Friday, November 04, 2011

Battlefield 3 Multiplayer Review

Battlefield 3, developed by Digital Illusions CE and published by Electronic Arts.
The Good: 64-player frantic action in destructible environments, streamlined classes, multiple game modes, variety of vehicles that can be disabled, several ways to earn experience, spawn on squad or aircraft, scope glint a great balance for annoying snipers, delay or refuse revives, machine guns deploy for increased accuracy, prone behind cover and mantling over objects, outstanding visual and sound design
The Not So Good: Smaller maps compared to Battlefield 2, basic items shouldn’t need to be unlocked, terrible minimap, regenerating vehicle and player health devalues suppression and repair, no commander role
What say you? The noted series returns with a very enjoyable multiplayer experience: 8/8

Care about the single player campaign? You are silly. Here is why.

This review also appears at

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
The first person shooter series I’ve probably spent the most time with is Battlefield (other personal time sinks on the shooter front include Wolfenstein 3-D, Quake, Counter-Strike, Unreal Tournament, and Enemy Territory: Quake Wars). Its combination of not-forced-but-important coordinated team play, large maps with multiple objectives, and numerous vehicles anyone can control proved innovative and addictive from the first title in the series. The Battlefield games have seen their ups (Battlefield 2) and downs (2142), but have returned in glory to its home on the PC after a hiatus to console-focused drudgery. 64-player maps? Check. Destructible scenery? Check. Tanks and helicopters and jets? Check check check. Unlocks? Sigh.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Battlefield 3 uses a revamped version of the Frostbite engine implemented in the Bad Company series of games, and it is impressive. Each of the game’s maps show off a detailed environment, complete with diverse terrain, high-resolution textures, plenty of vegetation, flowing water, buildings, and animated backgrounds. I also like how trees sway in response to a nearby explosion: an excellent, immersive touch. Buildings could have some more detail in the interior (the majority are mostly empty concrete boxes), but overall the maps seem authentic enough. The much promoted destruction engine works well: almost all walls can be taken out with tank rounds, rocket-propelled grenades, or C4, and a whole building can collapse when enough structural damage has been wrought. Machine guns can also chip away at concrete barricades, giving you a nifty hiding place to snipe at enemy units. Soldier models are equipped with all of their real-world gear intact, and vehicles are detailed as well. There are also some special effects: being near fire turns the screen a reddish tint, and your view blurs while being suppressed. For all of this eye candy, Battlefield 3 runs well on relatively modest hardware at widescreen resolutions (1920 x 1080) on “high” settings. The sound design continues DICE’s strong pedigree in this area: immersive gunfire, explosions, and radio chatter fill the air as jets scream overhead. It’s not as groundbreaking as Bad Company 2 (maybe because we’re used to it by now), but it still works quite well. Overall, Battlefield 3 has a strong presentation that easily competes with and likely exceeds any game on the market.

ET AL.
As you are probably well aware, Battlefield 3 requires the use of EA’s proprietary download service, Origin. It offers more use than, say, Rockstar Games Social Club, and it’s about on par with the much maligned Games for Windows Live. I will say that I haven’t experienced any issues attributed directly to Origin (unlike those other two services): so far, so good. Also used for Battlefield 3 on the PC is the Battlelog, a browser-based service used to track stats, find friends, and join games. You now join games outside of the program, looking through a list in your Internet browser and the game starts up in the background once a free slot is found. This process doesn’t make joining a game any slower than before, although it’s more difficult to switch servers since you have to exit the game and then start it up again. I really like the plethora of stats that’s available to peruse from any device that can access the Internet, but Battlelog isn’t perfect: I don’t know if I completely believe all of the server pings and hardcore servers aren’t correctly identified. Still, it’s a much better browser than anything that’s been in a Battlefield title previously. There is a comprehensive amount of server customization options: bullet damage, player health, respawn time, 3-D and minimap spotting, regenerating health, and the kill cam can all be adjusted by the admin. However, I have experienced some crashes while joining a server (usually the first time I attempt to connect), the inability to join when the map is changing, the sporadic hacker, and the occasional overload of EA’s servers, but overall the process is tolerable.

Battlefield 3 features three main game modes: conquest, rush, and deathmatch. Conquest is familiar to Battlefield veteran players: flags are scattered around the map, and you can choose which one to conquer next. Rush only offers two objectives at a time that must be blown up by the attackers before their reinforcements expire. Personally, I prefer the more open conquest mode, where you can take multiple avenues to each objective. In Rush, you are forced down two or three linear paths towards a couple of close objectives, which concentrates the action but reduces tactical freedom. It can be tough to balance a Rush map, with the defensive side always gaining the inherent advantage of going prone and waiting for attackers, so most matches end with zero or one MCOM stations detonated. Deathmatch is, well, deathmatch, which doesn’t really fit too well in Battlefield 3’s open map design: spawn points seem to be scattered too far apart, instead of concentrating on one corner of the map to ensure constant action. Squad-based modes are also available for rush and deathmatch, pitting teams of four against each other. And you can’t forget about hardcore mode, which reduces player health by about half and removes some elements of the HUD (like the ammunition display). Although conquest is clearly the most popular game mode online, I’ll commend the developers for adding different options for different players.

Battlefield 3 takes place in Paris and Iran, and the game’s nine maps vary from small infantry-based urban locations to slightly larger, more open terrain. Every map can be used in every game mode. The two largest maps, Caspian Border and Kharg Island, are the closest to approaching Battlefield 2’s expansive nature with a complete selection of vehicles, while Operation M├ętro and Grand Bazaar are hallway-driven infantry battles (the remainder of the maps are in between in terms of scale). Overall, the maps are certainly not as terribly tiny and linear as the ones featured in Bad Company 2, but the scale of Battlefield 2 has all but been eliminated: even the largest maps in this version are roughly about two-thirds the size as before. A couple of the designs have judicious use of funneling chokepoints (I’m looking at you, subway and tunnel) and they are clearly designed for the consoles’ limitations rather than full-scale sixty-four player battles. We’ll see if the expansion maps from Battlefield 2 retain their original layouts. However, the smaller map size certainly does one thing: combat in Battlefield 3 is constant, as all of the players are in closer proximity to each other. This does make for some chaotic conflicts and removes the relaxed (boring?) transit time of Battlefield 2. The more I play, the more I am used to the contracted map layouts and I do enjoy the more frantic gameplay that results. Finding your way around the maps can be difficult as the minimap is appalling: everything is either blue or light blue, making it difficult to ascertain the terrain. There also isn’t a usable larger version of the layout when you are alive, and the spawn map can get cramped and is too subtle in indicating the selected spawn point. You really have to rely upon the 3-D map icons to figure out where to go. 3-D spotting has returned, which works fine: if the target ducks out of view, the red triangle of death disappears, giving potential victims a chance to avoid the expected incoming enemy fire. Icons are also displayed to indicate people who need ammunition, repair, or medical assistance, though the difference between a deployed ammo or healing pack (a circle) and someone who needs ammo or healing (a square) is a bit understated.

You’ll quickly notice that the classes of Battlefield 2 have undergone an overhaul and simplification, with the medic and assault classes and the anti-tank soldier and engineer combined. This is fine with me as it leads to more flexibility: you’re no longer stuck with a useless RPG and submachine gun if the tank you were hunting blows up right after you respawn. You can’t change classes during a single life, though, which is a bit disappointing: I’d like to be able to alter my strategy if I stay alive long enough (you can, however, pick up a dead soldier’s kit). In addition, you can run out of ammunition if you survive long enough, so being near support soldiers and your other teammates is recommended. You’ll also notice that there is not a commander; instead, all of those abilities have been moved to the evil recon class in the form of unlocks. Overall, I like the balance that has been struck with the classes, and each has its role on the battlefield. Each class gets a primary weapon, sidearm, two gadgets, and a specialization like faster sprint speed, more grenades, or reduced suppression. The combat medic gets an assault rifle, medic kit, and a choice of the defibrillator or grenade launcher when you unlock them. The engineer gets a carbine, rocket launcher, and repair tool. The support class gains access to sub and full machine guns, ammunition supplies, and C4 explosive (which is great fun to use when you unlock it, making your own doors into buildings). Finally, the recon class gets a sniper rifle and unlockable items like a motion sensor, artillery marker, and UAV. You are placed into four-person squads, and you can spawn near any squad member (or a plane, which should, in theory, reduce the people waiting on the runway for the next jet) to get to the frontlines faster. The Battlelog lets you voice chat with friends (but not members of your squad), and the game includes a half-assed command rose clearly added in at the last minute; where are my “need ammo” and “need medic” and “bail out” orders? Finally, Battlefield 3 includes an array of vehicles: jeeps, APCs, tanks, anti-air vehicles, helicopters, and jets are all found on the battlefield in their specific roles. The vehicles control well enough and are fun to drive, but the mouse sensitivity for machine gun positions (but, oddly, not main turrets) is really low and cannot be adjusted. The availability of vehicles leaves a bit to be desired: while there are enough tanks, more jeeps would be nice at the home base and intermediate control points, especially when sixty-four players are in a game. Of course, most of the maps are small enough where you can simply run to the next objective, which takes some of the epic feel (and, conversely, tedium) out of the game by removing the requirement to mount up and use motorized transportation between capture points.

To say that there are a lot of unlocks in Battlefield 3 is a vast understatement. While you play, you gain experience for all sorts of things: kills, reviving, repairing, resupplying, spotting, suppression, and kill assists. You get the same number of points for a kill than reviving an ally, which is nice, and more points are earned for helping out squad members. Weapon-specific attachments (a sight and two additional items) must be earned only with kills, however. What types of things can you unlock? Additional weapons, the aforementioned defibrillator paddles, plus scopes of varying magnifications (3X to 12X), holographic sights, and the soon-to-be-infamous infrared scope. The IR attachment highlights enemy soldiers in bright yellow, allowing you to see through foliage; it’s a terrible cheat given to players who have one hundred kills with a specific weapon. Less offensive attachments include foregrips, bipods, tactical lights (useful indoors to blind enemies but not so nice for friendly soldiers), laser sights, suppressors, and extended magazines. Vehicle upgrades are also present: smoke, additional machine guns, visual zoom, radar scan, laser guided missiles, and jammers. Having unlocks are OK: I have no problem with extra guns or unlocks that offer tradeoffs (like increased accuracy for decreased damage, for example). But I do have a problem with having to unlock basic class items (like the defibrillator paddles for the combat medic) and the scopes that are required for the medium-to-long distance engagements common on the larger maps. Granted, you only need ten kills to unlock the first rifle scope, but that’s still ten kills you have to get using the iron sights while everyone else is using a scope. Brink had it right: give newcomers all the basic tools for each class from the start.

Battlefield 3 features less soldier health than previous titles in the series: typically, three decent shots are enough for a kill this time around (less on a “hardcore” server). To counter this, soldiers are given essentially infinite sprint and prone. While obviously not realistic, sprint does make it easier to traverse the larger maps, and it’s more difficult for camping snipers (and other classes) to hit you, so it’s not all bad news. Prone is a welcome feature after playing far too many shooters (past Battlefields included) without it; used in combination with the abundant foliage present on most of the levels, you can sneak undetected into a base, assuming the enemy is not equipped with an infrared scope. In general, cautious, planned movement between cover is usually a recipe for success. Mantling over low walls is also present, but it’s not really any different than jumping (you just get to see your legs). Going prone and then immediately being able to shoot has been removed with the addition of a pause through additional frames of animation, which is nice. Grenade spam has also been reduced as soldiers can only carry one (until upgrades are unlocked) initially.

It can be annoying to be revived by a medic and immediately killed. Because of this, Battlefield 3 (like Brink) allows you to refuse or slightly delay a revive, so you are not immediately in harm's way. The support class gets an enhanced role in Battlefield 3 thanks to suppression. If you constantly fire towards an enemy position, their view blurs. Red Orchestra 2’s black-and-white effect is much better, and it’s usually easier to just kill them, but suppression does play a significant enough role when your teammates are smart enough to flank the enemy who is under fire. Machine guns can also be deployed on the ground, low walls, and windows, which improves accuracy (but obviously decreases mobility). Other minor features include a white scope glint so you can pick out snipers (really appreciated), significant RPG drop where it’s harder to hit tanks at a distance, and regenerating health. Ah, yes, regenerating health is in for both soldiers and vehicles: stay still for long enough and your health will slowly creep back up. However, you can disable a tank and prevent it from moving while it can still fire and kill you dead. Still, this makes the medics and engineers less important, and the overall experience seems less plausible (because jumping out of a moving tank uninjured is totally realistic). If you knife someone from behind, you get a canned animation and their dog tags, which I suppose shows the world how l33t you are. Lastly, default servers include a killcam that shows where your assailant is for future reference: handy to find campers.

IN CLOSING
Battlefield 3 is a great addition to the proud series, a combination of past themes and current innovations in the first person shooter genre. My primary complaints are two-fold: unlocks and the reduced size of the maps. The unlocks inherently make the game unfair to newcomers, as people who bought the game day-one will have access to more powerful scopes (including the hated infrared attachment) and extra tools to dominate the battlefield with. Much-needed items come quickly, but you still have to suffer through a number of rounds where you can’t do much to help your team. The maps are smaller than Battlefield 2 (but much larger than Bad Company 2), a couple of the designs rely too heavily on clogged chokepoints, and the minimap is awful, but the more concentrated design does put you in the action faster. The gameplay is quite entertaining: the guns are deadly and battles are quick, while the reduced player health makes going prone near cover and advancing with your squad members very important. The ability to deploy machine guns for added accuracy, suppress enemy units, locate snipers based on their scope glint, and delay or refuse medic revives add to the more polished and rewarding gameplay experience. The ability to sprint for long distances makes traversing the maps on foot plausible, especially when the availability of basic transit vehicles might not meet demand. The tanks, helicopters, jets, jeeps, and anti-air vehicles that are included are all fun to play and a worry to opposing infantry, but they can be countered by RPGs or C4. Four-person squads can spawn on any member or in a newly built aircraft, but coordination is reduced with the inability to communicate with squad members through voice coupled with the crippled command rose. Origin and Battlelog are experiencing some growing pains, but finding servers and perusing stats through a web browser works well overall. The three game modes have something for everyone, and the graphics are outstanding. Simply put, any fan of online first person shooters should ensure Battlefield 3 is installed on their hard drive.