On Oct. 25, the Battlefield series will finally get its third main series installment. The series has always been a juggernaut in popularity and innovation, and within the last few years, the franchise has branched off into a few games with their own ideas. Battlefield 3 is a culmination of all previous games in the series, retaining the ideas that worked and then improving and streamlining them. After we spent significant time in the recent beta, it's easy to declare the upcoming release as one of the strongest the series has seen to date, but there are some nuances that should be ironed out before the servers go live.
The first somewhat jarring change is that the server browser is Web-based instead of within the game. The BattleLog system is initially off-putting in the "Why do I need a Web browser to play my game?" way, but you quickly get accustomed to it. From the BattleLog interface, you can configure some aspects of your soldier, such as your customized dog tag and clan tag, though actual game configurations, such as video options and controls, must be done from within the game. The BattleLog interface has a Facebook-style news feed that tracks your progress as well as that of your friends; just replace the wording of "Like" with "Hoo-ah!" and it's practically a replica. The BattleLog also keeps track of all of your weapons and unlocks, and it lets you view the myriad of stats associated with your gameplay.
In the beta, the BattleLog interface still needs some more polish. There are a few undefined variables here and there for things such as a gun's fire rate. The interface was missing any real stats or ratings on weapon damage; it could be a blessing in disguise so that players will use all of the guns and then focus on the ones with which they fare best. Additionally, though you can see upcoming unlocks, you cannot select them to see more details. At times, a new scope might come down the pike for your rifle that may show nothing more than that it has a lower zoom. In reality, it may be a scope that you can bring up much more quickly or it may be better in other respects, but it'd be nice if we had the ability to check it out prior to unlocking it.
The server browsing works far better than one may anticipate, and it has all of the expected filtering options. Joining a server is just as easy as selecting one that has an available player slot and then clicking the "join" button. To switch back to the game, you can press Alt-Enter or click on the taskbar item, but you can also drag friends from your friends list onto the server join box to invite them over. This functionality also works while Alt-Tabbed, which the game handles with surprising grace and responsiveness.
Once you've joined a server, you are presented with a few options, such as deploying to a specific location or squad as well as picking your class and customizing your loadout. The four classes have each been revamped from previous games in the series, though the archetypes remain the same: Assault, Engineer, Support and Recon. Each class has a clearly defined role in the game, and in Battlefield 3, they are a bit more focused on their roles.
The Assault class's biggest change is that it now fulfills the role of medic, which in the past was the Support's job. This change is due to the thought that the Assault class is most likely to be fighting on the frontlines and thus the one who can quickly reach downed teammates. The Assault class still has normal firepower in the form of assault rifles with optional under-slung grenade launchers.
The Support class is still armed with LMGs, but they now spit out a wall of lead and replenish ammo of nearby teammates. While the Support class can be set up on the frontlines, it works best when you can stay crouched or prone to reduce the LMG recoil.
The Engineer class hasn't seen a lot of reworking and is still largely defined by its use of SMGs and antivehicle explosives. A rocket launcher is best when used against a tank, but if the enemy takes cover behind a tree or wall, you can blow it away with a rocket. Engineers can repair allied vehicles and plant land mines to take out enemy vehicles.
The Recon class still focuses on longer-range combat, but it can also be close support. The class has traded the enemy-tracking motion sensors for a single deployable model that can be picked up and relocated. The Recon class also has access to semiautomatic rifles, deployable spawn points and an array of sniper rifles.
The beta consisted of two maps, initially just the 32-player Operation Metro but later expanded to include the 64-player Caspian Border. Operation Metro is an infantry-only Rush-style map, as one side defends a successive series of objectives while the attacking team tries to destroy them before their respawn tickets are depleted. Unlike previous games in the series, the objectives cannot be damaged by explosives; you have to actually interact with them to plant a bomb and then defend it while it ticks down. This removes the problem of people lobbing rockets on them from afar, and it makes the gameplay feel like the tug-of-war that it should be.
Operation Metro is a fairly narrow map, starting off first in a hilly outdoor garden area before descending into a subway line that ends in a business park, but it maintains a solid level of gameplay throughout. When you're outside, much of the game stems around engaging enemies at some range, but down in the subway, the distances get a lot closer and things get more run-and-gun. There is always plenty of cover, but smart engineers do their best to reduce much of it to rubble. There are also very few spots where you can stay put without quickly getting flanked.
The Caspian Border is a much more traditional Battlefield map, consisting of five objectives that must be held to reduce the other team's respawn tickets. The area is a giant landscape containing small groupings of buildings, rolling fields, lush forests and rocky outcroppings. This makes the establishment of fighting fronts more difficult, and with so much terrain cover, members of both teams have plenty of opportunity to carefully flank their enemies. The number of vehicles in the map also makes for different tiers of simultaneous fighting.
Your basic jeeps and buggies are the most prevalent vehicles in the map, and though they are armed with rooftop machine guns, they are mainly used as quick transports to distant locations. Tanks can be numerous, with each spawn area having a couple as well as additional ones available at many objective locations. Tanks are more vulnerable to rocket fire than they have been in the past, as one good rocket to the rear can disable the tank. Each team has access to a helicopter and a pair of aircraft to strafe ground targets and dogfight in the skies.
One very odd change to the gameplay comes in the form of regenerative health for players and vehicles. It is an incredibly slow process, but it's weird to watch your tank patch itself. It really doesn't help during combat, so fears of it imbalancing the gameplay can be safely put to rest. This also reduces the need for medics and engineers outside of combat, though they are incredibly useful when the bullets are flying.
You gain experience as you play, this time in the form of your overall soldier as well as individual classes and weapons. Your ribbons, awards and experience filter into your soldier, and you gain rank to unlock new traits, such as enhanced sprinting or carrying more ammunition. Higher-end ranks give you traits that apply to your squad as well. Ranking up also unlocks new guns, such as the Assault's under-slung grenade launcher or the Engineer's Stinger antiair launcher. Weapons unlocked at the soldier level can be used in conjunction with any class.
Kills directly contribute to weapon unlocks, so it is not as if you can avoid scoring a killshot if you want to improve your guns. Nearly every primary weapon has a series of unlocks that can be obtained by scoring kills with that weapon. These unlocks include a multitude of different scopes and add-ons such as bipods, flashlights, grips, laser sights and suppressors. Ultimately, it allows you to tailor a weapon for a variety of roles, such as using an ACOG scope and a grip on a sniper rifle for medium-range combat instead of a bipod and a 12x ballistic scope.
One of the bigger changes comes from the graphics engine. Maps are now filled with excellent lighting and shadowing effects, as well as obscuring effects coming from debris, dust and smoke. This makes concealment more effective, and it actually makes it somewhat difficult to pick out an enemy soldier who is aware of his surroundings. On the indoor sections of maps, you stick out among the stark lines of manmade platforms and pillars, but in the Caspian Border, it takes a fair amount of skill to pick out your targets among a forest. It feels like it allows for more tactics and strategy.
For fans of the Battlefield series, Oct. 25 can't possibly come close enough. The beta didn't have anything from the game's campaign or cooperative modes, but you just know that most players will spend most of their time in the multiplayer experience. The limited beta was a good showcase of Battlefield 3's new gameplay features and how they reinforce the gameplay style that has kept the series so popular.
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