We Americans sure do love our shooters, and this fall, DICE and Infinity Ward are competing for your hard-earned $60. Separated by a mere two weeks, Battlefield 3 and Modern Warfare 3 represent a significant chunk of the already-crowded holiday gaming season.
Of course the question on everyone's mind is, "Which one is better?" We don't think it's fair to say either one at this early juncture, especially since we've only had limited time with Modern Warfare's single-player campaign, and practically none with the multiplayer mode.
So while it's too early to crown either title as the winner, you'll just have to settle for our look at Battlefield 3 to start things off.
I first saw Battlefield 3 in action late last year at a behind-closed-doors event in New York. The game was running on a very high-end PC, and the gameplay I witnessed was nothing short of remarkable.
The console version (I'm playing it on Xbox 360) of Battlefield 3 sure has its own polish (I highly recommend installing the optional texture pack the first time you boot it up), but in terms of graphics it barely compares with how amazing this game can look on PC. Let me get that out of the way first; if you've got the hardware to run it, make sure you check Battlefield 3 out on a souped-up PC.
It's tough to avoid comparing Battlefield 3 to the Call of Duty franchise. They both have handfuls of titles in their respective franchises, but this Battlefield game doesn't feel like others I've played in the past. Where Call of Duty entries feel like games cut from the same cloth, Battlefield 3 (especially the campaign) feels more along the lines of last year's Medal of Honor reboot.
I'm talking about the level of realism in these oh-so-popular military simulation shooters. When I think about Modern Warfare, I imagine snowboarding on top of a missile that explodes just seconds after I've managed to jump off it--only to have my parachute fail me so that I land pretty hard on the seat of a running snowmobile. This over-the-top arcade-y action always delivers, but it's refreshing to see the team at DICE approach Battlefield 3 with a much more serious demeanor.
With that mindset, Battlefield 3 feels much more hardened in its overall presentation and gameplay as well. It's much less forgiving than the seemingly endless amount of rounds a player can take to the face in Call of Duty games. I died a lot in Battlefield 3's campaign--but it was a welcome challenge.
There are a lot of features in Battlefield 3 that work really well. For instance, obstacles are much easier to tackle when running and jumping. The player easily glides over such hurdles as opposed to it being an awkward trial-and-error jumping session. I also really noticed how well destructible environments play out in the game, something very few titles are ever really able to convincingly accomplish.
Like the Call of Duty and Modern Warfare games, it has a fair amount of variation in gameplay modes, but you'll do most of the fighting holding a weapon. Battlefield 3 does a fantastic job of re-creating what it must be like on an aircraft carrier waiting for your fighter jet to deploy, though I wish the player had more control of the canned cut scenes that connect gameplay sessions. After an intense dogfight in the sky, it'd be nice if I could land the jet myself, too.
There are few technical shortcomings that Battlefield 3 occasionally suffers from, including some choppy frame rate performance and moments where audio falls out of sync. Those minimal blips aside, the Battlefield 3 campaign provides a great sense of importance (whether or not it's ultimately cliched) and some solid voice acting and animation.
Battlefield 3's multiplayer mode obviously draws a lot of attention away from the single-player campaign because, well, it feels like a totally different experience. Almost nothing you "learn" going at it alone translates to online play. There's also an incredible amount of choice one gets in the multiplayer mode, like when choosing your class or weapon rollout.
I really think Battlefield 3's weapon-unlocking and incentive-based model is something other multiplayer behemoths should take notice of. But perhaps the most satisfying element of online play is the sense of teamwork and accomplishment that some of the modes encourage. There's nothing else out there currently that gives players a similar feeling. For that alone, Battlefield 3's enormous online mode should be experienced.
After Modern Warfare 3 is released on November 8, we'll finally get into the discussion of which game we think is the superior overall package. But if there's one thing I want to stress, it's that Battlefield 3 is its own game entirely.
Movies seem to come in pairs. So, too, do games. With Activision's Modern Warfare 3 on the imminent horizon, it's either fortunate or unfortunate timing that the similarly themed, similarly numbered Battlefield 3 is too. The Battlefield series has been around longer (2002; the first Call of Duty was 2003) and has a less fragmented history, but in this day and age, the Modern Warfare games are the online game of choice for console owners.
Battlefield 3 is bigger and better on the PC, but the Xbox 360 version I played was still utterly compelling and full of leveling and unlocking in multiplayer mode, a clever way to keep easily killed gamers like myself feeling like they're making progress. A separate disc for the single-player mode would be a letdown on its own, but it still plays better than many recent shooters I can remember, and has production values as impressive as any modern war game. Battlefield 3's maps feel bigger, its sense of chaos grander, but this game and Modern Warfare 3 are like two very good-tasting red wines sitting right next to each other. Many people will take the more recognizable Modern Warfare brand name. Fans of good wine, or good shooters, will buy both.
I can't help but wonder whether Battlefield 3 and the upcoming Modern Warfare 3 will mark the beginning of the end of the modern war genre bubble--like World War II games a few years ago, it feels like it's running its course. If so, you couldn't go with a better thematic swan song.
The subtitle for this section might as well be "I was a Battlefield Junkie." It may be surprising, as I'm better known for cheerleading barrier-breaking games from Heavy Rain to Limbo, but I've probably spent as much time in EA's Battlefield series as in any other game over the past decade, starting with Battlefield 1942 in 2002. With 64-player battles set throughout World War II, it was a genuine addiction, which I followed with Battlefield 2 and even Battlefield 2142, the poorly received sci-fi version (although I liked it...)
But starting with 2008's Battlefield: Bad Company, the series switched gears, from a PC-based massively mutltiplayer sandbox shooter to a console-targeted FPS with a strong single-player component and dramatically smaller battles. Bad Company and Bad Company 2 were fine games, even if they aimed to be a slightly more sophisticated take on Call of Duty, but they didn't have that classic Battlefield series feel.
Battlefield 3, the object of a surprising amount of hype in an already crowded holiday game field, hews closer to the newer games than the older ones, but with perhaps more of a fork between the PC and console versions, which is good news for a PC veteran such as myself.
On the console version (I played it on the Xbox 360), the game looks fantastic, especially after an optional (but not really optional) 1.5GB texture pack hard-drive installation. With games like this and Rage upping the ante for console graphics, we just may have seen the current generation of living-room machines get their lifespan extended yet again. The multiplayer (really the main draw here) is only 24-player, a far cry from the Battlefield matches I was playing 10 years ago, regularly with 42 to 60 or more players. The Modern Warfare stamp is evident, but this is less of a run-and-gun game, and I was shot repeatedly by stealthy snipers, which I take as a positive sign of careful gameplay.
The PC version looks even better, and supports 64 players (is there some odd experiential cap on the ideal number of players in a shooter I should know about?) I tested it on a slightly out-of-date gaming PC with twin Nvidia GeForce 275 cards in SLI, and it played great. My next step is trying Nvidia's 3D Vision on the PC, but that will have to wait for a followup post (partly because EA's Origin platform for downloading, installing, and running PC games is so obtuse and time-consuming that it makes Steam look even better by comparison).
In short, did Battlefield 3 take me back to the classic BF 1942 battles I spent so much time with? No. Is it still a well-done military shooter with a very strong online multiplayer component? Yes. Is it a bit too familiar after years of somewhat similar military games? Also yes. Finally, will it unseat the Call of Duty annual juggernaut as the go-to action game for the holiday season? Unlikely, but you've still got to root for it a little bit.