Battlefield 3 is one of the most-anticipated games of the year. The combat shooting video game isn’t coming out until Oct. 25, but Electronic Arts showed it off recently to the press at its headquarters in Redwood City, Calif.
This is an important game for EA. If it looks and plays beautiful, it could very well generate a billion dollars in revenue, just as new installments of Call of Duty have done each year for Activision Blizzard. If it falls short, there will be a lot of disappointed gamers and investors out there. And Activision Blizzard will keep its bragging rights for the king of shooters for another year.
With that in mind, I played a round of Battlefield 3 multiplayer on the PlayStation 3. It was the same map in the Paris Metro underground that I played at E3, when EA showed off the PC multiplayer version of the game. It was a fun experience, but it did the highest expectations for this game. As others have reported, the PS 3 version of the game runs slower. The PC game runs at 60 frames per second on a high-end machine, while the PS 3 version runs at 30 frames per second. That’s noticeably different, and it’s slower than Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3, as far as I can tell. At E3, I played the Spec Ops version of multiplayer for Modern Warfare 3 and it was fast.
EA pointed out that the Battlefield 3 game was running on Alpha code. It’s not done and will be improved by the time it launches. I suspect that the Xbox 360 version will be similar to the PS 3, running slower than the maximum speed on the PC. In some ways, that’s OK. The Battlefield series has always made this trade-off of realism over speed. In Battlefield games, the environment is alive. Buildings are destructible. Vehicles can be driven. And soldiers can’t run at 40 miles per hour forever. By making everything seem a lot more real, the effect is immersive. While you often chuckle when you’re playing Modern Warfare games because the soldiers are so superhuman, Battlefield games make you grit your teeth because you feel more like you’re in combat.
With Battlefield 3, the multiplayer combat is similar to Battlefield Bad Company 2, which debuted in March 2010. You are given a goal of defending or taking an objective. If you take the first objective, you can move into a new part of the map with a second objective. If you seize four objectives, your team wins the match. Defenders have to fight off the attackers. This kind of directed play is good because it gives everyone a sense of the mission at hand. By contrast, Call of Duty firefights often require little or no cooperation, depending on the scenario.
The battle in the Metro map started in a park, with one group trying to reach a laptop and blow it up. The foliage was deep enough in places so that you could hide completely. The enemy came up with an armored car and they kept taking our team out. I switched from an assault rifle role to an engineer. Then I used rocket-propelled grenades to take out the armored car from behind. I shot it four times before it finally blew up. But we still lost that part of the fight.
My group lost control of the first objective, and that forced us underground into the Metro to defend our next spot. Amid crashed subway trains, we had to defend another laptop hidden in a maintenance room. We managed to do so quite well, mainly by gathering around the objective spot and shooting down long corridors. The battles are quite chaotic and it’s easy to get disoriented. Many times, when I respawned, I couldn’t tell which way I was facing and where the enemy was. But there were indicators that helped me figure that out.
We blocked the enemies from getting through to the objective room. In the match, I managed to come in first place during the round, taking down 13 enemies and dying 16 times. That wasn’t a great performance, and it was aided by the fact that I was always on the defense, which is easier. Most of my kills were against targets that were 25 yards to 75 yards away.
The good thing was that I didn’t notice that much lag, or jerky slowness. Multiplayer has to be faster than the single-player version of the game. When you shoot at someone, you expect to hit your target. If you don’t, the illusion of realism falls apart. With Battlefield 3, the game is fast enough. But it is not noticeably better and the multiplayer graphics are not ten times better than the games that are already out, such as Call of Duty Black Ops, Medal of Honor, and Battlefield Bad Company 2.
Yes, the graphics are better as the Frostbite 2 engine — which determines the quality of the graphics and physics — has been improved for Battlefield 3. But those improvements show up more in the PC version of the game that EA has been showing for most of its big-event demos. With the PS 3, there are trade-offs. To me, the graphics were little more fuzzy and weren’t as crisp on the PS 3. It looked almost as if someone had sprinkled black dots throughout the image on the screen in a way that turned down the sharpness.
That’s disappointing. I also had a hard time playing with the PS 3 controller. I shoot better with either an Xbox 360 controller or a PC mouse. With the PS 3, I fumble around more. And with the fuzzy graphics, I couldn’t see that far away during the action scenes. Consequently, I found it very difficult to snipe at a soldier off in the distance, even with a red-dot scope on my gun. I imagine that I could adapt to that over time, but it reinforced the notion that I would likely want to play this game on the Xbox 360, which has the weakest graphics of any of the systems that will run the game.
I hope that the game developers can make strides in speeding up the game play and improving the graphics. But after playing a round on the PS 3, I’ve adjusted my expectations downward for this game. But before I write the game off as a disappointment, I still want to see a lot more and I want to hear some more analysis from some real graphics experts on this topic. (Yes, this does NOT mean that I am saying that EA will lose the war to Activision Blizzard). EA notes that this game is not just a multiplayer title; it has a deep single-player campaign and cool features such as destructible environments, vehicles, and a feeling that you’re in an all-out war.
After I played multiplayer for Modern Warfare 3 at E3, I was mildly impressed with the Hollywood-style combat, even in the multiplayer sessions. With the Spec Ops mode, you play cooperatively with another player, fighting growing numbers of enemies until you are just overwhelmed with bad guys. I didn’t see any lag problems and the graphics seemed reasonably good. At this point, I’ve seen more Battlefield 3 up close than I have Modern Warfare 3.
With Battlefield 3, EA showed scenes with outstanding graphics at the outset back in March, setting very high expectations. After I saw the scene that EA showed in March, I felt like I was looking at a combat video, not a video game. Hopefully, the game will live up to that imagery. But it will come back to haunt EA if it doesn’t.
EA still has to show more of the single-player version of the game. So it has plenty of chances to win over fans by the time the game launches in October. I think that players are used to very different styles of multiplayer play with these two games. The only real questions are whether one game will look significantly better than the other, and if one side or the other has an outstanding single-player campaign. I think the battle is going to come down to the quality of the single-player campaign and its story.
Here’s how it stands now: EA impressed everyone in March with a great demo and again at E3 in June, when it showed off tank combat. But now reality is setting in at this stage. In the coming months, EA will have to impress us all over again.