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Battlefield 3 (PC) artwork

Battlefield 3 (PC) review

"More than any other graphics engine today, it's a complete package, featuring scale, scope, spectacle, on-foot detail and in-airplane elbow room, multiplayer, meaningful destruction, and absurdly good animation. Absurdly good. The animation is so good you probably won't even notice it. Of course the characters move this way because that's how real dudes move. What's the big deal? You almost have to go back to another game with the usual animation to appreciate what Battlefield 3 does."

I'm probably the last person to figure this out, but I think I've finally wrapped my head around what makes the Battlefield games work so well. It isn't the guns, or the tanks and helicopters, or the leveling up, or the graphics engine, or the classes, or even the players. Those all figure prominently, but not primarily. What you remember, what the game leaves in your head, where it gets its hooks into you, what impresses itself on you as surely as the story in BioShock, the landscape in Red Dead Redemption, or the animation in God of War are the places you fight.

In other words, the battlefields. You'd think at some time over the last 10 years of playing Battlefield games, I'd have appreciated the importance of the title.

Battlefield 3 asset

From its first visit to Wake Island in Battlefield 1942, this series has combined level design, graphics engine, and gameplay to bring places to life. The level design gives the places character, the graphics engine gives them spectacle, and the gameplay gives you a reason to be there. Battlefield 3 is a triumph in all three areas.

The Caspian border map, for instance. You cannot possibly play more than a couple of matches without falling in love with the hilltop for how it looms over the most of the map. Whether you're strafing it in a helicopter, lurking on its rocks under the trees, creeping up one of the two road approaches in a tank hoping no one's manning the TOW missile defenses, or scrambling up one of the steep footpaths, this is a hilltop you will come to know. It is a hill you will remember. Of all the inclines in all the games you've played, there hasn't been one that has mattered this much, this often, in this many different ways. Whether you're sniping down into the forest or dropping mortar shells on the guys hunkered down in the checkpoint, you know this hilltop is the place to be. It might survive the match unscathed, or it might be a mess of felled trees, razed buildings, and a collapsed radio tower. There is more character in one of Battlefield 3's capture points than most shooters have in an entire map list.

Traditionally, graphics engines have been a game of give-and-take. What was your priority? Did you want draw distance, frame rate, destructibility, or spectacle? In which case, I would have recommended Operation Flashpoint, Quake 2, Red Faction: Guerrilla, or Just Cause 2, respectively. Whatever your choice, you would have to make sacrifices, whether it was good animation, or a decent interface, or multiplayer. But if you've got the hardware, Battlefield 3 ticks all the boxes without compromise. More than any other graphics engine today, it's a complete package, featuring scale, scope, spectacle, on-foot detail and in-airplane elbow room, multiplayer, meaningful destruction, and absurdly good animation. Absurdly good. The animation is so good you probably won't even notice it. Of course the characters move this way because that's how real dudes move. What's the big deal? You almost have to go back to another game with the usual animation to appreciate what Battlefield 3 does.

Battlefield 3 asset

The new destructibility isn't on par with the free-form destruction in Red Faction: Guerrilla, but what is? It does just enough to really matter. For instance, you can't level a city block in Paris, but you can blow out walls and drop rubble onto dudes standing at the foot of a building. This is the closest a multiplayer shooter has come to matching what Relic's Company of Heroes did for real time strategy games.

You might not approve of the leveling system. It encourages players to stick with a single class, camp vehicles, and focus on getting kills with their weapon of choice. But you can't deny it's effective. Advancement is divided into separate tracks for your overall level, your choice of class, individual weapons, and types of vehicles. Each track comes with its own rewards, and each one advances simultaneously. Any given track can be a fairly drawn-out process, but there's always something either happening or on the verge of happening. Another thirty kills to unlock the fancy night-vision scope on your sniper rifle might seem an eternity away, but you're just about to get that nifty flying drone. In the end, Battlefield 3's rich-get-richer distribution is a necessary evil for the way it creates a sense of attachment to your role and your weapon.

Battlefield 3 has its share of peccadilloes, of varying degrees of importance to the overall package. The terrible single-player campaign is as bad as it is irrelevant. It's of no more consequence to the game than, say, the challenge mode in Batman: Arkham City. Electronic Arts has sadly given up on including bots the game, but at least they've added more ways to play meaningful games with fewer players. The rush mode and the squad matches, both from the Bad Company series, are a great alternative to Battlefield's traditional wide-open conquest modes. What's more, some of the maps are anything but wide open. There's nothing quite like a subway or a mountain tunnel to focus the flow of a conquest map.

Battlefield 3 asset

The front end for Battlefield games has always been an issue. A bloated, tedious, awkward issue. Electronic Arts' solution here is, uh, interesting. When you boot up Battlefield 3, you go straight to your web browser. This is your starting point no matter how you want to play, whether it's single-player, multiplayer, or the forgettable co-op challenges that you can grind to unlock a few additional doo-dads for multiplayer. It might seem like an odd starting point, but it makes sense. Where better to browse servers than a browser?

Because Battlefield 3 starts on a web page, it feels a lot less intrusive when EA uses it as the basis for their usual social networking silliness. I don't mind seeing a list of what my friends have unlocked, or when they've ranked up, or even having them post comments. It's one of the best water-cooler front ends built around a game this side of Starcraft II's It's not nearly as thorough as what Activision intends for Modern Warfare 3, but it's much friendlier. It's more Facebook than analytical tool. This makes it all the more galling that I can't more easily connect and group with my friends thanks to an oddly inflexible squad system. Much like grouping in an MMO, the squad system can't just be a part of the gameplay. It also needs to be a part of the social element.

Battlefield 3 doesn't have the immediate run-and-gun appeal served so well by Modern Warfare 3. It never intended that. Instead, like the previous games, Battlefield 3 is about finding your place on the map, your place on your team, with your role, with your gun. Wars have always been about geography. Better than any other shooter, Battlefield 3 gets that.

tomchick's avatar
Freelance review by Tom Chick (November 06, 2011)

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fleinn posted November 06, 2011:

"More than any other graphics engine today," ..other than the one made for Killzone 2, I guess.

You could also mention that EA, in their infinite wisdom, installed a server-side patch this Friday that allowed infinite lag. This means that randomly joining a server might put you on a server on the opposite end of the world, or put players on the opposite side of the world on a local server.

The game doesn't actually handle infinite lag like this (no game does), meaning that the visual fidelity drops very quickly. This is more visible than normal because of the nuance in animation, and how the destruction works.

This was changed from what was deployed with the game - a system that prevented players from joining a server so far off they would be unable to play a smoothly flowing game.

You would think that EA would see the value of a smoothly playing game. But sadly, no.
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WilltheGreat posted November 06, 2011:

if you're playing bf3 i feel bad for you son
its got 99 bugs and that shit wont run
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Masters posted November 07, 2011:

Pretty sweet review. And that's what it is, isn't it: team player vs run-and-gun solo artist -- the Battlefield experience vs the Modern Warfare one.
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fleinn posted November 07, 2011:

..or EA marketing and support vs. Game Developers, I guess.

By the way - apparently someone at DICE had the console version running with 80 people, as a test. Which worked great, allegedly. But the final console-versions have 24 players max, versus the 64 in the PC version. And the maps have been scaled down to match this in Conquest (which is the real Battlefield mode).

So - why do we have 24 players? According to Sony folks, "24 players is just fine". Period. The DICE dev in question "couldn't remember" how they arrived at 24 players in the end. EA/DICE PR allegedly brought up bandwidth restrictions on the PSN and XBL. Which make DICE devs then silently suggests that perhaps it would be possible at a later time to allow 64 player servers - if you had the required bandwidth.

An enticing prospect, obviously.

So how much bandwidth are we talking about here? For BF3 to work properly with 24 players and a muxed squad-chat, we are talking about 15kb/s. The way the game is done/experiments on the PC version appears to suggest they double the bandwidth usage when they double the world updates. Because the destruction takes a lot of the updates, this doesn't mean you actually double the bandwidth by doubling the amount of players, though. So we are talking less than 30kb/s for the downstream, while around the standard 10kb/s for the upstream (the upstream tends to be constant).

In more readable terms, this is about 0,2Mbit. Which is still more than, say, Verizon used to throttle their customers to when downloading too much... in 2005.

Nowadays, you cannot buy a dsl connection with less basic speed than 0.2Mbit. You get 0.2Mbit on 3g (even if it's a really bad idea to use that to play online games, or attempt to use any kind of real-time online application with it).

0.2Mb is less than what OECD uses to define "broadband" in terms of building out internet in forgotten villages in Nepal and Africa and so on.

In other words - if you have internet - even if you bought it off the back of a truck in Teheran, you are 100% certain to have at least 0.2Mbps. ISDN is easily 1 and 2 Mbit, for example.

But presumably EA still figured out that 64 players was something that would make the game more difficult to sell. villagers in Nepal, I suppose.

So what are the odds of the 64 player servers turning up? I would say about the same as that EA starts filtering the servers to avoid the worst lag-spikes. I.e.: slim to none.

Another thing - the "bugs" you refer to tend to have to do with the lag/no filtering as well. The game updates the character you control in the game-context, so if you are out of sync, you get inconsistent movement, strange pulling, etc. So.. vaulting, shooting, aiming, etc, starts to get wonky when the lag increases to the server.


I mean, it's really, really sad. Because it's a terrific game. Even with just 24 players, it's an excellent game. For either people who like to run team deathmatch, or those who like a more strategic game.

But EA's network support leaves a few things to be desired, to put it like that.. I'm amazed they get away with it. Hell, I'm amazed they even come up with the solutions in the first place. It's not like they don't have access to people who know at least /something/ about networks.
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bbbmoney posted November 07, 2011:

Well they've been going for more compact, streamlined experiences with Battlefield since they shifted to console development. I imagine the smaller team sizes are just a part of that philosophy.

Is BF3 as small as Bad Company 2? Or are they going back to what Battlefield 2 did on PC?

Good review, just a question I have to any long time players =]
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honestgamer posted November 07, 2011:

I wish I could tell you, holdthephone. Hopefully, I'll get the chance to play this one soon. Battlefield 2 was one of my favorite games of its era and the first FPS that I really played on a PC. It was a blast. Since then, though, Call of Duty really blew up and sucked all the oxygen out of the room. Developers have to create maps and such with the realization that eventually, CoD will come along and rob many of the players. So it's dangerous to design maps around the concept that you'll have 64 players or whatever. I was glad Tom mentioned that the map designs accomodate smaller numbers. One problem I had with Bad Company 2 online is that the maps felt like wonderful playgrounds where no one else was playing.
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fleinn posted November 07, 2011:

..I think they've done more or less the same thing as with the BF2 maps - created variations of the same area with different fences around the edges. So the console versions just have the shorter fences on the same maps.

Not really a console oriented game or not, in other words, just a focus on the smaller modes that also are available on PC.

Still - it's a solid game, imo, on either platform. Lack a few of the object traversal dependent lighting effects on a certain console version. But the mechanics, the detection of suppressive fire, how that affects the soldiers under fire mechanically and visually - and all the way to stepping on objects, vaulting over ledges, blowing out a wall, etc.. this is all extremely good work. Interference between mechanics, rules and gameplay rarely fit together this well.

..sadly, it doesn't really look that well with random matching, and the ability to join any server, and lag around the corners, etc. Then you get.. not just normal internet lag.. but all kinds of weird glitches. Weapons and explosives that don't work, shaky camera, hit-detection doesn't work, etc..

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