I'm rolling in the back of an armoured jeep, manning the .50 cal doing 60km/h over a wide swath of grassland, heading straight for a contested jumble of buildings in the middle of a huge map. A jet roars overhead, inbound to the same location. It's all very exciting, and... bam. I'm dropped from the server, back out to the desktop.
I load up another game, hop into my customisation screen and begin to go through my support gunner's kit. I click through a ridiculous number of scopes, thoroughly enjoying contemplating how they'll all work in-game. I have everything selected, and... bam. I'm dropped from the server, back out to the desktop.
This is a tricky preview to write, because I had a very good time playing BF3's PC multiplayer — when it worked. I went through a whole bunch of different maps and modes (many of which are, unfortunately, still under media embargo, so I can't talk about them yet.) However, my time playing the game was marred by hugely disruptive technical issues, from in-game freezes to constant server drops to conflicts with the Origin account that EA had set up for me. I believe that some (though not all) of the bugs and crashes I experienced were unique to the media event I attended and to the PC that EA gave me to use, but all the same it was hard to shake the suspicion that three weeks from launch, Battlefield 3 might not be quite ready for prime-time.
As Fahey already noted while playing the PC beta, Battlefield 3 is accessed through a web browser, not through a Steam-like standalone program. It feels peculiar. Everything is hosted on EA's Battlelog website, with Origin running in the background. Finding a game server happens in-browser — there appears to be no way to change servers in the game itself, which feels like an odd step backwards.
This awkwardness was hugely exacerbated by the fact that I was dropped from the server at least 10 times over the course of three hours of multiplayer. It occurred in number of different ways, and in different places in the game—right at the start, mid-match, even after freezing and requiring me to Ctrl+Alt+Del my way out of the game. Every time I'd get dropped, I would be kicked from the game back to the desktop, which was jarring. Particularly because I had such rampant connectivity issues.
Once I got up and running in the game, things became significantly more fun. One of the first maps and modes I played was Rush mode on Grand Bazaar, which has been covered in the past (you can see a developer walkthrough of it here). It's a narrow, non-vehicle map set in a middle-eastern city bazaar — all corridors and alcoves. The goal of rush mode either to plant or disarm M-Com explosives at a variety of points on the map.
Rush on Bazaar is a chattery, fast-moving good time, though not particularly new-feeling or remarkable. This kind of map is a lot closer to Modern Warfare than other larger, vehicle-based Battlefield maps, but all the same there were a few things that set it apart. In particular, I was impressed with how significantly lighting and smoke affect gameplay.
Attaching a torch or a laser sight to your gun barrel is a highly tactical decision. Many times I would come around a corner only to be blinded by a bright red-flare — someone's laser sight catching in my face just before they gunned me down. Smoke and explosions are similar — the volume of the smoke combined with light-flares and particle accumulation on the "camera" makes visibility a constantly fluxuating, functionally important factor.
Gunplay feels punchier than Bad Company 2 (though not as directly impactful as Modern Warfare) and despite all the rock walls and explosions in Grand Bazaar, the emphasis on environmental destructibility felt significantly downgraded, from a level-design standpoint. Most of the walls seemed indestructible, though I wasn't able to really put them to the test — for the most part, combat played out the same over the same chokepoints, with none of the ever-shifting, ever-shrinking cover of Bad Company 2. That's neither a plus nor a minus, but it did leave the match feeling much more like Modern Warfare.
The second level we played was a 50-player Conquest match on the map Operation Firestorm. There were about 20 other journalists in the PC section of the event, so I'm guessing that the other 30 or so QA players were set up offsite by EA. Conquest revolves around taking and defending checkpoints — on the map, each team begins at a large air base populated with tanks, jets, helicopters and jeeps. We only got to play each map once, which was simply not enough time to get an in-depth sense of things.
Something about it felt unpopulated, however — I kept hitting Tab to see the roster and seeing 25 or 26 people on each team, but it just didn't feel like that many were actually in the game. It was that standard large-map Battlefield thing where you spawn, then run over to a vehicle, wait to see if someone else is nearby to hop on and assist and then drive off to battle. Agonisingly, I was unable to fly a jet, but whenever I looked to the sky, I saw curiously slow-moving aircraft doing battle. They didn't seem too connected to events on the ground, but again, that was likely due to the event attendees' unfamiliarity with some of the more advanced air-to-ground weaponry. I could easily imagine how 64 players who really knew the map, vehicles and tactics could make this a riotously good time.
I asked Battlefield 3's executive producer Patrick Bach about the technical difficulties we were having, and he was very straight with me. He acknowledged that there was something "very flakey" going on with the PC game at this event and that if that kind of thing was the norm, that they would not have shown the game at all. "It's super embarrassing, we have not seen this before. So we need to figure out what it is. We had a QA connecting problem in Romania for instance, we don't know if that has anything to do with it, or if it's driver versions, or the connection in the building."
"We had a similar event in the UK and we had zero issues with stability," he told me. "We have no idea what happens to be the issue. It could be the drivers, I think we're using a newer driver version but that's only for one of the computer types."
Part of the problem, Bach said, might have been including so many different connections in a single space (there were around 40 consoles in the other room running the game, as well as roughly 20 PCs. "PCs can take as much bandwidth as they want, whereas the consoles, they are much better at being conservative. Because the console version works fine, so there is something funky with the PC version. We have been leading with PC, we have had zero problems with PC compared to console."
There appeared to be stability and connectivity issues throughout the PC room, though I did get the sense that mine were some of the worst. But it's worth mentioning that while an Origin account bug kept me from logging into any games, most everyone else was plugged in and happily shooting away. So, take these impressions for what they are — possibly unique, but still worrying.
I can't make any broad statements about the technical sturdiness of Battlefield 3, other than to express the doubts raised by my experiences at yesterday's demo. I sat down and spent an entire day playing a game that consistently froze and crashed, booting me to the desktop, where I had to reconnect using its odd browser interface. Several times I would start a match, get an enemy in my sights and kill him... only to have his body do a lag-freeze and refuse to go down before being dropped back to the desktop. It was beyond aggravating, and it wasted a huge amount of time.
Battlefield 3 will almost surely work better on launch day than it did for me yesterday. Whether or not it will work as well as it should is another question entirely. Despite all of the extenuating and possibly unique circumstances of yesterday's hands-on, I now can't help but have doubts.