The tagline for Battlefield 3, the latest instalment in the long-running military shooter series, promises gamers that they will "feel the battle". In real life that would mean long periods of feverish boredom punctuated by quick bursts of abject terror; but hey, this is video games, where real life is viewed through the tinted spectacles of blockbuster entertainment. The game, which follows 2005's Battlefield 2, takes players on a globe-trotting adventure waging adrenaline-fuelled war using tanks, jets, helicopters and even old fashioned boots on the ground. But more so, following the rather dismal critical reaction to last year's Medal Of Honour, Battlefield 3 is Electronic Arts' great white hope to unseat Activision's Call Of Duty from the top of the shooter tree. Towards this aim, the publisher has set aside an estimated $100m war chest to launch a publicity blitz for the game. Digital Spy checked out a 15-minute hands-off demonstration of the main campaign to see if this really is the game to slay Call Of Duty.
Developed by EA DICE, Battlefield 3 is powered by an iteration of the Frostbite engine, which so radically introduced environmental destruction in the studio's Battlefield: Bad Company series. According to DICE, the game's campaign will be 12 hours long, around twice the length of recent Call Of Duty and Medal Of Honour titles. Kevin O'Leary, Battlefield brand manager, said that Frostbite 2 builds on what the team has learned from the Bad Company franchise and creates a "kick ass platform" for Battlefield 3. The engine is based around five core "pillars" - animation, destruction, scale, rendering and audio. EA hopes that this mix will enable the most immersive and impactful military FPS ever created.
For the animation, DICE has enlisted technology developed by EA Sports for the FIFA franchise and others to create more realistic character models. O'Leary said that the system "seamlessly blends all the character animations and models into very lifelike, human processes". The destruction, which was such a defining point of Bad Company 1 & 2, has been enhanced in Battlefield 3 on a micro and macro scale. Players can shoot out even tinier bits of cover, seeing individual fragments of structure splinter off in different directions. But they can also blast out whole walls of buildings to take a more direct route to warfare (although there is a limit to how far structures can be destroyed, meaning an entire tower block couldn't be taken down, for example).
On the scale side, Battlefield 3 is being developed with the PC as its lead platform, meaning the game supports 64-player battles on massive maps, but PS3 and Xbox 360 gamers will have to content themselves with just 24-player contests. There will be jets, tanks, planes and other vehicles open for players to get inside and cause some destruction. O'Leary also said that DICE has focused on "the reverse of that where you have tight urban environments with not a lot of space, which changes the gameplay significantly". Frostbite's graphical rendering has been hugely improved for Battlefield 3, making the game look incredibly impressive. Particular attention has been lavished on the lighting system, which takes into account dynamic changes in light sources, both inside and out. Finally, the audio builds on the award-winning sound design for Bad Company 2, with an audio engine O'Leary claims is "best in class". "Those five things combined provide a platform for launching Battlefield 3, bringing together next-gen technology on the current-gen platforms," he said. "The five things are all great on their own but when you bring them together it creates a moving experience that brings you deeper and really connects you with the battlefield."
During a 15-minute demonstration, EA showed off the new features of Frostbite 2 in three different gameplay sequences. The majority of the campaign will be played as the rather unoriginally named Sergeant Black, but there will also be other playable characters, most probably either jet or helicopter pilots for vehicle sections. The demoed mission hailed from the early stages of the campaign, when Black's squad of marines was deployed in the city of Sulaymaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan, close to the Iranian border. The year was 2014 and the coalition forces were running pacification missions against an insurgent group called the PLR. The marines were tasked with regaining contact with Jackson platoon, which had mysteriously gone missing.
The opening segment started with the marines in the back of a Humvee or some sort of armoured personal carrier, as Johnny Cash's version of folk song 'God's Gonna Cut You Down' (taken from the American V: A Hundred Highways album, released in 2006 after the singer's death) played ominously in the background. There was the usual military chatter in the vehicle, a mix of technical talk and raw bravado, but there appeared to be a relative honesty to proceedings. The marines fretted when the vehicle stopped in an unscheduled place; after all, wise soldiers know to fear the unexpected, even if it is expected.
The soldiers exited the relative safety of the vehicle, opening out into a bustling city street. Apart from the concrete blockades, wire barriers and armoured troops, the scene was like any other Middle Eastern city, with battered cars driving dangerously down the streets and the intense heat baking everything to a dusty crisp. The commanding officer informed the squad that Jackson platoon was AWOL and it was their job to re-establish contact, which meant taking the treacherous route through the labyrinth of buildings to reach their last know position. "Ever ask yourself why this part of the world gets so f**ked up all the time?" one soldier philosophically asked another, as the squad prepared to leave. "Don't ask me," his colleague replied. "I just work here."
Right from the outset, it's clear that the Frostbite 2 engine has enabled Battlefield to rise to the top graphical echelons of shooters - this game looks seriously impressive. Winding down the backstreets and passages revealed an impressive amount of detail, but the lighting is a standout facet. Moving into a lobby room sent shafts of light piercing through the windows, mixing with the fog of dust to create illuminated spears. The guns also looked incredibly detailed, with the realistic wear and rust effects holding parallels to the much underrated Far Cry 2. Despite all the new features, however, Battlefield 3 is at its heart a pretty by-the-numbers FPS game.
Exiting the room triggered a familiar bullet-time section, giving the player the chance to execute an action before the time-warp rescinded. In this instance, it was at the threat of a sniper up on the rooftop, as a careless teammate was pierced by a bullet and had be dragged to safety, while taking out a few insurgent goons with itchy trigger fingers. The audio is indeed extremely punchy, with the whip-crack of far away gunfire mixed with the heavy judder of firing weapons close up. The more detailed destruction could also be seen, with cover splintering off in pieces and gradually eroding to expose cover positions. Likewise, taking on well dug in opponents on the balcony of a block of flats was made easier by simply blasting out the whole section with the grenade launcher.
The main goal of this section was to take down the sniper, who appeared to have a pretty meaty rifle loaded with high calibre bullets. After heading up inside the block of flats and onto the roof, the team had to duck down and move into position, before spotting the gunman's position. There was a certain tension to proceedings, as would be in real life when trying to flush out a sniper. Pops of debris burst into the air as each shot rained in, ramping up the sense of peril should anyone unwisely stick their head above the parapet. Eventually, the squad leader ordered a hail of suppressing fire, while O'Leary blew out the entire front of the building with a rocket launcher. Trust the Americans to use a sledgehammer to crack a nut.
The demo then moved on to a different section inside a building, on a mission to follow a wire to neutralise an improvised explosive device (IED) blocking the team's progression. The player had to crawl through the air vents, avoiding the scampering rats, to get into a central room holding the detonator. However, as soon as the device was reached a quick-time sequence was launched involving a hand-to-hand fight against an insurgent operative. The battle took the usual approach of pressing the face buttons when prompted or moving the controls in a certain direction to trigger events. Quick-time events are often maligned, sometimes rightly so, but they can at least vary up the pace in non-free control sections. After dispatching the goon, the wire was cut and the IED neutralised. Returning to the squad triggered the final sequence, a full-on battle in the city streets.
Battlefield 3's set piece fights seem to also stick pretty true to previous FPS titles. The action is frantic, fast and pretty well balanced, with a few different tactical options open to the player. In this sequence, O'Leary headed up to a bridge area to mount a heavy gun to take out the incoming horde of insurgent forces running down the street. But the player could also dig in close to a nearby building if they so wished, or jump on an abandoned mounted gun on the back of a jeep. This is certainly not the type of tactical realism as seen in games such as Operation Flashpoint, but there seems to be enough balance between linear progression and strategic options to make things interesting. After killing enough insurgents, the player turned to assault a different street, only for a pesky earthquake to render all and sundry incapacitated, bringing down an entire flat block in the process.
In closing, Battlefield 3 looks like an immensely impressive prospect. Sure, the game follows the tried, tested and even slightly over-used mechanics and set pieces of a first person shooter, but there is an equal sense of 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it'. Or maybe that would be better put as 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it, just make it better'. The destruction enabled by Bad Company's Frostbite engine was always exciting and a genuine extra dimension over the ubiquitous Call Of Duty franchise. So, if Battlefield 3 can deliver enhanced destruction, better graphics and a more immersive war experience, then all power to it. With a long single-player campaign and epic multiplayer, the game clearly has a few aces in the hole, but it's unclear at this stage whether it will have enough to face down the inevitable goliath of Modern Warfare 3 later in the year.
Watch the 12-minute Fault Line trailer for Battlefield 3 below:
Battlefield 3 will be released on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC later this year.