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Battlefield 3 Beta Impressions

Posted October 3rd 2011 by Oliver Chen.

As I traversed an open plain in Caspian Border from the gunner seat of a VDV Buggy, I managed to lose myself in the moment. The roar of engines deafened the skies as two jets flew past overhead and an enemy helicopter razed an unfortunate group of soldiers to the left. A tank accompanied by a squad of soldiers came into view ahead, and I harassed the troops while my driver took a hard right to narrowly avoid a tank shell. The horizon looked endless, and in that instant I suddenly felt like anything could happen. This realization that you are part of a conflict bigger than yourself, that there are more things happening around you than you can imagine, can only be described as a "Battlefield Moment."

I recently had the opportunity to play in the PC open beta for Battlefield 3. It consisted of two game modes.  Rush is a 32-player affair where players on an attacking team must arm and detonate a pair of objectives before they run out of respawns, known as "tickets." The defending team, which can respawn indefinitely, must slowly whittle down the opposing team's tickets and prevent the two M-COMs from being destroyed at all costs. If the objectives get taken, a new leg of the map opens up, and the process begins again until the attackers destroy all sets of M-COMs or die trying.

The other mode, Conquest, is a Battlefield classic and surreptitiously appeared in the beta on password-protected servers. Teams, each consisting of a huge 24 or 32 players depending on the server configuration, start the match with a limited number of respawns, and like in Rush lose a ticket whenever a team member goes down. Unique to Conquest are capture points: these landmarks appear evenly distributed throughout the map, and capturing a majority of these by squatting in them king-of-the-hill style induces ticket bleed on the other team. Ticket bleed drains opponent tickets at a much faster rate than killing them would, so Conquest becomes a battle between pushing up towards uncaptured points while defending the areas you already have under control.

The two game types couldn't play any more differently. Rush is a meat grinder of a mode, and emphasizes individual glory over team play. Certain M-COMs have no cover whatsoever, so players who aim for the objective become completely exposed while defenders take potshots at them from within bushes across the map. On occasion, the attackers become blessed with the right blend of luck and are able to arm the objective. Wins as attackers come rarely, and I only ever saw the last leg of the beta's Rush map, Operation Metró once, as the section before that forces the attackers to run up a flight of escalators into a complete slaughterhouse of a bottleneck.

Conquest, on the other hand, rewards team support over kills much more than Rush does. You may have been picked off repairing a tank, but doing so allowed the tank to survive long enough to destroy an enemy emplacement. Rather than throwing yourself against the enemy in an attempt to earn more kills, your actions allowed your team to advance towards the point. Caspian Border, the Conquest map used in the beta, is just huge, and easily dwarfs any of the maps in Bad Company 2. You never feel like you are being limited in movement by an artificially placed cliff or a map boundary. In fact, in all my time playing Caspian Border the only time I ever hit the edge of the stage was when I was forced to abandon my soon-to-be-destroyed jet. The juxtaposition of the sheer scale of the map with the individual conflict you are currently involved in, the balance between vehicle combat and infantry firefights... these are the moments that Battlefield wants you to experience.

This just makes EA/DICE's decision to showcase Operation Metró in the beta all the more bizarre. They want Battlefield 3 to become a Call of Duty killer, but use a mode superficially similar to COD to do it? While I understand the appeal of Rush—its linear nature allows developers to script engagements and set pieces while still allowing some freedom of direction—most players familiar with COD are going to play the beta, become frustrated, and go right back to wanting Modern Warfare 3. One explanation may be that the server code was still unfinalized—one of the Caspian Border maps I played lagged to high Hell—in which case Conquest's omission in the beta is just unfortunate.

Speaking of lag, that was completely serverside—Battlefield 3 is a technical masterpiece. While I don't have the best of computers, and my graphics card actually falls below the minimum requirements, the game runs smooth as butter—better than Bad Company 2 did, even. The game maintained a fairly constant 30 FPS for me aside from some hairy parts of Caspian Border. Textures, shadows, and lighting are all top notch. Seeing the soft glow of an RPG round lighting up its surroundings as it travels down the subway tunnels in Operation Metró is a memorable moment. Everything from the sound design to player animations feels extremely polished.

The server browser has been removed from the game itself in favor of a web-based interface on http://battlelog.battlefield.com. In fact, nearly everything related to getting a game set up—choosing single player or multiplayer, responding to friend requests, joining a match, viewing gameplay history—is now done completely outside of the game. I am somewhat torn on Battlelog—while the web interface is extremely fast and searching for and joining a server takes less time than booting up the game, there are some drawbacks.  Waiting for the logo screens to pass and then doing an in-game search is annoying, as is having to quit and then reload the game every time I want to switch servers. The Facebook-like social features also feel extremely cheesy. The most important feature, viewing and joining servers, is quick to respond, so Battlelog is tolerable at the very least. The entire package is extremely well-programmed and I foresee other games using similar interfaces in the future.

So, the verdict? Battlefield 3 is going to be a great game, but the beta is just a poor effort. Server disconnections happen on occasion, some console players can't get the beta to launch, and the choice of Operation Metró as the flagship map is just a bad idea. But even though Rush sucks, there are a few instances of brilliance. Crawling through a downed subway train while explosions are happening around you, that mixed feeling of joy and relief when you finally break through a bottleneck and arm the M-COM—these are the moments that make Battlefield awesome, and will surely occur in the final retail game. It's just too bad the beta doesn't let you play the game mode where these experiences happen more often.

Battlefield 3 releases October 25 in North America, October 27 in Europe, and October 28 in Australia for the PC, PS3, and XBOX 360.

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Tags: battlefield 3, PC, ps3, Xbox 360, battlefield: bad company 2, call of duty: modern warfare 3

Posted in: Gaming, Features

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