It would rank amongst the biggest understatements of 2011 to say that EA have some mightily lofty ambitions for Battlefield 3. The publisher is hoping to wrestle FPS marketplace supremacy away from Activision – an extremely daunting task, given Call of Duty’s incomparable degree of international brand recognition – and as if this wasn’t enough of a hurdle, they’re also creating it on a brand new canvas. Battlefield’s international brand manager Kevin Leary describes the game’s new Frostbite 2 engine in terms that are certain to be frequently repeated over the coming months; this is “next-gen technology on current-gen platforms.”

And trust us, that exceptionally bold statement earns a hefty amount of weight once you’ve seen the game running. Aside from the rock-solid slickness of its presentation – with constant, meticulously detailed carnage happening all around, the frame-rate never suffers a jot – it’s the way that the engine depicts destructible environments that amazes the most. At this point destructible cover is nothing new (and in first person shooters especially) but in the majority of cases the dynamic is very flimsily implemented; allowing for cover that is either too destructible or not destructible enough, without many gradients in between.

During one gunfight that took place in a back-street car park, we watched as one enemy repeatedly ducked and shifted his position in order to avoid the small chips of cover that were being peppered away just above his head. When his knowledge of what was going on became tiresome, a grenade was thrown into his vicinity, and the explosion not only shattered all of the adjacent windows, but also instantaneously stripped the paint from all of the nearby walls. Many of the animation techniques that are used in most current EA Sports titles have also been implemented here too, and it makes almost all of the character animations quite disarmingly realistic. Whether you’re looking on as an enemy sniper falls to the ground after being shot out of a window, or watching one of your teammates go on the standard three-tiered journey from prone to standing, animation and transitions are all incomparably authentic.

Marvelling at technology aside, some very savvy work has gone into the narrative elements of the game too, which will pay massive dividends if the overall level of quality is successfully maintained. Our demonstration began with a level set on the Iran/Iraq border, as your character (referred to only as Sgt. Black) and the rest of his four-man unit attempt to enter a local red zone that has recently fallen under the occupancy of P.L.R insurgency militia. After a foreboding series of title cards explain your situation, Johnny Cash’s cover of the anguished classic ‘God’s Gonna Cut You Down’ thunders out of the speakers, and the visuals segue from black and into the game proper.

Beginning a level (or an entire game) with a scene that depicts a bunch of military men bickering before a gunfight has become so traditional that it’s now officially a genre cliché, but the opening of Battlefield 3 is unusually restrained. It still consists of four young men locked into a confined space and engaging in flippant banter, but it’s noticeably well-acted, and the dialogue is strangely matter-of-fact and never draws direct attention to itself. The game’s depiction of a near-future Middle East is also entirely convincing, and so level-headed and realistic that it is far easier to draw comparisons to movies like Green Zone and The Hurt Locker than other videogames. The odd stray dog will bark, concrete drilling can be heard in the distance, and the local civilians watch you intensely from any available vantage point.

You immediately feel as if you’re walking around in someone’s vivid re-creation of an actual place, although it wasn’t made clear whether this is actually the case here. Even the inclusion of the Johnny Cash song works; far from being a cynically manufactured talking point (a complaint levelled at the usage of the Stones’ Sympathy For The Devil in Black Ops) instead it’s a neck-hair raising cinematic flourish that practically reaches out of the screen and grabs you by the collar. The gameplay also retreats into slow-motion during some hectic moments in battle, and although these parts initially appear to be broad rip-offs of the ‘Breach’ sections from Modern Warfare 2, they’re less dictated by the narrative and entirely context sensitive; which (ironically) makes them feel like a stronger part of your narrative within the game. Conversely the new first-person melee combat is entirely scripted; asking you to perform a series of what looked like timed trigger-button presses. Although familiar, they’re fast-paced and inventively implemented.

This campaign mode, a standard part of any and every FPS package, only became a serious concern for DICE with last year’s excellent Bad Company 2 singleplayer, and Battlefield 3 is promised to have one that lasts in excess of ten hours. The 24-person multiplayer “sweet spot” that was achieved with BC2 isn’t going to be needlessly exceeded just for show, and jets have been confirmed. In short, this isn’t just looking (rather predictably) like the best Battlefield game to date, it’s also DICE’s most bullishly ambitious endeavour ever. Battlefield 3 is coming from one of the most ceaselessly revered development teams in FPS history, and thrillingly, they’re firing on all creative cylinders here.  So, is it the ‘COD beater’ that everyone is hoping for? DICE haven’t shown us their full hand just yet, but you’d be an absolute lunatic to bet against it.

Watch the Battlefield 3 trailer here:


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