Battlefield 3 campaign Hands-On

With its open beta running across all three platforms--PC, PS3, and Xbox 360--Battlefield 3 got everyone talking about the upcoming game's multiplayer modes. Not all of that buzz was positive, either, but the series' track record as the standard for large scale online multiplayer combat affords the game some leeway. Battlefield 3 executive producer Patrick Bach acknowledged this, and told a group of assembled media, "the core of any Battlefield is multiplayer." He then turned us loose on the first three chapters of Battlefield 3's take on a modern single-player campaign. Let's not dance around the subject because, having played it, I can tell you Battlefield 3 certainly doesn't. The success of Call of Duty has had a tremendous impact on the military shooter genre, and established though it may be, even Battlefield 3 has felt its impact. The new single-player campaign aims to be an awe-inspiring cinematic experience that takes many of its cues from blockbuster war films. Not that that in itself is a bad thing. But the feeling I had from playing the first three levels of the campaign was that it didn't do much to distinguish itself as a Battlefield game. I say three; there was a brief intro mission as well but EA asked that it not be shared to avoid spoiling the game's story. The core of the action picked up with two levels played as a US soldier, part of a squad sent to find out what happened to a recon patrol missing in a dangerous part of an Iraqi city. Battlefield doesn't pull any punches when it comes to international hot spots. The back story I learned of the game painted the picture of a radical terrorist group working in the midst of an Iranian-Iraqi conflict to disrupt the governments and take over in a coup. Oh, and if that's not dramatic enough; they happen to launch their attack right when a massive earthquake hits. I'm betting that's not entirely a coincidence. The action unfolded pretty much as I've grown to expect from similar games. As my squad moved through the dusty Middle Eastern streets, areas that looked good for an ambush always were, and enemies would attack in groups. My squadmates were good for a plenty of thunder and flash but I'd have to take down the majority of the bad guys to clear the area. From there we moved on to the next firefight with a few dramatic up-close moments along the way like breaching a door, or knifing a rat who got in my way as I was crawling through a sewer.

In enemy territory

There's no denying that Battlefield 3 has the presentation chops to pull off this sort of spectacle in top form. I played on PC (an AMD Phenom II 3.9GHz-based system with 8GB of RAM and a Radeon HD 6900 video card) and the game put on an impressive show. It's not simply that the game looks pretty; it also sports very believable detail touches that make it feel more realistic. And as I've noted in the beta, the sound effects solidify that effect with real earth-shaking reverb from the concussion of heavy fire, or an earthquake, and bullet impact sounds that make me cringe at times. For all that brings to the table, it doesn't make it especially Battlefield. But from only these two levels I'm undecided on how much that matters to me. It was fun, and, outside of couple Simon-says quick time cinematic struggles, played with mouse and keyboard like a PC game, not a ported-over console game. I couldn't help but think to myself, though, that it missed the opportunity to use some of its Battlefield heritage to do something other than out-Call of Duty-ing Call of Duty. At the very least I'd hoped that some element of the classes in multiplayer would be part of the experience. Playing a role for my teammates is one of the most rewarding parts of Battlefield and helping players to get a taste of that seems like a natural way to combat the tendency new players online often have of expecting to just hop in a game and run around and shoot people. The final preview level took a step toward bringing in the Battlefield feel, though not in a way dramatically different than its competitors do for a change of pace. Hopping into the back seat of an F/A-18 as the weapons officer, I launched off an aircraft carrier as part of a surgical strike to take out a high value target in the terrorist leadership. We were intercepted by MIGs and a wild dogfight ensued. While the pilot wove a twisting course of high-g turns through the sky it was my job to keep my eyes on the bogies, use our weapons--guns and lock-on missiles--to take them out, and deploy countermeasures when they got on our six and fired on us. I had to keep my head on a swivel to follow the action, with the plane twisting and turning all the while. It was intense and unlike anything I'd done before, though I suspect motion sickness could be an issue for those susceptible.

Jetting off

The second part of the airstrike took a more familiar turn. Switching to attack the surface I used our guided missiles to take out SAM sites so the heavier attack aircraft could make their runs, then I used the laser designator to make sure their bombs struck home. My flight time concluded with a night landing back on the aircraft carrier, one of the hairiest flight operations around, but I was only a passive observer watching from the rear seat as we touched down. My day with Battlefield 3 also included a deeper look at its multiplayer modes. This included co-op, though I had to switch to PS3 as it wasn't in the PC build at the event. These two-player missions are challenges, without respawns. My teammate and I could revive each other when down, but if we both became incapacitated, it was back to the start again. Having played single-player all day on normal difficulty, it was immediately noticeable that the intensity had been dialed up a little to offset the advantage of having a human partner. Back on PC, I also got a healthy dose of Battlefield 3's core online multiplayer, including a full scale 64 player conquest match on Operation Firestorm. Jets, helis, Humvees, tanks, and all the classes doing their thing made it undeniably Battlefield. A number of low warehouse structures provided shelter and tricky firing positions for covering flag points stand around the map. It felt good to be back in that sort of battle, which reinforces the argument that the Metro level in the beta, while nice for showing off the improved gun handling for on foot combat, doesn't play to the game's greatest strength. In that same way, though, the demo reflects the impression I came away with from spending the day with Battlefield 3. Its core game remains as strong as ever and with the power of the new game engine, absolutely enthralling. The rest of the pieces that round out the full Battlefield 3 package, as well as they may be done, don't seem to connect with the Battlefield identity quite so well. But maybe that also reflects my time spent with so many Battlefield games. Battlefield 3 presumes modern expectations demand that the series grow beyond its multiplayer foundation. We'll know how well it stands up to that test soon enough when we get our hands on the full game for review. [Developed by DICE and published by Electronic Arts, Battlefield 3 is coming to PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 on October 25.]