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As Battlefield 3 squares up for launch, we go hands-on one final time with the campaign and multiplayer...
Battlefield 3 will live or die on the strength of its multiplayer. While there are numerous examples of exquisitely crafted solitary first-person shooters, there is a certain class of FPS for which the single-player experience is at best an incidental distraction; a shallow prologue designed to funnel players through into the online game. This is the class that DICE and EA have their sights set on with Battlefield 3. Yes, there’s a full single-player campaign, stuffed with set-pieces and brimming with unnecessary QTEs, but if Battlefield is to usurp CoD as the dominant FPS of this generation, its multiplayer component will have to be the star of the show. It will have to offer something you can’t quite get anywhere else; something at once unique and utterly familiar – it will have to do everything CoD does and more, AND better if it’s to win the hearts and minds of the Activision faithful.
Stepping into the winding streets of the Middle Eastern Grand Bazaar map, you get a sense of the scale and detail DICE is aiming for with its new Frostbite 2 engine. While the textures and performance of the PS3 iteration we played can’t hope to match the super-shiny splendour of the flagship PC version, they’re still perfectly serviceable, if somewhat lacking compared to the early promotional trailers we’re all now so familiar with. We’re playing Rush mode: here, one team defends a pair of points while the other tries to blow them up. The attacking team starts with a pool of 75 lives but, if they manage to detonate their bombs, their lives are replenished and play moves on to a further pair of objectives deeper in the map. Play ends when the offensive team blows up all the paired objectives on the map, or has its stock of lives fully depleted - whichever comes first.
Each of the four distinct classes in Battlefield 3 has its own particular role to play in Rush mode. The Assault class packs serious stopping power with its range of assault rifles and shotguns, but also moonlights as a medic class with deployable med-packs and a defibrillator that can revive fallen comrades (crucially negating the life-loss penalty an attacking team would otherwise incur for a death). Engineers are also essential to an attacking team: each carries a rocket launcher which can blow holes in Battlefield 3’s destructible environments, destroying the cover of an entrenched enemy, or breaching a wall to clear a faster path to objectives. In contrast, Support and Recon classes are more defensive in nature; players using the Support class can lay C4 booby-traps for over-eager assailants, and replenish ammo for their fellow teammates; Recons lay motion-sensing devices which alert you to nearby enemies - very useful for gaining the upper-hand at chokepoints, or for covering a vulnerable opening.
While we largely enjoyed our time with Rush mode, there were some slight balance issues on the compact Grand Bazaar map. Spawning inconsistencies meant that it was sometimes possible for an attacking team to destroy their initial objectives before the defensive team could even reach them, and the engineer’s skill at tearing down environments (thus opening up lanes of attack) meant that the overall balance felt somewhat weighted in favour of offence.
In stark contrast to Grand Bazaar’s claustrophobic streets, the other map we played - Operation Firestorm - was set in a wide, flat oil field, brutally open and exposed. Here we played Conquest - a capture the flag mode in which each team starts with 120 tokens, each respawn costs one token, and where the team with the least flags slowly bleeds tokens over time. The level was something of a showcase for Battlefield 3’s vehicular combat, featuring tanks, helicopters, and even flyable jet fighters.
If there’s one thing likely to set BF3 apart from CoD and it’s ilk, it’s the vehicles’ role in the balanced eco-system of infantry classes and environmental destruction. Piloting a vehicle requires the use of all the shoulder buttons along with both sticks – it’s a little complex at first but quickly becomes second nature. Most vehicles can be occupied by multiple team-mates at once so that one player can take several comrades to a vital objective while they man the turrets. Vehicles do get badly damaged by explosives and will eventually blow up unless a nearby Engineer repairs them, though some seem to regenerate armour if they disengage from combat for a while. They’re also great for levelling the playing field (literally): at one point an enemy air strike utterly obliterated our defensive position behind a flag, destroying several fuel tankers and the wall our tank was using for cover.
We also played through the first few missions of the single-player campaign. While the opening act treads fairly well-worn ground, (a gritty modern combat story told in flashback), there are some tense and adrenaline-filled moments built into the action. Unfortunately, some of them are occasionally marred by incongruous QTEs (having a big flashing ‘X’ hijack the screen as you drag a fallen team-mate away from sniper fire drains the energy from an otherwise engrossing initial set-piece), and much of the tension in the long build-up to certain action sequences gives way to annoyance should you die and have to replay them again. Still, this probably isn’t the sort of campaign that is designed for repeated play, and many sections do have their share of exhilarating moments. Unfortunately, an on-rails jet fighter sequence in the fourth mission proved rather tedious and frustrating: targeting with the cannon proved a touch imprecise (especially given the laggy, jerky PS3 stick response in BF3), and enemy aircraft circled round and round in an endless, unskippable loop, oblivious to our inability to kill them. More dogged than dogfighting. Still, bombing enemy jets as they emerged from their hangars (using an infrared targeting system) was an enjoyable segue later on (even if it did involve minimal genuine interaction).
Despite its well-worn single-player gameplay conceits, Battlefield 3 still exhibited the power to dazzle on occasion. Rocket strikes which cause entire buildings to crumble in half, excellent lighting effects, and outstanding sound-design are all worthy of special mention. Terrain traversal is fluid and effortless on foot, and team-mates benefit from the added realism lent by FIFA’s co-opted ANT animation system. Naturally, this style of single-player game is starting to look a little tired now, but it’s the multiplayer aspects of the title that will ultimately seal its fate and here the vehicle-based, class-focused combat does promise something at least a little different to the entrenched CoD orthodoxy.