classics, I'm looking forward to many evenings spent staying up far too late to play just one more round. I had a couple of nights like that before hunkering down in crunch mode for an upcoming product launch, and just writing this blog post has me jonesing for another fix.

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