Battlefield 3 is neither a cynical war story, nor a heroic one. By failing to take a stand either way, it stumbles along with a painfully inconsistent tone.
Thid discussion contains spoilers for Battlefield 3.
It’s good for a war game to be cynical; in fact it’s necessary. How else can you mow down hundreds of people with a machine gun and blow up global landmarks with glee? Cynicism and pessimism are -- and always will be -- inherent to war games (at least, as long as they continue to follow their current template), so it’s in such a game's best interest to just go with that flow, embrace a cynical view of the world, war, and soldiers. Otherwise, you might end up like Battlefield 3.
EA’s and DICE’s latest offering wants to be cynical, it wants to tell a modern military story with an anti-hero fighting impossible odds, but it also wants to be a tale of heroism. It wants the good guys to win in the end without resorting to their own kind of terrorism, like the protagonists (not heroes) of the Modern Warfare trilogy. But by failing to take a stand either way, the story of Battlefield 3 stumbles in every important scene and becomes so inconsistent in tone that it’s more jarring than the shaky first-person camera that provides the player's perspective.
The opening of the game establishes a heroic tone. Staff Sergeant Henry Blackburn jumps onto a train from a bridge, barely managing to stay on when he lands. He crashes through a window, kills a bad guy (Why is he a bad guy? Because he has a gun, silly.), takes that opponent's gun, and fights his way to the front of the train. All by himself. He even seemingly gets shot at point blank range but still manages to climb on top of the train for a second time. It’s clear that this guy is strong, capable, driven, and well-trained. His lack of support implies that there’s no backup coming, so whatever bad thing is about to happen on this train, he’s the only one that can stop it. This is the James Bond-ian hero at his finest moment: alone, with all the world relying on him.
But then the tutorial sequence ends, and we watch a cut scene that flashes back to Blackburn being questioned by two men from Homeland Security. Blackburn professes his innocence, but they don’t seem to care. While it’s not unusual for a renegade hero to get into a conflict with his supposed allies, it is unusual for said renegade hero to actually be stopped by his supposed allies, and that’s what happens. Blackburn is handcuffed to a chair, forced to answer inane questions that stretch back to before this whole ordeal began, and this makes him look weak. The game suddenly becomes a drama about how red tape can stop the hero from being heroic. At this point, Battlefield 3 is not an action movie, and Blackburn is obviously not James Bond. He’s just a kid getting chewed out while trying to excuse his bad behavior.
Within the first 30 minutes, the game evokes two completely different tones. This would be fine if the differences complemented each other, but the premises of these two scenes are in constant conflict with one another. Blackburn’s submissiveness in the interrogation undermines his lone wolf heroics on the train, and those lone wolf heroics undermine his submissiveness during the interrogation. The man from the train wouldn’t stop to tell his life story to a couple of bums from Homeland Security, and the shy guy handcuffed to the table couldn’t single-handedly stop a train full of terrorists. One minute the game is telling us that soldiers can achieve anything; the next minute it’s saying that they too can get tangled in frustrating red tape.
This happens several times over the course of the game. The heroics inherent in the gameplay conflict with the cynicism of the cut scenes, resulting in a story with no consistent tone or theme.
Partway through, you take on the role of a new character, Sergeant Jonathan Miller, a tank operator. These are the requisite vehicle missions for this modern military FPS. You drive around in a tank and blow up bad guys. A lot of bad guys. These missions portray you as an even more dangerous force than Blackburn. Your tank is a weapon of utter power, crushing and destroying anything in its path. It’s cathartic, it’s exciting, and it all comes to a jarring, screeching halt: You’re tasked with covering Blackburn as he and his team escape from a building surrounded by enemies. As soon as they escape, your tank is overwhelmed by foot soldiers and Miller is taken prisoner. In the following cut scene, he’s executed by terrorists on camera.
This is the most awkward and forced tonal shift in Battlefield 3. It goes from cathartic power fantasy to pitch-black drama in a way that breaks the game’s narrative logic and its mechanical logic.
The previously levels established that your tank is a powerful weapon, so to have it overwhelmed by mere men is just absurd, especially since they’re not even wearing any kind of armor. What’s worse is that DICE seemed to realize this. Once the men start charging at the tank they become invincible. You’re in the tank’s turret, gunning down enemies as Blackburn flies away in a helicopter, and suddenly the guys you’re shooting at aren’t dying. The fact that DICE has to break the game’s own mechanical logic in order to get this scene to play out the way that they wanted is a testament to just how poorly constructed this sequence of events is. Miller’s execution wants to be shocking, it wants to imbue the player with a righteous anger, it wants to portray one of the most cynical, inglorious ends that a soldier could possibly face on the battlefield, but since it’s preceded by such an outlandish event, his on-screen murder ends up feeling disgustingly exploitative rather than dramatic.
The final level has Blackburn finally escaping from the interrogation room in order to stop the terrorists on his own. You get some help from a fellow teammate, and together they chase down the main guy. Your teammate gets killed in the process, but you succeed in preventing New York from being nuked. This ending tries to redeem the submissive version of Blackburn by showing how that version of the character transitions into the badass who took on a train in the prologue, and it mostly works. The protagonist rises to the occasion and saves the day, allowing the game to end on an unmistakably positive note.
At least, that’s what would happen if the game actually ended there. Instead it keeps going with a weirdly dark epilogue. Your Russian compatriot is sitting at a table in a dark room, writing about these past events as if they were all some horrible secret. But he did nothing wrong. He helped an American soldier prevent a terrorist from setting off a nuke in New York and framing Russia for the attack. This guy should be a national hero. Then there’s a knock on the door and the scene ends. The whole cut scene has a bizarrely ominous tone, as if the conflict is still somehow going on, as if the knock on the door is meant to imply that he’s going to die. It’s a pointless ending meant to lend some kind of cynical gravitas to the story, even through all the important plot points were wrapped up in a nicely heroic fashion by Blackburn during the previous level.
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. At least that latter franchise understood that a game should be consistent in tone, even if that tone changes game to game (and the third entry did manage to bring those two disparate tones together into something that was surprisingly coherent -- but more on that in another post). Battlefield 3 is just one game that tries to do too much and ends up falling short in every way.
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