It’s like this. Scrambling from cover to cover, watching all manner of aircraft cracking the sound barrier overhead, tanks menacingly rolling over hills with a ferocity of a two-ton metal dragon, and you manage to draw a bead on a single enemy soldier. Pop pop. You scored a few hits. To finish what you started, you hunt your wounded prey. Before you get the satisfaction of delivering the final blow, a massive explosion from… something destroys whatever life he had left. You’re given credit for contributing to his demise. Taking a look back, jets continue to blaze through the skies, tanks still rolling over the hills, virtual men continuing to die as their names continue to scroll through the kill feed. Your contribution to the war will go relatively unnoticed.
You feel small. You feel insignificant. You feel like you’re – wait for it – in a battlefield.
There’s a mindless quality to Battlefield 3, where there are things to do simply because you have to do them in the midst of complete bedlam. Firefights explode in pockets all over the map, as 63 other players join in to play pretend war. A dedicated sprint towards an objective can end with a single bullet, a single tank shell, a single gun run by a chopper that just happened to choose you as its next target out of 31 others. You could be doing the same exact things to someone else, and it makes the battlefield endlessly fascinating where stuff things happen anytime and anywhere.
Is this the very soul of Battlefield 3? Chaos reigns supreme? I'm not sure, because somewhere within the endless cycles of death and destruction, DICE seems to strongly imply that finding order within the chaos is the easiest path to victory. All the kits have their place in the battlefield – one supplies the ammo, one supplies the med-kits, one specializes in anti-armor, and one specializes in attaining reconnaissance for the entire team, pointing out enemy positions and movement from a distance.
Making use of the role of each kit and squadding up with three others to work together will definitely help you make sense of the warzone, and working together, as a team, is ultimately the best and most efficient way to get things done, but it's all just implied.
"Most teamwork is entirely incidental…"
The whole “Play it your way” mantra DICE has been pushing runs counter to the gameplay systems in place. Working together to take out enemy targets and capture key targets is the easier path to victory, but without proper VOIP functionality in-game, a horrendously poor squad management system, an even more horrendous mini-map that only serves to get you more lost, and the most horrendousiestestest chat log of all time and space, it's tough to work together. It's tough to communicate intentions, to relay objectives, and to work towards a common goal. On a 32-player scale of Bad Company 2, this is much less of a problem, because of there naturally being more focus, but double that player count, and you start wondering what the hell the rest of your team is doing when your team doesn't have a single capture point to their name. It might just be that they're at as much of a loss as you. Most teamwork is entirely incidental, where someone just happens to drop ammo for himself and has others just happen to be around in need of it, where an engineer just happens to be around to repair your disabled armor, and so on.
The problem gets exacerbated in certain maps, where it doesn't look like it was built with 64 players in mind, not even in the periphery. Maps like Operation Metro and Damavand Peak play very poorly in Conquest, eliminating the interesting flanking routes and open-ended options in favor of tight corridors where teams are locked in battles of pure attrition. Most end up playing exceptionally well, with a few playing well enough, but not all maps adapt well to the most traditional and arguably most interesting game mode in the series.
But when things click, the battlefield is glorious. You're duly awarded for your exceptional service in the field, as you're granted ribbons for your fine accomplishments and promotions for your efforts to fight the good fight. The synergy between each of your 31 teammates comes together in a way that few, if any, blockbuster multiplayer shooters even try to create.
It's two distinct methods of play where going at it on your own and working together are both viable methods of play, but with the former being considerably less effective and satisfying. There's a point where DICE should've stepped up and enforced methods to have a squad stick together and to have a great coherence between other squads, because when it works, it's nirvana in the form of high-intensity, all-out war; when everyone acts with their own agenda, it's substantially less interesting of a game but still a fun one.
It really doesn't help when elements of the game feel clearly unfinished, from the slapdash squad management, to how there's a general tendency for the game client to simply crash without rhyme or reason. The UI is generally awful, with icons and markers chewing up the screen, making it hard to discern key elements when in the middle of a firefight with explosions all around.
Beyond that, the co-op missions feel half-hearted, with the entirety of it lasting barely over an hour. They're definitely fun, and require a degree of communication, but without even a chat box to interact with public match-made games, there's the increasingly depressing feeling that DICE just barely met an immovable deadline.
It's got a single-player campaign too. Yeah. It's enters-one-ear-and-then-right-out-the-other type of stuff. Often taking control away from the player, often using pointless quick-time events, often just going through the motions of shooting AI going in and out of cover, it's a missed opportunity to teach MP basics and manages to tell a story so self-serious and boilerplate, that it's downright cheesy.
Battlefield 3 has some good looks going for it, with an aggressive visual style that's questionable in its direction. The game looks outstanding, but the art direction goes for a stark contrast lighting scheme that favors cinematic style instead of something resembling something closer to reality. It can be hard to discern enemy players, when shadows are so dark, and when light sources are so intensely bright, but it becomes less of a problem the more you play.
"No other game has a soundscape this convincing."
It sounds better. Better than better – it's perfect. It's practically like the real thing, as it never ever sounds like it's playing off a set of recorded sounds. It's incredibly organic and dynamic in a way that basically no other games have come to match. No other game has a soundscape this convincing. No other game sounds so good that the thud of tank shells and the screams of rockets flying right above you sends you instinctively smashing the prone key from the sheer power of the audio. The authority and power of each gun shot is felt in a way that makes all other guns in the history of video games sound puny and weightless in comparison. It's truly in a class of its own, generating an atmosphere of war from all sides.
Battlefield 3 plays incredibly well sometimes. Others, it plays well. There's a promising future for the game, as the player base will grow and understand the underlying objective-based systems, and DICE continues to support the game throughout the game's life. They've already proven that with Battlelog (the game’s web-based lobby system) to an extent, as it's been updated a few times since its launch. Battlefield 3 is a really strange product, promoting one method of play heavily while quietly nudging you to play the “better” and “right” way.
It's hard to tell how it'll pan out over the years, but right now, this is a great game burdened with new, confused players, technical problems, and a lack of information as to how to be effective on the field. It's a Battlefield game alright, but it's going to need some time and work before it becomes a worthy time sink.