So this is a big one.  EA’s fastest-selling game ever.  A lot of hype in the lead-up to the launch, too.  You know how that goes.

The launch, of course, was a disaster.  Activation problems, connection problems, lag problems, major stability issues, patchy performance…  Battlefield veterans expected this; we were prepared to deal with it.  Many were not.  Even those of us familiar with DICE/EA launches perhaps got a little frustrated, though.  Or a lot frustrated, as the case may be.

The fact of the matter is that even when I was disconnected from every other match, when I couldn’t connect to most servers due to the worst Punkbuster implementation in memory, when my PC was crashing with an overheating GPU…  I didn’t stop trying.  When it works, Battlefield 3 really is something special, and now, a couple of weeks after launch, it works a lot more than it doesn’t.  Finally, I have the game I wanted all along.

Battlefield is traditionally a strictly multiplayer affair.  Previous titles have made a token effort to include some kind of single player experience, but other than the console-centric Bad Company games, it’s all been a bit slap-dash.  Battlefield 3 attempts to combine the epic multiplayer of Battlefield 1942 and Battlefield 2 with a solid single player campaign ala Bad Company 2 and a Modern Warfare style gritty but cinematic story.  Also, co-op mode.

The single player campaign isn’t bad.  Its major issues are a narrative that fails to make any meaningful amount of sense, and silly quick time events that detract from the action, rather than supplementing it.  After a prologue mission and cut scene that left me feeling a bit luke warm, I was dumped into the streets of Tehran with my squad, to do some army dude stuff.  Just walking along the street towards my first waypoint, I was actually left speechless (if you’ve met me, you’ll know what a big deal that is) by the graphics.  It was one of those moments when I couldn’t think of a single thing that would make it look more realistic (I thought the same thing about Gran Turismo 3 though, so hindsight will no doubt prove me wrong).  I believe that upon recovering my voice, I said a swear at my computer.

Getting stuck into the campaign, the characters lack the appeal of the Bad Company squad or the badassery of Modern Warfare standbys like Soap McTavish.  This can be explained away by the developers’ focus on realism, but in the end, the solid gameplay and spectacular graphics and sound aren’t enough to make up for the awkward storytelling and forgettable characters.  I think it says something about the story that one of the most memorable characters is Lieutenant Hawkins; notable mostly for being a major female character in a modern military shooter.  She’s introduced in a ham-fisted cut scene, followed by one of the least engaging missions in the campaign, and never says a word.  And yet she’s at least as compelling as protagonist Staff Sergeant Blackburn (if not so compelling as tank operator Sergeant Jono Miller).

The action itself works really well.  The difficulty can spike in places, but not unmanageably so.  Most problems could be overcome by shooting and/or exploding more dudes.

Being the co-op fan that I am, I was fair stoked to hear that BF3 would feature a series of dedicated co-op missions.  These are… they’re really hard.  Medium difficulty in co-op is significantly more difficult than medium in single player, even with a competent wingman.  Several of the missions are crying out for a 4 player squad, which in this writer’s opinion would just be rad as hell.

But is it fun?  Oh hells, yes.  The missions could be longer, with more of a campaign vibe, but they’re definitely fun.  You’ll encounter the odd issue, of course, like being glued to the seat of your chopper in the second co-op mission.

Permit me to elaborate.  You and your co-op partner spawn in an attack helicopter.  One of you will be pilot; the other, gunner.  Good so far.  But you don’t get to choose who sits where.  If you spawn as pilot, you’re stuck there until you crash and burn, after which you might respawn in the gunner’s chair.  Maybe.  On the plus side, I can now fly a chopper competently enough to avoild making a scene in multiplayer.  Bit of a crash course, there.  So to speak.

But this is Battlefield, and Battlefield is about multiplayer.  Preferably with a crapload of other people on a huge map, all driving tanks and jeeps and APCs and various aircraft, shooting each other and causing explosions to… explode…

This is where the game really shines.  Yeah, it was dodgy for a week or two after launch, but the game was patched and patched again, and now features a working (if ill-conceived) server browser that will actually launch the game properly most times.  Queuing for servers is a feature that wasn’t included at launch, but appeared later on.  And then it disappeared again.  Now it seems that some people can queue and others can’t.  No doubt all will be made clear (not to mention functional) at some point.

Speaking of making things clear, the dual layer login with Origin and Battlelog is dumb.  Dumb, dumb, dumb.  We’ve come to terms with logging into online services to play games, so we were prepared to deal with Origin, Steam’s idiot half brother though it may be.  But this is a bit silly.  Log into Origin.  Click on Battlefield 3.  Your browser launches (or if it’s already open, a new tab pops up) and opens up the Battlelog site.  Log into Battlelog.  From here you can choose which game mode to play; be it single player, co-op or multiplayer.  Choose to launch a game, and Battlefield 3 will finally launch.

Battlelog itself is pretty good.  You can pull down all kinds of interesting stats regarding your efficiency at killing dudes and destroying things.  The leaderboards add a competitive element to the dudesploding.  Of course, Battlelog has its own friends list and chat functionality, distinct from Origin.  While you’re in Battlelog you get updates informing you what your friends are up to and what milestones they’ve achieved in game.  When you’re playing Battlefield 3, however, you have to alt-tab out of the game to access Battlelog chat, meaning you don’t see notifications for messages or even game invites from your friends.  You can access Origin’s separate setup in much the same way you can in Steam games.  This means that my initial idea of having keeping friends I only play BF3 with in a separate Battlelog-only list wasn’t workable.  It’s a clumsy, poorly thought out, poorly implemented system.  There’s nothing badly wrong with either Battlelog or Origin, but forcing both of them on us at the same time is dickery.

For some reason, there is no in-game VOIP.  You can start a party in Battlelog and enable voice chat with the other members of your party, which is great if you’re playing with people you know.  If you’re not, which is most of the time for me, you can’t communicate with effectively with your team mates except via text chat or the weirdly clunky rotary menu with its 8 options that mostly seem to involve yelling things.

Now, I believe I was going to tell you about the multipayer.  Because hells, this is the payoff for the crap you’ve sat through to get into the game to start with.

The game modes will be familiar to Battlefield veterans.  Conquest and Rush carry over basically unchanged from Bad Company 2.  There’s Team Deathmatch too, which doesn’t feel very Battlefieldy, but is great for levelling up and getting a few extra knife kills.  Rush and TDM can both be played as individual squads, though it really pays to play that with a team who know what they’re doing; the competition can be brutal.  The forthcoming Back to Karkand expansion will include Conquest Assault, in which one team starts off in control of all of a map’s capture points.  This hearkens right back to Battlefield 1942, which makes me smile a little on the inside.

Starting off in multiplayer, loadout options are very limited.  After a few matches, you should have the basics unlocked; defibrillator, repair torch, a decent light machinegun, etc.  From there it’s one long-ass climb to the top.  There are a lot of weapons, gadgets and specialisation (as well as frippery like decorative dog tags and different camo schemes) to unlock.  This isn’t like Bad Company 2, in which everything was unlocked by level 22, making the remaining 28 levels something of a waste of space.

Another change from BC2 is the class setup.  Medic and Assault have been cut apart and glued back together into the new Assault and Support classes.  Assault gets assault rifles, underslung grenade launchers, medpacks and defibs; whereas Support gets the light machineguns and ammo packs.  Engineer and Recon return basically unchanged.

Battlefield 3 features a new gameplay mechanic that aims to mimic the effects of suppressive fire.  When you’re being shot at with a large number of bullets (or a small number of very large bullets), your vision will blur, making it difficult to fight effectively.  Reading about this, I was not at all keen on it, but in game it works really well.  It also makes the Support class’s LMGs super effective for keeping enemy heads down.

The new graphics engine, Frostbite 2, is something of a revelation.  While most buildings in Bad Company 2 could be knocked down, Battlefield 3 has a far more dynamic destruction model, which allows for a wide variety of tactical options that involve exploding holes in walls, driving tanks through things or dropping buildings on dudes’ heads.  Whether or not you’re destroying buildings though, the game looks spectacular.  The lighting effects in particular are astoundingly good; the realistic glare, whether from the sun or a tactical light on a gun pointed at you, is realistically annoying.  Laser sights also flare in your vision, though the effect is exaggerated to the point of parody.  There are little touches too, like sunlight reflecting off the scope of a distant sniper, which are nice (if you’re not the sniper whose position has just been given away).

The developers spent time in the field with the Swedish Army, recording and fine tuning sound assets for the game.  The end result is suitably impressive, and adds immeasurably to the atmosphere.  The effect of suppressive fire when combined with the whip-crack of near misses and crumbling masonry around you is almost terrifying realistic (or realistic enough for this writer, who has been fortunate enough never to have been shot at with real firearms).

Teamwork is the key aspect of Battlefield 3 multiplayer, and while some maps have balance issues (*cough* Metro Conquest *cough*), it’s generally teamwork that wins the day.  Fighting for individual glory often does little to advance your team’s fortunes, and can even be detrimental.  A good squad working together well is a devastatingly effective unit on the battlefield, and it’s immensely satisfying to work co-operatively to capture objectives from numerically superior forces.

Overall, Battlefield 3 really is the definitive team-based multiplayer shooter.  Is it game of the year material?  I’m going to say yes, despite the crippling problems at launch.  The competition this year is fierce, but if there are further improvements to the stability of the game, Battlefield 3 could be a contender.

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