This is it. This is the herald of the End Times.
What several people will say upon reading this review is “But Hentzau, why are you even bothering with the single player component of Battlefield 3? Surely you bought it for the multiplayer like everyone else.” This is true. However I seek to understand the latest and greatest trends in gaming, and what is also true is that DICE have put an absolutely astonishing amount of effort into Battlefield 3’s campaign. They’ve explicitly designed and marketed it as a CoD killer, apparently forgetting that the Modern Warfare franchise is currently lying barely conscious in a pool of its own bodily excreta after that underwhelming second outing and really didn’t need aping to this degree, but nevertheless making a CoD-alike is a tremendous undertaking (if only in the same way as the special effects in the Transformers movies are a tremendous undertaking) and not one to be attempted lightly. Battlefield 3 is, in short, a game with some serious oomph behind it that reflects what developers think consumers want to see, and so I’m going to treat it as such.
This, of course, is where we come to the third truth: I think Battlefield 3 might just be, bar none, the single worst game I have ever played.
That’s a pretty ambitious pronouncement. I’ve played more than my fair share of bad games this year, let alone over an illustrious 21 year gaming career. Is Battlefield 3 really worse than all of those hundreds of titles? Let’s find out together.
Battlefield 3 opened with me wedged uncomfortably into an APC with five other fellows. The APC had no windows so it was hard to tell, but judging from the way everyone else in the vehicle was bumping and swaying around I surmised that the APC was in the process of going somewhere. Some of that desultory conversation that game developers think is sufficient to give the player’s faceless squadmates some character took place, and I learned that I was currently in Iraq. Which I suppose is slightly better than Modern Warfare setting half of its campaign in a country that was quite conspicuously Not Iraq, but it still doesn’t win any points for originality.
Then some garbled radio transmissions came in scattered with lots of nonsense military jargon like “VICTORS ON THE MOVE” and “HOW COPY”, which was apparently a big deal because we all got out of the APC to find ourselves sitting in the middle of a roadblock. Wait a minute, hadn’t the APC been going somewhere before I got out of it? I had a look around and both ends of the street were blocked off, with the only side street also being blocked off after a short distance. Not entirely sure what was going on there; maybe they were driving it round and round in very small circles while everyone inside got hotboxed on marijuana.
So anyway, my squad got sent off to find another squad which had gone missing. This is where the first thing directly copied from CoD cropped up and it wasn’t a good one: the legendary unopenable door. Well, it does open, but FPS developers these days just don’t trust the people who play their games with the tremendous power of door-opening. Instead, I had to stand there and wait next to the door while a responsible adult opened it for me. This is one of those little FPS conceits that really borders on farce; they can’t let me go too far too fast or I’ll break their meticulous scripting designed to make the game world behave realistically, so their solution is to have the main character – a man who is ridiculously talented in all areas of warfare, who is so expert in the use of machine guns and sniper rifles and rocket launchers that his squad relies on him to do every task involving those things – be too stupid to open a door on his own. Because that’s realistic, right?
Behind the fiendishly complex mechanism of the doorknob lay the wondrous and fantastical world of… well, a parking lot. It was here that the game sprung its first firefight on me, with a generic horde of balaclava’d guerrillas suddenly emerging from behind a wall to pepper my squad with hot lead in a distinctly unfriendly manner. “Fight off the guerrilla attack” or something very much like it popped up in the objective box, so I dutifully murdered goon after goon after goon until it became apparent there was an infinite supply of the buggers spawning somewhere out of sight. It wasn’t until I killed two RPG men on a balcony overlooking the car park that this steady stream of baddies abruptly dried up. What was so special about the RPG men that their deaths caused the hundreds of bad guys lined up behind that five metre long wall to suddenly lose heart? I don’t know and I suspect DICE don’t either, aside from the RPG men having hardcoded flags which turned off the spawn point.
Fast forward a little bit. I’ve gone through several heavily scripted gameplay segments – taking out a sniper, covering a casevac from a rooftop, disarming a bomb, defeating a man in hand to hand combat using my extensive quicktime training, fighting off a full scale insurgent assault – all the while trying to shake off the nagging sensation that puts me in mind of a rat running through a maze or one of those pigeons trained to push certain colour-coded buttons for food. An earthquake has devastated the city, and I’m cut off from the rest of the team. As I slowly crawl out of the wreckage I am confronted with the thing that finally made me crack.
It’s a rat. A rat which scurried out of a drainpipe and immediately began biting my character’s finger. I didn’t even have time to wonder why he wasn’t using his vastly superior size and intellect to punch the fucking rat in its smug fucking face before a “Push the left mouse button!” icon flashed up. I couldn’t believe it. This rat was apparently such a huge problem for my character that he needed my assistance to defeat it. They turned killing a rat into a quicktime event. Battlefield 3 is a particularly bad example of the “Push *button* to advance the plot!” school of quicktime encounter design, but even so this marked a new low in my experience of FPSes. Not only was I not trusted to open doors on my own, not only did my squad need me to do everything that didn’t involve blind-firing an M-16 over a barricade, but the main character wasn’t even capable of killing rat without my help. It’s like the game suddenly decided to give me the finger for being stupid enough to play it.
Okay, game, I thought, if you’re not going to take me seriously I’m sure as hell not going to take you seriously. I’d been harbouring certain nasty suspicions about the scripted nature of the encounters I’d had with the enemy so far. When I joined back up with my squadmates I was directed to man a Humvee turret to fight off an enemy attack while we all waited for evacuation. I climbed into the Humvee. I manned the turret. I didn’t fire a single shot. I simply looked around with growing horror as the game played itself without any input from me whatsoever. Baddies fired at the AI marines. AI marines fired at the baddies. Baddies also fired at me, but I was invincible while I was sat in the turret. There was a lot of shooting and banging and smoke and screaming and bugger all consequences whatsoever, since my AI friends got back up after being shot in the head for the fifteen hundredth time apparently none the worse for wear, while any baddy who died was immediately replaced with a new copy straight from the cloning vats. This went on for about two minutes, after which the game’s internal timer had run down and an Osprey turned up to get me away from this pre-scripted hell. Just in case I was getting too snug in the invulnerable comfort of my Humvee the baddies fired a scripted RPG at it which blew it to smithereens while miraculously throwing me clear – otherwise, I might not have realised that it was time to leave and stayed there forever! How fortunate I was to have DICE looking out for me there.
These encounters are repeated time and again, making up as they do about 80% of the game. What’s worse is that the game’s insistence on sticking to the script leads to some truly bizarre events. I spent five minutes frolicking on a hillside being pounded by intense artillery fire while the rest of my squad screamed at me to bring them the mortar they so desperately needed because I’d realised that the artillery explosions were merely for show and were hardcoded not to land anywhere near me. After an intense firefight in a canal the marines I was with had all miraculously survived thanks to me being completely awesome, but the game thought that only one of them should be permitted to carry on to the next portion of the level and so the other three suffered immediate and catastrophic brain aneurysms, at least judging from the way they spontaneously and simultaneously dropped dead. And when I was told to flank round the side of a bank to look for another way in the screen suddenly went red and I was confronted with a YOU HAVE DIED message because apparently I was supposed to flank around the other side, not this one, and I’d wandered too far off the scripted track.
This necrotising fasciitis even cripples the game’s attempts to play to its strengths. The great asset of the Battlefield series is that you’re not just playing some footslogger; you can at any time get in a jeep or a tank or a helicopter or an aeroplane and dispense some vehicular-based death. But when I reached the part of Battlefield 3 where I got to fly a jet I was actually a little bit flabbergasted to discover that I wouldn’t actually be flying the jet. I was the weapons officer, which for the game’s purposes translates to “occupying the passenger seat” or, more accurately, “a thinly-disguised turret section”. An assortment of enemy jets flew behind my jet for a while and I mashed the flare button to stop their missiles. Then, for no reason whatsoever the enemy jets would then pull ahead of my jet and I’d switch to hammering the missile button. Both flares and missiles were unlimited and both my and the enemy jets moved so slowly it might as well have been a biplane dogfight from WW1. Actually scratch that, a biplane dogfight would have been amazing. This was boring. It is the most bored I have ever been when playing a game because there was no danger and no challenge. There was just me, sitting in this glorified theme park ride, waiting for the baddy jets to give up and go home so that I could get on with next bit of the game.
(Except, of course, the next part of the game turned out to be a black and white bombing run section that’s the product of somebody taking the AC-130 bit of Modern Warfare and stripping out absolutely everything that made it exciting/disturbing to play. There was no time limit and I had unlimited bombs/missiles. The plane flew in circles until I’d finished blowing up the targets on the ground. SAM sites spewed up thousands of rounds of flak but it was just for show since every single round missed my jet. And just in case the player might still have been able to wrest a little bit of fun out of this sterile, pointless experience there’s a maddening 5-10 second delay between watching a missile impact and being able to fire a new one.)
I think I’ve now managed to get across the fact that Battlefield 3 is A Bad Game, so it’s time to take a step back to address the broader philosophical problem I have with it that turns it into The Worst Game. To wit: that a game that essentially reduces the player to a spectator and which happily plays itself for a large portion of its length isn’t really a game at all. A game is, at its root, an adversarial test of skill; the point of a game is to complete some challenging task and to complete it to a high standard. Computers can allow us to substitute unfeeling AI as our opponents, and they can allow us to generate enormously complex or daringly simple worlds and systems in which the goal is simply to survive or succeed, but the end result is the same: kill all the bad guys, crush the enemy base, build a shining jewel of a city, become the king and rule the world, the point is that the player has to perform well enough to win.
Now, if you make a game where the player’s involvement is essentially optional, and where that involvement often has all the difficulty of pushing a single button on cue, then you have removed the adversarial component and you have removed the challenge. Winning no longer means anything because winning was always guaranteed from the start. Battlefield 3 does not resemble a game as we know them. What it most closely resembles, to me, is one of those godawful FMV games they used to make back when the only thing that would fit on a CD was reams and reams of dodgily-compressed video; the video would play, and after watching it for a few minutes the viewer would be invited to push a button – ostensibly to make some sort of choice that would influence the plot, but really they were doing it just to watch another few minutes of video. That’s what Battlefield 3 is: a 21st century FMV game made with a multi-million dollar budget and cutting edge technology. And yet it is somehow worse, for although FMV games were amazingly dire it was at least possible to fail1. Battlefield 3 isn’t a game you play. Battlefield 3 is a game you watch.
That’s Battlefield 3 in a 2000 word nutshell. It’s immensely pretty and a huge amount of work has been put into it, as befits one of EA’s flagship titles, but all it’s produced is this completely meaningless and vacuous product that can barely call itself a game at all. It’s only the Russian Spetznaz sections that provide any sort of relief whatsoever; since these take place in very hectic close quarters environments which really allow the Frostbite engine to shine and I was only towing a two-man squad it’s all much faster and tenser and felt like I was doing legitimately crazy special forces stuff. But they don’t save it. They don’t even come close. If this is the future of FPS gaming then I want no part of it; it’s ironic that back in April Portal 2 was making me extremely optimistic about up-and-coming big budget scripted genre experiences, but a mere six months later Battlefield 3 has come perilously close to breaking my faith in the medium as a whole.
- more than possible, actually – they were legendarily capricious and unforgiving. ↩