With an audience approaching any claim of the "greatest looking game ever" with a wariness borne from years of wading neck-deep in marketing B.S, and a genre that that's at a crossroads to either get bigger than ever or keel over from a heart attack, Battlefield 3's should have its work cut out for it. So why the cocky, confident grin? We found out.
Battlefield 3 will be the Call of Duty killer. Contentious statement? Definitely. But is it gross exaggeration? I don't believe so. There may be factors that could lead to this game not making the impact I believe it will, but those are external and unrelated to Battlefield 3 the entity. I'll touch upon them later, but for now let's stick to the point. Or 'flamebait', as some would have it.
At an EA Showcase attended by myself and a pack of other journalists, we ushered into a presentation room where we were shown three gameplay segments. The content of each will be familiar to all of you once the current series of trailers being wheeled out online are finished, so the general details don't need to be repeated here.
What should be noted was the brief conversation I had hours after, when I bumped into a colleague at the venue's entrance. It as less a conversation and two statements of one line each, uttered by each of us.
Me: "I haven't seen or felt anything like that since that Modern Warfare reveal years ago."
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Colleague: "That's exactly what i was going to say. That's exactly what I thought."
'That Modern Warfare reveal' was an Activision event a few years ago when Call of Duty's new direction was still under wraps. Ushered into a darkened room boasting a fifty inch television and a 5.1 surround system. my first eyes on with MW was the US nighttime assault in "The Bog" level. This will be a helpful reminder to those that have forgot. What I was watching seemed to flirt with photo-realism at times. All smoke and mirrors obviously, but there was no denying the shiver up my spine as the action unfolded.
The game's to be blamed for turning me into a slack-jawed Californian surfer for a time, the only word coming out of my mouth an astonished "wow". The demo weighs in as my all-time most impressed moment since i joined the profession.
That was, until the EA Showcase, when Battlefield 3 didn't so much flirt with photo-realism but had a full on fifteen-minute sex session with it in front of my eyes. Still smoke and mirrors yea, but the advancement in the years between the games has been staggering.
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Sure, a lot of the snap crackle and pop comes from the surroundings; EA had adopted the same strategy and setup as Activision all those years before. A screen that'd more comfortable in a cinema than a flat wed with bass that hammers your heart and plays your balls like bongos against the plastic seating would make any game look good. But it's not just the visuals. There's a lot more going on here, both with the entire lean frame of Battlefield and the timing of its release that looks likely to headshot Call of Duty off its top spot.
But since we're already talking visuals, let's dig into them first.
1. NO B.S
We've all got trailer nausea. While we're more clued in these days to what is cinematic presentation and what is obviously gameplay, as well as the expectation for the gulf between them, occasionally something slips through and gets us all riled. When Battlefield 3's <a hef="http://www.gamereactor.eu/grtv/?id=10306">first trailer</a> hit, there was a bit of scepticism (myself included).
That scepticism continued until the squad stepped out from a pre-scripted ride in the back of a military vehicle onto the streets outside. A brief sun-haze that blinded the vision was used to mask the transition, and in that instance I was expecting a noticeable drop in quality. It never came. The only noticeable difference to mark the shift to interactive gameplay was the HUD coming online.
After witnessing that scene, and the ones that follow played out in front of me, I realised it's practiced as much as it preached. the hyperbole was right - this is one of the most fantastic looking titles in the development field right now.
It was the little moments that really sold the detail. The multiple clothing lines that fluttered above as we progressed down a tight back street, or the inspection of an immensely detailed map draped over a market stall that detailed our recon. The animation of our squad, on patrol or engaged in a firefight, the accuracy of their movements underscored by a brief tech demo if the Frostbite 2 engine before the demo proper. The empty bullet casing that cascades like a waterfall from an overhead chopper's gatling gun, raining down on our head and hammering the cracked cement of the foot-bridge we're staged upon.
It all helps in dragging you into an immersive experience. And while you really can't be navel-gazing when there's a war erupting around you, these smaller details add up.
Then there's the earthquake. But we'll get to that in a second.
2. EPIC SCALE ON A TIGHT PATH
A rather unwieldy way of stating that Battlefield has adopted Call of Duty's linear level progression, the bullet-riddled two-step of tight corridors and slightly larger open areas to switch through multiple cover points. Before you Battlefield fans whip out your pitchforks in protest, know the alteration is Single Player only. Multiplayer, which DICE and EA are keeping firmly under wraps, will still be the sandbox destruction-fest you've come to know and love.
I see three segments. The opening patrol down tight back streets and finishing in a small parking lot. The rocket attack on a sniper in an adjacent building to the squad's current rooftop position. A solo run though a basement tracking a wire from the streets above to a detonator device leading to a fistfight with its operator in a short QTE section. A prolonged street firefight were you'll take up covering fire from the top of a walkway bridge, as its framework is shot away from below. The road's big, but enemies are funnelled in such a way you're only having to worry about one direction. Much like COD, you being preoccupied with firefights will mask the fact that A leads straight as an arrow to B.
I personally never had a problem with it in FPS titles before, though i understand the constraint may appear tighter than usual given the Battlefield brand. But I'm saying the SP is a good thing because it'll definitely yank in a new crowd who'll enjoy being on familiar territory. SP campaigns have finally admitted to being more an appetiser for the genre's real main course, the multiplayer. Way to ease people in nicely. And while the story might be overcooked - western military forces enter into middle-eastern city on a peace-keeping campaign, shit hits the fan - what's looking to be the big story hook, the earthquake will therefore let the engine tech give you something new to worry/be amazed about.
So, the earthquake.
3. BLOCKBUSTER ENTERTAINMENT
While the street gun battle between your squad and the P.L.R (the insurgent organisation of which nothing is revealed outside that acronym for the moment) might offer more bluster and bang than Michael Mann's set-piece in Heat, it's no more than a fly's fart in a barn compared to the continent-shifting shudder that brings the presentation to a dramatic close. Mild tremors are noticeable and commented upon on the earlier gameplay sections, enough of a foreshadowing of what's likely to be Battlefield's big story hook. It really doesn't prepare you for the Frostbite 2 engine roaring to life in one epic moment.
The squad races from the footbridge and back into the streets, and you scramble onto a armoured truck to deploy its mounted machine gun. Immediately you're tossed off by forces unknown. Peering out of the wreckage, you see seismic waves ripple out of the distance and race towards you, tearing the street as it does.
The effect is startling. I see the street's foundations lifted, broken and shattered by concentric waves that roll out towards me, vehicles tossed and flipped over. The high-rise buildings around shake and shudder, before plunging earthward, the nearest toppling onto the convoy, and the screen goes black. My kidneys feel bruised from the sub-woofer's bass hitting me. While nothing is said about what follows, you can figure it out - an escape from a city's death rattle at the hands of a natural disaster. Gun battles amid falling masonry and a collapsing cityscape sounds a perfectly legitimate story arc for a engine built on revelling in mass destruction. The sort of story that Hollywood would take and run with. The sort of story FPS fans would get a kick out of.
Battlefield 3 is making no such compromise. A few journalists in the wake of the demo pepper EA with questions about social and moral responsibility, such is the familiarity of the game's settings and themes. The publisher replies back that this is a work of fiction, as if that wasn't clear from the demo itself. Battlefield 3's building itself on par with the summer movie blockbuster. Big on spectacle and opocorn-munching enjoyment. It utilises themes and iconic imagery from the modern world sure. But so does Battle: Los Angeles, and Fast & Furious 5. Its escapist entertainment. Rollercoaster ride yadda yadda.
Alright, enough moralistic jarring. Let's get in a few short, sharp jabs.
4. AN AUDIO CUE
Did you know that the insertion of licensed music into a scene to trigger a specific feel is called a Needle Drop in the film industry? its a trick been used many times in cinema and television, but its use is sporadic in gaming.
If you're going to use a well-known song or artist to emphasis either a really cool moment, or scene that's eager to tickle the tear-ducts, you better know how, and when, to do it right. Even better if you stick to the classics. Granted, Call of Duty: Black Ops did it right. with the Rolling Stones and timed it in with a river shootout. Medal of Honour tried for Apocalypse Now but ended up with whiny piss-poor music video instead.
Never go Linkin Park people. Stick with the classics, like the Stones, or in Battlefield 3's case - Johnny Cash.
Cash is drafted in right at the game's start as you're tossed around in the back of the truck, with the man's sombre tones fading not the background of the audio mix as you prepare to disembark. Its a great choice to emphasis the working grunt's typical day in the corps, and since Needle Points also tend to key on the memories triggered by the music - i'm struck by the last time I remember Cash used so effectively.
5. TWO GAMES, ONE DEV
Alright, back to gameplay, but continuing with the dig at Medal of Honor. Both Single Player and Multiplayer are, as talked about earlier, two very different experiences. But they're both handled by the same developer. EA's attempt at rebooting its original war franchise saw DICE handle MP duties while Danger Close worked on SP. Say what you will about internet and such bringing the world closer - there must have been difficulties with one team in LA and the other in Sweden. Better only to need to lean over a desk divider than travel ten hours on a plane to discuss the finer details of a project.
Despite strong elements in both parts of MOH, you felt the split down the middle, even though the visuals and design choices retained a consistence across both parts. And to be honest, DICE's half was the stronger of the two. Consistency across the entire package is important, and will guarantee polish in all aspects of the title.
6. RELEASE SLOT
Think that November slot is just by chance? Enough years have passed now for people to expect a new COD title around that same time. Not only is EA banking on the engorged pre-Christmas sales, but the association of military shooter and that period in the year offering a smooth transfer of cash from the Activision bank to it's own. while the release slot and marketing is a separate issue to the game's ongoing development, its no less important than hammering a nail into the COD coffin. EA don't even need to dig a grave - Call of Duty has been doing all the hard work itself.
Treyarch's Black Ops blasted out of the Infinity Ward meltdown like the Millennium Falcon from the Death Star. Its arse might have been a little singed in the media-sating revelations that followed, but for the most part it survived intact enough to go on and join in on the big sales celebrations.
Yet while Black Ops competes over the top three placement in the likes of the Xbox Live Most Played lists each month, what's been interesting is the resurgence of previous titles in the series hitting the top ten. Even the original Modern Warfare, now some four years old, is hanging in there. It could be down to price reductions, or it could be fans returning to simpler and less bug-ridden multiplayer experiences.
Whatever studio ushers in the next Call of Duty game, players will know its not the continuation of the "real" Call of Duty. Love or hate it, there's no denying that perception, based on two teams swopping development duties year in, year out. Even if another COD is released with a Infinity Ward logo emblazoned on it, there'll be that unspoken acknowledgement that key staff behind Modern Warfare are no longer responsible. It'll be like watching a really great covers band - we'll know something's off.
Will that fact be known by the majority of buyers of the next game, or will it even have an effect? Or has the franchise risen to FIFA levels, where the brand dictates the purchase rather the content on the disc? It arguably has, and the shift will barely register.
At one end of the scale, we might see franchise burnout similar to Guitar Hero due to over-saturation (multiple COD titles are rumoured), but at the other end of the scale, Battlefield's positioning, with a mammoth marketing campaign to signal its launch, and good word of mouth building even now, seven months before its due, could see allegiances shift akin to the FIFA/PES face-offs we've had for years now.
From what I've seen, Battlefield 3 is unlikely to fail on the strength on its hard sell to the converted.