After spending a week with EA and DICE's hope for a Call of Duty-killer, I've come to think of Battlefield like a long-awaited double album from a big music group. On one side, you've got a campaign whose story and actual mechanics represent what amounts to a "greatest hits" experience of first-person shooters of the last five years, tapping into some of the best and many of the worst instincts of the genre.
But then on the other side (actually on a separate disc for the 360), you've got DICE flexing their muscles, trying new things while revisiting old concepts, creating an exhilarating multiplayer experience that iterates on and evolves upon some of the most successful elements of Battlefields past, and with a bit of nudging and additional polish, could be a contender for multiplayer experience of the year. It amounts to two separate and completely distinct gameplay experiences that actually present a philosophical dilemma in reviewing a FPS campaign that is in no way informed by or representative of the multiplayer experience.
The Multiplayer: Jets, Tanks, Jeeps, and Perks
Before I fell in love with Battlefield 3's class-based multiplayer, for the first hour of playing the game I actually hated it. Wait, let me explain: on loading up your first multiplayer session with the game--selecting the MP option from the main menu and selecting a quick match--there's almost no preamble, no explanation, no tutorial, and absolutely no hand holding. When jumping into one of the many objective-based game types (BF3's bread and butter, although there are a couple of Team DM modes), it felt like my attention was divided between a dazzling array of UI elements spread throughout the typically huge maps. Some icons over player characters are blue, while others are orange, and others still are... green? I had no idea what was going on during that first hour and the flow of the games made it difficult to catch my breath, ultimately leading to my putting the game down in frustration for the night.
Obviously, I dug in again. With some time and practice, the iconography started to make more sense. I was able to distinguish between my own team and the enemy's, as well as members of the squad I'd chosen to roll with. The player progression system which was opaque the night before, started to make more sense, the longer I stuck with the game as I began to expand my class-based loadouts, adding specialties (essentially CoD-style "perks") and gadgets (equipment) to prop me up on the field. I still wasn't great at the game, but the battlefield started to have more context for me. I was hooked.
So what was the problem and what changed? I want to say that BF3 has a menu problem, but that's not it: the issue is a post-game problem, where DICE, so committed to getting you into the next game, hustles you through a match wrap-up screen and then into the next match without any options to modify your loadouts, apply upgrades, or even quit. What that means is that--save for 30 seconds at the beginning of a round--there's no clear opportunity to take a breath and figure out how to customize your soldier to your liking. To remedy this, before spawning into my next match, I simply chose the inelegant solution to hang back in the menus to make the necessary tweaks and adjustments. While not perfect by any stretch of the imagination--hey team, sorry it took me a minute to get back out there with my sniper rifle--it did give me a chance to figure out what I was missing during that initial, not-fun hour.
In any other game, this kind of oversight might be fatal to the overall flow, but BF3 has the benefit of being very fun. With the exception of the less-than-intuitive helicopter and jet controls, vehicles handle like a charm, and it's satisfying, zipping around the map, avoiding rocket fire and wiping out the opposing team. Or crouching behind a tank and, as an engineer, repairing so I could take out nearby enemy firepower. It provides the expansive, huge combat experience of a game like MAG with something that feels like a focused Modern Warfare package. Menu gripes aside, I'll say it again: I'm hooked on the mulitplayer here and look forward to completely upgrading soldier in the coming weeks.
And the thrill of the MP experience makes the lackluster campaign all that much more of a problem.
A Campaign You've Probably Played Before
It's hard not to feel like the single player campaign portion of BF3 wasn't simply a way to justify the full retail price for a game that would have made a spectacular downloadable title through Xbox Live, PSN, and EA's own service, Origin. As it stands, the single player campaign adds very little to the overall package, with a fairly limp story using a disjointed, not very thrilling flashback structure that has you chasing missing nukes in the far-flung year of 2014, across Iran, Paris, and New York. A note to all would-be FPS devs: loose nukes as a plot is played out, and furthermore, a flashback structure should be used to enhance your story and gameplay and not simply act as a crutch for a series of loosely-tied combat encounters.
As much as I enjoyed the multiplayer component of BF3, I came to dislike the single player game in equal measure. Relying on so many of the worst instincts of FPS titles of the recent past, from ubiquitous quick-time events, loads of non-interactive sequences, vehicle combat that doesn't reflect the mulitplayer experience, and a punishing checkpoint system that forces you to sit through loops of dialog and combat setup that doesn't get any more interesting the third or 13th time through. If the Modern Warfare games' campaigns aspire to be big, dumb Michael Bay-style blockbusters, BF3 feels like something from an also-ran like Dominic Sena* or the like.
I dove into a couple of matches of Public Co-op matches included on the multiplayer disc. These were... okay? They had the same feel of the Spec Ops mode in MW2, relying on maps from the campaign for scenarios where you're tasked with fending off waves of enemies. I did have to contend with the bad behavior of other users who would simply drop out of a game or hilariously/horribly crash our helicopter against a mountain. That's really more a player issue than a game issue, but it made the experience a little less fun.
But Let's Focus on the Positive
My complaints with the flow of multiplayer matches aside, I'm in love with that aspect of BF3. If you're a shooter fan, I'd advise you to pick it up (or download it, if you're PC people) today. The rough edges might get smoothed out in future updates, and it's clear that DICE is already responding to player feedback, with plans for a Hardcore mode scheduled to be added as of this writing. But along the same lines, I'd also advise you to simply stay away from the campaign. It feels like a vestigial thing, completely unnecessary and a drag on the otherwise pleasurable experience that the developer has served up.
*I kid, I can't hate on the man responsible for this too much.
Battlefield 3 is available on the PS3, 360, and PC now.