For a few years now, the people at Electronic Arts have been trying to make a better ice cream sundae.
It's hard to improve the ice cream sundae, of course, because it's already a sure crowd-pleaser. Some might even question why, though obviously ice cream sells really well and that's probably one of the main reasons why.
It's tough, though. How do you make a sundae that's better than the ones stacked by the competition, the competition who sell about five million new ones in a day any time they put out a new flavor.
The ice cream sundae for video games is Activision's Call of Duty. And rival EA's trying once again to top it, though this time, they're trying both impressively and weirdly.
They're trying with Battlfield 3, a game I've seen twice in the last couple of weeks and can finally describe to you now.
The first time I saw Battlefield 3 was in New York, behind a curtain and with a signature committed to paper that guaranteed my silence on the matter until now.
Patrick Bach, a senior game developer at EA's DICE studio in Sweden, would play through three brief sections of the game on PC. Before he did, he talked about the game's impressive new graphics technology. And he set expectations."This is not Bad Company 3, this is Battlefield 3." By that, he meant, that the new 2011 game would draw upon what he described as the Battlefield series' "heritage of epic, awesome multiplayer," a PC tradition beloved by players of the first Battlefield 1942 released in 2002.
The Battlefield 3 demo would not contain any epic, awesome multiplayer. It would demonstrate other goals of the series' development team at DICE. It would maybe convey the feel of battle, the potential pain of a shot fired, the impacts of soldiers at war. It would demonstrate DICE's zeal to present "next gen tech" on a "current gen platform," though technically we'd only be seeing the game on PC, its lead platform, not yet on Xbox 360 nor PlayStation 3.
This concept of the new Battlefield not being a Bad Company game was the idea with which we started. That idea seemed to divorce this new Battlefield from the possibilities that its military heroes would crack wise or that its single-player campaign would be emphasized, since those were some of the very characteristics that had set both popular Bad Company games apart from the multiplayer-centric Battlefield PC games that spawned them.
The Battlefield I had known — the one that was so irresistible that even I, an infrequent player of PC first-person-shooters, found myself on multiple occasions in the apartment of a man who collected vintage war helmets commanding mouse and keyboard in a room full of computers running Battlefield Vietnam — was a great sandbox. It was a shooter with a dozen options of where to run, of which vehicle to commandeer, of how to team up and play.
The new Battlefield's resemblances to those old Battlefield games is hidden for now. It's not the facet that's being shown first.
In New York and then again on a rainy night here in San Francisco, EA has been showing something about which any man or woman who might wander in past security might need to be told, "No, this is not Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3."
Battlefield 3 is being shown, first, in single-player, in visually-stunning, heavily-scripted, action-movie-style this-sure-seems-like-Call-of-Duty-all-over-again single-player. Multiplayer will be there, Bach said, it's just not being shown — or discussed. Instead, the vivid demo of Battlefield 3 begins with soldiers sitting in the back of an armored vehicle. A Johnny Cash song plays. They're cracking wise.
The demo section of the game is set in Iraq of 2014 near the Iranian border. Iranian fighters called the PLR are crossing into Iraq, fighting with U.S. Marines. When our guys get out of the truck they're in a city, approaching a commander who is standing over a table and ready to give orders. He sends our squad down an alley, toward a parking lot where the enemy hides, then suddenly opens fire. For a moment, as shots ring out, the action goes into slow-motion then speeds back up once a PLR fighter who had gotten too close is killed.
The parking lot gunfight is hectic, as these types of set-pice battles can be. Guns fire from behind cars. An enemy with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher fires from an elevated position in the distance. At one point, a blast knocks our character to his back, his legs and feet flying briefly into view. The enemy with the RPG is exposed as heavy rounds chip at his cover and then the foe is killed. Concrete does chip in this game, a carry-over of the structural destruction seen in the Bad Company games and still absent from the Call of Duty adventures.
Jumping ahead, we were shown a scene set on the kind of detailed roof that a parkour runner could have fun with. Across the way were enemy fighters in a hotel sniping concrete from the cover points on our guys' roof. A scripted ally soldier, confident that our hero is the best shot, hands over a rocket launcher and let us fire. One rocket at the hotel. Huge explosion. Smoke billowing from the windows. This is more expansive scale than the norm, though still heavily scripted ... for demo purposes? Because this is how constricted the action of new Battlefield will be? Hard to say.
In the demo's third phase, our hero was asked to follow a wire into a basement where it led to a bomb. An enemy appeared before the bomb's wire could be clipped and some close-quarters combat ensued, all apparently controlled by a few clicks of the mouse — timed button presses to orchestrate the scene rather than full on fistic controls. Enemy knocked out, wire cut, our guy headed outside to a highway and then to a bridge where heavy caliber weapons could be fired from a mount and/or down iron-sights, as streams of enemies approached. A nearby friendly chopper mowed some enemies too.
Earlier in the demo, characters had mentioned tremors. As the demo neared its end, as our hero got in the back of a truck and got a hold of its mounted weapon, the ground shook. Earthquake across the border in Iran. Buildings began to crumble. One toppled toward the helicopter. Cut to black, then to scenes from other sections of Battlefield 3: men jumping out of the back of a plane, first-person in-cockpit jetfighter dogfighting, and, in a scene shown only in New York, the camera pulling up from over a huge tank battle set in the desert.
There isn't a moment in the Battlefield 3 demo that EA has twice shown to reporters that doesn't seem familiar to players of Call of Duty, not one gameplay moment that seems new. The scale is a shade grander and the action is more brightly lit, though it is apparently channeled through a funnel that guides players from one choreographed action moment to the next.
The first time I saw the demo I asked Bach, the developer who showed me the game, where the Battlefield signatures were. I told him I'd seen what looked more like the competition's game or like the rebooted Medal of Honor from last year than it resembled what I think of when I imagine the sandbox, choice-filled gameplay of Battlefield. Later for that, DICE's Bach said. "We want to show we can do what everyone else was doing."
He described Battlefield 3's single-player campaign as the potential ride of a lifetime and as a training session for the game's multiplayer. It is, to my eyes, an obvious counter-strike to Call of Duty and in that sense feels like another in an unrelenting succession of CoD competitors from EA. A year ago we had Medal of Honor from EA, but just months before that the Call of Duty-competitive multiplayer of Battlefield Bad Company 2. After Medal of Honor we were to get, from EA and Crytek, the less scripted, more sandboxy Crysis 2. It comes out next month, but today you now know that Battlefield is the effort that follows that.
Gamers like shooters. Millions buy them. And in Bulletstorm and Portal 2, a pair of radically different first-person games also brought to gamers this year with some help from EA, there's no sign that the format is bereft of games that winningly look and play nothing like Call of Duty.
The contenders keep coming, this time with a Battlfield that doesn't give the first impression that it's what Battlefied was. Perhaps that does come later, hard as it is to imagine DICE surrendering the great differentiator of its sandbox multiplayer. Surely, they can fit that on the sundae. Just to keep some of that original flavor.