The fall blockbuster season and attendant Game of the Year arguments are in full swing. So, too, is obsessive review-score scrutinizing. If a reviewer awards a highly anticipated game the lowly score of 7 or 8 out of 10, the article’s comments will be filled with angry screeds from aggrieved “fans” furious that a game they’re excited about is being “hated on” by critics.
Here’s a little secret: Some of my favorite, most-played games wouldn’t garner more than a 7 or 8 if I gave out scores.
Electronic Arts and DICE’s “Battlefield 3” is a great example of a title that gets a ton of stuff wrong while still feeling polished, compelling and addictive.
Of the game’s three components (single-player, two-player cooperative and multiplayer), two swing and miss, while the third suffers from a steep learning curve. Yet for veteran players and patient newbies, “Battlefield 3’s” multiplayer modes feature some of the deepest, most compelling online play you’ll find.
Taken as a whole, the inconsistent performance makes “Battlefield 3” a poor candidate for a rave review, even if hundreds of thousands of players will spend the next two months playing it to the exclusion of all other titles. In other words, “Battlefield 3” sets up a classic review-score controversy.
As a single-player game, “Battlefield 3” feels derivative and stitched together. Like last year’s “Call of Duty: Black Ops,” the story uses an interrogation as a framing device. Each level serves as a flashback as Staff Sgt. Henry Blackburn’s interrogators try to assess whether New York City is facing a legitimate nuclear terrorist threat.
The levels are linear and tightly scripted, creating the same cinematic feel as “Black Ops” and Sony’s “Uncharted” series. It feels like you’re watching a movie with a controller in your hand, and there are more than a few Dick Cheney quail-hunt moments that put Blackburn in position to take a perfectly framed shot that looks heroic, but could in fact be made by anyone.
The interrogation scenes tying the plot together feel like they were written after the levels were designed. In one level, players take on the role of a F/A-18 gunner during a failed run to take out a high-level target in Iran, but her connection to the terrorist plot and Blackburn are tenuous at best. She’s never mentioned after that one mission.
The single-player game, which has figured heavily in trailers and TV commercials for the game, looks stunning, particularly running on PC. But it’s so scripted that holes start to appear if you deviate too much from the way DICE expects you to play the game. If you rush ahead of your squadmates in “Operation Swordbreaker,” they still talk to you as if you’re behind them. In some of the missions where you have to protect your fellow Marines from enemy fire, they’re actually indestructible, making it jarring when they die in other, similar missions.
“Battlefield 3’s” signature online modes, “Rush” and “Conquest,” are as essential as the campaign is forgettable, though it’s worth mentioning that the game’s online multiplayer has been plagued by glitches in the first week since launch. DICE says they’re working on the issue, and there have been improvements, but it’s still annoying when a game launches in a not-ready-for-primetime state.
Rush, in which an attacking team tries to detonate pairs of objectives while the defending team tries to stop them, and Conquest, which melds territory-control and team deathmatch, are perfect fusions of classic competitive modes that date to the mid-’90s and the objective-based missions in games like “Team Fortress 2” and “Brink.” They force players to work as a team while allowing enough flexibility that lone wolves can feel comfortable playing without a headset.
Part of what makes Rush and Conquest so compelling is “Battlefield 3’s” excellent multiplayer maps. Damavand Peak features a dam you can BASE jump off of, while the spacious Operation Firestorm virtually requires all players to hop into vehicles. The latter is particularly well-suited to Conquest, as the control points are best captured by ground units vulnerable to aerial bombardment and strafing. At the start of the match, you can hide out in a building while defending the flags that serve as spawn points. After a few minutes, though, most of your cover will have been blasted to smithereens, thanks to the impressive Frostbite 2 engine.
Though Rush and Conquest are where most diehard “Battlefield” players will spend their time, the game also includes a classic team deathmatch mode, as well as squad deathmatch, in which four teams vie to reach a specific number of kills.
Though modern military-themed shooters aren’t really my thing, it’s easy to appreciate what “Battlefield 3” does well. The deep ranking system and robust suite of weapon upgrades and customizable loadouts will mean DICE’s latest offering is one fans of multiplayer shooters will sink literally hundreds of hours into.
It’s too bad DICE didn’t do a better job at teaching people like me how to play “Battlefield 3’s” multiplayer. There’s no tutorial, or even a way for players to mess around with vehicles or explore maps on their own. The only way to acclimate oneself to “BF3″ multiplayer is to die, over and over, at the hands of more skilled players.
The first several times you hop into a helicopter or plane, you’re all but guaranteed to commit accidental suicide; the best outcome you can hope for is that your jet crashes into something of strategic value for the opposing team. The first-person camera for driving and piloting feels oddly limited, as if your soldier has tunnel vision and is wearing an eyepatch. (Helpful tip: You can click the right thumbstick for a more traditional, third-person-style vehicle camera.)
Some “Combat Training”-style matches against computer-controlled bots, or even a free-play mode would have gone a long way to making the game more welcoming.
Additionally, the core experience on consoles could stand to benefit from better integration with DICE’s stat-tracking/social networking service, Battlelog. While PC gamers have griped that it’s irritating to have to launch “Battlefield 3″ from a web browser (and it is), it’s more vexing that to see anything beyond basic stats, console “Battlefield 3″ players have to fire up a computer.
“Battlefield 3” (rated M) costs $60 on PC, Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3. For this review, I played PC and Xbox 360 versions of the game provided by Electronic Arts.