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Battlefield 3 set to steal Call of Duty's crown?

Here are some reasons 2011 could be the year Call of Duty gets toppled from the top of the FPS pile.

Battlefield 3
Will Battlefield 3 shoot down the competition? Screenshot by GameSpot

opinion For years now, Infinity Ward and Treyarch's Call of Duty franchise has been the big bully on the playground, commanding millions of day-one sales with each new installment. Even piracy can't slow down the speed at which Call of Duty is swallowing the market, pushing every other worthwhile competitor in the most popular video game genre down to steerage class.

After knocking the Halo franchise to its knees in 2007 with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, 2011 may be the year COD needs to shape up. Will gamers choose the eye-catching Battlefield 3 over their current FPS fare of choice? The heart-stopping Battlefield 3 trailer that debuted at last week's Game Developers Conference suggests that could well be, but will its prioritization of the PC version kill its chances?

Gamers can expect an intensified version of the current Iraq conflict with this game, which is set in 2014 in the parched cities and barren wastelands of the Middle East. Focused on the chaos caused by the PLR terrorist group, it's your mission to stabilize the region from a recent rise in terrorist attacks.

The waiting game is a dangerous one in game development, particularly when catering to the hard-core class that chews through first-person shooter games like they were candy. Tantamount to a first-person shooter's bankroll is the quality of the graphics engine, and developer DICE has wisely bided its time in fine-tuning its Frostbite 2.0 engine for the past three years. When the preview for Battlefield 3 faded to black at GDC and on millions of computer monitors worldwide, the impression was virtually unanimous: expectations for this game went through the roof.

The Frostbite 2.0 engine promises to deliver emotional punches from a dark, stirring visual perspective in its Battlefield 3 debut. Based on footage seen in the "No Fault Lines" trailer at the GDC in San Francisco, an agonizing attention to detail implies the bar will be raised this year ahead of the next COD update.

But today's best shooters are about more than just the max resolution and the frame rate specs. They're about realism--the sunlight burning your retinas, the empty shells flying in your face, the cloud of dust your gunfire kicks up.

Battlefield 3
The Battlefield 3 trailer shown at GDC exhibited the game's powerful visuals and ultra-realistic military scenarios. Screenshot by GameSpot

The modern shooter has become less about building a fantasy and more about constructing ultra-realistic game environments and a seamless, real-life presentation of the mission objectives. Adding to this is environment destruction, larger-than-life battle pieces, and an enormous weapon and vehicle selection, which, judging by the trailer, Battlefield 3 intends to execute like no other. Instead of gnawing holes in that bunker you're hiding behind, enemy fire will eventually tear it up to expose the player to the opposition.

Apart from graphics, what made the Call of Duty franchise the top dog of shooters was its fluid gameplay, which arguably proved to be more fun and intense than that of other games. It didn't matter much that Halo had a steel-strong following in 2007; it was easily tackled by the modernized installment of COD on the basis of gameplay and a serious appetite for violent combat.

Despite the internal breakdown of Infinity Ward, the team responsible for salvaging the Call of Duty name, Activision still managed to turn a profit after the legal drama. There was enough talent leftover in Treyarch to harness Call of Duty: Black Ops, which blossomed billions in November of last year.

Gameplay is the heart and soul of a first-person shooter; if the new Battlefield is anything like its highly acclaimed Bad Company brethren of recent years, we can rest assured the multiplayer is going to taste brilliant. Despite enjoying the billion-dollar bath of success and Black Ops soaking in sales records, the future of Call of Duty is foggy.

Making a major switch three games in from a recycled WWII setting to a modern setting has buoyed the franchise for the past three games. The modern arsenal formula is still thriving, but hordes of discriminating gamers are becoming dissatisfied with the lack of offerings of each new COD. FPS lovers may not be willing to drop another $60 on the new COD that will only be relevant for a year.

Its lack of concrete plans to wow gamers just adds to Call of Duty's chores. Insiders comment that the new COD will not feature a completely new game engine, instead relying on a tweaked version of Black Ops' code base. While acceptable industry-wise, it likely won't be enough to compete with a mammoth newcomer.

However, that's still too early to assume, especially if you're looking to purchase Battlefield 3 for consoles. Commenting that Battlefield: Bad Company 2 placed too much emphasis on console play, DICE General Manager Karl Magnus Troedssen said the game would prioritize keyboard-and-mouse players. "PC gamers are probably the most hard-core players we have out there," Troedssen said in a recent interview. "Sure, online gameplay has been on the rise on the Xbox 360 and PS3. There are a lot of hard-core online players there too. But on PC? That's our core audience."

Developers who rely on both consoles and PCs typically encounter time and technical constraints, which often equates to one version becoming superior to the others. Battlefield 3 will undoubtedly shine best on the PC platform, where games encounter fewer technical restrictions compared with consoles. This approach may or may not be beneficial to them in the end; while beautifully rendered PC versions are technically best, they are also the most frequently pirated games and thus, rarely pull in the same sales figures as console games.

A similar scenario occurred with 2007's PC exclusive Crysis, which was applauded for its bar-setting graphics. With the upcoming Crysis 2, Crytek has relaxed the graphics so it may port its game to both PC and consoles, achieving a higher profit. This would have been good news if Crytek wasn't so entrenched on mastering the console port; recent demos of the PC version proved the game was buggy to the point of not even functioning.

Consoles were prioritized again in the PC/console game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, but the PC version was so broken and the PS3 port so glitchy that later downloadable patches couldn't fix all the problems. Will an emphasis on the PC kill Battlefield 3 on the super-popular console platform?

Despite dedicating itself to the PC version, DICE stands to gain the most credentials with gamers from the release of Battlefield 3. The gaming crowd is prone to supporting respectable game companies, such as the throngs that praise Valve Software and its Steam network. DICE has committed its allegiance to the crowd that suits the genre--FPS games were traditionally PC games--rather than one that suits its wallets. While DICE will also dedicate time for console versions, Call of Duty looks to still be on the "please everyone equally" warpath. As the saying goes, "Yield to all and you will soon have nothing to yield."

Is Call of Duty's immense popularity poised to dwindle? Will Battlefield 3 fail because it's prioritizing the PC version? Publisher EA has had plenty of misfires already trying to mimic the success of Call of Duty, most recently with last fall's modernized Medal of Honor game (also made by DICE), which engendered its share of controversy, but disappointed in sales. Will this move be the one that kicks COD off its throne? We'll find out for sure when Battlefield 3 makes its crash landing this fall on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PCs.