The first thing I notice when I manoeuvre Sgt Henry Blackburn, 1st Recon Marine, through the smoking door frame of the Tehran apartment complex isn’t the smouldering bodies lying on the ground nearby, it’s the piece of paper drifting through the room.
I follow it with the tip of my gun, watching it drift around the run down entry way, past an old wooden chair, a slightly flattened box, chipped and dirty walls. Someone took the time to create the path this piece of imaginary paper takes as it floats on imaginary crossdrafts in a video game about a future fictional battlefield in Iran.
I stop to jot down a few notes.
“Make my way to the apartment entrance,” I write. “Kinda skudgy. Debris and trash lying around. Paper fluttering the air. Carpet on the floor is rolled up in one corner. Old mattress lying in the hallway.”
Played on a PlayStation 3, Battlefield 3 is a solid first-person shooter with tight controls, immersive sound and a hectic, driven storyline. But it’s the density of the game’s visuals that always stand out to me when I play this game.
This morning I had a chance to play a snapshot of the game, a 10 minute or so demonstration of a level called Operation Guillotine. Hours earlier Luke Plunkett played and enthused about his time with the very same demo in Tokyo. So when I take the PS3 controller in hand here in New York I decide to meticulously pick my way through the brief time with the game.
Battlefield 3 takes place in a 2014 where the US Marine Corps is fighting along the Iran-Iraq border. This particular missions opens up on what appears to be the evening of October 31, 2014.
Blackburn is hunkered down among a group of other members of Misfit 1-3 preparing to storm a city in Iran’s Tehran Province. The particular build I’m playing on is a couple of weeks old, but still more than a month newer than the one Plunkett and I played in Germany at Gamescom.
The level opens with a low whistle. One of the other marines, looking at with me at a massive little lit by bursts of gun fire, flak and explosions says, “That’s a big city. No gun truck yet.”
“Nope,” another marine says. “The wheels of change move slow.”
Seconds later we get the call to move down the hill, into the outskirts of the city and take the Khojir Apartment complex.
These opening, controllable moments of the level don’t give me a chance to fire a single shot. Instead I’m running down a hill with a mortar in both hands.
Explosions shake the ground as I run, some hit so close that I can feel the force of them pushing Blackburn slightly off course, like a boat hit by an unseen wave. Trees shudder in the wake of the blasts, some trees topple over, others burn, their leaves engulfed in flames, their trunks checkered with red embers.
The screen is flaked with smudges of dirt and mud.
Blackburn makes it to a clearing near a wall and drops the mortar on a spot, watching another marine drop a round into the tube. The round launches into the air, lighting the sky with a floating green flare.
I run Blackburn to the wall, to a man with his back against it, and press a button to get a boost over.
When Blackburn lands on the other side he’s got his weapon out. Down a hillside I can see marines in a firefight with opposition across a small gully. The enemy have taken up positions on a road, firing off pot shots at the men below.
I drop Blackburn to a knee and sight down the gun. I fire off three bullets, taking out two enemies with head shots and apparently winging the third. I’m aiming for a third headshot when another marine takes him down.
Moving Blackburn down the hillside I notice a group of enemies setting up much further down the gully, setting up an ambush along the path I’ll be taking once I get him to the floor below.
I drop Blackburn to his knee again and take aim. I squeeze the trigger and run into the only disappointment I end up finding in the brief demo. The bullet seems to miss. I aim carefully and fire another headshot. Nothing. I pump out an entire clip in short bursts at the distant enemy. Nothing.
Later I mention this to the public relations folks manning the demo. What’s the distance of rounds in Battlefield 3, I ask. The answer is a little vague and involves mentioning that the developers brought in ex-SAS operator Andy McNab to help with things like firing distance. In theory, rounds can’t go forever in the game. But I’m not convinced they lose trajectory over time. It felt more like they hit an invisible wall. EA says they’re looking into it for me.
It was a very distant enemy and not something I suspect you’d run into much in the campaign, so it felt more like an oddity than a problem.
Back in the game, I push Blackburn down the hill, into the gully and around the bend to face off with the enemies lying in wait. Running toward the enemies, a nearby blast momentarily blackens the screen, but I manage to take the enemies out quickly by switching to a shotgun.
Running Blackburn up a set of stairs out of the gully culvert and within sight of the target apartment complex. But first there’s a group of enemy shooting at us from a sandbox foxhole.
I take them out and proceed to the outskirts of the apartment complex.
Running up the entrance stairs, I’m walking toward the doors when another marine runs up and tosses a grenade through a side window. The blast shoots three or four bodies through a wall of windows. A second later the door bursts open and a burning man runs into the clearing dropping to my feet before dying.
I walk through the door and for a moment I’m distracted from the death, the gunshots, the timbre of war, by a floating piece of paper. I take my notes and then push Blackburn forward, down a dirty hall littered with newspapers, boxes, mattresses, furniture. I move him toward a door, noting for a second the bugs flying slowly around the light.
At the door, the game tells me to press a button to knock it in. When I press it, the door kicks not in, but back toward me, knocking Blackburn on his arse. Time slows for an instant and I see another man, not a Marine, standing over me with a rifle, he’s moving it down toward me, when I hear a gunshot and he’s blown off his feet and back.
As I fell I apparently pulled the trigger in surprise and hit the guy in the chest. Laying on my back I aim and take down two other men in the hall before getting back up.
I run through the hallway, past the dead and through a back door. A humvee awaits me. On the ground nearby a marine is on his knees leaning over the prone body of another, slowly, methodically giving him CPR. I count to 15 chest compressions in my head before turning away and boarding the vehicle.