At EA's all-day Battlefield 3 event yesterday, I had a chance to play through a handful of single-player missions on PC in addition to the multiplayer modes that I detailed earlier today. It's been said (and repeated) that "no one plays Battlefield for the campaign," and that may well be true, but the extreme graphical fidelity and the often eerie verisimilitude of the gameplay footage we've seen thus far had my curiosity piqued. Could it be that Battlefield 3's campaign will do something to truly set itself apart from the increasingly Michael Bay-ish histrionics of its competitor Modern Warfare?
Well, not really. Battlefield 3 gets partway there, but still its campaign feels trapped between refreshingly bracing realism and a case of Modern Warfare "me-too"ism. Moreover it simply suffers from an overarching lack of personality.
In a trick becoming increasingly common in video game stories, Battlefield 3's tale is a frame narrative—due to events that are not clear from the outset, a US soldier named Black is being interrogated by Homeland Security regarding some sort of terrorist attack. He recounts the events leading up to the present day, and each mission functions as a flashback. I saw three missions, the first two of which, "Operation Swordbreaker" and "Uprising" starred him, and the final of which, "Going Hunting," switched perspectives to a female aircraft weapons-operator.
Does that setup sound familiar? It did to me, since it's basically a much drier version of the decade-hopping, globe-trotting story of Call of Duty: Black Ops. But instead of mysterious numbers, electric shocks, conspiracy theories and distorted interrogators, we've got a couple of guys in an interrogation room having a stern talk. It's a matter of personal preference, but I was surprised to find that I actually prefer the goofy Black Ops to the much more low-key Battlefield 3.
Black's first flashback, "Operation Swordbreaker," is the gameplay that has been shown over and over and over—honestly, for a full recap just go watch it.. You make your way from transport through a city in Iran, until shooting breaks out in a parking lot. The gunfire there feels fun and it works fine, though it's all fairly rote, with waves of enemies flooding into the parking lot as my teammates and I gunned them down.
A sniper soon opened fire, and I made my way to the roof to take him out—this level is a tutorial, so it's hard to judge it too harshly, but everything was entirely linear. As I played, I kept getting annoyed by something that often happens to me in games where I have an AI-controlled squad—my team is immaculately organized and scripted, but I never know quite where to go. I regularly found myself ahead of where I was "supposed" to be, and kinda felt like the guy who had showed up to filming without studying his blocking or his lines.
I mention that because without a perfectly cinematic, well-controlled camera operator, Operation Swordbreaker feels much less dramatic than it did in that famous gameplay trailer. The graphics are great, but with me in control, it generally felt much more like a standard military shooter and less like the "Oh my god this looks real!" experience that the trailer portrayed.
After slithering across a rooftop to blow up a sniper's nest and spending some time covering some fellow soldiers down on the street, Black's team and I made our way back out to the street to disarm an IED in a van. My teammates were yelling tensely, "This looks bad, I don't like this!" But all I could see were random groups of civilians standing around, with no enemies in sight. Yep, there are totally civilians here—but don't think that DICE has placed unarmed innocents in the game in a meaningful way. They're untouchable background objects, and bullets pass right through them.
I went underground to unplug the wires that led up to the explosive van, and was attacked by a single terrorist while underground, which sent me into a quicktime-event fight that was a drag. I'm not entirely against contextual quicktime events, but damn are they clunky on the PC—something about seeing the "E" key flashing on the screen, and then a picture of the left mouse button...it makes QTE's even more onerous than they are on consoles.
The level continued with a large-scale shootout on the street, leading to a brief time aboard an armed pickup truck which gets interrupted by a massive earthquake. Events like the earthquake are cued cinematics that take control away from the player—being blown back from a rocket-blast, being knocked from the back of a car, etc. They're nicely done in the moment, but the transitions aren't as smooth as they could be—it may seem nitpicky, but it's noticeable. I would often get to a triggered event at the wrong time and wait a second or so for something to happen. Compared to the snappy intercutting of Uncharted 2, Crysis 2 and Dead Space 2, Battlefield 3's quick-cut cinematics felt clunky and slow.
After the earthquake, we snaped back to the present, where Black continued to tell the story of what happened back in Iran. His superiors continued to be skeptical. I continued to kinda tune out.
At this point, my game crashed a few times—it would go through the opening cinematic and then freeze up, requiring a restart. I've already talked about the technical difficulties at this event, so this just echoes those same concerns. I was playing a unique build of the game made solely for the event, but given how often I had problems with it, I'm skeptical that some of those issues won't make their way into the finished product.
Black's story resumed in the wake of the earthquake. As he lay, dazed, he blearily watched a menacing Russian dude do menacing things to another soldier. Again, I'm trying to avoid drawing so many Modern Warfare comparisons, but it just really felt similar. What followed was a bit of solo gameplay, sneaking through the dark, stabbing perfectly positioned enemy soldiers, getting into some corridor gunfights. After making my way through several buildings, I ran into Montes, one of Black's squadmates and clearly the character with the most personality.
Together, we fought our way through a few more buildings until holding an LZ for evacuation. It looked great and played well, but there was a distinct sense of "Been There, Done That" to the whole thing.
The final mission I played, "Going Hunting," seemed more promising, largely because it was an aerial mission. I changed perspectives from Black to a female jet-fighter weapons-operator, though it was not yet clear what her part in the story was to be. My mission (I think?) was to fly over a city and blow up… some guys… or maybe one guy? I wasn't entirely clear on the specifics. But we were going to fly around in a jet, so I was looking forward to giving it a go.
The build-up to the actual flying was cool and well-paced—climbing from the bowels of an aircraft carrier up to the deck as my Pilot chatters about our objective, coming out onto the deck and climbing into the cockpit. Going through weapons tests (a clever, immersive way of tutorializing the airplane controls).
Once we got underway, everything looked great—the sun gleaming in over the top of my wingman's plane, the clouds and the sky—it was damn-near photorealistic. But soon we engaged with some other planes, and things quickly became dull. As the gunner I had access to missiles and the machine gun, as well as the ability to launch flares. What that meant was the entire mission boiled down to waving the mouse around, tracking enemy MIGs and clicking sometimes.
We then shifted over to bombing, which felt similarly finicky and clicky. I used missiles to blow up some SAMs, then switched to white-hued thermal vision to blow up some airplanes and then some troops. It was almost entirely reminiscent of the original Modern Warfare's AC-130 mission, and using the mouse and keyboard, it felt clicky and lacked impact.
Which brings me to a thing that will probably only be a bummer for a few of you—the PC version of Battlefield 3 won't support gamepads, at least not at launch. When I play Battlefield multiplayer, I prefer the precision of a mouse and keyboard. But when I play single-player, I like to relax with a controller, and I was looking forward to running the PC version of the game on my TV. On a small computer monitor, the amazing graphics aren't nearly as impressive, but without a controller, I'll have to play the game at my desk. Color me disappointed. One of the DICE reps made sure to tell me that they were considering adding it at a later date, since it's been a highly requested feature. But with no dedicated "lean" buttons or complicated controls, I can't imagine why gamepad-support wouldn't be included at launch. (Update: It sounds as though the PC beta supports gamepads, which makes me think that maybe I got bad information at the event. They sounded 100% certain, though, which is weird. I'm following up.)
When I spoke with Battlefield 3 Executive Producer Patrick Bach, I asked him about the way that DICE has been designing the game's single-player content. "To be honest," he told me, "a big part of what single-player in Battlefield is is a tutorial for multiplayer."
"It's not a training mission," he was sure to clarify, "it's not a shooting range—it's an emotional roller-coaster at the same time as it shows you all the bits and pieces of the game. It's a great introduction for the multiplayer. Because when you go into multiplayer for the first time, it's very dry, it's very 'Here I am, with my gun, what do I do?' While single-player brings you more on a journey."
I get the sense that as Bach says, Battlefield 3's campaign is mostly a tutorial for the multiplayer. And for many players, that's totally fine—fewer people are going to buy Battlefield 3 for its campaign than for its multiplayer. But all the same, Battlefield 3's campaign seems mired in a bit of a personality-free zone. It's a surprise, since I enjoyed the congenial vibe of DICE's last game, Battlefield: Bad Company 2 (though it's nice to hear that we just might be getting more Bad Company before too long, as well.)
Ever since those great Battlefield 3 gameplay videos first surfaced, I've been looking forward to seeing Battlefield 3's campaign in action. But now that I've played it, I might just skip straight to multiplayer.