Battlefield 3 – Final Review

Battlefield 3 begins with a bang; Blackburn, one of the primary playable characters, is seen fleeing from some violent unknown pursuers, rushing through the dense New York City streets before promptly leaping atop a subway car, evading one group of pursuers only to meet with a greater hostility: the train is bustling with enemies, eager to destroy Blackburn; as a threat, though, they are easily dispatched. While an immersive, exhilarating sequence, it would have been far more successful if the entire affair were merely a cutscene; as it stands, control is given to the player, only to be taken away again a scant few seconds afterward, where intrusive Quick Time Events emerge, totally ruining the pacing of the assault; it lends a cinematic quality, as Blackburn leaps from window to window, eventually riding atop the train as it speeds down the track, while all around is destruction and explosions, a significant number of enemies slain. But this constant stripping of control is frustrating. Still, lasting a few brief minutes, the encounter concludes; Blackburn is defeated, attacked and rendered unconscious, only for the clock to spin backwards, providing context for what precisely led to this perilous chase.

The frame narrative on offer here is far from original, but it is still fairly effective. Blackburn is situated in a panoramic apartment, the towering New York City skyscrapers visible just through the windows, projecting their beautiful lights. Promptly entering are a pair of high-ranking men, summoned to interrogate Blackburn for some offenses committed in the field, namely the murdering of his Commanding Officer in the heat of the moment; this pair of men, brash and crass though they may be, seek only answers to this question, the motivations driving Blackburn, information on the sequence of events leading to this moment of active resistance. The narrative winds around aimlessly, leaping from mission to mission, and quickly ventures towards the formulaic; a brief cutscene plays, establishing background and context for the next campaign mission; the mission is then played and completed; finally another cutscene plays in the present interrogation room, and this formula is clung to throughout the entire campaign. If the plot were more compelling, this repetitive design would have been not so unbearable. Still, even in these cutscenes the game’s technical strengths are readily apparent – the character modelling for these three men remains impressive a decade later, while the voice acting is of high caliber, the men speaking in a suitably gruff manner, reflecting their positions as military men, spewing believable military jargon, only furthering their plausibility. The writing itself is fairly unremarkable, but the delivery does bolster its effectiveness. The inclusion of multiple playable protagonists also bolsters the strength of the narrative, generic and uninspired as it may be.   

If the narrative itself is underwhelming, the sense of place which grounds the narrative excels in compensation; abounding in environmental diversity, the impressiveness of these areas is only bolstered by the graphics, which make effective use of lighting; the opening proper, after the subway escape, occurs in a dense, urban Iranian environment, where much of the narrative transpires. Here, the towering buildings are dazzlingly white, the baked lighting giving them a unique, arresting appearance. The neon lights in shops and windows, written believably in Arabic, further serve to ground the narrative in authenticity. Much of this level occurs atop rooftops, with long sight lines on the enemies situated far below; there is a strong sense of verticality. No level ever overstays its welcome, each environment decidedly different from the last. Understandably, these environments can be hit or miss, and generally preferable are the missions which occur during daytime, where the gorgeous lighting engine is most apparent. In the nighttime missions, though, there are additional tactical considerations, owing to the decreased visibility; infrared scopes, rare though they may be, are here highly valuable, while enemy weapons, with mounted flashlights, compromise their positioning; it is exhilarating to see an opposing soldier rapidly advancing onward, rushing the player, flashlight swaying as he runs, only reliable indicator of his presence; landing a hail of accurate gunfire only to see that light trend downwards and eventually disappear is extremely satisfying and tense; indeed, tension characterizes much of the campaign, with compelling set-piece moments, though these remarkable events do suffer somewhat by the further inclusion of Quick Time Event’s. One such event sees the player forced to find safe cover, to avoid destruction by planes circling overhead, dropping their bombs. Constantly wondering if the cover taken is secure from the raids – secure from death – is an almost distressing experience.

Also when regarding environmental diversity, there are brief sojourns into dense, urban Paris, while arid deserts into the untamed wilderness of Iran are navigated through on tanks, enemy vehicles flanking on all sides. Only a few environments fail: one of the longer missions culminates in a sortie against a claustrophobic manor, abounding in cheaply-positioned enemies, wielding shotguns which can kill the player with one blast. This narrowness is noticeably terrible because of how open are earlier environments. True, there are essentially invisible walls, with a timer in place that kills the player character if out of bounds for more than a span of a few seconds, but a sense of scale and largeness persists all throughout the campaign missions. In these engagements, the game shows its greatest strength; the encounters evoke a true sensation that this is a battlefield, not some trivial gunfight between a squad of four and a few enemy forces; no, in the more grand conflicts, there can be countless unnamed allies, who are susceptible to gunfire; navigating through a dense warzone while companions swiftly and frequently collapse to the dirt is exhilarating, furthering the achievement of survival – Blackburn and his squadmates fulfilled their objective almost by chance, succeeded while countless others failed, futilely dying for the cause.

Regarding combat, the arsenal on offer here is abundant, while the gun models are of exceptional quality. The sound effects for the weaponry furthers a sense of immersion and tension, the velocity of the rounds conveyed by their swift passage, while the grunts and groans of dying enemies and companions lend an air of the visceral. A major complaint, though, is centered around the weaponry; while the arsenal is exhaustive, very few of the guns are accessible in the campaign; each level sees a predetermined equipment for the player character, with no flexibility to choose starting weaponry; the inclusion of a simple loadout feature, permitting the player to consider attachments or even pick the ideal gun – it would do much to elevate the gameplay, creating a replay value which is otherwise totally lacking; experimentation is low, choice of armaments largely being those which are recoverable from fallen enemies. At certain predetermined points, a sniper rifle will materialize, if an overwatch role is needed, while in other instances a rocket-launcher is wielded to destroy heavy materiel – these scenarios, though, are quite rare. But no matter what weapon is wielded, the gunplay is spectacular across the board. The sound effects go a long ways toward escalating the tension of the engagements, but the noticeable recoil attached to many weapons – notably those with an automatic fire-rate – adds a tactical consideration, managing recoil becoming an active struggle. Fortunately, most weapons have alternate fire modes – an automatic weapon can be manipulated to fire in bursts, or even become single-shot, helping when engaging with enemies at range; a scoped weapon is an absolute necessity, especially when considering sniper rifles are an oddity. There is a damning if believable two-weapon limit, which further hinders experimentation, and constantly occupying one of those precious slots was an assault rifle; functional at all ranges, they are secure and reliable, though not particularly imaginative.  

The enemy AI is fairly competent, sticking to cover, only popping out briefly to draw more accurate fire; they play defensively rather than aggressively, which lends a slower pace to the combat; here are no juggernaut enemies with abnormal, inflated health bars, soaking up magazine after magazine, refusing to fall; everything is balanced and believable, head shot damage normally dropping a foe with one bullet, while there is a noticeable damage drop off when firing at long ranges. Cover and other aspects of the environment are fairly destructible; a concrete barricade, offering refuge for an enemy, can easily be torn to shreds, leaving that same enemy totally vulnerable. Grenades, useful in combat engagements, deal comparatively little environmental damage, not being much stronger in destructive power than a traditional assault rifle round. But there is a symphonic balance here; just as the enemies refuse to be bullet-sponges, here the player character is exceedingly fragile; a few bullets, even when fired from considerable ranges, can often result in swift death, at least on the hard difficulty. Given this fragility, a defensive playstyle is adopted – the enemy behaviors must be mimicked if success is to be achieved. In this manner, the game nears the tactical shooter genre, despite the regenerating health, the rate of which is fairly generous. Still, leaving cover at the inopportune moment often results in death; the rush from cover to cover becomes an exhilarating one. Blackburn is almost always accompanied with a squad of three other companions, which seemingly opens up further tactical considerations, though this is illusory; their movements cannot be managed, with no issuable commands; still, this lack of control assists the pacing; they have infinite health, and can both draw fire and attack; here is no micro-management. Narratively, the banter between the squadmates does offer some levity, and a few of them even die along the journey, causing a sense of disillusionment in the survivors. But I never gravitated towards any of these soldiers; they accompanied Blackburn on his journey, assisting him and periodically comforting him, but no emotional investment emerges.

If the infantry levels stand out, there are more exotic levels involving vehicles. The first of these occurs within the first hour or so of the campaign, with a player character other than Blackburn. The mission involves the piloting of a jet, to clear the skies of rival bombers, thus permitting clear skies to soften the ground units below. A protracted gunfight here transpires, and while the jet itself is not controllable, all control of weaponry and defensive systems is given to the player; as a sequence, it can be almost nausea inducing, the jet performing barrel rolls and other elaborate maneuvers; still, the player character is tasked with dispatching those rival jets, establishing a lock-on for guided missiles, or deploying flares to defensively dissipate the jet’s heat signature. While highly immersive, it drags on for far too long – once the skies have been cleared of enemy jets, bombing runs are orchestrated and controlled, destroying the land targets, fulfilling the ultimate objective. Missions like this are generally meant to break up the monotony of infantry gameplay, to offer something refreshing. This mission certainly fulfills that role, but its placement in the narrative is puzzling, damaging the resonance of the moment; if it had occurred at the three-hour mark rather than the 45-minute mark it would have been far more refreshing and impactful. Still, while much potential was missed here, the mere conception of manning a jet, fixed constantly to the first-person perspective, is highly novel and commendable. Starting out on an aircraft carrier, the waves churning wildly all around, while thick rain slants sideways – technically the mission is another standout. There is another primary vehicle section which occurs some hours later, seeing the piloting of a tank, in a squadron of heavy vehicles. Here, the player is given more direct control, able to both steer the vehicle and man its weapon systems. Taking place in a large, sprawling badlands, the game again shines technically, with the beautiful baked lighting, and again, the maintenance of the first-person perspective marks the section as similarly unique, though not to the same extent as was in the jet flying mission. In terms of control, the section is intuitive, and after a few repeated but expected failures, I acclimated to the controls and eventually found success; it was a thrilling, empowering moment. A similar set piece moment occurs later in the campaign, and while entire control is again stripped from the player, it remains remarkable, seeing the Russian character Demi skydiving from a plane of considerable altitude with two companions, falling for an impossibly long time, before puling the chute and landing safely on the ground below. This instance could be juxtaposed with the opening mission atop the subway, how much more impactful it could be if it were a simple cinematic.    

While the game can be occasionally brutal, I found the difficulty curve to be firm but fair; if I died on the battlefield, that death was likely attributable to some error of tactical consideration on my part. But while death is frequent, frequent too are the number of checkpoints, while loading screens are brief, normally lasting no more than ten or so seconds; I was always eager to leap back into the fray, to try different tactics towards victory. In these instances, the dearth of active weapon options shows itself as problematic: access to a different gun would only further alter the method of attack. Stealth, too, plays a very slender role in the title; suppressed weapons are non-existent in the campaign, while the scant stealth sections which do exist in the campaign are lacking in any real complexity, seeing the dispatch of a lone solider or two, rather than the stalking of several squads; a greater emphasis on stealth would serve a similar role as do the vehicle sections – to break up the traditional gunplay, to offer the refreshing; the exclusion of these scenarios is a disappointment. Luckily, gunplay generally staves off the repetitious, the systems sound and intuitive on all fronts; everything here is polished.  

Narratively, Battlefield 3 is unremarkable, touching on traditional military matters in a traditional military world. While there is some narrative ambition with the multiple protagonists, everything else seems narrow in scope and highly formulaic; excellent voice acting makes up for some of these failings, but technical achievement cannot redeem poor, generic writing. The gameplay systems universally counter these negatives: guns are enjoyable to shoot, while scripted sequences abound, some of them existing for too long, but serving the primary objective of breaking up the monotony of gunplay, which could have been elevated further if greater experimentation were afforded, a more explicit choice of weaponry rather than arbitrary equipment given the player at the start of a mission. Still, narratively certain questions arise, namely the role of man relative to his country; the slaughtering of a commanding officer is a contemptible act, the ultimate disgrace for a solider. But rather than looking at the matter and seeing solely the sordid – as do Blackburn’s interrogators – the player is meant to realize the ambiguity of the situation; kill one, save a thousand. It is a poignant commentary, and while its effectiveness could certainly be improved – if the narrative were tighter, the writing a bit better – at least there is some message the game attempts to communicate. It never quite resonates on an emotional level, but the intensity of the campaign, characterized by briskness and environmental diversity, elevates the game; short and succinct, the campaign is completable in around eight hours, and the overall experience is satisfying, in nor particularly memorable.

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