Single Player Review
There’s a mission in Battlefield 3 called Going Hunting during which you step out of the boots of recon marine Henry Blackburn and into the boots of Hawkins the jet fighter pilot. It’s time to fly and after scads of shooty-shooty missions with Blackburn, a change of scenery proves most welcome.
Going Hunting begins in the warren-like bowels of an aircraft carrier. DICE tease, walking you at adagio pace through the vessel, stooping beneath cramped ceilings, squeezing through rusted arteries. “Get your fangs out”, Mr. Co-Pilot says, “we’re hunting big game today.” Up ahead, piercing through the dingy hallways is natural light. A plaintive sky and lashing rain paints a duly moody scene. We’re hunting big game today.
Out of the metal belly and there it is. There IT is. It’s Christmas morning. It’s every Christmas morning rolled into one consummate Christmas morning. It’s a jet fighter, the stuff of dreams. We’re hunting big game today, and we’re hunting it in that. Oh boy oh boy oh boy oh boy.
Hawkins stuffs her silent head into a helmet. The pitter-patter of rain becomes muted; it’s cozy like being inside on a wet November morning. But who gives a damn. Up you step toward this magnificent monument to human ingenuity, every ohm of your body itching to be inside of it.
Up the ladder. Into the cockpit. Behold a glorious hub of buttons, triggers, joysticks, screens, lights and switches each of them more tantalising than the last. The engine stirs to life, a slow escalating whine culminating in that wonderful crescendo: takeoff. But not yet. The canopy lowers, encasing you within a cocoon of personified, puerile delight. The engine kicks things up yet another notch whistling like a boiling kettle, the unbearable tease. You press some buttons. You check the wings. We’re going hunting. Get on with it.
Just seconds away from that stomach-churning, gravity thwarting launch. Some amount of excruciating minutes building up to this, the hunt. OH BOY. OH BOY. OH BOY.
Press Y to take off.
Trace the history of first person shooters back far enough and you’ll make out three phases of its evolution. First came the one-man army type shooters reeking of bravado and machismo; one man, countless guns, a gruesome trail in his wake. Next came the war games; surrounded by an endless torrent of useless allies, these tried to replicate the scale of war by pitting the player as one of many. Allies would run forward, fire off a few rounds into the ether and die. An illusionary trick, look how big our war is.
Today we’re at the latest stage, a stage of total irrelevance where we play as “warriors” if the Battlefield blurb is to believed. Warrior, if games like Homefront and Battlefield 3 are anything to go by, roughly translates to dazed and confused marionette. You’re told what to do, when to do it, where and even how and in the rare moments you aren’t being ordered about like a naughty child, your AI buddies are more than capable of winning the war without you. You’re along for the ride.
You might call it cinematic.
And boy, is Battlefield 3 cinematic. As a carefully orchestrated, surgically precise series of audiovisual smacks to the face soused in spectacle it is astonishing. A peerless, technical display of such wild proficiency it could give the movies a run for their money. Remember that sniper scene from the Fault Line videos? Played out for real it’s nothing short of thrilling. You’ve barely a part to play in the proceedings but as .50 cal bullets tear through the Middle Eastern heat, etching holes the size of tennis balls into the very concrete you always trusted, you can’t help but feel content just to be there for such a heady moment.
Elsewhere, the whiz of an RPG as it screams by is blood curdling, the whip and the subsequent crack of sniper fire narrowly avoiding your face equally hair-raising. The belated booming of a jet fighter blessing some unlucky son of a bitch with a deathly kiss and the roaring as it shatters the atmosphere overhead is almost tangible. Together with top-notch animations and visual mastery it makes for an absorbing stage.
But audiovisual treats alone can’t carry the game and as they begin to wear thin, about the time you start trying to stray from the path neatly laid out for you, Battlefield’s small stable of joys are lost and replaced by ennui. There’s a reason the only single player footage demonstrated has come exclusively from two levels. The rest simply do not boast the same level of detail and drama as the earthquake ravaged city or the dark, urban sprawl.
The story centers on recon marine Henry Blackburn who’s reliving the events of a fictional war in Iran as he’s interrogated by a couple of CIA agents. There’s a no-good by the name of Soloman, a terrorist army helping him out and, obviously, plenty of nuclear bombs. You can see where this is headed.
As the story progresses it becomes ever harder to distinguish between Battlefield and a pared back Call of Duty. By the time Russians, nuclear threats and multiple, vacuous characters come in to play the campaign is starved of its early thrills. A level spent playing silent sniper in a nighttime city is enough to perk interest midway through but proves more scripted than anything that came before it. Shoot him. Use this gun. Fire now. Follow me. Reload. Stray from the path and you’re given a ten second countdown, if you’re not playing by the rules by that point you keel over dead.
It’s all so prescribed and confined and as a result there’s no room for tactics or experimentation. Or fun, really. Alleyways in the city are off limits so there’s no chance of doing a flanking maneuver, you can’t enter buildings and abuse people’s living rooms as sniper roosts and there isn’t even a single point where you’re able to freely commandeer a tank or LAV and have your buddies operate the turrets Halo-style. In a game with such eccentric multiplayer brimming with brilliant features, it’s a tragedy that so little of what makes that section tick has made the transition over into the campaign.
In fact, more often than not gunfights become a rush to make a kill before your over-competent and invincible AI counterparts purloin all the fun. Weapons pack a glorious punch but without any freedom of expression firefights become cheerless corridor shoots.
Indeed, it’s telling that the campaign has been relegated to disc 2 but that doesn’t ease the dismay at the fact that there’s scarcely an inkling of innovation here. A shotgun approach to a campaign that apes yet rarely manages to reach the same heights as Modern Warfare is sorry coming from something like Homefront. But from Battlefield, to not have the nous or to simply not bother considering what makes the series’ multiplayer so lauded and then implement that into the campaign is the biggest disappointment of all, especially after that marketing campaign.
Technical aspects aside then, you’ve seen this all before. Battlefield 3 is a first-rate illustration of cinematic flair being placed at the forefront of game design. As a series of audiovisual treats it’s truly magnificent. As a game though, it conforms to the call of duty but fails to ever go above or beyond.