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NowGamer.com - Battlefield 3: Eyes-On With DICE, Gameplay Details
Steven Burns 11:14, Friday 4th March 2011
We get a lengthy hands-off session with Battlefield 3, discussing multiplayer, tech and Call Of Duty
No, your eyes are not deceiving you, and no, our art department hasn’t made an embarrassing blunder. If you happen to be looking at that title up there and wondering what has happened to the ‘Bad Company’ subtitle, we’ve got news for you. Battlefield 3 is an all-new entry into the main series that so far called the PC its home, as opposed to the free-wheeling, spin-off shenanigans of Haggard and co that made the Battlefield brand a hit on consoles.
It’s a potential confusion that’s unsurprisingly a concern for developer DICE, publisher EA and, of course, Battlefield 3 executive producer Patrick Bach. “I can see that there could be confusion,” he says, “but the good thing is that it’s still Battlefield. If we’ve done something well with Bad Company 2 then it will still be part of the brand, and it doesn’t matter if you think it’s this game or that game, as long as you still know it’s a Battlefield game.”
Bach is living up to his Swedish countrymen’s reputation of being impossibly relaxed at all times, even though he’s revealing one of the biggest sequels in multiplayer gaming. Sitting in DICE’s headquarters on the bay area of Stockholm – where, at one point, an entire cruise ship pulls up behind him – he’s nonetheless keen to stress something from the beginning.
Despite the fact that this isn’t the expected Battlefield sequel, he tells us, the differences aren’t as important as the similarities. For DICE, the core of Battlefield is in the way it feels to be a soldier in combat, to take a place in a large-scale war, and that doesn’t change, even if the title does.
Bach’s enthusiasm is infectious, a love for the product that borders on obsession.
By the time he’s halfway through his opening speech, in one of DICE’s large, classroom-style screening rooms, said enthusiasm has spilled over onto others present. There’s an excitement in the air. Can talk of the new and supposedly ultra-powerful Frostbite engine really translate into the tangible results we’re being told about? Can the brilliant destruction of Bad Company 2 be improved upon? And could it really be one of the best-looking shooters ever?
The answer to all these questions, without a shadow of a doubt, is yes.
Bach begins the demonstration of the campaign. A cinematic begins, showing a nervous soldier sitting in a darkened courtroom. He’s recounting his experience as a marine sergeant tasked with calming an insurgent coalition known as the PLR across the Iran/Iraq border in 2014.
“Let me remind you, Sergeant,” booms an authoritative off-screen voice, “that you are still under oath.” The marine grimaces. “Sergeant Black,” the voice ominously continues. “We only want to know what happened that day.”
The screen fades to black, before coming back up and depicting a group of soldiers sitting in the back of a troop transport. Johnny Cash’s sombre version of God’s Gonna Cut You Down belts out, which should tell you all you need to know about Battlefield 3’s darker narrative, before being interrupted by military jargon over the radio.
“Rise and shine, ladies,” says one soldier. The team is told to disembark their troop transit by the barking, remote voice of their commanding officer. “What the f**k are we stopping for?” asks one grunt. “The objective’s 20 klicks north!” The vehicle stops, and the back door slowly opens with a mechanical, pressurised hiss. “Let’s go. Hit the road.”
The squad steps out into the bright Middle Eastern sunlight, and DICE’s screening room goes eerily quiet. Not many people can quite believe what they’re seeing. If this is the real deal – and as Bach was playing it next to us, we have no reason to doubt it – then Battlefield 3 is technically marvellous, and almost impossibly beautiful.
The draw distance seems to go on forever, showing off the detailed architecture of the city, an important achievement given the new focus on urban combat. The textures are impossibly detailed, giving the weapons and uniforms a sense of weight and believability. The sunlight casts perfect shadows across the background of a deliberately desaturated colour scheme.
It’s a great example of both art direction and technical skill combining to make you feel like you’re there, breathing in sand and squinting to see what’s going on as sirens and spinning rotor blades, provided by DICE’s best-in-class HD audio model, drown everything out. It’s sensory overload, interrupted only by a passed note from a fellow journo. It says one thing: ‘Wow’.
The squad moves up. “You ever ask yourself how this part of the world gets so f**ked up all of the time?” asks one of your crew. “I just work here,” is the response, in what could be a nod to a similar conversation in Aliens. After a short briefing, our boys are sent out to rescue another marine squad, holed up in a meat market described as “a bad f**king part of town”. The team moves cautiously through a burnt-out school, showing that the intricate interiors are more than a match for the exteriors and drawing out some sarcastic dialogue, as one marine ribs a fellow warrior: “Oh, that’s it, I forgot. They don’t have schools where you come from.”
Exiting into a nearby car park, an enemy patrol is left to wander by unharmed before, suddenly, one of your team is hit with sniper fire from one of the buildings that tower overhead. His blood sprays and smears the player character’s visor, obscuring his vision. Panic erupts, and gunfire roars out. Reaching down, the player drags the injured soldier to safety, before returning fire.
The action is fast, explosive and frantic, classic Battlefield, as your squad calls out panicked commands and debris rips out from the cars and balconies that shield your foes. A grenade is lobbed onto an upper floor, almost tearing it from its moorings with that familiar, satisfying crunch and sending the insurgent flying.
Heading up onto the top floor of a building to flush out the sniper, the squad is pinned down. As they leap from cover to cover we see the new physicality system in effect, a welcome hangover from Mirror’s Edge, with limbs splaying around as your character moves. Grabbing a rocket launcher, the squad provides suppressing fire as Bach fires the rocket at the sniper’s nest. The building opposite erupts, sending plumes of ultra-realistic smoke billowing into the sky, the hotel fascia swinging haphazardly on its hinges.
The demo then skips forward a little while. The player character is crawling through an air vent in the basement of an old launderette. An alarmed female voice rings out through the radio, urging the marine, now shorn of his team-mates and their support, to follow the red wire to a bomb and defuse it.
Dropping down into a clearing, the red wire is pulled… just as an insurgent jumps down and blindsides Bach.
A brief, interactive fist fight ensues, with the marine getting the best of his opponent, throwing a nose-breaking headbutt before driving the enemy’s head face first sickeningly into a knee. Swivelling quickly, Bach manages to defuse the bomb in time.
Urged to rejoin his squad, the marine brushes off a warning about a tremor from a local fault line to burst out onto a nearby freeway. The squad is under heavy fire from both sides, and Bach, ducking in and out of abandoned cars to avoid the raking gunfire that’s tearing up the street, hops up onto an overpass and onto an LMG, before ripping into the onrushing waves of enemies, sending puffy clouds of blood flying everywhere with every successful hit.
It’s not long, however, until your foe gets wise to this and sends in the big guns. Armoured support sees the marines scrambling as the heavy machine gun blasts away at cover, throwing rubble and dirt everywhere. It looks like it’s all over, until the familiar sound of rotor blades rips overhead, and a friendly chopper storms in, raining down death from above.
With the marines regrouping, it seems that the mission is successful, until another ground tremor throws out a snaking crack across the freeway, slicing the tarmac in two and scattering the marines. “EARTHQUAAAAAAKE!” comes the chilling call, but it’s too late: the building in front of us is shaking, collapsing, folding onto itself before finally bending double, crashing down onto the helpless marine chopper below it. The screen fades out again.
So far we’d seen how well the engine could handle lighting and physics, but, if we were being honest, we were wondering just how advanced the destruction, the core of the console Battlefield experience, had evolved. Thankfully, DICE had saved the best until last. We’d always been fans of the Frostbite engine’s destructive capabilities, but, as the building-razing earthquake shows, this is something else entirely. Something much, much, better.
It’s seriously impressive stuff, but even a blind man could see that it clearly wasn’t running on an Xbox 360. So what about us mere mortals who don’t own a Skynet-style PC? How will our console cope?
“We knew that people would think that this demo was running on PC, but the good thing is that it’s all based on streaming,” Bach tells us. “We have a super-powerful streaming pipeline, which makes it possible to stream high-end data through the game so every frame we look at will have fresh data. This means you don’t have to load everything at once; you don’t have to fill the level at the start. In BC2, you have 512 megs of memory; you load it, you play it, done. The objects you saw at the end needed to be loaded at the start, and you think, ‘It took me an hour to get to this point where I can see it, so what’s the point?’
“That’s the whole magic with this. We can have 512 megs every hundred metres if we wanted to, as we can just flush the data out [and replace it] as you move along. I can promise you that the console versions will still look amazing because of the core technology. If you have a 360, we want to use that machine to the maximum.”
With the question of technology swiftly dealt with, if not totally answered, we move on to something equally as important: why bring the main Battlefield series, formerly PC-only, to consoles now? And why, after all the successes of the knockabout Bad Company, would DICE think that we’d want another serious shooter?
According to Bach, in the single-player at least, it’s all a question of narrative and how you present it. With the technology finally right, DICE felt that it could tell the story and make the game it’s always wanted to: “the generational leap”, as it’s known around its HQ.
“I don’t know if you’ve heard the analogy of guitar solo vs a real song, but some games that are on more of a ‘sugar rush’ than us more or less go from ten to eleven throughout the whole game,” explains Bach. “I think that’s an immature way of presenting a narrative. I think there is more depth to be had when it comes to storytelling, and there is more depth to the perceived feeling of being at war."
“For example, we showed you five minutes of gameplay without a single shot being fired. I think that is representative of what we think about storytelling, and how you should tell a story like this. I won’t go into details on the characters and how they interact and the arcs, but in general I think it’s important that we don’t try and copy someone else. We’re not trying to achieve what the others are trying to achieve.”
It’s clear what, or who, Bach means when he talks of ‘sugar-rush’ shooters, and from what we’ve seen Battlefield 3 isn’t in any hurry to throw its players into a nonsensical shooting gallery, despite the immense pyrotechnics of the technology. Nor is Bach willing to go any further with details on the campaign. For now, he tells us, we’ll just have to wait and see.
There can be no doubt that the ‘slice’ of the campaign we saw is impressive. But there’s one nagging question left: why did a company and franchise better known for large-scale, vehicle-based online warfare choose to exclusively flaunt single-player, with no MP footage on show?
Bach was quick to acknowledge that some people may moan about this, but he’s not too worried. After all, it would take a colossal failure for DICE to drop the ball on the multiplayer modes that it pioneered.
“We think that single-player games are great, and if you have a great single-player, that makes the game better,” he tells us. “That doesn’t mean that you need to take away MP. Our DNA is still MP, the competitive element of games.“
Although he can’t go into too many details about the multiplayer, Bach gives us some helpful hints about the content of the online portion of the game. The maps will be larger to compensate for more vehicles – including fighter jets, returning to the series for the first time since Battlefield 2, at last. There will be 24 players on the 360 and PS3 as opposed to 64 on the PC, and the maps will be scaled to fit. Bach doesn’t believe that more players equals more fun, however.
“I think we’ve had some bad experience in the gaming world with more players; it just adds more complexity. Of course, it’s a great number for marketing – the number is only for marketing. When you play it you’re thinking, ‘Why does it play crap, why does it animate crap, why does it look crap?’ and it’s like, ‘Well, you got this big number, so why aren’t you happy?’”
Along with not blindly aping the MAGs of this world, Battlefield 3 will still retain that core feel of smaller battles forming the backbone of an overarching, objective-based narrative. DICE may be chasing the Call Of Duty crowd, but it’s not changing in the process.
“We want to make a game for grown-ups. We don’t want to make a children’s game, a twitch, infantry-focused on-drugs sugar-rush experience. This needs to be an adult game with mature features and depth. It’s supposed to be a sport. It should be: ‘I can trust this game.’”
What DICE also wants you to trust is that the Frostbite 2 engine will be just as brilliant as it is in single-player, which would go some way to realising the goal of creating large, open spaces pocketed with dense, tight locations to destroy at will. MP lead designer Lars Gustafsson describes the strength and malleability of the engine as “enabling us to spend less time squeezing the paint out of the tube, and more time painting the picture right”.
Gustafsson, naturally, also agrees with Bach’s opinion that Battlefield 3’s multiplayer shouldn’t be copying other shooters: “If you constantly just spawn into the meat grinder with no delay, it’s impossible to create a weighted battle, a tug of war, and it becomes a chaotic team deathmatch. [It’s about] that physical experience of being there. The pacing, that awareness of not only yourself but the world reacting to you.”
Again, the confidence is infectious. Many developers toot their horn, but not many developers have DICE’s pedigree. Barring a disaster of epic proportions, Battlefield 3’s multiplayer will be fantastic, and although we’ll need to see a lot more of the single-player to judge whether its gameplay is as unique as its engine, early impressions are positive.
As DICE knows, though, critical success is not generally a problem. One of the company’s main challenges isn’t so much building a great game as it is getting people to buy it.
“If you look at the Metacritic scores [between us and other games] we have the higher score, but for some reason people don’t know, so we have to change that,” Bach concludes. “We don’t want to be the cover band to someone else’s song; our goal is to be the star.”
Maybe it’ll finally take the main stage.