After a two-week hiatus, both because of the release of Skyward Sword and because of my real-life work obligations, I returned to Battlefield 3 a few days ago in anticipation for the Back to Karkand map pack, and found the game to be just as pristine as I remember. Not only has it locked down my Top Game of 2011 spot, but I’m willing to say that it has surpassed Resident Evil 4 as my favorite game of all time.
The new map pack features four “new” levels, a few new vehicles, and new weapons (and ways to unlock them). While all of the levels are fan favorites from previous Battlefield titles, it’s difficult to see why. Or rather, it’s clear why people enjoy them, but the reasoning is disappointing.
With these new maps also comes a new dynamic, the loss of the dedicated spawn point (the game mode is referred to as Conquest Assault). All of the Battlefield 3 maps to date have had a dedicated spawn point for dead players to return to. Spawning here–ostensibly the end of the level–isn’t necessarily always the best option, but it does provide respite, an area to pick up vehicles, and a clean entrance (for the most part) to the level. In Conquest Assault, neither team has a dedicated spawn point, forcing players to essentially spawn in the middle of action.
This is hugely problematic for the goal and gameplay of Battlefield 3: that of combined ops. What makes Battlefield spectacular and sets it apart from similar shooters is the necessity of the team to work together. The most successful teams will have various players acting out their roles in each class. Teams full of snipers will rarely succeed, but a team with two snipers and the rest a combination of support, engineering, and assault classes working in unison creates a unit that can handle any problem that it faces.
Battlefield 3 is about problem solving. You need to identify what an opposing squad is doing and find a way to counteract that. As I mentioned in my review of the game, Battlefield allows you to do that. If there’s an unreachable sniper in a building across the street, you simply blow up the building. While you may not have the tools to do so, if you’re on a competent team, someone should have the means (ie, someone should be playing the role of engineer and be equipped with the proper rocket launcher).
A word that I frequently use when discussing Battlefield gameplay strategies with friends is “depth”. Battlefield is not about who can rack up the most kills. It’s about how you can accomplish the most toward the team’s ultimate goal without dying. The way to achieve this is to play at the right depth. For example, a sniper (my preferred class/role) isn’t very effective in close-quarters combat, so the depth they have to play at is considerable. To be an effective sniper, you either have to camp on one objective (which typically doesn’t accomplish much) or move toward an objective with your team at the right depth. If you fall too far behind, you’re not an asset to your team. If you get too close, chances are you’re not capable of being effective.
The depth order, from longest to shortest, is intuitive: Recon – Assault – Support – Engineer. If you have a four-person squad attacking a specific objective, this is the order of proximity in which they should be to the objective. Engineers attack close range, Support provides cover fire, Assault helps kill enemies as they come into view, and Recon/snipers spot enemies for teammates and picks off any stragglers. This dynamic is the reason that Battlefield is such an achievement (to say nothing of the addition of vehicles, both land and air, which further change player roles). A team that really excels will have skilled players in all four of these roles, playing at the right depth and supporting one another. When this happens, the flow of the game is simply unprecedented.
Unfortunately, the Back to Karkand maps (all but Sharqi Peninsula anyway) evaporate that dynamic. When opposing teams spawn on one another, depth is removed; everyone has to play that close-range role. For me, this is an annoyance, for other players, this is Call of Duty (ie, good). There’s a noticeable difference between Call of Duty players and Battlefield players, even in Battlefield matches. The Call of Duty fans play almost exclusively as the engineer class and use sub-machine guns in close-quarters combat. This earns a lot of kills and personal experience points, but it doesn’t win games.
A friend recently sent me the Battlelog profile of the highest ranked player across all platforms. Much to my surprise, despite his gaudy kill total and experience points, his win/loss ratio was only 1.19. Mine, a significantly less-skilled player, is 1.27. While it’s true that a single player can’t make or break a team, on a squad of only 12 players (I’m speaking from a console standpoint, obviously), a single player can significantly impact–and has to if they’re going to be successful over the long term–any given match. When you see a player with such insane kill totals have a lower win/loss ratio than someone who plays true to the game’s dynamic (myself), it’s illuminating. And at least for me, it’s rewarding: the way I play, while not the most flashy, proves to be a bigger asset to my team than the culturally dominant style of play.
The Back to Karkand maps ultimately cater to one style of play, that of the prevailing FPS culture (Call of Duty), which is unfortunate when what makes Battlefield 3 great is its dismissal of that culture. I get that these maps were nominal fan favorites and in a world where Battlefield is still second fiddle to Call of Duty, catering to that population, especially before the holidays is probably a way to boost sales and increase interest, but the hope is that with future map pack releases, the designers focus more on the dynamic that made it the year’s best game.