Battlefield: Bad Company 2 was an amazing first-person shooter. But with every Bad Company release and spin-off, I couldn't help but wonder what DICE was doing with its main Battlefield franchise. As it turns out, it had something to do with earthquakes.
The core games, including Battlefield 1942 and Battlefield 2, helped define what's possible in multiplayer first-person shooters. It's been more than five years since Battlefield 2 on PC, and now DICE is finally getting ready to deliver the next numbered entry. Battlefield 3 has a release date for this fall on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC, and from what's been shown off, it looks incredible.
That's because Battlefield 3 is being built using all-new technology developed in-house at DICE. It's the next version of the Frostbite engine used in the Bad Company games, appropriately called Frostbite 2. It allows for a range of advanced graphical effects and destructible terrain. "We actually started with the engine three years ago," said executive producer Patrick Bach. "When we finished Battlefield 2 and 2142 we talked about what's the next big step that changes gaming. We're good at technology and we wanted to create something that scaled better than Frostbite 1 did. The PCs were already -- three years ago -- starting to get ahead of the consoles. How could we make good use of that?"
The result was, at the end of a demo recently shown to members of the press, a detailed scene of a US Marine unit getting tossed around on a quaking bed of asphalt in a war-torn city on the border of Iraq and Iran. Buildings crumbled into pieces, sending up plumes of smoke and dust as the ground fluttered like a flag in the wind. One even toppled over onto an attack chopper hovering in mid-air. It looked strikingly realistic.
"We knew we could do better stuff with audio, we needed a core streaming system for the whole game," said Bach. "Everything from animations to objects to textures to audio we can stream. If you look at the consoles today they still have the same amount of memory, so how do you make a denser experience with the same amount of memory? You need to be able to flush things in and out of that memory that you have. Frostbite 2 was more or less a necessity for us to be able to build Battlefield 3. If we didn't build the engine we couldn't build the game because then it would just be an iteration instead of a big step forward."
So far DICE isn't showing off any gameplay footage of the multiplayer component, which is too bad. I really wanted to see jets streak across the sky and launch precision strikes against unsuspecting targets. But even without the spectacle of controllable vehicle sequences to gape at, the story mode still looks pretty good. The characters are in no way related to those in the Bad Company games. What you get in Battlefield 3 is a fresh start. It's set in 2014, and an early mission follows a squad of Marines as they charge through cramped, dangerous streets and take cover from sniper fire on rooftops. "It's based on a 'what if' scenario," said Bach. "We see the world as quite unstable. We see it as the shot in Sarajevo where a small event can create a butterfly effect to start a world war." Even though the mission was early in the game, it sounds as though the scale of the conflict shown is going to ripple out into the rest of the world.
Though the mission features a group of Marines, DICE notes that these characters won't necessarily be in subsequent sorties because it's not a squad-based game like Bad Company. You play as Sergeant Henry Blackburn who, at the mission's outset, emerges from an armored personnel carrier with an M16 equipped with an ACOG (that's a scope). The road ahead is packed with smoke and fire, cowering citizens, military humvees and an LAV reconnaissance vehicle.
According to Bach it's not possible to simply hop into these vehicles and start driving, as many Battlefield veterans may want to do. While there will be several vehicle sections in the single-player portion, the game makes it clear when you're meant to hop into a machine and when you're supposed to proceed on foot. "When you tell a story you need to control the player in some ways, even though we have very sandbox-y elements as well. We make sure you get to try out everything…so we pace the game as a tutorial so when you go into multiplayer you don't feel scared. If you play through single-player you will feel quite safe to go online because you tried everything once."
The PC version was beautiful even in its current pre-alpha state. DICE is focusing on using lighting and animations to create a more realistic look for Battlefield 3. For animation, DICE is utilizing Electronic Arts' technology called ANT, developed for sports games like FIFA. So what does that actually mean? "We can now more or less blend from any animation to any animation without any glitches. Some animation systems are very rigid. The cool thing with this is that you can blend from one animation to another at any time. You can see that with FIFA --, it's super quick and nimble."
The animations were especially impressive to watch during a first-person hand-to-hand combat sequence. Black was underground in a bunker attempting to disarm an explosive device when he was accosted by a waiting enemy. To subdue the assailant you need to hit buttons at specific times to deliver viscous strikes and chops. The attacker eventually crumples to the ground, but not without getting in a few solid shots on Black, which causes the perspective to tilt and whip appropriately with the force.
A lot of work is being done at DICE on the moment-to-moment mechanics of gun fights too. When you open fire the screen shakes, your weapon effects dominate the speakers, and the bits of user interface flicker when . "The challenge with weapons is actually not to get them to look realistic or record sounds, the research is quite easy. The hard part is to transform the emotion when you fire a gun and turn that into picture and sound."