It only makes sense that Battlefield 3, one of the year's biggest European-developed games, would make a huge splash at Europe's biggest gaming event. And what a splash that is: EA and DICE have brought not one but two new playable demos to this year's Gamescom. On one end of the size spectrum there's a two-player demo drawn right from the game's new co-op campaign, and way down there on the far end is the 64-player Conquest multiplayer demo from the PC version of Battlefield 3. It took more than a little time in line, but we managed to go hands-on with both.
We'll start with Conquest. As you've probably heard, the PC version of Battlefield 3 will return to the series' roots with a massive 64-player multiplayer mode to contrast with the 24-player counts found on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. For those who cut their teeth on the Bad Company series, the sheer scale will be a little intimidating at first. The Conquest demo playable at Gamescom takes place on the lush and verdant Caspian Border multiplayer map. It's a map that features forested hillsides, long stretches of dirt roads, and a handful of outposts that house the five capture points that serve as the focal points of Conquest mode.
When the match first started, we were lucky enough to spawn directly into one of the two jets situated at our team's base (the two sides, predictably, are the US and Russia). There's a fairly steep learning curve to the way you maneuver these jets. Taking off is a simple matter of hitting the W key and pulling back on the mouse, but once you get up into the sky, you've got to exercise some real patience for getting the hang of things. The biggest challenge when starting out is that it's really easy to just zip straight over the cluster of capture points on the ground, which forms a relatively small chunk of the map compared to the sprawling outskirts the game gives pilots to turn back around.
More than a few players in our match clearly grew impatient with the jet and just started going full-on kamikaze in a self-inflicted blaze of glory, but we managed to keep at it and get a decent hang of things. There's quite an incentive to do so: the gameworld looks amazing from way up in the sky. You feel like you can see across the entirety of the Middle East from up there, and the way the game's engine renders the battle below--including one smoking and fire-covered hillside--is just terrific.
Down on the ground, we had a blast trying out all the different vehicles, from the jeeps to the M1 Abrams tank. Given the sheer size of the map, vehicles are practically required if you want to get anywhere. We wound up preferring the tank, because like in the Bad Company series, destruction plays a massive strategic role in Battlefield 3. Being able to blow open the wall of an enemy-held building is critical to capturing crates, and the tank cannon certainly does a good job of that.
Given how much time we spent up in the sky, we didn't get a chance to try out all the new classes down on the ground, but we did take a few stabs at the long-ranged recon, or sniper, class. Why this class? Dominating the skyline of this map is a humongous radio tower looming like a red-and-white-striped beacon for all would-be snipers. We couldn't resist the temptation, so we spawned in as a recon and made a beeline for the thing. Inside was a ladder that took us a solid 30 to 45 seconds to scale, but at the top was a dream of a sniper perch that let us see almost the entire map.
Trying to pick off enemies was a genuine challenge given the generous levels of weapon sway DICE has added to the sniper rifles and the fact that your scope now appears to glint and shimmer in the sunlight as a heads-up for enemy players. Still, we managed to get a few solid kills in before we were taken out by a skilled tank driver below. Like in previous Battlefield games, physics are a huge obstacle to sniping. You have to be quick on your toes to compensate for bullet drop while also making sure to lead any running enemies. But if you find that too much of a challenge, you can still spot enemies so that they appear marked with an orange icon on your teammates' screens. That will net you some solid XP as well.
Our time with Conquest was every bit as chaotic and messy as you'd expect from a 64-player match composed entirely of people getting their first hands-on with Battlefield 3 multiplayer. Even so, we can tell that the foundation is there for a truly exceptional multiplayer mode once you put in the time to learn the ins and outs of each vehicle and how best to navigate the gargantuan map.
Now onto co-op. This is an entirely separate mode from the single-player story campaign, though there is some overlap in terms of characters and setting. The mission we played, Exfiltration, had us sneaking into a Tehran apartment building to rescue a high-value hostage. The game doesn't force you to play in any particular way, but it was dead obvious that DICE wants you to take a stealthy approach to this mission. There were several occasions when our team of two snuck up behind a conveniently matched pair of enemies who happened to have their backs turned to us. Predictable as it was, there's no denying how satisfying it was to coordinate who would take each enemy, and then counting to three before the two of us pulled the triggers on our silenced pistols.
In fact, the whole tone of the first half of this mission felt worlds apart from what we've seen thus far from Battlefield 3's story campaign. Silently creeping through dimly lit basements and hallways was very different from the sprawling set pieces of the single-player campaign, but that soon changed once we managed to rescue our man. It was loud as soon as we made it back onto the street level, as a convoy of friendly Humvees began moving through the streets. We had to contend with enemies perched up on the balconies and windows of the various buildings flanking the streets. It was a big, open shoot-out that required us to use the thermal sights on our light machine gun in order to be effective. And we managed to make pretty good progress, too, before both of us died and utterly failed the mission.
If nothing else, Battlefield 3's co-op showed us that DICE is willing to veer away from its comfort zone with a different style of action to mix up the overall pacing. But ultimately, we're interested to see how much incentive there is for teamwork over the rest of the campaign. There were those optional stealthy takedowns, and the ability to revive your incapacitated squadmate, but that was really it. Another thing we'd like to see more of is the use of vehicles in co-op; DICE promised you'll be hitting the road in ground vehicles as well as piloting jets.
And that just about wraps up what we played of Battlefield 3 here at Gamescom. Before we finish, we should note one interesting bit of trivia straight from DICE's Karl-Magnus Troedsson: The PC version of Battlefield 3 won't be the only one with multiplayer server browsers; you'll even be able to browse for servers on consoles. We're hoping to find out a few more surprises sometime before the game's release on October 25.