4 years ago I stopped subscribing to your magazine, took up riding bicycles and left behind the world of PC gaming. I left because my PC experiences were drying up. I found myself scratching around the dust looking for gaming nirvana and only ever finding dried up husks. I rode (and rode and rode), occasionally checking the gaming websites to see what was around the corner.
Early in 2011 I saw two games that promised to invigorate the scene. Skyrim and Battlefield 3 were looking very exciting. I opened up my wallet and upgraded the PC to m-m-M-M-Monster SPEC! I then got back on the bike and rode for another six months.
In the beginning of November both games were released. Battlefield 3 landed first. I installed it without issue and loaded up Caspian Border.
Now, the first thing I have to say about BF3 is this: The game is eye-meltingly gorgeous. This is not a random metaphor, my eyes are literally melting. Having played the game non-stop for a week, I can feel the gelatinous centres beginning to bubble. It's not just the amazing graphics that cause this sensation, it is the constant scanning of aforementioned scenery that overclocks the eyeballs. Unlike Quake3 for example, where picmip_16 would be a preferred setting for the individual, this would unequivocally constitute cheating in BF3. The game is grounded in reality, with a dash of arcade thrown in for pacing. And so everyone is scouring every pixel on their monitor, looking for a body to twitch, a laser, a reflection of light on a sniper scope, a torch, a puff of smoke, an orange enemy icon ... to name but a few things you'll find yourself looking for.
It's hard to pick a moment that encapsulates what is so good about this game. I've heard "sandbox" used on many occasions to describe a game that enables the player to make their own fun with the tools at hand. This game gives you a sandbox full of military equipment and lets you assume you're trained to use it all!
For example, I'll quickly mention the £15million taxi, otherwise known as the jet. If you need to get somewhere fast and you find yourself spawning at your own base, then grab a jet. Strap yourself in and trigger the afterburners. You will be airborne and over the main area in less than five seconds, which is a stupidly fast way to travel. The good thing about your taxi travelling at 300mph is that when you hop out, the enemy staring at the empty jet careering towards them are almost certainly going to regret not running to the side.
I played BF2 a lot. Myself and a mate would Skype up and talk our way into the early hours, devising new ways to deliver death to the enemy. BF2 lasted about a year for us, before we moved on.
BF3 is so graphically advanced on the PC that it makes you wonder if it hasn't actually travelled back in time to land in 2011. It's looks years better than any other game out there, on this or any other platform. I've played Skyrim and MW3 and both cannot match the graphics of BF3. Skyrim wins on fantasy landscape, but not graphics.
Good graphics clearly do not maketh the game, but they help with the immersion when realism is a big factor in that all-important suspension of disbelief. But DICE decided to develop something else to the same level of fidelity. BF3 has created sound so good that you can find yourself gasping at stuff with your eyes closed.
Allow me to explain a moment in Conquest mode. Imagine spawning beside a helicopter at the beginning of the battle on Operation Firestorm. This map is set in Azedegan oil field, in Iran. It's hot, predominantly desert. You stand with the other players waiting for the countdown to reach zero. You hear a jet spool up on the distant runway as a player spawns directly into it. A insect buzzes lazily around your head before you sprint to the chopper. As you run you can hear your boots squeaking and various bits of equipment knocking against your flak vest as your breathing increases in tune with your exertions. You jump into the chopper and fire it up. The HUD lights up, equipment whirs into life, and the rotors crack and creak into motion. It sounds, and feels, mechanically complex. In particular it sounds like a very expensive machine.
You lift off with a gunner seated just at the bottom of your field of view and rise ponderously into the sky. Sun-flare blinds as the chopper rotates towards the Oil Refinery, and you start scanning the horizon for your nemesis. Slowly, enemy units are spotted by jets and orange tags denote their position in the far distance. Suddenly the enemy attack helicopter appears as a dot, flying low behind the buildings. Your co-pilot spots it and you gently dip towards it, electing to arm the rockets at this stage. It hasn't seen you and begins a strafing run against a tank. As you get closer you switch to heat-seeking missiles and wait as the tone begins to beep. The other pilot is clearly inexperienced and launches his countermeasures upon hearing your missile lock. You see the flares deploy, wait a moment and fire both heat seekers at him. It's a foregone conclusion; the missiles arc towards him and both explode against the body of the chopper. "Vehicle Disabled, 50 points". Bonus. Two seconds later, "Enemy Killed, 100 points. Enemy Killed, 100 points". Result! Suddenly your chopper lurches violently to the left as heavy rounds hit you. An emergency beep sounds and a quick glance confirms you have about a second left before it explodes.
You eject, your co-pilot explodes inside the chopper. You deploy parachute as the carcass falls to the ground beneath you. As you descend, you hear a rocket whoosh past you. Then bullets rip the air beside your head. As you get lower you can literally feel the crack of a sniper round smack against a metal girder near to your position. You know it's a sniper, you can tell the other was a jeep-mounted machine gunner, and you know you're in deep shit.
You land and get prone beside a low concrete wall. Scanning a nearby warehouse, fleeting images of ground troops sprinting for cover raise your level of panic. You stand up and sprint only to watch in awe as the side of the warehouse is literally blown to pieces. Sprint to the flag, deploy some land-mines. Sprint for cover, arm your Javelin missile launcher. Scan for tanks.
An enemy tank rolls into view. You poke your head over the rubble and start acquiring tone. A laser washes over you and your vision is completely distorted. Still waiting for tone. Bullets ripple around you, more vision distortion. The Javelin gets a lock and you fire the rocket. Hitting the deck, you watch as a colleague runs behind the confused tank and slaps C4 onto its tracks.
The tank spins towards the trail of the rocket and levels both machine gun and turret at you. You soak up the visuals as the tank explodes, completely obliterated by the C4. You allow yourself a moment of relaxation and a sniper plants a bullet neatly between your eyes from a range of 200 metres.
Through your kill cam, you see the sniper take aim and kill you. Then you get to watch a fellow soldier walk up behind him and stick a knife in the his throat. A small measure of satisfaction for your own demise.
The pace really is unrelenting. The rewards are immediate and also cumulative. The unlock feature of BF3 is brilliantly implemented, levelling your soldier incrementally, rewarding you with items specific to the class you are working on. I once ran out of ammo and picked up a rifle belonging to a freshly made corpse. The rifle had Predator-esque heat vision on it! I enjoyed that for all of 30 seconds before being killed. I can't wait to unlock it for myself.
Now, back to the review of this game by PC Gamer. What in God's name happened? I understand that a game with single-player may be reviewed for the single player experience. However, with BF3, only the most short-sighted gamer would buy this game for the single player experience. The battlefield series has always been an online experience. Penalising the game for producing a merely functional single player is like marking down a Bugatti Veyron for including a Halfords bike rack with the car.
Perhaps the reviewer didn't realise the importance of this game. I find it hard that he didn't. This is the re-awakening the PC Online Gaming community. Think about this for a moment. Whilst consoles have grown around the COD series, the PC scene has dwindled. Quake has come and gone. The Orange box is a dated product now. Yes, Team Fortress is alive and kicking, but it caters to a group of enthusiasts, who are fast becoming the modern-day Tribes community. What else is there? Dwindling ponds of familiar gamers, mostly waiting for the next big thing.
Online gaming had almost died on the PC. It had no flagship, and consoles were the true home for COD. Along comes BF3, with better sound than anything on the market. Better graphics than anything on the market. More complex online play than anything on the market, created by a team who know exactly how to balance all this perfectly.
And what does PC Gamer say? Rubbish single player, mark it down. But wait, I hear you say that's not all PC Gamer said. It also said it's a buggy mess. Well, I anticipated that and went back in time to the beginning of buggy shit. I went back to Hidden and Dangerous. A diamond in the rough. I clearly expected PC Gamer to see past the glitches of that tainted classic. But I was wrong. You gave it 55%. Harsh.
Battlefield 3 is no H&D, it's patchable. It's a bit glitchy by all accounts. But should you mark it down for this? Personally I have had no problems with it bar my initial struggle to join squads with friends. That doesn't seem to be an issue any more. I certainly wouldn't mark any game down for a weird but workable front-end, so I'm expecting the comments about Origin to be a gripe, but not influencing the final mark.
So, it comes down to this. Was BF3 marked down to 80% for a bad single player or for being buggy, or both. Well, let me draw you to the recent review of Skyrim. Tom Francis penned a lovely review, that quite rightly made mention of bugs...
"We got a review copy of Skyrim the day the game was officially finished, but it’s curiously buggy. Among a lot of minor problems such as issues reassigning controls, there’s glitchy character behaviour that can break quests, and AI flipouts that can turn a whole town against you."
And what review score did this buggy game receive? A game my brother bought and installed and refuses to play because he remapped his keys which killed his ability to equip shortcuts and even to load the ESC menu. A humble 94%! Which is perfectly justified in my opinion, having played that to death in the last three days.
Graham Smith has given the best online PC game in recent memory a paultry 80%. Should DICE have steered clear of giving the buyer a single player experience? Looking back at your review history, Battlefield 2 received 94%, and having played it exhaustively, I can guarantee you BF3 is a better game.
I know you don't take scores back. I know you probably don't care once you've reviewed a game. But I read PC Gamer for 6 years before getting on my bike, and this review was like a slap in the face for PC gamers. It's wrong. It sends out the wrong message about this game.
Thanks to BF3 (and Skyrim) I'm tired and cranky. I haven't slept much in the last week, my mouse hand is aching and my bike is in the garage gathering dust. But for the first time in years, I feel alive online. It's a great time to be a PC Gamer. PC Gamer you should recognise this.