Battlefield 3: Massive hands-on:

We spend some quality time with DICE’s stunning shooter…

“Everyone wants there to be a fight between us – and I understand that – but the problem is that if you say it’s ‘a fight’ you’re assuming you’re competing at the same sport.”

So says Patrick Bach, executive producer on Battlefield 3. We’re sitting in DICE’s gorgeous Stockholm HQ for an exclusive interview, and he’s not afraid to offer his candid thoughts on the rivalry with Modern Warfare 3.

“We have so many things in our game that aren’t a part of Modern Warfare, so it really comes down to personal preference,” he says. “You choose based on the depth you want, the maturity level, your own personal taste… it’s all about how you get your fix. We’re building the game we want to play, and there are a lot of Battlefield fans who agree with us.”

Those who’ve already sampled Bad Company 2, or watched the stunning Battlefield ‘tank’ demo and Modern Warfare’s ‘Black Tuesday’ gameplay from E3, will instantly know what he means. Battlefield and Call Of Duty – despite sharing similar themes and existing within the same genre – are chalk and cheese. While COD thrives on adrenaline, with its arcade-style, twitchy feel, Battlefi eld is a more considered, sharper, smarter shooter.

Unsurprisingly, Bach isn’t phased by our Call Of Duty prods. It’s a subject he’s accustomed to talking about; he even seems to relish it. Furthermore, having sat down and played BF3’s multi-player just before our interview, we can understand why he’s so full of confidence. It’s brilliant. It’s no secret PSM3 has backed Battlefield in the past. For many, Bad Company 2 remains the best online shooter available; its smart mix of team-based play, pure shooting, vehicle combat and widespread destruction has enchanted those brave (or knowledgeable) enough to sample it over Call Of Duty’s safer, more linear option. Why are we telling you this?

Because, in many ways Battlefield 3 is more of the same. There are tweaks and improvements to the overall formula, and it’s all set within a new game engine – Frostbite 2 – that makes it look stunning, but the core Battlefield experience stays the same.

LAST TANGO IN PARIS

we sit down for a few games of Rush. For the uninitiated, Rush asks you to destroy a series of objectives: blow up the M-COM stations in the first part of the map, for instance, and you open up the next phase. Rinse and repeat until the attackers have destroyed all their objectives, or the defenders have shot/blown/stabbed up all the attacking team’s respawn tickets.

It’s a Battlefield staple, and as we progress through the Paris map (dubbed Operation Métro) from a beautiful public park, down into the underground system and up into the light again to a commercial street – everything feels familiar. Paris has a neat mix of open areas. We progress from the park’s treestrewn open spaces (waterways trickling under ornamental bridges) to tight, concrete-heavy bottlenecks in the ruined Metro, complete with derailed trains and twisting access corridors. It all looks stunning.

Flowers patch the park with colour, the water shimmers and, in the distance, the Eiffel Tower looms over that historic Parisian skyline. It almost seems a shame to smash the place up. The first thing Battlefield veterans will notice is that the spawn/respawn screen has changed. You can now swap between classes on that one screen, so there’s no need to back out to fiddle with kit. It’s a streamlining exercise, but anything that gets us into the fight quicker works for us. More significant change comes with new classes.

The traditional Medic is gone: now the Assault class carries all the first-aid gear. The aim is to take the medic’s team abilities to the frontline, providing assistance where it’s really needed without leaving the class underpowered or slowed by heavy weapons, such as the M60. “We saw it in Bad Company 2,” says Lars Gustavsson, one of the few team members to have worked on every Battlefield since the series began, nine years back.

“Medics were rarely equipped to be on the real frontline. It was the Assault class that people took to the front, so it seemed natural to combine the two.” There is a trade-off, though. Using the defib paddles now takes a little time – you must hold down the trigger to fire a jolt into your fallen friend – and there’s a cool-down period afterwards. Oh, and if you’re the person being revived, you have the option to refuse and respawn

FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS

So what’s replaced the Medic? Now you have the Support class, which is essentially the man who carries the big gun. In the demo we played he was equipped with the M249 Light Machine Gun, a badly-named beast of a weapon with its own bipod, which deploys when you go prone and hit the aim trigger. The animation is slick and strangely satisfying – we get distracted mid-fi ght just playing with it. At first we felt Support was just there to make up the numbers, to dish out ammo and shoot down light helicopters, but we were wrong.

Support is the king of the new suppression fire system. Here, if someone is spraying you with bullets it puts your character under stress, something evinced with screen shake and blur. It’s a subtle effect, but it means if you’re getting battered by constant fi re you can’t just pop out and fire off a clean headshot… well, not without substantial skill. You’re also rewarded for suppression in the same way you are for spotting – with XP – adding further tactical depth. Now you’re rewarded for keeping enemies pinned down while your teammates sneak, say, up a tunnel, or move to flank the opposition. It seems a small thing, perhaps, but when the community get hold of it, expect some smart, smart play.

Recons and Engineers remain roughly the same, although each class now has many more customisation options – it’s all part of DICE’s unofficial motto of ‘Play Your Way’. So if you want to go pure Assault by equipping more grenades and body armour, by having red-dot scopes instead of telescopic ones, that’s up to you. However, the developers are well aware that excessive customisation can lead to the dreaded ‘super-class,’ so they’re monitoring testing closely.

“We constantly look to see if we have combinations of kit, weapons and abilities that give a big advantage,” says Gustavsson. “Battlefield is a rock-paper-scissors game – there shouldn’t be a silver bullet, a combo that you can always pull out to win.”

There certainly isn’t. Each area of the Paris map calls for clever use of different classes. We start with the Engineer and immediately sprint towards the LAV-25, Battlefield 3’s latest multi-wheeled toy. It’s similar to the APCs of Bad Company 2, with a beefy driver-controlled cannon, a secondary machinegun mounted on top and several passenger seats (four) with side-mounted guns. It’s a prickly porcupine of death, and rolling in it makes you feel powerful in a way no other quite manages to replicate.

The cannon makes satisfying booms, which admittedly sound feeble next to the throaty cannon of the tanks in the single-player footage, while the top-mounted machinegun makes a racket like the locks on the doors of judgement day. Until, that is, it’s taken out by an anti-tank missile. Vehicle damage works a little differently, as now a tank or APC can be disabled before it’s destroyed – it won’t move, but the guns still operate. So, hitting the LAV-25 in the side might stop it moving, but it won’t kill everyone inside until you finish it off.

DICE hope the gradual wearing down of the vehicle’s abilities will allow passengers more chance to disembark, keeping them alive longer. Ground-based vehicles regenerate health too, even without the aid of a Repair tool (no word on helis or jets), although don’t expect them to survive longer under sustained fire.

Back in Paris we fi nish off the M-COM stations in the park, only to see a series of explosions rip a hole in the ground, exposing the Métro system. We pour in, but here the going is all tight corridors and blind bends. Our Engineer is dispatched quickly. We respawn as a Support soldier, position ourselves by a choke point, go prone and squeeze the trigger.

NOOB TUBE

The M249 echoes deafeningly around the subway – DICE’s award-winning sound design remains glorious – and the points start to fl ood in: +10 Suppression, +100 Enemy Down, +50 Kill Assist, another +10 for Suppression, another +100… it’s like going on a Bad Company 2 tank rampage. Without the tank. We’re only brought to a stop when one of DICE’s QA testers, clearly hacked off with the suppression of a haughty journalist, flanks us, blows up the wall we’re pressed against and knifes us in the back. Ouch. With that he claims our Dog Tags, which now display our PSN ID, a small picture and a personal stat: think Tank Kill total or your online rank.

It’s a nice touch – it feels, when you steal them from an enemy, like you’re taking something really personal from them. Besides their dignity, of course. We make short work of the two M-COM phases inside the Métro and emerge, blinking, for the fi nal fi ght in the streets of Paris. Interestingly, you can take out the lights, plunging whole corridors into darkness before equipping a rifl e-mounted flashlight and using it to blind unwitting enemies.

Back outside, we make a sprint for a nearby apartment but are stopped in our tracks as an RPG smashes into the building, bringing down the corner in a shower of massive concrete lumps. “Wow, you’re pretty lucky,” says a watching dev, leaning over with a raised eyebrow. “If that fell on you, you’d be dead.” This destruction isn’t just for show – you can remove the entire frontage from all the buildings at the end of the Paris stage. Shaken and stirred, we press on inside. The street below is swarming with enemies, so we start picking them off with our freshly spawned Recon (sniper) grunt.

Our cover doesn’t last long, though. Rockets stream in, removing the front of the building bit by bit. It’s an incredible sight – Red Faction-beating destruction, done in a game as handsome as Killzone 3, running as smoothly as Modern Warfare. It’s the final proof that Battlefield 3 is the shooter to beat this year – by some way.

SACRÉ BLEU

Back in our interview, we try drawing out Patrick Bach on some of BF3’s other features. He reveals a dedicated co-op mode, running over ten unique maps and supporting two players, pointing to a completely separate campaign. He also tells us a little about Battlelog, a community/stat service similar to Need For Speed’s Autolog, which persistently tracks your stats and keeps you updated on what your friends are doing. He even notes, pointedly, that it’ll be free – a sly dig at Activision’s Call Of Duty Elite service, which requires subscription.

Bach rounds it up by talking briefly about single-player, although keeps plot details to himself. The snatches we’ve seen so far are designed to set the tone for the solo campaign, rather than give clues about what might be happening. Given the presence of Russian militants in multi-player, however, expect more than just a ‘straight’ modern war story. It all adds up to Battlefield 3 being one hell of a chunky proposition, and that’s how DICE want it. “If you pay £50 for something, you demand the full package,” says Bach. “Otherwise you can always buy another game that’ll give you more hours of entertainment.”

WHO CARES WHO WINS?

Based on what we’ve played and seen so far, there seems little room to doubt that the finished Battlefield 3 will be impressive. DICE clearly feel confident, too. They know they’ve got the formula for making shooting people in the face fun, they know their game engine makes everything look fantastic, and they know they’re offering more content than any of their competitors. And here’s a strange truth: Battlefield’s biggest enemy isn’t really Modern Warfare 3. Or Killzone, Medal Of Honor or the rest of PS3’s big shooters, come to that. It’s awareness. It’s the creation of that unique tingle of excitement that demands you take the plunge into something new; that you venture into the traditionally terrifying online world, stake your reputation on a particular game by recommending it to friends because you think they’ll love it. Modern Warfare 3 already has that.

It has an established brand that people – for better or worse – trust. It has awareness, as anyone who saw the 90-second ad during the Champion’s League final will know. And it has an engine that confidently delivers solid, if not innovative, first-person shooting. If we had to make predictions right now, we’d say Modern Warfare will sell more, but Battlefield will be the better game.

It seems unfair: however Bach remains optimistic. He’s here for the long run. “Something I hear a lot from people who haven’t actually played Battlefield is that they’d love a modern-day, first-person shooter with everything you have in other games, but with vehicles and proper destruction. They say, “That would be
awesome!” In other words, this is the game everyone claims they want…”

Leaving Stockholm, we realise we can happily echo Patrick Bach’s sentiments, though with one slight change: this is the game we definitely want to play this October.

[Source: PSM3 Magazine, Published on computerandvideogames.com]

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