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Battlefield 3: Multiplayer Brilliance, Amazing Graphics
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Date: Nov 02, 2011
Section:Misc
Author: Joel Hruska
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Introduction
Battlefield 3 dropped last week, promising a strong single-player campaign, an impressive new graphics engine, and up to 64-person multiplayer mayhem on huge maps. Despite a rough few days post-launch, the game delivers much of the multiplayer goodness that it promised, with a strong emphasis on team dynamics and an experience system that rewards both focusing on a particular class and learning the capabilities of all four. Before we dig into the game's extensive online goodness, however, we have to deal with its tedious, flawed, and boring single-player missions.

Battlefield 3's single-player campaign bears a strong resemblance to Lindsay Lohan's career. Not only do they both exist only by dint of technicality, they're each driven by a frantic desire to channel something they aren't—Call of Duty, in BF3's case, Marilyn Monroe in Lindsay's. The problem with BF3's single player campaign is that it jettisons almost everything that makes the multiplayer campaign great. The first mission is set on a train and serves as a perfect metaphor for the entire plot: you're on a rail, from start to finish. Attempting to explore a map or sticking your head out from cover, before being told to, can result in automatic death. Games like this typically rely on scripted scenarios, but BF3's approach is heavy-handed enough to destroy even the illusion of freedom.


This single-player screenshot neatly illustrates the game's detailed models while summarizing the entire SP experience
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If you want great single-player, go play Deus Ex: Human Revolution

If the turgid storyline wasn't enough, the game's cinematic aspirations are further undercut by its use of quick-time events, while the lack of a save game ability turns navigating said events into a tedious process of rote memorization. All of this would be easier to overlook if the SP campaign did anything to prepare you for multiplayer.


The game lets you fly helicopters and jets, but neither craft is a tenth as intuitive to control as a tank or jeep. Battlefield 3 badly needs a tutorial or three on piloting, but the single-player missions confine you to playing gunner while someone else handles the aircraft.

The single-player campaign does one thing well--it's a fabulous showcase for the capabilities of the Frostbite 2 engine. The game's visuals set a new high mark for the PC and the positional audio cues are excellent, even when using a simple pair of speakers or stereo headphones.

Battlelog:



The game's server-finding functions and all game-related data is stored online in the Battlelog, while the game itself is only available via EA's Origin system. We were entirely prepared to dislike Battlelog—the idea of handling all the various game functions in-browser sounded like a hackneyed attempt to justify an always-on connection and display ads to a captive audience. Though we can't speak to the company's long-term advertising plans, but Battlelog works surprisingly well.



We encountered glitches, including needing to apply a manual PunkBuster patch and issues with the game not always properly starting when told to do so, but problems have been few and far between. In-game lag has never been more than occasionally annoying, and the latest drivers from AMD and NVIDIA delivered good performance without a need for last-minute updates.

AMD appears to have a slight edge on NV where image quality is concerned; Our NV play sessions were marred by an occasional green flicker. It tended to occur 2-3x in quick succession and never very often. Whatever problems cropped up at launch, they appear to be locked down. We're confident recommending that folks buy the game as it exists today.
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Multiplayer Details, Gameplay
Attempting to be The Hero = Death.

That's the first lesson you learn in Battlefield 3's online mode, and it's ruthlessly enforced. If you've never played a Battlefield title before, the game's learning curve is more of a brick wall. Expect to spend most of your first play sessions watching the three-second "Deploy" timer count down towards zero. BF3 focuses on teamwork, even in relative free-for-alls, like Team Deathmatch. Coordinated assaults and flanking maneuvers are required when taking fortified positions. Oftentimes, the best way to assault an enemy objective is to hunker down and watch both the mini-map and the exchanges of tracer fire.


Maps like Caspian Border are huge, assaulting enemy checkpoints requires coordination between vehicles and infantry

Battlefield 3 rewards intelligent play far more than brute-force tactics. Attacking enemy forces can often be countered by circling around behind them, or by deploying as a different class. There are four classes to choose from—Assault, Engineer, Recon, and Support. Assault forces carry M16's and medkits, Recon is for snipers and spotters, Engineers are designed to destroy/repair vehicles, and the Support class carries the M249 SAW as well as ammo packs.

Earning points and completing various objectives in a given class unlocks new weapons, gear, and capabilities, which further enhances the role a given class can play. Engineers, for example, begin with an M4 Carbine and a SMAW anti-armor RPG (we're using the US weapon versions for simplicity). The first unlockable RPG variant is the FIM-92 Stinger—a portable SAM that fires a heat-seeking missile. It's useless against land vehicles, but it's perfect for picking off enemy pilots.


BF3 gives you the option to start a map playing Assault, switch to an Engineer to keep a tank rush moving forward, then to swap your standard RPG for a Stinger in order to counter enemy air strikes, provided you've unlocked the weapon. There's no penalty for switching classes mid-map—play all four character types in one game, and you'll earn credit in all four towards the various unlocks and achievements. The system rewards gamers for playing to their strengths, while simultaneously offering incentive to experiment with multiple classes.


Sometimes it's the little things. The engine handles water beautifully

Even if you aren't the best shot, you can earn points for repairing vehicles, dispensing ammo and med packs, spotting enemies, capturing waypoints / fulfilling objectives, and from being in a forward position (you earn 10 points for every squad member who spawns at your position). The game also rewards points for pinning down enemy troops with suppression fire, and you earn Kill Assist points equal to the amount of damage dealt in the event that you team up on an enemy.

Maps:

There are nine maps and three basic game types (Conquest, Rush, and Deathmatch.) All three game styles are playable on all nine maps and all nine maps support up to 64 players. How well this works in practice depends on the map. Some, like Caspian Border, scale beautifully. Others—Seine Crossing and Operation Metro in particular—feel very crowded with 64 players. All are gorgeously detailed. One of the heralded features of the Frostbite 2 engine is its ability to model battle damage and Battlefield 3 takes advantage of it to great effect.

A map might start out looking like this...

Buildings collapse, creating vast clouds of debris while vehicle fires pour black smoke and battle wreckage clogs roads and creates impromptu cover between battling factions. Battlefield destruction plays a tactical role in every game without allowing matches to devolve into competitions to see who can drop more buildings on the other team.


And end up like this (looking back along the same street)
The usefulness of RPGs against infantry targets is similarly constrained, sometimes to ridiculous degrees (firing an RPG into a small enclosed space produces nothing like the realistic concussive force). It's a necessary adjustment given game mechanics, and it helps ensure that assault weapons, not rocket launchers, are the dominant weapons in play.


No VOIP?

Given the game's focus on teamwork and squad-level mechanics, the complete lack of a VOIP client is a startling omission, especially when it was a noted feature of Battlefield 2. Previous Battlefield games were lauded for a design that gave squads their own channel while providing a common channel for squad leaders to cross communicate. BF3's Commo Rose can be used to communicate quick requests or basic info, but it doesn't allow for any sort of tactical guidance or issuing squad commands.

The problem with relying on Ventrilo and Teamspeak to fill the void is that they require independent configuration and manual data entry. New players without a clan or a specific server rotation can't jump into a random game if they're looking for a higher level of play, as the Battlelog doesn't track whether or not a server maintains a VOIP service (and offers no custom data field for operators to enter this information).

From the developer's perspective, VOIP is something that only a fraction of players use, so it's easy to see why DICE would focus on other features first. The flip side to this, however, is that the players who use VOIP are the most likely to become long-term dedicated community members. At the very least, Battlelog should allow servers to note whether or not they use a service like Ventrilo.
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Performance
We tested and AMD Radeon HD 6870 and an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 480 card using AMD's Catalyst 11.10 Version 2 Preview driver and NVIDIA's just-released 285.62 WHQL Forceware series. Our base platform was a Core i7-920-equipped system running Windows 7 64-bit. It's impossible to replicate a benchmark run to any appreciable degree, so we had to settle for testing entire map sessions multiple times and averaging the results. One of the Frostbite 2 engine's strong points is that frame rates are consistent from map to map, even when transitioning from crowded city streets (Seine Crossing, Grand Bazaar) to the open fields of the Caspian Border or the desert terrain of Operation Firestorm.


We're not surprised to see the GTX 480 outperforming the HD 6870. The Fermi-based card is older, and based on NVIDIA's first revision of its GF100 architecture, but the 6870 debuted as an upper mid-range solution with a $239 price tag compared to the GTX 480's $499. The real difference between the two solutions didn't kick in until we took a shot at testing 'Ultra' quality. At this point the Radeon 6870 craters, its performance dips to a point where framerates begin to impact the game's playability. The GTX 480 takes a 14.5 percent hit, but keeps on truckin'.


Curious, we decided to adjust some of the game visuals to see if we could isolate the problem. Ultra mode doesn't just crank up the shadow and texture quality, it also activates a 4x MSAA filter. This turned out to be a hefty chunk of the reason the 6870 lost so much steam; shutting AA off improved our frame rate by 32 percent. We'd suggest gamers with midrange ATI cards experiment with disabling Ambient Occlusion and AA if you want to test-drive Ultra settings.

As for which manufacturer gives a better overall experience, benchmarks on a full range of cards suggest it comes down to the particulars of what you're looking for. At 'High' detail level, AMD and NVIDIA are neck-and-neck across various resolutions. ATI has an edge in image quality thanks to the green flicker popping up when using NV cards, but Team Red has issues of its own. Crossfire is barely working at the moment. AMD's Radeon HD 6990, according to some reports, is barely able to run the game. The performance hit we discussed in 'Ultra' mode appears to hit the high-end ATI cards as well.  A Radeon HD 6970 competes neck-and-neck with a GeForce GTX 580 at 1900x1080 and 'High' detail settings, but drops back behind the GTX 570 at 1920x1080 and 'Ultra' detail.
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Conclusion
Conclusion:

The single-player campaign in BF3 has all the entertainment value of a box of dryer lint, the game really needs a flight tutorial, there's no VOIP, and if you're new to the BF series you're going to spend a lot of time wondering who the heck just shot you. Once you've learned the ropes, you'll be having too much fun to care about the rest. BF3's graphics engine is the love letter PC gamers have been waiting for, after years in the frozen purgatory of DX9-era console limitations, while its multiplayer mode is faceted, nuanced, deep and a whole lot of fun.



Lighting and texture detail are used to enhance even relatively mundane urban areas. Grand Bazaar doesn't have the wow factor of some of the other maps, but it's well rendered and far more attractive than dense urban alleys have any right to be.

If you were hoping BF3 would offer a compelling single-player experience, we'd recommend giving this game a pass. Everyone else, dig in.


The author would like to express his deepest condolences to all the co-pilots and teammates who assumed his willingness to take the stick on a jet or helicopter meant he actually knew how to fly one. Special mention goes out to the squad member who valiantly volunteered for gun duty in our shared UH-1Y Venom three times before asking if I had only one eye or was suffering from epileptic fits. Your sacrifice will be remembered.



  • Fabulous Multiplayer
  • Engine sets a new graphics bar
  • Emphasis on smart play, teamwork
  • Lame single-player
  • No flight training
  • No VOIP



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