Battlefield 3 is going to be a monster. We know that. You can tell by the buzz in the community alone, let alone that the pre-sales for the game have already exceeded those of Battlefield: Bad Company 2 (which set a record for developer DICE) by a factor of - get this - a THOUSAND percent.
It's a big deal.
So getting a chance to sit down and play an extended chunk of it, like we did today, was not something we were about to pass up. Not only that, but it was on console - PlayStation 3 - rather than the PC version EA's been shopping around all year.
What we got to play was the co-op sequence shown in the Gamescom 2011 EA press conference, a mission called Exfiltration. Essentially, you have to go in and get a VIP out, all under fire of course, before defending a group of vehicles that are trying to exit the hostile area with the VIP on board.
A two-player mission, it ended if either player (or both) was killed - something that can be avoided should a player "go down" by the second player rescuing them, in a manner that will be familiar to many. Not everyone, though, as evidenced by the fact my Russian playmate left me lying in the mud until I died and we failed the mission. Top effort, chap. But I digress...
The first part is, as you might expect, heavily scripted; enemies in the complex you're storming hide in predetermined locations, assuming you'll be in a certain place, which contextually makes the enemies appear to be in an intelligent spot. Unfortunately, it's pretty easy to break this illusion, and I frequently found myself standing next to guys who looked like they were hiding from me, with their AI completely oblivious to the change in my location.
Once we got the VIP out, it's hell for leather to the exit, where we met up with a light armor column who were there to exfiltrate the rescued hostage. That's far from the end of it, though, with a bunch of enemy insurgents attacking the column from both sides of the street, bringing a new, larger scale aspect to the mission's combat.
The next (and final) chunk saw enemies assaulting from the street and various levels of the buildings that line either side of it. The area is big, with loads of environmental detail and chaotic weapons fire that can make it very hard to see what's going on - which is where the electronic scopes that some of the weapons are fitted with come in very handy indeed. What they basically do is making people pop off the background as orange silouhettes, while non-people (buildings, vehicles, etc) all appear muted shades of green. Cheating? Sure - but this is war, not tiddly-winks. Rules are those things that dead people followed.
This second section is hard. While it's true that it's still scripted, and we were still able to break it by breaching enemy lines or otherwise behaving in an unexpected manner, it's much harder to do so thanks to the continuous suppressing fire the huge number of enemies is able to lay down. Progress was gradual, with creeping prone behind cover and peeking around to shoot in snatches the only way we could get through here successfully.
The sound played a big part in sealing the deal in terms of immersion; it's chaotic, loud, confusing and visceral. It sounds like you're in a real battle, with explosions rattling around and light bursting hectically as the various forces exchange munitions and jockey for battlefield position.
The graphics were, as we expected for the console version, somewhat less than what we'd previously seen on PC. It still looks great, no question, with things like lighting and animation still standing up to the best in class. But it was clear here that the PC version is the lead version; if you want the best experience, you're going to need a beast of a PC - period.
So did we have fun, despite the apparent ease by which we were able to break the illusion? Hell yeah. Most players won't break the illusion, or notice it if they do, and it's something that's true of all games like this. The guns still feel great, and the presentation and special effects that are layered on top of the gun-play keep you focused and pumped up.
It's not a brand new experience, but it's a supremely polished one, and something that fans of the genre are going to want to experience for themselves. Co-operative gameplay adds a lot to the mix, with your partner simultaneously helping and hindering you at every turn - in much the same way, we expect, a real squad member might.
While still far to early to call either way, Battlefield 3 continues to impress us, every time a new layer of it is peeled back and put on display. Combined with the amazing Caspian Border multiplayer map that EA revealed this week, it's been a strong week for Digital Illusion CE's newest shooter. We can't wait for our next crack at it.