A Treat For The Eyes And Ears, But Not Necessarily A Step Up
Don't get me wrong; Battlefield 3 is still a great multiplayer game. Its expansive levels allow players to take any of the numerous paths to the goal, and each way of playing the game is as viable as the next. This is what has made the Battlefield franchise such a treat for the last decade, and the core of what makes it great is still intact in this third installment. It's only when DICE sets its sights on a certain other modern warfare franchise that things go a bit awry.
All of the lessons that DICE and EA have learned from Call of Duty's massive success are the wrong ones. The leveling system in multiplayer is now completely linear, instead of the open-ended grid of Battlefield 2 and 2142. Players get more powerful as they level up, too, with even basic things such as sights locked away behind the leveling system. This makes starting out in the multiplayer a chore, especially for any late starters who will have to wade in sans scopes or sights or perks while other players are already decked out. The maps are similarly restrictive, despite their huge size. Compared to Bad Company 2, Battlefield 3's destruction engine is actually worse. Some objects can be blown up just fine, while most others can't. You can still play the game in a huge number of ways, but my preferred strategy of blasting straight through walls, doors, and trees to get to the objective is no longer viable.
As I said above, however, Battlefield 3 remains a great multiplayer game. There's no "Bad Company" tacked on to the end of the name, and players expecting a similarly destructive experience will likely be left wanting. This is a core Battlefield game, and the focus is less on destruction and more on tactics and teamwork within a static environment. Once you go through the trouble of earning the gun you want and its accompanying accessories, the game plays like a dream. No other shooter conveys the feeling of wielding a heavy weapon so accurately. Every shot, whether it connects or not, is immensely satisfying.
Classes have been shaken up a bit, so those expecting to pick up right where they left off in a previous Battlefield game might be disoriented for a minute. The changes made to the class system are largely for the better, though, as Assault classes now double as the Medics. This is a smart decision because the Assault players are already at the frontlines of the battle, so it's no trouble for them to revive downed players and jump right back into the action. This leaves the Support class to ammo dispensing duty, a role that is not to be underestimated in a tense battle. Engineers are largely the same as they have been, with drills for repairing vehicles and rockets for dismantling them. This class remains my favorite to play, as their vehicle skills are incredibly useful and their submachine guns pack a punch. Too much of a punch, in fact, as it seems the SCAR especially is a bit overpowered at the moment. This, along with the issue of Recon players beginning with tons of ammo, should be patched out sooner rather than later, so it's no big deal. The Recon class, too, is largely the same as it was before, with ranged missile strikes and claymores for when things get hairy. Although this rebalancing is largely successful, it seems odd that the Support class is the only without a significant means of taking down vehicles.
So yes, this is still largely the same Battlefield we've all known and loved all these years, despite heavy influence from Activision's juggernaut. Where the game really hurts from this influence is in its single player campaign. Now just to be clear, I didn't dislike the campaign as much as many others did. I found it fun, with plenty of memorable moments interspersed throughout the action. An early game dogfighting level in particular was atmospheric, fun, and above all cool. The big problem is that in its attempts to ape other franchises, Battlefield's campaign has lost its own identity. This campaign should be big, open, and free like the multiplayer. There should be huge environments encouraging multiple playstyles. If I want to jump into a truck, pile it with C4, and drive it into the enemy base for a massive explosion, I should be able to do that. The first Bad Company got that, and it was amazing because of it.
Battlefield 3's campaign, on the other hand, is achingly linear, even more so than the games it attempts to imitate. If you're not standing in the right spot, if you complete an objective before the game expects you to, or if you don't hit all of the quick time events at the exact right time, the game will effectively break around you. For example, there was one mission that tasked me with chasing down a high value target and capturing him. I caught the guy before the game expected me to and was greeted with a game over screen. Why? Because I was better at the game than the developers expected me to be? It's sad that such expansive multiplayer has been paired with such an achingly restrictive single player experience. It's a good campaign if you happen to be in the right place at the right time for all of the scripting to take effect, but that shouldn't have to be a qualifier, especially for a Battlefield game.
Straddling the line between the campaign's heavy scripting and the multiplayer's open teamwork is the cooperative mode. This mode consists of a series of short missions designed for two players. The scripting isn't quite as integral to the experience here, although in some cases it can still ruin the fun. Rather, this is all about strategizing and coordinating with a friend. Playing with a buddy helps to smooth over any of the game's rough spots, making these bite sized missions more fun that they probably should be. The only problem is that they typically last around fifteen minutes and there are no checkpoints, so if you both die that camaraderie can quickly turn to rage.
I'd be remiss to write a Battlefield 3 review without mentioning just how stunning all of this action looks on a good PC. Truly, this is one of the best looking shooters I've ever played. The game has a great, grainy filter over it and makes heavy use of light bloom, which can seem gimmicky at times but largely adds to the feeling of grit. The texture work is just about unparalleled too, and the animations of each soldier look more fluid than they have any right to. The sound design is similarly great. I've said it before and I'll say it again: Nobody can match DICE when it comes to crafting realistic weapon sounds. In this iteration though, it's not just the weapons that sound so good. The soundtrack, a grinding, pulsating, slowly building tour de force of grungy synths, is powerful stuff, and builds at just the right pace during the campaign and between the multiplayer matches. It's seriously one of the best soundtracks I've heard in a game all year.
Battlefield 3 is above all a great multiplayer experience. Franchise veterans will be pleased by changes to the classes and the continued "anything goes" approach to strategy on the maps, even as they may be frustrated by the strict leveling systems. Once you get into the multiplayer and unlock some sights and new guns, the game takes on a life of its own. The campaign may be disappointingly restrictive, and the co-op can ruin friendships if you let it, but overall this game was always about the online, and in this regard DICE has delivered. It certainly helps that the game looks and sounds so goddamn fantastic.