Is the “third” generation tactical shooter war already over before it even really began?

OK, a quick warning, this is no quick opinion piece, but rather, I hope, a fairly detailed breakdown and comparison of the experience of playing the early demo versions of Battlefield 3 and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3.

With the gaming community seemingly as divided as ever by the Battlefield vs. Modern Warfare schism, the front-lines are being drawn again for the latest push over the trenches. This battle is perhaps the highest profile conflict in the gaming industry today, with the two titans exchanging fire over playability, functionality, visuals, modes, scale and play styles.

Before we get any deeper into this, it is important to realise that fans of each franchise are typified by contrasting play styles, preferences and, all too often, levels of vocal aggression. It is no secret that these two series of games have always catered for differing demographics, but it is not until more recently that one has risen to lay claim to the lands formerly occupied by the other.

Modern Warfare has always been a hit with those who value intensity over tactics and headshots over team support bonuses. Its typical player is highly sprung and highly self-contained. This inevitably results in an unforgiving game populated by lone wolves and can leave new players adrift in a hail of twitch shots and long range kills.

The Battlefield player is a slightly different type of warrior, favouring suppression and support, squad co-ordination and tactical advances (including strategic use of vehicles) over straight out, perpetual, “run and gun”. One might say its Modern Warfare’s adrenaline junky against Battlefield’s band of brothers.

To further differentiate the two experiences Battlefield 3 is a “full-arsenal” combat experience, bringing jets, helicopters, tanks and ATVs into play, whilst Modern Warfare focuses far more directly on an infantry only approach (aside from a few limited “kill-streak” triggered vehicular appearances).

The Call of Duty series tends to revolve around lone wolves…

For years these two franchises have fought street to street for dominance, with neither managing to crush the other. But recently Battlefield, in particular this 3rd iteration, has begun to apply pressure across the board which Modern Warfare, including its own 3rd release, has been unable, or unwilling, to respond to.

So, we’ve taken the lay of the land, and assessed the general approach of each faction, but let’s break this down and analyse the two sides hand to hand if you like.

Both Modern Warfare 3 and Battlefield 3 have, of course, pushed their graphics further than any previous release. But as anyone who has had an eye on trailers can testify, it’s clear that Battlefield’s Frostbite 2 engine is significantly superior to Modern Warfare’s IW Engine 5.0 in a number of respects. But why is this? Well, let’s peel back a layer and have a look shall we?

It’s worth noting at this point that whilst Frostbite 2 is a completely new engine, written from scratch, IW Engine 5.0 is a “revision” of version 4 (which is, in turn, based on the Quake 3 engine created pre year 2000!). This is, I’m afraid, a portent of what is to come from MW3’s point of view. With IWE5 lacking, amongst other things; destructible environments, real-time physics, a sophisticated lighting architecture or soft-shadowing, it is already way, way behind Frostbite 2, which has them all and much, much more. So in a very real sense, there is just no point comparing these two game’s engines, it would be like a single Second World War soldier taking on a 4-man, 21st century, SAS assault team. No contest, at all.

But, rather than bore you with an intensely geeky breakdown I’m just going to pull the main issues to the fore and lay them out for you.

Firstly let’s take a biggie; scale. This one is simple, the more the merrier when it comes to online shooters so there’s great benefit in allowing more players on a map at once. We know that BF3 will be delivering 64 player maps on PC and 24 player maps to consoles, whilst it seems highly likely that MW3 will be limited to 12 player maps again this time round (with the exception of a limited number of 16 player “ground wars” maps). I’m afraid this isn’t good enough. We need to be seeing more innovation from Activision if they want to be taken seriously. Furthermore it needs to be innovation which includes scale and ambition as opposed to just adding a new game mode here and there. This laziness is hurting Modern Warfare badly, especially considering it has been left behind by Battlefield already and is going to have a very hard time catching up.

So, Battlefield holds the upper hand in terms of scalability, but what about “look and feel”?  Well, I’m afraid that, in what is becoming a common pattern, Battlefield wins hands down here too. Yes, Modern Warfare 3 has upped its game, but it’s still struggling with a 10+ year old engine at heart, as we mentioned above. Thus, in the same way it can’t keep pace with scale it is also looking more and more stale compared to DICE’s fantastically shiny new Frostbite 2 engine when it comes to straight up “feel”.

In terms of visuals Battlefield 3 is second to none.

Battlefield 3’s graphics are breath-taking, be that from prone behind a tree in a park or from the cockpit of one of its jets. So convincing is its rendering that at times I wanted to use my hand to brush the leaves out of the way, or felt my head tilting to try and look past an obstacle. The Battlefield world is vivid and harsh, with debris, dust, bullet strikes and RPG trails peppering the world with emotive danger and warning signs to any who venture into it. I remember the city area of the alpha / demo actually “feeling” dusty. I felt thirsty after playing it for some time the job the engine does is so authentic.

Modern Warfare 3 tries hard, but simply cannot deliver this level of immersion as it continues to be hampered by its decade old technology. Not once have I felt immersed in its world. It always feels far more like a “stage” or labyrinth I must overcome or navigate, as opposed to BF3’s world I inhabit.

But what is a silent world? Far, far less than one with whistling bullets, chest thumping explosions and authentic radio chatter. Again BF3 delivers the goods time and time again, be that the sound of a sniper’s bullet whistling past your ear, footfall within a tight tunnelled corridor or the clink of a grenade landing somewhere near you. Every sound feels completely natural, frightening and exciting. Just as it should be.

Now MW3 is closer here than in other areas to the BF3 experience but where it really comes undone is transitional sound modification. In BF3 one of the first things you don’t notice is the change of every sound when you move from a large, open, outdoor space to the confines of a claustrophobic tunnel, that’s because it feels so completely natural. Go back and play MW3 and you now notice how artificial the sound scheme really is in most shooters. There is little if any attention paid to acoustics changing based on location and surrounds in other titles, whereas Battlefield 3 has it down to an absolute art form.

The final part of the feel of these two games I want to focus on is tactical realism. What do I mean by that? Well Battlefield is now famous for its environmental interaction and this has been taken up a further notch in BF3. A correctly aimed RPG can now not only rip a vehicle to shreds, but can also completely destroy a building or fortification being used by the opposition. The massive impact of this is, whilst every game begins the same in BF3 and MW3 in BF3 it is possible, easy and encouraged to change the map as you see fit with the correct weapons.

In my view the lack of destructible environments is holding Call of Duty back

In no other MMOFPS, and certainly not in MW3, have I sprinted round a corner to find the wall I usually crouch behind has been completely removed by a well-placed satchel charge. The first time this happens is a real “wow” moment in your gaming life. Suddenly nowhere is completely safe, forcing players to constantly re-asses the battlefield. Much as I guarantee any soldier will tell you they must do in real life. I said it when BF:BC2 was released and it’s truer today than it was then. Every serious shooter MUST have as fully destructible environments as possible. It is simply that big a game changer that without it I feel like I am playing an arcade game as opposed to living a conflict.

Anyway, I could, as you have no doubt realised, continue discussing the feel of the games ad infinitum. But it is time to move on, to cover some of the other key areas of conflict.

You either love them or hate them. But however you feel you must admit that they are an integral part of modern combat. To this end I wonder how “modern” MW3 really thinks it is. Alongside destructible environments I place vehicles at the top of my list of must-haves in a military shooter. Why? Well because that’s war! Until you’ve felt the fear of a vehicle mounted gun turning towards you, or hidden from a helicopter or jet you simply haven’t actually experienced nearly anything about what it must mean to be in a real battle.

Now there is a much discussed worry concerning balance when vehicles are introduced, but my worry is simply that with no vehicles there is nothing to balance! Without them you are left with a homogenised experience which holds little if any surprises. In the same way that environmental destructibility brings huge variety to a map, so vehicles introduce a significant unknown element, requiring you to repeatedly change tactics and adapt to the fight. This is another example of how other titles, Modern Warfare included, can seem “arcadey” and one-dimentional when compared to Battlefield 3’s exciting and dynamic theatre of war. It certainly helps greatly that DICE have managed to integrate vehicles into BF3 in an intelligent, intuitive and balanced manner, adding texture and peril to what in other games can quickly become a rather dull and vapid “run and gun” experience.

So, we have a picture of a richer, fuller experience in BF3 than the one available in MW3. But, despite all this technical and functional superiority how do these games tack up in terms of raw playability?

Well, in addition to all the features listed above, one great strength of BF3 is that DICE have seen the state of the industry and decided to create a game that welcomes any and all kinds of players and play styles. From, as mentioned, the single player campaign, through two player co-op to squad based Team Deathmatch and the 64 player all-out war, Battlefield 3 really does do it all.

If your argument is that Battlefield just doesn’t have the lightning fast game modes of Modern Warfare then prepare to surrender it. It is in case you like quick-fire infantry only action that BF3 provides Team Deathmatch in which vehicles can be banned and maps are kept tight to ensure plenty of direct player-to-player conflict. During play of this mode I really felt like I was genuinely playing an improved version of Modern Warfare.

If you like your combat on a bigger scale, with vehicles and large maps to navigate, then BF3 does that too, par excellance. However the big difference in this case is that this isn’t available in other similar titles. In all honesty it could be argued that BF3 has, in “Team Deathmatch”, added a gameplay mode which effectively replaces MW3’s entire experience!

But it doesn’t end there; if you like a variety of game modes Battlefield 3 brings a lot to the table, from intimate and intense to huge and epic. Of course Onslaught and Rush return with a few welcome tweaks, but here, again, Modern Warfare offers only Survival as its new mode, where, guess what, zombies are the foe. Now don’t get me wrong, I love a zombie, but isn’t this best left to zombie specific games? Furthermore Infinity Ward’s addition of an expanded “Spec Ops” mode yet again re-enforces the tendency of players to play independently of each other which leads, as we said, to a fairly monotonous “lone-wolf” gaming experience for a large majority of the time.

Classes, Weapons & Equipment
Whilst there is not quite so much to separate these two titans in terms of classes, weapons and equipment, it is in the way in which they implement these that lies the real genius, or lack thereof. Modern Warfare again treads the fairly well established corridors of specific classes and, to be fair, so does Battlefield 3. My favourite feature in this area however is Battlefield’s take on “customising” your class. You can really get into the depths of the class system here and make choices which vastly affect both your role and capabilities in-game. No longer is it a “Choose a class and a weapon” type selection, but now you can really define specific roles you want to play via your load-out and put a different spin on what you do with the options available to you. Battlefield 3 leads the way here, just, but its small improvements like these that reflect the greater focus on playability over that of Modern Warfare 3.

Battlefield 3 includes jets. JETS!

Battlelog / Origin / Interface
From all we know so far Modern Warfare will sport a traditional in-game GUI, nothing wrong with this… until you look at what Battlefield 3 is doing. Not content with major innovation within the game engine itself, DICE and EA have expanded on the fantastic Need for Speed franchise’s “Autolog” system and developed “Battlelog” for Battlefield 3. This web based social hub will provide everything from stats to the server browser itself which, from my use of it during the Alpha, is a huge leap forward in online gaming.

Yes, similar systems have been played with before, but no-one has totally eschewed the in-game interface all together before. Personally the vast majority of my interaction with friends and fellow gamers occurs within a web browser, be that via Facebook, webmail, forums or twitter. So why have me alt-tabbing around trying to arrange games when I can do it all via the web, and when ready, launch my game? Why indeed, must have thought DICE, and again they have chosen to innovate around the problem and do something bold, radical and, in my view, extremely successful.

I can see this move echoed by increasing numbers of games and expect that in a few years’ time traditional in-game GUIs will be a thing of the past. Remember where you were when you heard about / first used Battlelog!

Another point worth mentioning is Origin, the platform of choice for players of BF3. Origin is EA’s counter to the success of Valve’s “Steam” their hugely accomplished and successful digital game distribution system. Again, Origin is something I have a lot of time for. I am a big Steam user, but it has been ahead of the game so long that the industry needs an alternative. It is never beneficial for us normal users to have one totally dominant player in any field. Competition drives innovation, cost cutting and improved service, things I think we can all agree are beneficial to one and all. Be it on console or PC you will be feeling the positive effects of DICE and EA’s vision for years to come. Why not get enthused about it all now? Frostbite 2 and Battlelog certainly offer the most progressive approach to gaming you will see anywhere this year, so support it, critique it, but ensure you embrace it. It is definitely the way forward.

Summary and Conclusion
As you can see I’ve come out strongly in favour of EA and DICE’s Battlefield 3. But I also hope you understand why I have done so. My recommendation to you is based on a breakdown of the facts, not on some lightly held opinion or prejudice. I’m afraid the 3 developers involved by Activision; Infinity Ward, Sledgehammer Games and Raven Software have, perhaps unsurprisingly, failed to create as coherent, advanced or enjoyable an end product as DICE have done delivering the Battlefield 3 experience for EA.

Which will provide the more coherent, seamless and integrated solution going forward? Which leads the way technically for the next generation of games? Which sensibly addresses every player’s gameplay preferences? Which has the most potential for hours and hours of exciting, intelligent and epic fun? One guess should be all you need! I look forward to fighting alongside you as a squad, in Battlefield 3!

– Richard “Rax” Burley