For All Its Airplanes, Earthquakes And Explosions, Battlefield 3's Campaign Is Remarkably Dull

At EA's all-day Battlefield 3 event yesterday, I had a chance to play through a handful of single-player missions on PC in addition to the multiplayer modes that I detailed earlier today. It's been said (and repeated) that "no one plays Battlefield for the campaign", and that may well be true, but the extreme graphical fidelity and the often eerie verisimilitude of the gameplay footage we've seen thus far had my curiosity piqued.

Could it be that Battlefield 3's campaign will do something to truly set itself apart from the increasingly Michael Bay-ish histrionics of its competitor Modern Warfare?

Well, not really. Battlefield 3 gets partway there, but still its campaign feels trapped between refreshingly bracing realism and a case of Modern Warfare "me-too"-ism. Moreover it simply suffers from an overarching lack of personality.

In a trick becoming increasingly common in video game stories, Battlefield 3's tale is a frame narrative — due to events that are not clear from the outset, a US soldier named Black is being interrogated by Homeland Security regarding some sort of terrorist attack. He recounts the events leading up to the present day, and each mission functions as a flashback. I saw three missions, the first two of which, "Operation Swordbreaker" and "Uprising" starred him, and the final of which, "Going Hunting", switched perspectives to a female aircraft weapons-operator.

Does that setup sound familiar? It did to me, since it's basically a much drier version of the decade-hopping, globe-trotting story of Call of Duty: Black Ops. But instead of mysterious numbers, electric shocks, conspiracy theories and distorted interrogators, we've got a couple of guys in an interrogation room having a stern talk. It's a matter of personal preference, but I was surprised to find that I actually prefer the goofy Black Ops to the much more low-key Battlefield 3.

Black's first flashback, "Operation Swordbreaker", is the gameplay that has been shown over and over and over — honestly, for a full recap just go watch it.. You make your way from transport through a city in Iran, until shooting breaks out in a parking lot. The gunfire there feels fun and it works fine, though it's all fairly rote, with waves of enemies flooding into the parking lot as my team mates and I gunned them down.

A sniper soon opened fire, and I made my way to the roof to take him out — this level is a tutorial, so it's hard to judge it too harshly, but everything was entirely linear. As I played, I kept getting annoyed by something that often happens to me in games where I have an AI-controlled squad — my team is immaculately organised and scripted, but I never know quite where to go. I regularly found myself ahead of where I was "supposed" to be, and kinda felt like the guy who had showed up to filming without studying his blocking or lines.

I mention that because without a perfectly cinematic, well-controlled camera operator, Operation Swordbreaker feels much less dramatic than it did in that famous gameplay trailer. The graphics are great, but with me in control, it generally felt much more like a standard military shooter and less like the "Oh my god this looks real!" experience that the trailer portrayed.

After slithering across a rooftop to blow up a sniper's nest and spending some time covering some fellow soldiers down on the street, Black's team and I made our way back out to the street to disarm an IED in a van. My teammates were yelling tensely, "This looks bad, I don't like this!" But all I could see were random groups of civilians standing around, with no enemies in sight. Yep, there are totally civilians here — but don't think that Battlefield 3 has placed unarmed innocents in the game in a meaningful way. They're untouchable background objects, and bullets pass right through them.

I went underground to unplug the wires that led up to the explosive van, and was attacked by a single terrorist while underground, which sent me into a quicktime-event fight that was a drag. I'm not entirely against contextual quicktime events, but damn are they clunky on the PC — something about seeing the "E" key flashing on the screen, and then a picture of the left mouse button... it makes QTEs even more onerous than they are on consoles.

The level continued with a large-scale shoot-out on the street, leading to a brief time aboard an armed pickup truck which gets interrupted by a massive earthquake. Events like the earthquake are cued cinematics that take control away from the player — being blown back from a rocket-blast, being knocked from the back of a car, etc. They're nicely done in the moment, but the transitions aren't as smooth as they could be — it may seem nitpicky, but it's noticeable. I would often get to a triggered event at the wrong time and wait a second or so for something to happen. Compared to the snappy intercutting of Uncharted 2, Crysis 2 and Dead Space 2, Battlefield 3's quick-cut cinematics felt clunky and slow.

After the earthquake, we snaped back to the present, where Black continued to tell the story of what happened back in Iran. His superiors continued to be sceptical. I continued to kinda tune out.

At this point, my game crashed a few times — it would go through the opening cinematic and then freeze up, requiring a restart. I've already talked about the technical difficulties at this event, so this just echoes those same concerns. I was playing a unique build of the game made solely for the event, but given how often I had problems with it, I'm sceptical that some of those issues won't make their way into the finished product.

Black's story resumed in the wake of the earthquake. As he lay, dazed, he blearily watched a menacing Russian dude do menacing things to another soldier. Again, I'm trying to avoid drawing so many Modern Warfare comparisons, but it just really felt similar. What followed was a bit of solo gameplay, sneaking through the dark, stabbing perfectly-positioned enemy soldiers, getting into some corridor gunfights. After making my way through several buildings, I ran into Montes, one of Black's squad mates and clearly the character with the most personality.

Together, we fought our way through a few more buildings until holding an LZ for evacuation. It looked great and played well, but there was a distinct sense of "Been There, Done That" to the whole thing.

The final mission I played, "Going Hunting", seemed more promising, largely because it was an arial mission. I changed perspectives from Black to a female jet-fighter weapons-operator, though it was not yet clear what her part in the story was to be. My mission (I think?) was to fly over a city and blow up... some guys... or maybe one guy? I wasn't entirely clear on the specifics. But we were going to fly around in a jet, so I was looking forward to giving it a go.

The build-up to the actual flying was cool and well-paced — climbing from the bowels of an aircraft carrier up to the deck as my pilot chattered about our objective, coming out onto the deck and climbing into the cockpit. Going through weapons tests (a clever, immersive way of tutorialising the aeroplane controls).

Once we got underway, everything looked great — the sun gleaming in over the top of my wingman's plane, the clouds and the sky — it was damn-near photorealistic. But soon we engaged with some other planes, and things quickly became dull. As the gunner I had access to missiles and the machine gun, as well as the ability to launch flares. What that meant was the entire mission boiled down to waving the mouse around, tracking enemy MIGs and clicking sometimes.

We then shifted over to bombing, which felt similarly finicky and clicky. I used missiles to blow up some SAMs, then switched to white-hued thermal vision to blow up some aeroplanes and then some troops. It was almost entirely reminiscent of the original Modern Warfare's AC-130 mission, and using the mouse and keyboard, it felt clicky and lacked impact.

Which brings me to a thing that will probably only be a bummer for a few of you — the PC version of Battlefield 3 won't support gamepads, at least not at launch. When I play Battlefield multiplayer, I prefer the precision of a mouse and keyboard. But when I play singleplayer, I like to relax with a controller, and I was looking forward to running the PC version of the game on my TV. On a small computer monitor, the amazing graphics aren't nearly as impressive, but without a controller, I'll have to play the game at my desk. Colour me disappointed. One of the DICE reps made sure to tell me that they were considering adding it at a later date, as it's been a highly requested feature. But with no dedicated "lean" buttons or complicated controls, I can't imagine why gamepad-support wouldn't be included at launch.

When I spoke with Battlefield 3 Executive Producer Patrick Bach, I asked him about the way that DICE has been designing the game's singleplayer content. "To be honest," he told me, "a big part of what singleplayer in Battlefield is is a tutorial for multiplayer."

"It's not a training mission," he was sure to clarify, "it's not a shooting range — it's an emotional roller-coaster at the same time as it shows you all the bits and pieces of the game. It's a great introduction for the multiplayer. Because when you go into multiplayer for the first time, it's very dry, it's very 'Here I am, with my gun, what do I do?' While singleplayer brings you more on a journey."

I get the sense that as Bach says, Battlefield 3's campaign is mostly a tutorial for the multiplayer. And for many players, that's totally fine — fewer people are going to buy Battlefield 3 for its campaign than for its multiplayer. But all the same, Battlefield 3's campaign seems mired in a bit of a personality-free zone. It's a surprise, as I enjoyed the congenial vibe of DICE's last game, Battlefield: Bad Company 2 (though it's nice to hear that we just might be getting more Bad Company before too long, as well.)

Ever since those great Battlefield 3 gameplay videos first surfaced, I've been looking forward to seeing Battlefield 3's campaign in action. But now that I've played it, I might just skip straight to multiplayer.


Comments

    Frankly I don't think most big fans of the Battlefield franchise are expecting a good story because it's all about the large-scale multiplayer - and many would argue that Modern Warfare doesn't have a good story either.

    They're both going to sell for the popularity of their multiplayer. While I'm personally a fan of the Modern Warfare story and that was my primary motivation for buying MW2 after the excellent COD4, I'm equally as excited for the MW3 multiplayer after all the hours I wound up sinking into MW2.

      Agree, I'll just be playing the SP campaign for when I can't stand MP or if I want a tute for some MP stuff. As per the description in the article. An intro to MP.

    Didn't DICE state ages ago the campaign basically serves as a 'training ground' to get new players familiar with everything before jumping straight into multiplayer without knowing how everything works?

    I think it should be somewhat expected that it's going to be a tad dull overall for an experienced player.

    I have been a BF player since late into 1942's run, and have always enjoyed the multiplayer only feel to the games since.

    However, the closer bf3 gets to release, the more i find myself unintrested in the multiplayer aspect and further relying on what the single player game has to offer.

    You can go on and on about how Battlefield fans don't expect a story, but that's not the point. The point is to draw in people who aren't Battlefield fans, and given how amazing the trailers have been, I totally do expect a good story, with a well-built campaign. If it's as disjointed as Hamilton is saying, then I expect a lot of dissatisfied players.

      Expectations only lead to disappointment in life. And if those "outside players" only expect a call of duty style campaign, then they are going to be sadly mistaken.

      Quite honestly, that isn't dice's problem. Dice didn't set out to achieve a storyline driven game such as cod.
      The game is supported by a massive pre-bf3 fan base who understand the concept behind the series.

      In other words, dice aren't accomodating for "outside" players who want a completely different game, and like i said, their expectations will only lead to disappointment.

      Who said the point was to lure outsiders anyway? Is that your idea of game development?
      Keep in mind, those single player trailers were there to show off the gameplay in a team environment - they weren't showcasing a campaign

        Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.

          True that

    Hard to judge a Campaign from 3 levels.

      if you fail to hook players at the start, you have failed in making a good single player game. Tho first few missions are the most important part of the game. Take a few examples: half life 2 hectic chase sequences, call of duty 4 well designed exiting boat level, these levels make you want to continue on.

      On other things, disappointing that its highly linear cinematic games, uncharted pulls this stuff off while not making the game fill linear or forcing the player to watch there cinematic moments. Is BF3 fail in this? hard to tell but i am not very interested in putting down 50 dollars for this when uncharted, skyrim and other titles are coming out. Serious Sam looks more fun.

      Its possible to get the wrong impression of the game if you just play the first level.

      I played Halo 1 and the first level was really cool. The rest of the game... not so..
      I wouldnt say it was a bad game... the first level was just alot better than the majority of the rest of the game.

      Call of Duty 1 first level really cool...
      the rest of the game not so... same story as above.

      On the other hand Far Cry 1 actually got better as you played longer. "spoiler" the aliens and huge battles come later in the game...

    Looking at both games again today. MW3 with the new campaign trailer and now this. Both seem to have their flaws. MW3 = more of the same. BF3, looks like SP was simply a tagged on afterthought, but yeah can't really judge after only three missions.

    Then there is also Skyrim releasing right next door to it so maybe I can wait and pick up both later down the track.

    Yeah, those Arial missions are great. Much better than Times New Roman.

      you sir made my day

        times (new roman) two

          Or if we are comparing campaigns modern warfare would be comic sans
          " Russians and nukes, I dunno lol"

    Meh. I'm buying it for the MP experience. The SP will simply be a bonus to play when the mrs isn't home to play with me.

    Could be wrong on this, but I was definitely able to play the beta with my xbox360 controller, doesn't have 100% of the mappings and there is no sprint toggle for left-stick-clicking, but it's still possible to effectively play with a controller. Couldn't figure out how to 'spot' though, so switched back to kb and mouse pretty quick.

    Meh. I try (as best I can) to judge games, music, movies based on whether they're successful in what they're trying to do, not on whether it delivers on what I want or not. Battlefield has been pushing its multiplayer since its inception with 1942 so that's what I'm judging it on. I'm not going to lie that I'd love a deep single player campaign but if that's not the intention of the game then I'll wait before I label it a failure.

    At first I was worried when I read the articles title, then I realized this article is written by Kirk Hamilton..

    The same moronic jack ass no talent hack who does anything to get people to read his horribly written articles, including spoiling Batman: Arkham City for loyal Kotaku AU readers and now bad mouthing Battlefield 3.

      Oohhh no, not bad mouthing! And even worse, bad mouthing a massive blockbuster game by writing an article that clearly articulates your reasoning! Look out Kirk, John doesn't tolerate bad mouthing.

    After seeing the video of the gameplay from the Aerial Mission on youtube, it has "on-rail shooter" written all over it.

    I guess that's great for those who can't wrap their head around the concepts of flying, but still... I hope that there's still something in it for the pilots out there who cbf waiting for a jet on a server.

    EVERYTHING about pronefield 3 is boring.

    This was obviously written from a Call of duty fan boy point of view. The combat in all call of duty to me feels like a twisted combination of a badly textured FPS mixed with a benny hill skit. Just widely running around and shooting really fast guns, combat is nothing like this. From what I've played in the beta of BF3, I don,t give a shit what the single player is like. NONE of the other BF titles had a single player feature, it was probably only made to attempt to sucker in the COD fanboys. But there too concerned on running 100km/h and shooting at 3000RPM in a very linear static map thats the size of my back yard... My 2c

      +1

      Agree

    Oh, Riccitello is going to be so red in the face when he reads this...

    Pretty sure any criticism levelled at this, can also be applied to any FPS campaign.

      After the Original Call of Duty, Ive always thought the campaigns were a little samey. It's said really of any FPS campaign

    "Arial"? I think you mean "aerial". ;-)

      Comic Saaaaaaans!

    "After the earthquake, we snaped back to the present, where Black continued to tell the story of what happened back in Iran."

    Snape and Sirius Black went to Iran? What sort of Harry Potter nonsense is this?

    Classic video game "journalist"...

    "my team is immaculately organised and scripted, --->but I never know quite where to go. I regularly found myself ahead of where I was “supposed” to be,I continued to kinda tune out.<---"

    not sure what's going on, or what he's supposed to be doing, but admits a number of times that he's not really paying attention to the dialogue or narration.

    Good job moron.

      ooh, the inequality signs I used for arrows just slashed my comment in twine... oops

    I play MW for the story and BF for the MP. It does annoy me when the story in single player doesn't differ much from others. It's like dance movies, all the same, just different music, if that. He mentions the SP is like Black Ops. Black Ops wasn't even the first to have a story like that. Remember the game Black? They did the whole interrogation, flashback thing before. What shit's me, same style with all reference to "Black" Even if Dice was using SP to train you up for MP, they could still have had added their own unique flavour to it.

    I just hope with the Infinity Ward and Activision BS that has happened, the MW3 story will be just as great as MW1 and MW2. But multi - BF all the way for me baby!

    Here we go yet again another bullet in the war between COD and BF.

    I have owned a copy of BF all the way from the beginning and I have also owned a copy of COD all the way from the beginning and to be honest I am still playing both rather regularly, all for different reasons.

    The arguements raised about not being led 'hand in hand' through the SP reminds me of other arguments about how games do too much of it. Now I honestly do not know how developers are going to be able to cater for both. Personally I am a RPG player and like the freedom of exploring so on a regular basis I found myself in BC2 going to sections that weren't 'unlocked' yet in the story and I loved it. I also liked the way MW suggested the direction I travel, made it seem like it was a free choice but gently corralling me back onto the straight and narrow. It really depends on how you feel at the time.

    For me this article was clearly written on the bias of trying to cause more friction in the already boringly long war between fanboys. The answer is so painfully obvious. Buy both and quit complaining! Enjoy the games for what they are and stop trying to draw comparisons that quite frankly are always going to happen in games in the same genre.

    As for the consoles versus PC comments. Again, buy both and stop complaining. I am a long standing PC player and can't for the life of me pick up a controller and play the same FPS the same way but it doesn't bother me because quite simply I don't let it. If you want to play the game with a controller then get it on console, if you don't then get it on pc if you want a mix of both then get it on both.

    If you argue about it costing too much then stop playing so many games and work harder or get a degree and a good job. If you're a kid then whine so more to your parents.

    This is really gonna bug me if I don't say anything.... the person who handles the aircraft weaponry is called a Combat Systems Operator, previously known as Navigator. Good article though! Love your stuff, keep up the good work.

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