Writing this now is probably futile, as much of this will be changed in a few weeks (or, more likely, years), but I still want to give my initial impressions of the Battlefield 3 beta. Perhaps it will serve as a benchmark for review years from now, seeing how far the game has come – hopefully for the better.
The Battlefield 3 beta is a flawed thing. It’s beautiful, but not in the way Red Dead Redemption is beautiful; it’s more technically capable, but less polished and refined. So begins the litany of shortcomings that one must forgive at this stage of the game’s development. But with only a couple of weeks left before the game must “go gold,” the developers still have plenty of work to do.
The beta announcement portended the disappointment that was to come: it would be a single map, played on “Rush” mode, with no vehicular combat whatsoever. That map is the same from the alpha, and one would think that far more would have been ironed out with the physical terrain by this point; it’s easy to find spots where your soldier can fall through the ground, landing in a purgatorial state where your bullets can fly up but none can fly down (aside: I used this to achieve a 5:1 kill:death ratio moments ago, and I’d do it again). But worse than this is the fact that “Rush” is a mode introduced in the spin-off series, Bad Company, and not reflective of the true nature of the BF series. But worse still is the utter lack of vehicles, which flies in the face of everything the series established even nine years ago. Infantry shooting infantry in the back whilst camping in dark corners is well-trodden terrain for so many other tired franchises. They did let us taste a different map (with vehicles), but only for one day.
A current push by the designers, DICE, is the browser-based hub, Battlelog, which provides stats, friends lists, chat, VOIP, a server browser…and everything else for the game. Yes, BF3 has no menu (in its current form), an intuitive, forward-thinking, avant-garde design choice that only intolerant Luddites would eschew. Forgive my dripping sarcasm, but I’m not sold on the idea that opening Origin, opening Chrome, logging in, finding a server, and only then launching the game is any easier (or RAM-sparing) than clicking a single executable’s shortcut and connecting in-game. Worse is that settings must be adjusted while your soldier is spawned into the world, his face gazing blankly forward while he’s riddled with bullets for the sake of your monitor’s resolution adjustment. And then you have to ALT-Tab into your browser if you want to switch servers. Call me nostalgic, but I miss my epic intro movies, my theme song, my all-encompassing Battlefield environment that isn’t defaced by bookmarks to Engadget and The Onion. I paid for a full game and they gave me a mash-up of Battletracker, Facebook, and Battlefield Play4Free (shudder).
All right, we’ll make do with those decisions. But where the game is really faltering, at the moment, is with squad design. Squads were introduced in Battlefield 2 (or possibly Vietnam, but I don’t feel like reinstalling that just to confirm this) as a way to play with friends cooperatively, sticking together and augmenting each other’s abilities. Squads in BF3 do not work this way. You must pick a friend or two to “party up” with in Battlelog before joining a server – otherwise you’re doomed. You cannot create a squad in-game, you cannot rename a squad, you cannot manage a squad by kicking/inviting, and squad leaders cannot give orders of any kind. The latter is almost assuredly going to be fixed, but for now you’re plunged into combat with only three other guys (yes, they cut the size down) that you don’t know, everyone spawning on each other (yes, squad leader is useless as a rallying point), and all you can do if you want to switch is leave squad, join squad over and over until someone takes your spot in the squad you don’t want. It’s a hideous, repulsive step backward from the implementation in Battlefield 2 and it’s likely to only marginally improve.
Well we’ve let all that go…we just want to shoot some stuff, alone. The actual movement of your soldier is somewhat clunky, but not bad, and guns have decent physics. The mechanics of the shooter feel solid – there’s recoil, and bullet drop, but the damage is set quite high. Damage is probably similar to BF2 but it’s very easy to be dropped in a matter of seconds. This can lead to some visceral action, however, and the excellent sound effects help solidify the battlefield as a place where you’re thankful for that prone ability. Some choices I don’t like: the inflated scoring system (I got 400 points the first time I loaded up, without even spawning, because my team won), the useless Tron-like map, 3D spotting, regenerating health for infantry and vehicles, and the plethora of unlocks, both basic and advanced.
Regenerating health for soldiers is an unfortunate inclusion, but thanks to the high damage you rarely live long enough to see it take effect. However, regenerating health on vehicles is just a bad idea; tanks and airplanes will “R2-D2” themselves back to a stable fighting condition once they scramble away from your rockets without the need for engineers. I’m not sure why I have to unlock the ability to sprint faster, or hold more ammo, as these seem like they have no place in a game that’s supposed to be much less “arcadey” than Call of Duty. But it’s egregious to make a medic have to unlock defibrillators, or a pilot unlock flare countermeasures. It’s a poor design that forces players to die numerous times first, as a hazing, just to gain the ability to live easier in the future. Vehicles should be complete, and unlocks should be aesthetic or alternative, but not vastly different – BF2 had that right.
The infantry-only combat of the beta is already stale. Having also tasted an actual “Conquest” map, complete with vehicles, I do still think the game will be enjoyable, but I have my doubts that it can stand the test of time the way its predecessors have. People still play BF:1942 – I loaded it up a month ago. I missed squads and reviving, but the gameplay felt great. We’ll see if BF3 can manage to take more steps forward than backward upon its release, and subsequent patches.