Battlefield 3 was released last Tuesday, and if you were to believe the marketing DICE and EA have put out, is the best multiplayer military shooter experience of the year. But is there any substance to the marketing, and is any of the hype justified? And how about this Battlelog monster that so many people are talking about? In this review, I take a hard look at Battlefield 3 and answer all those questions and more.
Battlelog works fine but stops short of being great
Battlelog works much better than any in-game menu or server browser DICE has come up with in their past Battlefield games. You can view your stats, check how far away you are from that next unlock, create “platoons” which serve as basic friend groups — all from any web browser, without needing a copy of the game installed. And for once, you get a friend list that actually works. You can invite friends to play a game with you and join the same server that your friends are in, all fuss-free with just a single-click.
However, I found that DICE’s much-touted party feature doesn’t work so well and is in fact very frustrating to use. When initiating a party join, more often than not someone fails to receive the ready-up notification, causing the party join to fail. It’s so unreliable that my friends and I gave up on using parties and went back to joining on each other directly through the friends list.
Battlelog is cool, but has a couple of misses that prevents it from achieving greatness. One, there’s no way to change your weapon loadouts, accessories and perks through the browser. With so many accessories and perk slots to choose from (more on that later) and DICE ripping out the in-game menu for Battlelog, this would have been a killer feature. Two, despite the emphasis on social in Battlelog, there’s no way to capture and screenshot and instantly share that with your friends.
On the plus side, since Battlelog takes place in the browser, there are browser addons which enhance Battlelog functionality. This server auto join Chrome browser extension is one that I’ve come to rely on to get me into servers without having to click-spam the “join server” button.
Point to note: Battlelog doesn’t work so well if you don’t already have Origin running, but that’s mostly because of Origin’s long start-up time — by the time Origin starts up and Battlefield 3 loads, those empty server slots you were eyeing are almost certain to be filled.
Battlefield 3 is visually stunning
First things first, the game looks amazing, even on the lowest settings. The Frostbite 2 engine offers serious improvement over its first iteration in Bad Company 2, where if you played on the lowest settings all the trees looked like they were transplanted from LEGO Land; you won’t get that in BF3. High recommended system specs not withstanding, most PCs purchased in the last two years should run the game fairly well if you’re not overly ambitious with the graphics settings.
The minimalist in-game HUD lets you focus on the action, and largely stays out of the way — sometimes too well. For example, unlike most modern shooters, it’s not immediately obvious when you are low on health. You get the usual blood-on-screen when you’re shot, but that goes away after awhile. You’re left with no reminder than you’re low on health and have to constantly look at your health bar tucked away at the bottom right of the screen. The fire selector mode is not immediately obvious as well, and is represented as a series of dots in the bottom right: three dots for full auto, two for burst and one for semi-auto. I found myself wishing that there were some kind of indicator in the middle of the screen to tell me what mode I just switched into.
The visual interface is also how DICE chooses to introduce a new gameplay mechanic to Battlefield: suppression. When you’re under fire, even if not getting hit, your screen turns blurry and makes it harder for you to aim. When you lay down suppressive fire on enemies, you get bonus points if your team mates kill them. It’s a good mechanic that encourages you to lay down a curtain of bullets on enemies, even if just to help out your team mates. And if you’re worried about suppression promoting a pray-and-spray style of play, you shouldn’t be. As my own rage-filled BF3 nights has proven, spraying doesn’t automatically grant you kills and you can be killed by someone who has very careful aim, even if you are suppressing them.
There are four classes in Battlefield 3:
The assault class focuses on offence, and can heal on the front line with their health kits and revive fallen team mates with the defibrillator. While I personally like playing as assault, compared to the other classes you really don’t get any nice toys of mass destruction to play with. Unless you’re playing with friends who can coordinate with you or really love healing and reviving people, it’s pretty much a dead end class, as one of my friends put it.
The engineer class is more essential than ever in any game in the Battlefield series, not only because they are the only infantry class that can take down vehicles with their RPGs, but because they’re really necessarily to keep your own vehicles up and running. Vehicles can now be disabled which is a Really Bad Thing. Besides being vulnerable due to the low movement speed resulting from being disabled, vehicles will catch on fire and take damage until they are destroyed. You’ll need an engineer to restore the burning wreck back to full health.
The support class’s main role is to lay down suppressive fire with their light machine guns, but also get plenty of toys which have huge utility. Besides being able to replenish team mates’ ammo with supply packs, supports can unlock a mobile mortar unit. The mortar is able to shell any part of the map and works really well at suppressing. It’s really difficult to get rid off an enemy mortar user unless you have another mortar user of your own, and I dare say the mortar borders on being overpowered at the moment.
The recon class gets to use a wide array of semi-auto rifles, complete with high-powered optical scopes. While you can play the stereotypical sniper role with the recon, the class works really well up in the front lines as well, with the ability to place radio beacons which acts as spawn points for your team mates. Later in the game, you get motion sensors which help spot enemy infantry and vehicles for your team and a laser designator to help engineers lock on to enemy vehicles with their RPGs.
The four classes work together really well, better than previous games in the Battlefield series. To be effective, you’ll need a good combination of all four classes on your team. Assaults are key to keeping losses to the limited lives each team gets low, supports are almost necessary for their ammo restocks, engineers serve well to take out both enemy infantry and vehicles, while recons help to take out enemies dug in at troublesome spots and provide valuable information about enemy locations. The synergies really show themselves if you are playing with friends or somehow luck out and find a really well-coordinated team while playing on your own.
Vehicles and the new unlocks system
Like in other Battlefield games, vehicles play a defining and huge role in Battlefield 3. A good tank driver can break through strong enemy defences and serve as a rallying point for the team, while a good attack heli pilot can rain down hell on the enemy team. For those who are worried about the return of the fighter jet, they don’t seem to have that much of an impact as in Battlefield 2 where they absolutely destroyed everybody. They’re mainly anti-vehicle now, and most of the time they’re too caught up in dogfights with other jets to make their presence felt on the ground. Attack helicopters are another matter, however, and I’ve seen a skilled pilot fly his helicopter inside the cramped tunnels of Damavand Peak while laying down waves of fire. That’s crazy.
The unlock system has also been modified slightly in Battlefield 3, with the player rank system now granting new weapons and player perks, while additional weapon accessories — such as optical scopes and bipods — require you to get more kills before becoming available with that specific weapon. This results in greater motivation to seriously explore each weapon, and gives you more options for different situations you may encounter.
A team game that has no team communication options
By far the biggest disappointment in Battlefield 3 is the inadequacy and lack of team communication options. Sure, DICE included the Commo Rose, which allows you to hold down Q to send preset messages to other players. Unfortunately, these messages show up in the form of verbal emotes within the game, with no accompanying visual cue. Unless you’re paying attention or looking out for it, it’s all too easy to miss, especially with all the on-screen action typical in the game.
Even worse is the total lack of in-game voice communications. For a game that demands so much coordination and teamwork for a team to be successful, not having built-in voice communications is honestly a joke. As mentioned previously, the Commo Rose is ineffective, while it’s hard to use the in-game chat while in the thick of action. I’ve used Mumble as a workaround to this, but that doesn’t help when you have team mates that aren’t using that as well.
It would have been a godsend if DICE had included team or squad voice chat in-game, but as it stands, it’s really difficult to play the game on your own in any meaningful way, especially on Conquest or Rush modes.
Co-op is… meh.
The game also has a two-player co-op campaign that comes with six missions spread over four progression tiers. Progression is mostly linear; you’ll have to complete each tier of missions before you can move on to the next. This could prove to be a frustrating experience for those who never got the hang of piloting helis in the Battlefield series, as one of the first missions requires you or your buddy to pilot an attack heli. Unless you learn to fly, you won’t be able to progress further.
The individual missions are highly linear in nature as well. You’ll find yourself moving to this point to take out enemy troops, then moving to that point to prepare for an ambush and so on for the duration of the co-op campaign. There were a couple of missions which mixes things up by introducing a stealth element, where you and your buddy have the option to take tandem shots to kill multiple enemies at once to prevent them from sounding the alarm. Unfortunately, you don’t get any extra points for going the stealth route — you can potentially get fewer points because fewer enemies spawn — and it’s far more satisfying to simply go in with all guns blazing.
I took about 2.5 hours to complete the co-op missions with a friend and also found a few hilarious bugs along the way, including this one where we appeared to trigger the completion of an objective before we actually did, breaking the level loading script to hilarious results:
Once you complete the six co-op missions, there’s little motivation to return. While you can unlock multiplayer weapons which can only be obtained through co-op mode, they are side grades to the other weapons and may not be worth the effort. Ultimately, the co-op campaign feels like it was tacked on to Battlefield 3 rather than being a central focus for the developers.
Whatever flaws Battlefield 3 has in terms of implementation is more than adequately made up for when it comes down to actual gameplay, and that’s what really matters. At the end of the day, I had a really hard time tearing myself away from the game to write this review, and that’s a good thing. If you’re looking for a good, team-based multiplayer military shooter, then Battlefield 3 is surely good value for money at S$64.90 (or ~S$55 using this Origin promo code). I’ve already put in 10 hours of play in the past 5 days or so, and I expect to put in many more in the days ahead.