Tools of the trade.
A few missions in, it was painfully evident that we’ve barely scratched the surface in our recent deployment into Battlefield 3’s campaign mode, but we have to admit, the folks at DICE sure know how to start things off with a bang. Unfortunately, we’re not allowed to talk about exactly how or why they manage to do this.
At least not yet.
That’s because these guys aren’t just trying to go toe-to-toe with the likes of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, they’re attempting to utilize the considerable power of the Frostbite 2 engine to catapult storytelling to the next level.
According to Executive Producer Patrick Bach, that all started with the team’s desire to push themselves: ”I think that’s something that we questioned, looking at ourselves, asking ‘why do we feel comfortable just doing what we did before? Why can’t we just do something that feels like the right thing to do?”
While we won’t give too much away here, Battlefield 3’s campaign is nothing if not bold. Focusing on the a series of flashbacks as told by Staff Sergeant Henry Blackburn, the grit and frankness with which his tales are told is nothing short of gripping, focusing on tough choices for a group of conflicted soldiers carrying out order they can’t quite comprehend. As Bach tells it, it’s these choices that will not only define these men, but the experience itself.
“We wanted to create a mature game for grown-ups,” he confesses. “For some games that are ‘mature,’ that only equals more blood and gore. It doesn’t equal mature subjects or mature storytelling. So, we really tried to ask ourselves: why can’t we go the more classic drama that they have in books or movies instead of staying in some kind of stereotypical ‘game’ world?”
This doesn’t mean Patrick feels Battlefield will be above the genre’s core tenants, but more that, sometimes you just have to blow things up and let the pieces fall where they may.
“I think games are trying too hard to stay inside a certain shape that games have,” he says, “instead of looking at other media where you can actually go without trying to create controversy itself and start to explore human emotion. You can explore more subjects, let people be more than just a stereotype – you can actually let them be a character, and that’s something that we tried to do in Battlefield 3.”
And this is where DICE’s Frostbite 2 engine comes in. Early missions see your squad dropped smack-dab in the middle of a military hot zone that is quite literally shaken up by a massive earthquake whose visual splendor and emotional impact cannot be understated—this is more than a scripted event: it is a life-threatening, course altering threat that rocks the very foundation of your purpose in the game, and while we won’t give too much away, we were undeniably impressed by the way DICE is using technology to rope us in.
This, of course, is no accident. As Bach tells it, the ability to ‘change the game’ is precisely why Frostbite 2 was a functional necessity, as opposed to yet another piece of artillery in the technology arms race.
“Taking technology further will get us closer to the technology that they have [in film]. You still want to have the tools that create emotion that gives you the realistic facial animation, realistic movement – let that be up to the creator of the game, rather than have technology limit you. To us, getting this new toolbox enabled us to do so much more and we really wanted to explore how we could push this into the next generation.”
When you have your first taste of being pinned down by an enemy sniper or laying down a sea of covering fire for a host of friendlies or rush to defuse a cache of enemy explosives, you’ll start to see what Bach means. We’ve all done these things before in action games, but between the density and fragility of the environments, the authenticity and humor behind the dialog and the game’s progressive animation system, there’s an extra layer of oomph in here that will subtly knock your socks off.
This is due largely to the fact that DICE isn’t afraid to beg, borrow or steal their tech from other projects inside EA if it means empowering themselves to do something great. Take the aforementioned animation system. Borrowed from the folks at EA Vancouver from, of all things, a sports game, Battlefield 3’s character movement was key to making scenes pack that extra punch:
“Having great character animation was one of the core pillars we wanted to build on,” admits Bach. “Looking around on the market trying to find inspiration, the best games we could find were EA’s own games; games like FIFA, that uses technology called ANT that uses, which is a very brilliant animation system. Of course, that wasn’t designed for first-person military shooters, so we had to work together with that team and adapt it to the Frostbite 2 engine. Looking at it today in Battlefield 3, I think people will actually see and feel the difference.”
But beyond this, DICE also took a look at their own IP, with some liberal loans from the critically acclaimed Mirror’s Edge franchise, a touch you can’t help but enjoy as you leap across battle-torn environments in a quest for cover. You’re not going to wall run or traipse any tightropes, but according to Bach, the imprint their experience on ME left is unmistakable.
“It’s actually more than you might think. We look at all our games and it’s more than inspiration for us when it’s our own game. Mirror’s Edge is all about this great first-person movement that we took to the next level….why not integrate that into the Battlefield series? So we took a lot of inspiration from Mirror’s Edge when it comes to feeling like a part of the world. Now in Battlefield 3, it’s a very natural part of the movement. It’s only a little piece, but still, it’s what you do over and over again, so it needs to feel great.”
But it’s not all warm fuzzies when it comes to the company’s historical library. Despite the modern revival of vehicular combat in BF3, Bach confesses the team is looking forward to pushing the series forward. “If you look back at the history of Battlefield and you look at Battlefield 1942 as an example,” he says, “people thought that was the most realistic first-person shooter at that time and saw it as the pinnacle of simulation, more or less, even though our goal was to make it fun. If you look at that game today, you wouldn’t say it resembles anything realistic or believable in any way. It just looks funny and a bit…silly.”
Given their thrust towards a more mature product, it’s clear that DICE isn’t concerned with breaking a few nostalgic eggs on their way to invigorating the franchise. Rather than focusing on honoring history, the team seems set on defining the future, and to Bach, that all comes to down to one thing:
As good as the game might look, no matter how many consultants as the team might enlist, and regardless of the flood of marketing dollars spent to promote it, there’s a distinct sense that this goal is the only path to satisfaction for the team. And while finding that magic formula is critical, Bach admits it won’t be easy.
“There’s always a challenge between fun and realism. We see realism and authenticity as tools to make something more fun and enjoyable, but it’s not the goal in itself, and I think that’s key to us and it should be key to some other people who focus too much on creating a simulation.”
He wouldn’t name any names, mind you, but if our four-hour romp was any indication, the team at DICE is on the right track. But for all this talk of technique and technology, the battle for first person shooter fans won’t be fought on the forums. It will end up being a matter of who delivers the most exciting moments. On that front, Bach knows that, as impressive as it may be, Frostbite is only a vessel for the big show.
“We don’t want to use [realism] as the goal or the centerpiece of what we’re building, because fun is first. If the game is not fun, if it’s not entertaining, if it’s not enjoyable, then you’re doing something wrong.”