Battlefield 3 is the first “official” Battlefield game for consoles. A distinction I’ve always found confusing since the Bad Company games didn’t seem all that different from their predecessors. But if such a distinction must be made, then I hope we see a Bad Company 3 before we see a Battlefield 4 because this entry in the franchise represents a step backwards in almost every way.
The campaign commits the biggest sin that a shooter campaign could commit: it’s boring. It takes the Call of Duty-style scripted event to a whole new level of passivity. Over the course of the game, you’ll ride in a jet plane but never fly it; you’ll carry a mortar, but never shoot it; you’ll get in multiple jeeps, but never drive them; you’ll even parachute out of a cargo plane, but you don’t get to pull the ripcord or even look down as you fall. The game ignores every opportunity that it has to let you do something other then just shoot. Every potentially memorable moment is so forcibly on-rails it’s infuriating. I was genuinely shocked when I was allowed to control a tank, and even then, I couldn’t go too far off the beaten path or the game would kill me. Literally.
What’s extra egregious about this lack of interactivity is that you can do all those things that I just mentioned in the multiplayer. So the game does allow for a variety of actions, it just never takes advantage of its own potential.
The story is confusing and the characters are forgettable. The happy-go-lucky crew from the Bad Company games are gone, replaced with ultra serious soldiers telling an ultra serious story of modern terrorism, though the between-mission cut scenes are so bad that it’s hard to take any of it seriously. The story begins with you being interrogated by two guys from Homeland Security. It’s a convenient framing device for providing exposition, though every conversation just reiterates plot points that you already learned in the previous level. The awful dialogue doesn’t help, neither does the fact that you don’t know why these men are questioning you. When you talk about finding nukes and one of the men compares it to seeing UFOs, it comes off as pointlessly antagonistic. Their good cop/bad cop routine would be laughable if they didn’t act so deathly serious. The result is a bunch of cut scenes that lack context, drama, and suspense. They’re just as boring as the rest of the campaign.
The co-op mode is new to Battlefield and mostly forgettable. It’s modeled after the Spec Ops mode of Modern Warfare 2, a batch of standalone missions meant to be played by two people. Sometimes you’re both on foot, and sometimes you’re in a vehicle with each player given a specific role, like pilot or gunner. The lack of any story is a good thing here, but these missions suffer from the same gameplay flaws as the campaign.
The level of detail in the world is incredible but that makes it harder to see the enemy from a distance. Combine that difficulty with some AI that’s too accurate—able to headshot you from long range through a fog of smoke—and you get firefights that are frustrating rather than fun. The levels are also very linear; the openness of some of them is deceptive since you’ll get slaughtered if you move out of cover. Finally, there are only eight co-op levels. DICE seems to expect you to replay them over and over again, but they get old fast.
Which brings us to multiplayer, unarguably the main reason that most people will buy this game. Thankfully, it’s a good reason, though not a great one. This is a dense multiplayer game. There’s a lot to learn and unfortunately the single player is so scripted that it doesn’t teach you any of these systems. The horrible mid-battle menus don’t help. When navigating a menu uses almost every button on the controller, something is clearly wrong. Flicking up with the right control stick scrolls through one set of options (spawning), flicking left/right scrolls through another set of options (classes), and the bumper buttons scroll through a third set of options. The face buttons are then used to select from all three sets of options at the same time. It’s an awkward system, and it makes changing equipment on the fly difficult enough that you’ll actively avoid it.
Another awkward new feature is that your primary weapon automatically changes when you switch sides in battle. This is something DICE did in the Medal of Honor multiplayer, but it made sense there since the two sides (US Army and Taliban) were so fundamentally different that it would be strange if they had the same guns. There’s no logical reason for it in Battlefield 3. It just adds an annoying adjustment period to the start of each battle: I unlocked a scope attachment for my machine gun and now it’s gone; I unlocked a laser sight attachment and now it’s gone, etc. It feels like a way of artificially prolonging the unlocking process by forcing players to unlock the same attachment multiple times for different guns. It lessens the sense of reward that such unlocks should provide since I know my reward will be gone the next round. Of course, it’s not gone forever; it’s unlocked permanently, but only for every other round.
The game modes are relatively unchanged. It’s nice to see Squad Rush and Squad Deathmath available from day one, since these modes were added as DLC for Bad Company 2. Team Deathmatch seems like an odd mode for a Battlefield game at first, but it provides a nice change of pace from the more organized team modes, Rush and Conquest. Rush is the only mode that’s been significantly changed. In it, one team must defend a set of MCOM stations while the other team is tasked with destroying them. Previously, you could damage the MCOM stations with any explosive device, so players would commonly snipe the stations with tanks or rocket launchers. Now, the attacking team must set a charge directly on the station; the MCOM is otherwise invincible. This admittedly makes things fairer, but also makes for less crazy, less memorable, and less fun moments. I can’t have friends set gobs of C4 on a UAV and then fly the little thing into the station on a suicide run. You don’t see that kind of outside-the-box thinking in Rush anymore. It’s too organized.
There’s also a distinct lack of destructibility in the multiplayer maps. I’ll pepper a wooden fence with bullets and it’ll remain standing. Shooting a rocket at a building is more likely to leave a big black mark than a hole. When buildings do crumble, they instantly kill everyone inside, no more loud creaking to warn you, giving you a few seconds to make an exciting mad dash to the closest exit. Many of the subtle things that made Bad Company 2 so much fun are missing in Battlefield 3.
But the changes aren’t all bad. The ability to select your own squad can single-handedly turn a bad game into a fun game, since so much of Battlefield 3 relies on squad teamwork. The gun attachments help make your gun feel more personal, more tailored to your preferred style of play. The ability to spawn into empty vehicles helps get you closer to action faster. The new gadgets are fun and effective, especially the radio beacon that serves as a mobile spawn point. Best of all, combining the Assault and Medic classes encourages team play since the Assault can no longer run around refilling their ammo indefinitely.
Overall, the multiplayer is a slow burn. It’s worth your time only if you invest your time. It’s around level 10 that things start to turn around. By then you’ll know the maps pretty well, and you’ll have unlocked enough guns, gadgets, and attachments to feel like you can actually customize your loadouts. Until that point, however, it’s a drag.
Battlefield 3 represents a kind of turning point for the franchise. EA has heavily marketed the game as a Call of Duty killer, and DICE seems to have taken that as a decree to hew closer to Call of Duty in every aspect of its design: a linear campaign filled with scripted moments, a two-player centric co-op mode, and a multiplayer that emphasizes the gun over other gadgets and vehicles. But Battlefield is not Call of Duty, and the more that it tries to imitate, the less it can innovate. It’s a testament to Battlefield 3’s fundamental multiplayer design that it’s still enjoyable even with so many odd and irritating changes. Sadly, the same can’t be said for the rest of the game.