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Single-player is all but a necessity for multiplatform games, considering that multiplayer is a paid service on one of the major consoles. Still, it might be time for EA to give DICE a pass and let them make an online-only game. Battlefield 3 is the third time they've attempted to create a single-player campaign and fallen short of the mark. The result is one of the most lopsided games in recent memory.
The campaign focuses on the efforts of a United States Marine and GRU operative to stop a terrorist group called the PLR. It's a much more ambitious storyline than the "wise-cracking dudes save the world again" plots of the Bad Company games. The story is told mostly through flashbacks, as the Marine is interrogated by the CIA. The playable moments of the game are these flashbacks. The dialogue of this interrogation, though painfully bad at times, often hints at the past events we'll soon see. These little bits of mystery were enough to keep me playing until the end.
Unfortunately, the campaign's not all that fun. It shares the same problem as Bad Company 2's campaign: it doesn't play to the strengths of the Battlefield franchise at all. The appeal of BF's multiplayer are the vast battlegrounds and the countless tactical opportunities offered to players through the deep selection of weapons, equipment, and vehicles. All of that is completely missing from BF3's campaign. The solo journey is a highly linear experience that tells you when it wants you to get in a vehicle and kills you if you try an alternate route to an objective.
Part of the reason the game is so linear is due to technology. The Frostbite 2 Engine is capable of rendering very dense urban environments but the trade-off is that not all of it is destructible. You can punch through a few walls here and there but you won't be leveling too many buildings. All those toppling skyscrapers you saw in the trailers were, sadly, scripted.
While a corridor shooter can still be fun, BF3's A.I. enemies aren't equal to the task. The enemies almost seem bored to be there. They either stand in one spot or approach along seemingly predetermined routes. Their accuracy is absurd on Normal and Hard so you're forced to play through at a snail's pace, slowly picking them off one by one from behind cover.
The ways that DICE tries to break up the monotony of the foot soldier segments fall flat, too. In one mission, you take on the role of an F-18 pilot flying above Iran. However, you're the gunner so the sequence is just rail shooting. The visually stunning take-off and tense dogfight are followed by a dull replica of the AC130 segments from the Modern Warfare games.
BF3 also ships with six co-op missions. They're subject to many of the same problems as the single-player experience. They also carry another nasty surprise: no checkpoints. If you die at any point in the 15-20 minute mission, you'll be forced to replay it from the beginning. The co-op offers a selection of unlocks for normal multiplayer, and you get experience points toward these unlocks even if you fail a mission, so there's at least some small incentive to keep trying. If not for these unlockable items, though, I get the feeling very few people would bother with co-op past the first few deaths. Like the single-player, it fails to impress.
If the single-player and co-op were the full game, BF3 would be a quickly forgotten shooter. However, these modes are are attached to possibly the best competitive multiplayer shooter out there. DICE once again gives two teams a heap of deadly toys and lets them play war on massive maps. They've been refining the formula for this side of the game since 2002 and it shows. The competitive multiplayer has the polish and vision that the one- and two-player modes lack.
The objective-based Conquest and Rush modes are by far the most popular. In Conquest, two teams battle to control several points on the map. Each team has a finite amount of "reinforcements" that are whittled down by deaths or by controlling fewer objectives than the other team. In Rush, a designated attacking team attempts to plant charges on two objective points; if successful, they unlock another pair of objectives to blow up and the match goes on.
Rush and Conquest are both essentially capture-the-territory but play very differently. Conquest is a map-wide battle that challenges teams to hold and attack several territories at once. Rush, meanwhile, feels a bit like you're playing Counter-Strike. You plant a bomb at an objective deep behind enemy lines and then have to defend it until it detonates. Conquest is more popular on the PC because the higher player cap (64) for that version. The console versions support 24 players per match and subsequently are more suited for the focused nature of Rush. Still, you'll have a lot of fun playing Conquest on the Xbox 360 or Rush on the PC. The maps have been shrunk a bit for the console versions so you won't feel lonely with 24 players on a Conquest map.
There are eight maps in total for competitive multiplayer. They're a solid mix of vast, outdoor environments and close-quarters urban sprawl. In Operation Firestorm, two teams in and around an oil refinery in the desert. Operation Metro, in contrast, takes place almost entirely inside of a Parisian subway station. In both cases, the maps have a mixture of close-quarters and wide-open environments. You'll find plenty of opportunities to snipe in Operation Metro or sneak up and knife someone in Firestorm.
There are so many ways to play a map. I'm not just talking about game modes. There are four basic classes - Assault, Engineer, Support, and Recon - with unique sets of weapons, weapon attachments, and gadgets to choose from. The large selection of equipment you can unlock gives each class a lot of flexibility. You can contribute to your team's success in several ways. You can sit in the mountains and snipe all day or grab an RPG and hunt tanks. The maps are so vast that simply finding a new sniper nest can make the experience feel new again.
Piloting the game's various land, air and sea vehicles - or manning their turrets - is another way to experience the battle. BF3 reintroduces airplanes, which were absent from the Bad Company games. I have mixed feelings about the return of jets, as it means more players are sitting idly at base while they wait for them to respawn. Also, they're far from easy to pilot; some PC owners resort to using a flightstick. Still, airplanes give players a new part of the game to master and dogfights and bombing runs just add to the multiplayer carnage. If nothing else, you'll be grateful to have more targets for your shoulder-mounted missile launcher.
DICE feeds players' addiction to the multiplayer with a new interface called Battlelog. Battlelog tracks all of your gameplay stats and gives you details on the unlocks you're working toward. Its inclusion makes the PC version a little awkward, though. You launch Origin, and then get kicked back to your browser to view Battlelog. You access the single-player, co-op, or competitive multiplayer through this website. Battlelog is lightweight and lets you browse the web while you're connecting to a multiplayer match or loading a level but it takes some getting used to.
No other multiplayer shooter out there is quite like Battlefield 3. It's a deep, thrilling experience that accomodates a wide range of playstyles. It's a shame, though, that DICE can't find a way to translate this appeal to the single-player and co-op. Competitors should pray that they don't figure it out.
Players: 1-24 (consoles), 1-64 (PC)
Platforms: PC (reviewed), Xbox 360 (reviewed), PS3
Publisher: Electronic Arts
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