Earlier this year, DICE dropped an atom bomb on the fall 2011 release schedule: Battlefield 3. It’s a bold move, taking on the juggernaut that is Call of Duty on its holiday release turf. But then, this is Battlefield we’re talking about.
During a recent swing through New York, Electronic Arts brought in handfuls of journalists at a time to check out a carefully tailored demo of the single-player portion of the game, which is getting considerably more attention in this sequel than it has in past games. The demo’s glimpses of urban warfare also illustrated the range of the new Frostbite 2 engine which powers the game, a considerable upgrade from what we’ve seen earlier versions do in Battlefield: Bad Company and its sequel.
The solo campaign may seem like a funny thing for DICE to showcase before anything else in a Battlefield game, but that’s sort of the point. “There will be multiplayer,” the game’s executive producer Patrick Bach reassured us. “That’s kind of the core of the whole franchise, and that’s why we’re showing single-player and not multiplayer. We have the confidence to know that the multiplayer will be awesome, and I think most of the audience that knows Battlefield… trust us to deliver a great multiplayer experience.”
The hands-off demo ran through a number of early scenes in the game, which opens in 2014 as tensions between coalition and PLR forces on the Iraq/Iran border rise. You are one member of a squad that is out on patrol in a Middle Eastern city. The visual improvement – certainly over Battlefield 2 but also over Bad Company 2 as well – is immediately apparent. As your patrol’s truck weaves its way through crowded city streets, the level of detail evident in friendlies and civilians, your fellow patrol members, even the truck interior and the way sunlight touches the world around you, is exceedingly impressive.
After establishing a bit about the characters, the demo jumped around through a variety of different combat scenarios. In the first, the team is ambushed by a sniper in an open space between the city’s towering buildings and must then fight their way forward as enemy forces rush in hard. The improved environmental visuals are immediately apparent; a harsh glare limits your vision momentarily, an effect of the sun’s rays bouncing off of the light-colored concrete, while wisps of smoke curl away from nearby flaming wreckage as if it’s right inside the TV.
As your team pushes forward, friendly machine gun fire has a very obvious impact on the environment ahead of you. Thin, stone balcony walls crumble quickly under fire while thicker walls show signs of damage in the form of deep bullet-hole divots. At one point, a rocket-propelled grenade strikes a vehicle parked next to your character’s location, knocking him off of his feet with disorienting suddenness.
The action then switched to a rooftop a short time later, with the team stalking that pesky sniper. Bullets from the enemy’s .50-cal clang against air conditioning units as the game’s visuals shudder along with each impact, a very subtle effect. The squad leapfrogs from cover to cover until they reach a prime vantage point, at which time you are order to send a rocket directly into the sniper’s nest at the midpoint of what must be a 20- or 30-story tall building. The effects of the rocket’s impact are impressive, with bits of the building, including balconies and a large sign, crumbling around it while the structure as a whole remains standing.
The next phase of the demo shifts to an underground location. Your character is now alone and charged with following a wire to a suspected IED – Improvised Explosive Device – which must be disarmed. Immediately after finding it you are ambushed by a lone enemy soldier and a fist fight ensues, realized as a quick-time event calling for intuitive presses of the left and right mouse buttons (presumably the triggers on your standard gamepad).
The final part of the demo reunites your character with his squad, which takes position on an overpass as enemy forces approach on a wide six-lane road, relying on ruined vehicles for cover. Here you pick up a light machine gun and spray the incoming forces – which include the occasional machine gun-mounted truck – with a hail of bullets.
Eventually your team falls back with your character taking position in a nearby abandoned machine gun turret. The action becomes even more intense as a friendly chopper flies in to offer support with a hailstorm of destruction. The excitement is short-lived however. The ground begins to shake, slowly at first, but it quickly escalates into a violent earthquake with the street cracking apart beneath you. A massive building pitches forward, crushing your support chopper as it falls and knocking you down to the street. Then… blackness. Demo over.
Bach confirmed that all of the scenes occur early in the game and that the earthquake in particular is a critical moment in the larger picture of the unfolding narrative. “This is actually an important twist in the story,” he said. “That [earthquake is] a big part of why the rest of the story unfolds the way it does.”
The demo we got a look at was running on a high-end PC, but Bach further confirmed that DICE already has Battlefield 3 up and running on consoles. He could comment on whether the game’s intense visual will require a multiple-disc release, but he did say that the game scales from PC to consoles better than expected.
“The interesting thing is, when you set the bar so high with high-end PCs and then scale it back, you can actually cherry-pick what makes the experience,” he explained. “So I was actually surprised to see it scales so well. We can stream in and out information depending on what is more important at that specific moment, and we’re using that heavily I can promise.”