Counter Strike version 1.3 was the first video game that I played online in any capacity. In my high school years, I was a Nintendo devotee, which afforded the bare minimum of online gaming experiences. Though I owned Phantasy Star Online: Episodes I & II for the Nintendo Gamecube, the $10-a-month charge to play online was too steep for my part-time, $7 an hour job. So when a friend told me to buy Half-Life in order to play alongside him and millions of others in Counter Strike for free, I was sold.
To this day, I have never played more than 30 minutes of the original Half-Life. After settling into the competitive, online playing field of Counter Strike, I found all other functions of the game superfluous. But Counter Strike is unique, and not only because it revolutionized the first-person shooter. It was a successful online multiplayer experience ostensibly without a single-player accompaniment.
First-person shooters are a natural fit for multiplayer. Their single-player campaigns stress the importance of technical proficiency—a quick trigger, accuracy, awareness, and the ability to stay alive—and they avoid the platforming and puzzle solving often associated with extended single-player campaigns in other genres. Naturally, when you’ve honed those skills to the extreme, you’d like to see how they compare against your fellow players, hence, the domination of shooters in the online multiplaying universe.
But before a room of friends gathered to play Goldeneye or disparate gamers held practice sessions for upcoming Counter Strike matches, there were games like Wolfenstein 3D—single-player games lacking the immersive multiplayer experiences that define the genre today. Though FPSes appear best suited for multiplayer experiences, the games have always been grounded in some single-player campaign mode, be it because of technological necessity or an adherence to the model established by the old guard.
Counter Strike was able to avoid this model, largely because it was bundled with Half-Life, a luxury most FPSes are not afforded. The current generation of FPSes, spearheaded by the endlessly popular Call of Duty series, follows the traditional model. However, with the full understanding that most—if not all—military FPS are mundane rail shooters, most developers have attempted to make their single-player campaigns unique by including massive Quicktime events and set pieces. The designers of DICE’s Battlefield 3 went in the other direction.
On an investor call shortly after the release of Battlefield 3, EA executive Frank Gibeau said, “We consider Battlefield an online service. First and foremost, that brand was built on its multiplayer prowess and the technology really lends itself to that. The single play experience is important. It’s a great way to get fans into the experience, have them train up, and get ready for multiplayer. And a lot of fans just enjoy having that single player experience. So I think you have to have both” (Fred Dutton, “EA justifies Battlefield 3 single player”, Eurogamer, 27 October 2011).
You don’t even have to read between the lines here: the Battlefield 3 single-player campaign is not only secondary, but serves as little more than a tutorial for the game’s true attraction. As such, the game’s single-player mode, which has been widely derided for being the most basic of retreads, suffers. Like Counter Strike before it, Battlefield 3 is a game that can—and probably should—exist solely as a multiplayer experience.
PopMatters writer Nick Dinicola recently criticized Battlefield 3 for its lack of a moral tone—either a cynical one or a heroic one. Dinicola says that “Battlefield 3 is a game with an identity crisis. Part of it wants to be a dark exploration of war a la Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and part of it wants to be an idealized action movie a la Modern Warfare 2” (“The Hypocritical Cynicism of Battlefield 3”, PopMatters, 13 January 2012). But criticizing the game’s single player misses the point. Battlefield 3’s multiplayer is its single player mode, and the campaign is your traditional tutorial. Though it’s right to take aim at whatever the design team produces, it’s clear to all parties that the campaign mode exists out of convention, not as an outlet for true creative expression.
I have now logged just under 70 hours in the Battlefield 3 online multiplayer, and while that’s almost three full days of gaming, it pales in comparison to some of the game’s leaderboard kings, which have played in excess of 300 hours. (As a side note, 300 hours in a little over three months is an astronomical amount of gameplay. How does anyone play a single game this much?) I mention this because I just recently unlocked infrared flares—the very first unlockable feature, albeit a crucial one—for the flyable jets in the multiplayer mode. It didn’t take this long because I’m a bad video game player—I’m actually a very good one—but rather, because flying jets is extremely difficult. When you have no defenses against heat-seaking missiles, the likes of which nearly all players have earned in some regard after their first 10 hours playing the game, learning and becoming comfortable with the controls of flying, not to mention dogfighting, proves increasingly difficult.
This is why the Battlefield 3 single player exists. There are functions in the game’s multiplayer that are foreign to almost all gamers. The vehicular warfare that’s singular to the Battlefield requires an extreme amount of specialization. The single player offers gamers the ability to essentially train in that capacity.
That may seems like a tenuous justification for such a shoddy campaign mode, but Battlefield 3 gets away with such a poor single player mode because of the role-playing structure of the multiplayer. Though this leveling-up system and class-based warfare are not unique innovations in Battlefield 3, the multiplayer’s crowning achievement and primary goal—that of combined ops—creates the necessity for players to act in and properly fill a specific role.
As I’ve written elsewhere, Battlefield 3 is not about earning kills; it’s about accomplishing as much toward a team’s ultimate goal without dying. This dynamic manifests itself in what is basically collective puzzle solving. If your team is being bombarded with air attacks, someone – and frequently multiple people—needs to take over the role of ground-to-air defense. If your team struggles with controlling objectives, you may need to take on the role of flag camper and hold down a location. A successful team is one that can accomplish these goals and solve these problems in concert. The necessity of a coordinated team attack not only encourages individuality and role playing but makes it the groundwork for the entire game.
Battlefield 3 doesn’t require a single-player mode because the multiplayer offers the kind of specialization, exploration (levels are large enough that they feel like an open-world environment), and constantly evolving experiences that only the best single-player campaigns can offer. The existing single-player campaign is dull and meaningless, but it exists in a limited capacity. Rather than force players to work through an eight hour campaign of automatically triggered Quicktime events, the designers created those same grandiose moments in the game’s real-time multiplayer setting. If you haven’t experienced some of the breath-taking, organic cinematic events that can unfold in the Battlefield 3 multiplayer, you’re missing the greatest moments in gaming of 2011.
But Battlefield 3 has positioned itself uniquely to disregard its single-player campaign, and it seems likely that more games will follow this model, rather than adhering to tradition and creating another mundane single-player rail shooter.
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