If you are already a fan of Battlefield then thereís plenty of game here, even more so if you fork out for the Karkand DLC pack Ė Battlefield 3 will provide hours of Multiplayer (MP) entertainment with a fire-and-forget Single Player (SP) experience. The story mode is a tightly pathed, linear, short and fairly serious affair. In contrast, the multiplayer is a vast, sprawling and complex beast that is initially daunting to newcomers, both in terms of the sheer amount of choice available, as well as the steep learning curve, but is also somewhat less than serious Ė unless you count bailing out of a jet plane just before using it to slice a helicopter in half as being anything less than outrageous fun. So what you are getting here is two games: one very short story campaign and one huge multiplayer game.
The story campaign plays very differently depending on the difficulty level. On easy and normal, there is a fair amount of leeway in terms of open combat. They are also a bit boring since thereís no real tension when you can get away with murder so to speak. However, on hard, some of it is almost terrifying in how quickly you will die without taking the necessary cover and only engaging the enemy once you are absolutely sure of a kill. Running around like a loon is instant death over and over. Many of the AI controlled partners are completely useless, leaving you to do 80%* of the work (*not empirically tested). They stand there firing off clip after clip, doing little more than fooling you into thinking itís safe to stand up in the open like they are. Much of the time, creeping around corners to take a peek is the only vaguely safe bet and with some of the checkpoints later on being quite widely spaced, there is a real incentive to stay alive as long as possible. The opposition, whilst occasionally resorting to stormtrooper style stumbles out of cover, are mostly concerned with self preservation as well as finishing you off.
The story see-saws back and forth between cut-scenes of a soldierís debriefing and interactive versions of the encounters he talks about. As such, you play many different roles and characters in many different battle zones Ė for example, underground train, roof top sniper support, building clearance, a jet fighter section, Paris street chase and a cliff-top villa all filled with gun toting nutters, most of which are pretty memorable. However, because it jumps around so much, itís hard to build any affinity with the cast, so you donít get gripped hard to continue, even though each set piece taken in isolation is entertaining. Interestingly you get to play one of the earlier levels again later on, so itís fascinating to see how much you have improved the second time around. Overall, the SP can be viewed as entertaining enough (on Hard mode) but ultimately just something youíd play once, so play it through first time on Hard Mode to get the most out of it.
In contrast, for the Multi Player (MP) game, you really need to be in it for the long haul. Battlefield 3 has large open environment maps with buildings dotted around with varying concentration. Trekking across most of the maps on foot can take a long time, so there are often ground vehicles waiting, ranging through Jeeps, beach buggies, tanks, APCs (and even miniature diggers in the Karkand DLC). These can be used to get across maps a lot faster as well as run people over and provide upgraded firepower depending on what they are packing. Similarly, some maps have water based craft, like boats and amphibious attack vehicles. Additional support is provided from the skies, via a variety of helicopter gunships and fighter jets. Much like everything in Battlefield 3, almost all of these get provisioned with upgrades based on experience. This is a bit of a conundrum because as a beginner, when you need it most, you donít get the benefit and upgrades like flares are pretty much essential in jets otherwise you get shot down after the first rocket attack. However, if you stick with a particular vehicle type, rather than swapping around all the time, youíll level up quickly enough Ė itís just that initially you want to try everything! Itís like a giant playground that needs to be experimented with.
Four classes are available and thereís a bit of an initial slog with each class before the decent stuff is unlocked, so beginners need to be aware of this and expect to have a little disadvantage to start with. However, even without the upgrades, itís perfectly possible to stay alive for minutes at a time grabbing useful points from base conquests and avoiding too much combat. The Assault class specialises in close quarter combat to reach designated targets and can revive fallen comrades with defibrillators or give out med-packs. Engineers are vehicle focused, be it repairing them or destroying them with appropriate shoulder weapons. Support have the machine guns to lay down suppressing fire, whilst giving out spare ammo to the team and can also leave claymores lying around and use mortars with bombs or smoke to aid the Assault team. Recon can snipe from afar, place mobile spawn points and lase specific targets so that Engineers can Javelin them quickly; although in reality this latter level of teamwork rarely occurs with randoms.
You are probably starting to get the idea that Battlefield 3 MP requires a lot of teamwork. The effectiveness of each class is only as good as the squad. A squad of Assaults might not perform as well as a more rounded team that can respond to any situation. At release, there wasnít a lot of teamwork going on, at least in my experience on the Xbox, with most people trying to play it in Call of Duty mode, running around like nutters. However as people got to grips with it, this improved. So what else sets BF3 apart?
As well as enemy targets appearing on the map briefly when they fire weapons, they can all be ďspottedĒ (with the Back button on the 360). This then lights them up for everyone on the team to see. If they are destroyed, the spotter gets a small bonus. But do you risk death spotting them, or just start firing to get the upper hand straight away? Again itís all part of the advanced teamwork necessary to secure a win and make the most out of the game.
If you do lose the gunfight, you can pause for a minute to change classes and adjust weapon loadouts. You can then choose where to spawn, be it near a particular squad-mate, at the main base (where vehicles normally spawn) or at a spawn point (mobile or vehicle). Selecting a spawn point gives you a preview of what is occurring - perhaps best not to spawn on top of someone that is in the middle of a fire fight. Itís all part of the superb strategic layer needed to enjoy each round to the max.
Battlefield 3 also has the concept of Suppression. Even if you arenít on target, bullets landing nearby will suppress the enemy. This causes their screen to blur even though they donít take damage, making it hard for them to respond effectively. Similarly, some of the weapon upgrades can disorient opponents, such as laser dots and flashlights, although they give away your position. These aspects have a large effect on how each map is approached, promoting careful thought to weapon load-out and speciality choices Ė this can only be a good thing. If one approach isnít working, spend a few seconds switching things around before spawning to try again Ė very enjoyable when the changes work as intended. And on the topic of Suppresion, the sound effects are second to none, with some revolutionary gun noises, explosion ringing and bullet ricochets. What has been achieved here is to be applauded Ė especially the fear induced when being shot at.
The way the game looks is a little tricky to describe Ė thereís an optional-install HD texture pack included on the disc and so objects look very detailed close up. Although overall the look doesn't blow you away, the sheer amount of "stuff" going on will impress. Destructible scenery ramps up the immersion too. As well as tearing the edges off scenery with normal munitions, if you pull up outside a building with a tank or an RPG, you can start doing some serious damage, taking out whole walls or even collapse the entire building, killing everyone inside. Perhaps some people are holed up inside a portacabin protecting a base and you are finding it tricky to get inside because of claymores and a narrow doorway Ė no problem just find a tank and make a new larger doorway Ė fantastic. Of course, thatís only if you can get near it without being blown up by anti-tank mines.
Itís not all rosy Ė there are few odd decisions in the gameplay balance, in terms of weapon power and ground units Vs air support, but overall, the classes are all worth playing and have their uses. The online games are all provided by servers ensuring no one gets a particular advantage over and above their connection quality. However, once you join a server, there is no way to change server apart from by quitting during a game Ė in between games there is a results section and a countdown to the next game, but no ability to quit out which is incredibly odd and even though the results section was modified during an update, bafflingly DICE still didnít add a quit option.
The standard MP levels vary depending if playing the huge moving Rush modes, or the more simple static modes. They fall into the good-enough category; what they lack in absolute level design they make up for in variety e.g. small street / corridor Vs wide open beach head. However, there just arenít enough of them in the standard purchase.
Battlefield 3 MP scores by having dedicated servers, massive maps, massive scope, massive destruction and a huge array of different weapons and machinery to play with. Play being an important word. Thereís always time to just have a bit of fun with the tools provided, rather than constantly running around like a headless chicken. The need for teamwork, strategy and versatility, along with the provision of such a wide variety of ways to play, sets it apart and if it clicks with you, will keep you engrossed for days. The story mode on the other hand is just adequate and lost amongst heavy opposition in the marketplace.
Back to Karkand DLC mini-review:
If you are enjoying Battlefield 3 Multi Player, you need to purchase the Karkand level pack. Simple as that. All the maps are great and increase the variety of the overall game, as was needed. New vehicles are a bonus too and there are some really tall cranes to annoy people from. And the battle for TV Station supremacy becomes a self-contained game: this is one building in a far corner of one of the maps in which full scale battles can break out, just to see who can hold it the longest.
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