You can read this review in full in our print edition.
In our Christmas 2011 issue, which is on sale November 22, our review will include a Post Script article on the role of storytelling in military shooters like Battlefield 3.
Be careful what you wish for. Though rightly renowned as the go-to franchise for grandiose online carnage, Battlefield’s masters have long had lusty eyes for Call Of Duty’s rigidly scripted, gung-ho military fantasy – or at least the money it makes.
With Battlefield 3, which remains a deliriously brilliant multiplayer experience, DICE has conspicuously touted a singleplayer campaign that is every bit the cinematic spectacle fans of the quasi-interactive man-clicking genre might want, replete with a histrionic, globe-trotting plot about stolen nukes and implausible geopolitical consequences. EA has got what it wanted, certainly, but is that what Battlefield 3 deserves?
Flashbacks rattle you between roles as a disgraced US marine, a tank driver, an aircraft gunner and a Spetsnaz operative, all embroiled in a threadbare bit of hokum that sees you murder your way through sections of Tehran, Paris and New York. There can be no argument over the scene-setting potency of DICE’s efforts in technology and visual design. Battlefield 3 frequently leaves players slack-jawed with amazement at its compositions, from the ruined Iranian shopping mall, moonlight and rain cascading through its punctured roof on to tiers of collapsed walkways, to the pristine angles of a modernist mansion complex, perched upon a dusky cliff overlooking the Caspian Sea.
Elsewhere, reflections flare and ripple as wind sheers across the deck of an aircraft carrier, light refracting to brightly pepper your visor. Even when unhelmeted, light fragments and bleeds as though you had fitted a smeary Perspex sheet to your face – an odd contrivance that nonetheless creates dazzling, fluid images, the superimposition of colour and texture drawing together the disparate geometries beneath. No war has ever been this beautiful. It even looks the business on the creaky old consoles; on a half-decent PC, it transcends.
But wonderment is not the only reason the player might be left slack-jawed. As kinetic as it all feels, the strict stage-management of Battlefield 3’s solo campaign offers so very little room for the player to express independence that its firefights sometimes struggle to keep your attention, despite the superb orchestration of screen-rattling rumbles, whistling bullets and ear-popping explosions. Interaction is largely a trivial adjunct to the game’s showreel of pretty flashing lights and sounds, and anything outside its lexicon of bullets is dealt with via a context-sensitive action. Even the decision to equip a weapon you are apparently already carrying is sometimes taken out of your hands. Want to climb a ladder? Go through a door? Walk forward? Not until you are given orders, soldier. So rigid is the scripting that allies can fatally pin you into cover while attempting to follow their programming.