Last year, Swedish-based developers Digital Illusions CE set out to launch not just a game, but an experience — an ever-changing and evolving experiment, if you will — which would serve as a platform from which future Battlefield titles would stem. More than a year after the release, after more than a year of patches, updates, rule-changes and several massive expansions, how has Battlefield 3 held up?
Battlefield 3 was built to last. Fourteen months into it and only now are we seeing the emergence of Aftermath, Battlefield 3's fourth expansion pack, with a fifth still on the way in March. Bearing this in mind, it might still be too early to peek into the looking glass and speculate the future of the Battlefield franchise. But having passed the one-year mark, perhaps a bit of debriefing is in order. How has DICE's approach to this generation of AAA shooters faired so far? What has worked and what has not? How does their idea of post-launch support rate? Is their Premium service really all that "premium?"
It's tough for a first-person shooter to produce multiplayer expansions in the real sense of the word. Realistically, the only type of content that can be 'added', in this case, is perhaps a set of new maps/locations, weapons or customisation options. Compare this to singleplayer-based DLC that can not only deliver all of the above, but also chapters of new story content, new characters, and/or new gameplay elements. I find that the Call of Duty series in particular struggles with this. Personally, I have a harder time coughing up dough for something like Modern Warfare 3's ELITE Premium subscription when all I'm really getting in return are new maps. Otherwise, it's the same experience over and over again.
DICE's approach to DLC, which has all been wrapped together in one neat package called Battlefield 3 Premium, differs in that each new piece of content has introduced the player to a new experience and has truly expanded the base product. Take, for example, the contrasting Close Quarters and Armored Kill themed expansion packs: One built on action-packed, fast-paced gameplay set in tight, claustrophobic environments versus the slower, more grandiose vehicle-based warfare taking place in wide-open and breathtaking landscapes. The former, released last June, certainly posed a risk for the team, as many considered its speedy, arcade-like nature untrue to the spirit of Battlefield. But the reason why it worked — and the reason why I believe it worth the price — is that it was (and still is) an experience which cannot be found in the standard Battlefield 3 package. It plays different, it feels different, and it keeps things fresh.
Similarly, Armored Kill, released last September, gave "true" Battlefield fans what they always wanted: Insane, all-out vehicle warfare — something many felt was lacking in Battlefield 3 standard. While it didn't quite gel with the consoles' limited player count due to its large map sizes, PC players certainly felt right at home. With both Close Quarters and Armored Kill, I feel DICE struck a nice balance catering to both the dedicated, hardcore Battlefield audience and those just wanting to shoot people in the face.
The latest add-on, Aftermath, plays similar to the throwback expansion Back to Karkand, released back in December, 2011. It features similar urban war zones with a good mix of infantry and vehicle combat. But at the same time, it literally "shakes" things up with the concept of fighting and surviving in a post-earthquake environment. The new Crossbow (or XBow) for example, adds new gameplay elements while the deformed terrain creates a battlefield you might not be used to.
That's why I know I will be throwing down cash upfront for Battlefield 4's Premium service without a second thought and why Call of Duty is going to have to step its game up in order to earn my investment. DICE has shown that they're not here to cough up more of the same and call it DLC. With their own distinct theme and feel, all of Battlefield 3's current add-ons have literally expanded the experience with new ways to play. I expect nothing but the same for End Game.
Later in Battlefield 3's lifecycle, DICE granted players on both the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 the ability to rent and customise their very own servers — a first for a console FPS. Players then not only had the choice of entering standard DICE-run servers, but a wide range of player-run servers as well. As an unfortunate side-effect, this spread the butter too thin, so to speak, and led to under-populated servers while rendering the matchmaking experience much more complicated than it should have been. "Quick Match" would no longer always send you along your way to a server featuring a playlist of your chosen game mode. Feeling in the mood for some Conquest? Sure, "Quick Match" might stick you in a nice game of flag-capping goodness on a player-run server, let's say. What it doesn't know, however, is that the next map in the rotation is customised to run a game of Team Deathmatch. Probably not what you were looking for.
The problem is that a lot of newcomers don't even know what they are looking for. They just want to get in on the action in a predictable manner. I shouldn't have to explain how find a 'normal' playlist and avoid any wonky or bizarre game settings to a friend who has picked up Battlefield 3 some time after the introduction of rentable servers. Likewise, no newcomer should have to unknowingly fall victim to abusive administrators who create their own, sometimes-absurd rules. What irks me is that rules like "no shotguns", "no explosives" or "knives-only" are enforced by the server admin only, not by the built-in game settings, as there are no actual options to restrict weapons or equipment. Because many of these "special" servers are public, anyone could be thrown into one at any moment and not everyone who's paid $US60 USD for a game appreciates being subjected to someone telling them that they can't even use half their arsenal. What's worse are admins who kick you for either "playing like a noob" or for simply being "too good".
While I would hope that this sort of feature would stick around for future Battlefield titles on consoles, I believe some fine-tuning is in order to streamline the process and keep the community playing together, rather than having everyone off doing their own thing. I also think abnormal server "rules" should be kept strictly private and not public. "Pistol-only" matches can indeed be fun, but not if you aren't looking for one. While this mostly only applies to the console audience, and perhaps the more casual audience, it is their larger audience in the end. That leaves something to be said for the PC side of life, where the Battlefield series found its original home.
If there is one thing DICE could have done to have kept Battlefield 3's life span healthy and constantly rejuvenated, it would have been to allow PC mod tools. Look at what happened to Bohemia Interactive's Arma 2. We got the Day Z zombie mod, soon to be its own standalone title. Bethesda's The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim has also been turning heads with its beautiful texture mods. It's not even a multiplayer game and yet there is a healthy community of modders constantly finding ways to make an already content-rich game even beefier. I think we could see some pretty amazing things coming from a community of dedicated Battlefield modders, should DICE be able to work past the technical issues and complexities of the Frostbite 2 engine in order to allow it.
At the present moment, Battlefield 3 is a very different game than it was back in October of 2011. It raises the question, however, "was Battlefield 3 even finished when it shipped?" Being the first Battlefield title powered by the brand new Frostbite 2 engine, developers clearly had a hard time covering up the number of bugs that came along with it. Nevertheless, it is without question that DICE has done a commendable job at supporting their product post-launch. One could even argue that Battlefield 3 would never have reached the stature it has today without the feedback of the millions of gamers that have had a chance to sink some serious time into it after launch. While the patching process may have been slow and cumbersome, and some particularly game-breaking issues were dealt with rather last-minute, patches were almost little pieces of DLC in themselves. Again, though support in general was top notch, perhaps smaller, more frequent patches would yield a happier community.
Moving forward, into Battlefield 4, or whatever DICE may have in store for the future, I believe asking themselves the following questions would prove beneficial, if they haven't done so already:
- In what ways could value be added to the next iteration of Battlefield's "Premium" service?
- Would a more compact DLC schedule keep players' interest better?
- How can the Server Browser be streamlined for clarity and ease-of-use while keeping the community playing together?
- Would providing smaller, more frequent updates yield happier players?
- Would the extra effort put into allowing mod-tools for PC players improve Battlefield's lifespan?
Considering the amount of experimentation that went on over the past 14 months — new DLC model, new engine, the Battlelog, bigger audience, etc — it will be interesting to see how DICE acts upon their findings and where the battlefield takes them in the future. Until then, you know how the saying goes: "See you on the battlefield."