When It Moves, It Sings [Battlefield 3 Review]

By James Hawkins in Reviews
Monday, November 7, 2011 at 10:00 am
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When forces collide, I imagine that war is a cacophonous mass of action. For all the effort that is loaded into military tactics, order, and discipline, I would believe that it is almost impossible to teach the ability to stay calm when Death is carving hot lines in the air around you. When helicopters flood skies and dirt is kicked up. When people are shouting and bleeding and just-lit cigarettes are being cast downward, sweat is blurring eyesight, and guns need training to a precise degree to touch a distant life. I know there are some who can remain unfazed by that chaos - I most certainly could not. I would easily succumb to the fear and exhilaration.

But in military shooters, this is all staged and safe. Fear is removed, events timed, and variables become consolidated to a trimmed locale. The outcomes of combat can be tried and repeated with very little penalty. A screen absorbs the impact of shells and hot sun. It is a symphony - a series of pieces working in concert to recreate a situation without the caginess of actual combat. I can function with complete mental clarity as digital Hell delights around me. I can focus amid the distraction.

DICE has become a master at making this mechanism. In Battlefield 3, the physical nature of war is vibrant and complex, with more pieces than ever fitting together to become a scene. And when the momentum of combat is in full swing, there is very little like it in the world of video games. But only when it is moving.

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There's a scene in Battlefield 3 where you must run through the streets of a major Western city amid a firefight. As these games are wont, the mission's objective is to follow a leader through alleyways, sprinting past shooting enemies, dodging explosives, and setting up small ambushes. You move at full tilt, with order breaking apart around you -- structures are collapsing as scripted events trigger every few yards. It is gorgeous in how it plays, and it induces a gutty, adrenal response as you play through this level because of how close you are to losing at any one second. But you manage to complete it.

It is clear that these sorts of instances are where DICE has placed its emphasis. Firefights and objective completions in the game have a supreme energy -- as much as any other game on the market. The designers, artists, and programmers are all virtuoso, and are drawn to creating these games because they like to show war as an apparatus. Very obviously they don't employ the same enthusiasm when trying to tell a story.

My incredulity stuttered once the narrative ventured into being, well, a narrative. In cut scenes between missions, it became clear that a stock adventure would be just well and good enough to drive the player into situations that gave them the opportunity to see DICE's Frostbyte 2 engine hard at work. And not much of anything else. There was nothing to markedly differentiate Battlefield 3 from a deep and excellent simulator of target practice. Which, to some, is more than sufficient.

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But when the necessity of a narrative is removed, we are given multiplayer. Battlefield 3's multiplayer experience is equates to a competitive team sport -- game plan and execution are the keys to success. The team who has drawn up the best strategy will usually win the games' lengthy matches. The level layouts, the weapon tunings, and the emphasis on teamwork deliver the gamer an experience that is rewarding, challenging, and benefits from sportsmanship in a way that no other can compete with. But like the single player experience, when the forces aren't actively converging on an objective, the brilliance is smeared. It has been too hampered with server issues, bugs, and janky party support for the gamer to feel the juice surging between distinct game sessions.

But when the matches kick off, and dozens of players descend upon one another in competition, Battlefield 3 is damn near unequaled in the first-person shooter genre. It is one that offers a reward peculiar to its franchise -- you win because you were successful in operating tactics, not because you had the talent on your side. And when all the pieces are moving as one, and the rush of exhilaration flows into your brain, you'll be glad to look past the noticeable obstacles and play this sport as it was meant to be played.

The Official Verdict 4 out of 5

This review is based on an Xbox 360 copy of the game provided by the publisher.

Follow James on Twitter: @JamesHawk1ns
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