In the more than five years since the release of Battlefield 2, the first-person shooter landscape has come to be dominated by one franchise alone--Activision's Call of Duty behemoth. EA and developer DICE are hoping to steal the thunder away from Call of Duty with Battlefield 3, the long-awaited sequel to one of the best multiplayer shooter experiences of the past decade. Battlefield 3--which is set to hit PCs, the Xbox 360, and the PlayStation 3 in the fall of this year--is once again promising an extensive multiplayer side, but EA chose to focus on the game's single-player component at an event held overnight during this year's Game Developer's Conference in San Francisco.
First up, there are some technical details. Battlefield 3 will run on DICE's internally developed Frostbite 2 engine, the predecessor of which powered the last few Battlefield: Bad Company games. One of the biggest things the original Frostbite engine did for the Bad Company series was give its environments a good level of destructibility, and DICE has amped up that aspect with Frostbite 2 to extend the damage on a building-level scale. So not only will small structures collapse, but entire multistory constructions can and will also topple in Battlefield 3, given the right amount of destructive pressure. Animations, too, will receive an upgrade, with the sequel co-opting the ANT system--which is used for EA's sports titles--for use with its character models. DICE says this will result in more lifelike animations for all of the characters you'll see within the game. The Frostbite 2 engine--which in itself has been in development for more than two years--also supposedly markedly improves rendering and audio, resulting in extremely realistic lighting effects coupled with immersive sound.
The reason for all this technical focus, according to DICE, was to create a game that would be able to push the FPS genre as far forward as Battlefield 2 did when it was released back in 2005. And from what we saw at EA's GDC event, the long wait for Battlefield 3 seems to have paid off, with the game looking truly impressive at this stage of development. The hands-off demo--which was running off the PC build of the game (with PC being the lead platform for the Battlefield 3)--didn't give away too many story details, but we did manage to eke out some facts. The year is 2014, and Iranian insurgents (named the PLR) are starting to amass on the border between Iraq and Iran. You'll play as Sgt. Henry "Buck" Blackburn, a US Marine stationed along the border (although it's not clear whether the good sergeant will be the only character you'll play throughout the entire game).
At the start of the demo, Blackburn and a small group of marines were tasked with finding a squad of missing soldiers that were on the trail of a possible chemical weapons site. Blackburn and his teammates travelled through some tight alleyways and an abandoned school on their search for the missing soldiers, which was a neat way to showcase the great ambient lighting on show as the sun's rays filtered, bounced, and blazed through different sections of narrow spaces. When the team hit a car park surrounded by tall buildings, things went south, with a sniper shooting down one of Blackburn's teammates. As bullets started flying from insurgents using the cars as cover, the DICE developer controlling our demo showed off a new move to be found in Battlefield 3: the ability to drag downed teammates into cover with, from what we could see of onscreen prompts, some rapid pressing of buttons in what amounted to a mini quick-time event. This, as you can imagine, is a fairly slow process, but Blackburn soon managed to drag the fallen soldier into a building before heading out into the fray. As well as being shot at by insurgents in the car park, one rocket launcher-wielding enemy was positioned on a balcony in a nearby building, making things even more difficult for Blackburn and his team. The DICE demo driver threw a grenade into the balcony, killing the enemy and once again showing off the impressive destructibility of Frostbite 2, with the balcony exploding in a shower of dust and debris in an extremely believable manner.
The demo then skipped ahead in the level, with the squad now atop a building in an attempt to take out that pesky sniper. This was a pretty tense sequence, with the team having to run from cover to cover as the sniper's bullets flew by, sending chunks of concrete flying as they narrowly missed Blackburn. With no cover left, the entire squad then went prone (and yes, prone is back), crawling along the ground to the edge of a low wall encircling the roof. Blackburn then armed himself with a rocket launcher, and once the rest of his squad had popped up from behind the wall to provide covering fire, he stood up and sent a rocket flying into a nearby building. On impact, the rocket's explosion shockwave caused shards of glass and other material to fall from the structure, as well as destroyed the enemy sniper opponent's position.
The demo once again skipped ahead to a different section of the level, and Blackburn was alone in the basement of a building, following a wire that led to a bomb. Blackburn followed the wire through some tight air vents, before dropping into a small storage area where the explosive was located. But as he moved to disarm it, he was pulled back by a lone soldier who started raining blows on him in what looked to be another quick-time sequence. Blackburn and the insurgent engaged in hand-to-hand combat, with Blackburn's strikes activated by hitting the indicated mouse button. Once he dispatched the attacker, Blackburn turned and disarmed the device before heading outside to rejoin his squad, which was once again embroiled in a serious firefight. Blackburn ran to a nearby overpass and grabbed a heavy assault rifle to mow down advancing enemies. With only weak sheets of metal covering the overpass, Blackburn had to continually reposition as the metal he was using for cover was shot to pieces, but thankfully, a friendly chopper soon joined the fight to lend support. With that wave of enemies defeated, Blackburn got off the overpass and rushed to a nearby jeep to man a mounted .50 cal to once again tear shreds off advancing insurgents. But this moment of firepower superiority was short lived. A massive tremor suddenly rocked the city, sending Blackburn flying from the jeep. As he looked up, a tall building slowly started to crumble before collapsing entirely, taking out the chopper as it fell and headed straight for Blackburn. With that cliff-hanger, the demo ended.
There are still plenty of questions we want answers to, such as what the background story is, what locations you'll be fighting in, and most importantly, what sort of improvements are being planned for multiplayer. But what was clear from this short demo was that Battlefield 3--at least with its single-player side--is aiming for a high-impact, cinematic experience. What the game is absolutely nailing right now is its visuals, which looked amazing from start to finish, with plenty of impressive detail to help flesh out this realistic-looking world. We're definitely looking forward to seeing more of this great-looking shooter, which is scheduled for release in fall of 2011 on the PC, Xbox 360, and PS3.