Start with this: the typical round of Battlefield 3 will contain enough breathtaking moments to keep your adrenaline pumping for a week. The game promises large-scale multiplayer warfare, and it delivers in spades. You will engage in thunderous tank battles, tense sniper stand-offs, and withering, Black Hawk Down-style shootouts, sometimes within minutes of one another. You’ll kill your enemies using high-tech, long-range weaponry, and the cold steel of your knife. All of it is dynamic and player-directed. Considering the sheer scale and variety of Battlefield’s combat, I can’t say I’ve ever played anything like it.
It’s important to get that out of the way, because, at core, there’s a conflict between what Battlefield 3 is supposed to be, and what it is. For every squad you join in which players know their roles, there’s one in which everybody runs around like chickens with their heads cut off. For every relentless firefight you survive, there’s an invisible sniper who explodes your head after you’ve spent two lonely minutes sprinting through a field. And for every miraculous, Sgt. York-like maneuver you pull off, there’s an abrupt disconnection from the server that costs you a bunch of XP. Battlefield 3 is a case of potential both realized and unrealized, sometimes simultaneously.
Conquest, the classic Battlefield mode, is made even more impressive with the inclusion of 64-player games on the PC version. With several locations to capture and defend, squad play is crucial. The game does its best to encourage cohesion, offering up bonuses to players who use their class-based attributes efficiently. As a support gunner, scurrying from one hard point to another to resupply my teammates was frequently more fulfilling than trying to kill our attackers. Battlefield 3 aims to make you feel like a small participant in a larger conflict, and no matter what roles you may take on in the course of a level, it will never fail in this.
Motorized combat has always been the series’ differentiator, and here again it proves to be far more than a gimmick. Tanks, jeeps, and choppers add layers of strategic complexity to the fight, while also reinforcing the fiction in grand fashion. To be crawling through tall grass toward an enemy tank, C4 in hand, while jet fighters streak overhead, is to be transported, fully and completely, to the game world. And to be left standing in a parking lot as another oblivious teammate peels out of the base in an otherwise empty Humvee is to remember that, after all, you are still playing with a bunch of idiots in their dorm rooms.
Playing the game is only part of the equation. Trying to play the game is the other. The total Battlefield 3 experience is bound up in a nightmarish front end called Battlelog, which is part social network, part server browser, and partly functional. It is undeniably cool that you can log onto the page from any computer to check up on your stats and see what your friends are doing. Battlelog also shamelessly exploits the pull of progress bars and unlocks, giving players a treasure trove of data to pore through. You can see exactly how many kills you need to earn your next upgrade, how close you are to earning a promotion, and how abysmal your kill/death ratio is. One wouldn’t have thought that games needed gamification, but here we are. And it’s not entirely unwelcome.
As a core part of the game, though, Battlelog isn’t up to snuff. In my experience, the odds are about 70/30 that Battlelog will get you into a game at all. The quick match option, which allows you to set filters to launch your preferred gametype with one button, never worked once. The server browser was my only option, yet entering any game was still a matter of refreshing the server list, attempting to join a game that had one spot available, and being told that it had already been filled. Even when I did connect, I lost hours – literally hours – of my review time to neverending “joining game” screens. That’s what you get when you need to run three separate buggy programs just to play a game. (Besides the Battlelog and the Battlefield executable, you also need to be running Origin, EA’s proprietary distribution platform.)
Worse still, Battlelog’s options to play with friends are limited. You can see that your friends are online, and what server they’re on, but joining them is the same crapshoot that any public server is. If it’s full, it’s full, and there’s no option to get in line for the next available opening. You need to keep rolling the dice with the “join server” button. Even once you connect, you’re given no preferential treatment to squad up with your friends – not that it really matters, since there’s no built-in voice chat for squads. You can start a party chat with your friends from the web page, but if you drop out of the game to do that then you’ve got to go through the whole rigmarole all over again.
Trying to play with friends is still preferable to playing by yourself, specifically in the game’s single-player campaign. Clearly taking its cues from the Modern Warfare series, the campaign is meant to be a fast-moving, globe-trotting adventure, but it’s so concerned with making sure that you’re following the script that your presence seems superfluous. Often you work with a squad, but there are no tactical dynamics at play. You just follow one of your faceless comrades to the next shooting gallery. How bad does it get? Your AI-controlled squadmates will sometimes push you out of the way to hit their marks. Bad enough when a game treats you like as spectator; this one treats you like a pesky kid brother that nobody wants around.
Battlefield 3 is messy enough that it requires true patience to penetrate its unwieldy husk, but it contains seeds of true brilliance, which often sprout in surprising ways. It’s worth putting up with dodgy connections, poorly implemented social options, and braindead allies, all for that one perfect moment when you single-handedly wipe out an enemy squad with a well-placed rocket. One can reasonably expect DICE’s post-launch improvements to eventually bring all parts of the Battlefield 3 experience up to the standard of the main multiplayer game. As it stands now, there’s an awful lot of crap to wade through in order to get to the good stuff. But manure has always been a powerful fertilizer.
Mitch Krpata is a freelance writer based in Boston. His work has also appeared in the Boston Phoenix, Slate, Joystiq, Joystick Division, and the book 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die. Follow him on Twitter @mkrpata, or check out his blog, Insult Swordfighting.