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On suspension of disbelief and open-world storytelling

By now, you probably already know about Ubisoft’s upcoming open world blockbuster Watch Dogs. In the game, you play as Aiden Pearce who has the ability to hack into the city’s—in this case Chicago’s—infrastructure and the informational database it keeps on its citizens to bend the city to his will. The key to the game’s success will be how well this actually works. In all of the existing demos and previews, the player has what appears to be complete control over countless different aspects of the environment: cameras, cell phones, trains, ATMs.

Lesser (and perhaps most other) titles would limit this functionality to combat programming limitations. For example, most people talk about how great the open world possibilities are in the Grand Theft Auto series, but I’ve always found them limiting. In GTA, you can do anything that causes destruction, but little else. The inability to walk into any random building just to investigate the décor is a clear indicator of the game’s focus and gameplay-driving motives. These games are not about experiencing a wide-open world. They’re about killing things and causing destruction in a world that vaguely resembles your own, which is why the recent comments by Watch Dogs senior producer Dominic Guay are so encouraging:

“One of our hopes is that the best moments players will have in the game won’t be scripted events. My hope is the thing they talk about at the office or with their friends is the thing they created themselves,” Guay said. “It’s the scenario where they had a plan and they tried to pull it off, and something wrong happened and they have to improvise. And they know — gamers know when that happens; it’s their moment. They made it happen.

“So that’s what I’m hoping — that the best memorable moments in Watch Dogs are unique to the player.”

Personal storytelling has dominated my motivations to play games over the last three years. In that time, I’ve spent well over 70% of my gaming time dedicated to a handful of games: Battlefield 3, the NBA 2k series, and to a lesser extent Skyrim. The latter of those has received the most press regarding storytelling. The possibilities of the land of Skyrim are seemingly endless, from interactions with NPCs to battles with roving packs of giants and dragons. But Battlefield has been my standby during that time.

The single player of Battlefield 3 is just as terrible as all other modern FPS single player campaigns: scripted sequences and dull storylines combine to make monotonous gameplay. But the multiplayer in Battlefield, with its emphasis on vehicular warfare and large-scale maps, is ideal for the creation of one-of-a-kind moments. (Why else would Dice run the “Only In Battlefield” campaign asking for people to send in their wildest videos?). Though my moments are never quite as spectacular as some of those on YouTube, I’ve spent countless hours talking with my friends about unbelievable, long-range headshots or moments of unlikely good fortune that have come my way in the multiplayer sessions.

What sets Battlefield apart from other modern FPS multiplayers is that these moments are inherent in the game’s infrastructure. In the Call of Duty series, players will have rounds of legend that they share with their friends, but it ultimately comes down to one thing: I killed a bunch of dudes and didn’t die. Battlefield eschews this with the addition of vehicles and large-scale moments. Some of my most memorable Battlefield moments are completely nonviolent: rising over a mountain range in a helicopter to see two enemy choppers hovering nearby or lying in wait as a tank rolls mere feet away from my ill-equipped sniper.

These moments are possible because they’re entirely unscripted. All jets and helicopters and tanks in Battlefield multiplayer are driven by human players. If an opposing tank sees you hiding in the weeds and mercilessly blows you up, good on that player for being perceptive. But there’s never a chance for some AI glitch or game malfunction (“I thought I was concealed behind cover but the AI always seems to find me”). Everything in Battlefield is organic, and this is what Guay’s comments promise regarding Watch Dogs’ potential: open world, organic moments in which the AI acts independently of your presence in the world. It’s like going unnoticed in the Matrix or Inception. Shit just happens and you’re around to see it.

The problem is, as Battlefield has aged, those moments have become more and more seldom. Players have gotten so good at the game that exploits are easier to find. In addition, most players are so familiar with the relatively limited number of maps and typical user attack patterns that one-time grand moments have turned into rote skirmishes. It’s a classic case of diminishing returns: the better everyone has gotten at the game, the more enjoyment and wonderment has been stripped from its structure.

I’ve written here before about the difficulty of video games, but one aspect of the discussion I omitted was the suspension of disbelief. At their best, games consume you. No longer are you sitting on your couch in Doritos-stained boxers holding a plastic controller. You’ve been transmitted into the game itself and care for the outcome of your character. This is one of the reasons FPS have come to dominate the marketplace. Aside from their lowest-common denominator rhetoric and content, the games offer a perspective that’s unmatched in the suspension of disbelief. Add to that the perfection of the control scheme, one that is effectively one-to-one between onscreen action and player control, and the suspension of disbelief becomes nearly impenetrable. That is, unless you die.

Enter Elizabeth and Bioshock Infinite. Much has been written—though not here—about Bioshock Infinite and the player’s interaction with the AI phenomenon Elizabeth, but her real value to the game is in her combat usefulness. A player is supposed to grow connected to Elizabeth throughout the game. She observes things about the environment and far-too-often tosses you a small handful of shekels. And despite trashcans and dead enemy corpses having far too many uneaten sandwiches contained in and on them, the game is relatively withholding of ammunition. With Elizabeth, you have the ability to suspend your disbelief in the heat of battle when other games would have you frantically searching the floor for discarded weapons. She tosses you ammo and salts (used to sustain your magical Vigor powers) in times of need. This allows you to manipulate the world of Bioshock Infinite in any way you see fit, building moments of grandeur without the fear of running out of resources.

This is why the infrastructure of Watch Dogs is so intriguing. Unless the designers implement gameplay breaking aspects like WiFi and cellphone jammers—which they no doubt will during at least one mission in the game to limit your capabilities—your ability to manipulate the world with seemingly endless resources promotes both complete suspension of disbelief and the creation of your own journey. If the AI truly is independent of your actions, Watch Dogs may be the truly revelatory open world urban environment that its hype promises.

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Battlefield 3 recon gameplay video

A friend of mine who also plays Battlefield 3 was curious how I was able to attack flags in the game as a recon/sniper. Playing as a sniper in the game, if you’re going to be effective, takes a different rhythm than all the other classes which have access to automatic weapons. In an effort to show him how I played, I took some video of a round on Kharg Island. Without the capability of recording directly from my TV, I set up my iPhone in front of it. I’m geeking wrong, I know.

In any case, the few tips that I always tell people about playing recon/sniper, and that you can see in this video are as follows:

  • When running through a level, always have your pistol out. Should you happen to run into someone, it’s much better to already have your pistol drawn. If you spot someone from far off, it’s easy to change to your rifle and attack that way.
  • Never take a direct route to an objective. Doing so usually puts you in dangerous situations against more powerful enemies.
  • When taking an objective, stay to the outer edges of the objective and limit your angles of attack: back into corners, find cover, etc. This way, you can more easily manage an attack using just a pistol.
  • If possible, set up a T-ugs when taking an objective. I attempt to here, but have my character spec’ed wrong (I had the MAV set up, which I briefly pull out before putting away).
  • Use your sniper rifle as much as a telescope to investigate areas before moving in as you do a weapon.

Those are the basic fundamentals that I stick to when playing as a sniper.

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Murphy’s Law in video games

The most destructive thing that I did as a child was play The Lion King for Sega Genesis. Well, that’s reductive. The most destructive thing I did as a child was throw a chair into a TV after getting enraged when I died playing The Lion King.

The Lion King was a wonderful game that largely went unnoticed during that generation because everyone was still fawning over the previous Disney classic Aladin. But The Lion King was of the same mold, except with a different attack function: an old-school timing platformer that forced you to hack and slash (roar and roll) through levels while collecting some largely random coin-like substance. When you factor in the magnificent 3D wildebeest scene in The Lion King, it may have actually been a better game than Aladin, but I digress.

I always struggled with one particular boss battle in The Lion King in which an unseen bag guy hurls barrels at you as you platform through a level. It was basically Donkey Kong with better graphics. But for whatever reason, I could never beat it. We went to my aunt and uncle’s house for some family get together (I think Easter) where I finally beat the boss. I was ecstatic and returned home with renewed vigor. When my one-time success couldn’t be replicated, I threw my controller to the ground and hurled a chair into the TV, doing about $300 worth of damage, which, for an 8-year-old without an allowance takes about a year to repay.

I probably have not-so-subtle anger issues, especially when it comes to things that I should be able to do. My golf clubs will occasionally find themselves on the other side of the fairway if I’m having a particularly crappy round. This is one of the main reasons that I’ve soured on single-player campaign modes in video games: they just seemed designed to frustrate you. Outside of the blockbuster first person shooters, I can’t remember the last time that I played a game deemed traditionally for “hardcore” gamers, the likes of which are making a comeback with titles like Ninja Gaiden (which, don’t get me started on the origins of that series).

Hardcore games are designed to frustrate. They’re muscle-memory exercises, essentially; memorize all of the phasing platforms in Mega Man 2, for example. They often feature the kind of obstacles whose passage is technically entirely in your hands, but which are nearly impossible to master until a certain level of timing and memorization has been achieved. Frankly, I don’t have time for this anymore, but neither do a lot of people, which is why hardcore gamers often complain that video games have gotten too easy nowadays; few people design games like this and even fewer want to actually play them.

A friend and I play and extensively discuss the online multiplayer in Battlefield 3. One of the common themes is that the game makes you feel like a truly elite player one day, only to throw you into the depths of despair the next. There’s a reasonable cause of this, however. The game’s matchmaking engine is dictated by a constantly fluctuating “skill level”. When your skill level is high, you’re placed into games against players with similarly high skill levels, ostensibly diminishing your abilities. After a while, your skill level will drop until you return to the ranks of the players that you can easily dominate.

But there’s also a very real ebb and flow to individual matches of Battlefield that require subtle changes to your play style. If you’re able to tweak your build out or class to counteract an opposing team, you may be able to dig yourself out of a rut. Regardless of whether or not you’re successful, there’s an element of human control to your success (besides the obvious: you’re the one shooting and controlling your character) that is missing from the hardcore genre that requires you to memorize environmental features.

A very weird thing happened over the weekend. A friend came over to play some games of NBA 2k12. Despite his obvious superiority to me in the game, I’ve been able to wrangle away a few victories making it something of a rivalry. Saturday was no different, with each of us taking one game a piece. In the third game of the day, my team, as teams are wont to do in NBA 2k12, went into a massive shooting slump. Not only were they missing open shots, but they were missing free throws that should’ve gone in and uncontested layups.

This isn’t totally foreign to NBA 2k12. One way that the series has tried to avoid the pitfalls of the NBA Live series–where players like Chauncy Billups become 80%-90% three-point shooters from one particular spot on the court–is to introduce a consistency metric, which dictates hot and cold streaks. In theory, this is a wonderful metric, because it punishes players for being irresponsible with the basketball and benefits those that are more composed. However, occasionally the game will decide to take over despite competitive play and essentially say, You’re Not Winning This Game.

At one point late in that third game, I had fouled one of his players, sending him to the free throw line. The in-game commentary, which I try to tune out (I should just turn it off in this mode like I have in the oft-played My Player mode), made a comment that I thought was really odd: “It’s Murphy’s Law out there for the Clippers.”

Murphy’s Law dictates that everything that can go wrong, will go wrong. In a sports game, these kinds of things can happen: throw a bunch of bad interceptions or take ill-advised shots or have all of your players get injured. These are all natural occurrences in a game that can take place because of player negligence. But in NBA 2k12, that’s not the case. One of two on-court scenarios could trigger such a comment from the announcers: 1) the gamer is literally just missing everything they’re taking because of bad shot selection, unforced turnovers, playing with inferior talent, etc. or 2) the game, in an attempt to add realism to its broadcast-like environment, dictates Murphy’s Law in real time. As someone who has played NBA 2k12 extensively, and as any other player will tell you, the latter is the case.

NBA 2k12’s biggest flaw is self imposed. The game is frustrating in a way that even the hardcore games tacitly avoid. No amount of skill, muscle memory, or otherwise will save you when NBA 2k12 deems your team unworthy of victory. The only saving grace is a grand mistake on the behalf of your opponent which, if you’re playing a human-controlled team is unlikely to occur because of the massive benefits granted to that team, and a computer-controlled team will always avoid. When Murphy’s Law is applied to video games, you’re no longer playing anything. Instead, you’re being frustrated into submission, at least until you throw a chair through your TV.

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Playing with faults

Since playing Skyrim, I’ve become invested in the idea of role playing games, but not necessarily traditional RPGs. For example, I’ve gone a long way toward explaining why Battlefield 3 is an RPG–a game that requires you to pick a class/role and stick to it if you’re going to be successful. And in the last few weeks, I’ve re-dedicated myself to the My Player career mode in NBA 2k12, relishing in the ability to be a 6’1″ point guard with serious limitations.

In my Skyrim conquest, I chose to be a high elf, a class well suited for magic and relatively agile. I had heard that hand-to-hand combat in the game was less than ideal, and I thought that this was probably the “optimal” class. In the past, anytime I had encountered an RPG, the goal was always to become a demigod, the kind of character that can do all and conquer anything in its way. But Skyrim specifically forces you out of this mold, at least if you’re trying to be even remotely successful.

My high elf couldn’t wield a sword if his life depended on it (it has in the past, to predictably poor results). In spite of that, I’ve never cared to upgrade my hand-to-hand fighting abilities. Less inherently, I’ve decided that my character will live his entire life (or at least the part of his life that I control) as a nomad, dealing with whatever struggles might come from that decision. In Skyrim, after helping to save a town early in the game, you’re given the right to purchase property in the centralized city. The primary function of owning a house, presumably anyway, is the ability to store items permanently. The inventory in the game is such that you can only carry 300 units of equipment/potions/weapons/etc. With certain weapons weighing up to as much as 25 units, managing your inventory becomes a priority, and without the ability to store items permanently, I’m often forced to drop or destroy weapons and equipment that I would otherwise keep for a more pressing situation.

In my previous game-playing experience, I never would have shunned the ability to buy a house and ostensibly, make the game easier. Gold in Skyrim is not difficult to come across, so splurging on a piece of property is only a minor, short-term setback that will eventually return significant dividends. I don’t know why I made the decision to be a nomad. At the time, it just seemed like the right thing to do, or maybe I didn’t feel like scrounging up a bunch of money just to put up a white picket fence somewhere while I spent most of my time gallivanting in the wilderness. But that decision has had its consequences; in terms of video games, a world in which there is an objective goal, that was a conscious decision to play as an imperfect character.

The first NBA 2k game that I played was last year’s iteration (2k11). At the behest of my friend who claimed it to be the greatest basketball game ever made, I bought it and, per usual with sports games, went immediately to the career mode, rather than online or dynasty modes. My character was a 6’5″ small forward; his size chosen because the game penalized positions for being taller than is commonly accepted and gave significant benefits to those that were undersized. As a 6’5″ small forward, the only thing that I wasn’t great at was dunking, which was fine. I shot three pointers at a 50%-60% clip, had a stepback jumper that was nearly unstoppable, and was fast enough to be an all-star defender, despite my height disadvantage. I was Lebron James, except a few inches shorter and a much better shooter.

Eventually, this got tiresome. Most games were won as I leaked out from the defensive end on a missed shot and took a three pointer from the corner. I was the league’s best player and I sought vindication in the NBA’s regular season MVP award. That was the ultimate goal of the game. When I bought NBA 2k12, however, I had a different goal in mind. I wanted to be an athletic point guard, the likes of which Derek Rose makes so appealing: 6’1″, athletic build, mediocre shot, and an incredible ability to get to the rim. In that regard, I succeeded, but it has been a struggle for the alternate reality New York Knicks, which has little-to-no outside shooting presence*.

Despite those challenges, playing as a character with obvious flaws and limitations has made the game remarkably more engaging. Not only does it force you to play within the game’s strictures, it allows you to hone your play style (I’ve never before been this adept at the various dribbling intricacies in the game).

Games have gotten to the point of sophistication where playing above them (speed runs, Game Genie, etc) are no longer the point or even very entertaining. I’ve never been one to try and break games–find the exploitable glitch that allows you to be infallible–but I have always tried to create the perfect player. Unfortunately, the perfect player is never very much fun. Give me a nomad or a guy who can’t hold onto the ball and I’ll hurl my controller into the forgiving couch cushion next to me. But I’ll also love every minute of it.

*The NBA lockout was the best thing to happen to NBA 2k12’s My Player mode because free agents were never picked up by new teams, the draft never happened, and as a result, there was a ridiculous shuffle of players around the league. Our current starting lineup includes my character, Andre Iguodala, Carmelo Anthony, Jason Maxiell, and Marcus Camby. You can see why the loss of outside shooting would be such an issue.

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Back to Karkand thoughts

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.

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Battlefield 3 review

Yesterday, EA released the epically hyped Battlefield 3 after months of heavy advertising and a PR battle with existing king of the hill Call of Duty. The hype train leading up to its release was inevitable given the competition from the CoD franchise and its stranglehold on the current console FPS market. And though I was a serious fan of past Call of Duty games, Battlefield 3 makes not only CoD, but all other video games look like toddler toys.

First the easy stuff: Last night, EA was having a ton of trouble with their XBox servers. People weren’t able to play online, so I played the first two missions of the single player. It’s fine. It’s absolutely beautiful but, as the game designers said in an interview a few weeks ago, it’s a tutorial for the multiplayer. It’s pretty dull. I read a review of the single player in which the reviewer said that he kept dying until he figured out exactly what he was supposed to be doing. That’s spot on. There are a lot of sudden attacks/explosions that you just need to be in the proper position for. If you’re not, you die and have to try again from a different position. This gameplay is not what anyone cares about and I’d be surprised if I even finish the single player mode.

As for the multiplayer, the graphics are similarly unparalleled. There is no video game currently on the market (maybe the Forza series) that has graphics anywhere near as beautiful as these. There’s so much detail and subtlety that you can spend entire matches just looking at stuff. The “backgrounds” (about those scare quotes in a second) are stunning. On Operation Firestorm, there are plumes of black smoke rising in the background from bombed out oil refineries. At Caspian Border, there’s a forest fire in the background that looks to engulf the entire map. But you could find something in almost every level to marvel at. There’s no point in listing them all.

The reason I put scare quotes around “backgrounds” is because these levels are basically limitless. The larger, more open levels allow players to use jets, which move so quickly that you’ll often overshoot the level by about 100% (at Caspian Border, you can actually fly through the forest fire that is otherwise unreachable). When you’re in the sky, the levels take on a life of their own. That said, flying is extremely difficult. Any videos of someone successfully flying are really impressive. It’s very, very difficult and often ended with me crossing myself up and nose diving into the ground.

Referring to the levels as limitless may be a misnomer, but in practice they are. The game mode I played the most last night was Conquest. In Conquest, there are either three or four bases/flags that you need to capture and protect. There are essentially two ways to go about this*: get in a tank and follow your teammates to a base that can be locked down, or sneak around the entire edge of the level and try and pick off a base that people don’t expect you to attack. The latter, even in Call of Duty, has always been my preferred option, but I digress. These levels are built to scale and I would guess that running directly from one end of the level to the other unabated would take about four minutes. If you hide for cover and take the game more seriously, it takes close to eight minutes to get from one side to the other. But if you do it properly, you’ll move cover to cover, lay in wait as enemy tanks rumble by, find shelter to hide from enemy planes that might spot you, and avoid enemy contact for the majority of the time. It’s a singular experience unlike any other in gaming.

It’s the pacing of this game that makes it so perfect. When there aren’t any new vehicles at your spawn, it might be a hassle to run for 30 seconds to a minute before even seeing a firefight in the distance, but that’s what gives the game it’s reality. These maps truly feel like war zones. They’re so large that you can be attacked from almost anywhere if you’re not careful. So when you really immerse yourself in the game–checking your cover, supplying cover fire, and methodically moving through the level using front and follow with teammates–it feels real.

It’s cinematic in a way that I never thought imaginable. You feel like you’re in a movie. There are these indescribable moments of jaw-dropping brilliance that just open up to you. So many times, things happen exactly like you would expect they would in real life and it’s something that no other video game has ever accomplished (eg, spotting an enemy tank a few yards away before it spots you and laying prone for cover until it passes).

My most memorable experienced occurred as I was bringing a tank into the heart of a city scape. An enemy jet spotted me and made two swooping passes over my vehicle, unloading on the tank and doing a ton of damage. After the second pass, I realized that I had an aircraft-locking rocket launcher. I got out of the tank and hid by the side of it for cover. I watched as the jet made a swooping turn out in front of me and came back for a third run right over the top of the tank. I locked onto the jet and fired just before it got to me, and watched it explode and crash into the ground right over my head.

Though the size of the levels was initially a problem for me, it soon because the game’s most impressive feature. The same levels on the PC are made for 64 players simultaneously. On consoles, you only play with 24. While the game has made its name on mixed ops (using different classes and vehicles in tandem to dominate positions), freelancing on your own is a heart-pounding experience. There’s nothing worse that hiding out sniping down range when you hear an enemy tank roll up with infantry forces and you’re forced to take cover until its gone and then check the surrounding areas for anyone who might surprise you.

It hit me today why this game, and FPS in general, will be/are so popular. For most gamers, autonomy is key. This is what development companies like Bethesda thrive on and why open-world games have become so popular. But the more functionality you offer people, the more limiting it becomes (eg, Why does Townsperson X always say the same thing? Why can’t I blow up this building? etc). If you give gamers free reign and call something a sandbox game, they will inevitably push those limits and question why they exist.

FPS are unique because they are designed to allow the player to perform any action that he might need to in the existing situation. You’re out of ammo and need to pull out a pistol? There’s one available. Like that dead guy’s gun better? You can take it. But there were clear limitations. For example, if you’re getting shot by a sniper hiding out in a building up the street, the best you could do was hope to shoot him before he saw you. Battlefield 3‘s Frostbite engine gives you another option, the kind of option you would logically use in that scenario: explode the sniper’s cover with a rocket launcher. The game allows you to interact with the environment in every way you can imagine. And the size and scope of the levels puts you in a real world setting where logical strategies apply.

In my many years playing video games, I can confidently say that Battlefield 3‘s multiplayer is the greatest gaming experience I’ve ever encountered. The breadth of landscape, abilities, vehicles, strategies, and game modes combined with the game’s physics engine and solid gunplay create the most realistic digital experience to date. If this isn’t the Uncanny Valley, it doesn’t exist.

*There’s a third that I’m not very good at, and it involves teaming up with another friendly jet and having both people circle a base. It’s really cool watching these things swoop in and out to protect a base. I only saw it happen once and it was against my team, but it was spectacular to watch.

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