Over the past year or two I've read a couple of books and watched a couple of films that personally I think would make epic video games.
Battlefield 3: Aftermath
Some of you may have doubts about DICE’s ability to deliver DLC that is on point with the overall Battlefield experience, and that feeling is certainly justified given that Battlefield 3’s DLC has been a mixed bag. This inconsistency is mostly due to an innate experiential dichotomy based on whether you play on PC or console. It’s no secret that console Battlefield 3 players have a much different experience than their PC counterparts: PC, for example, offers access to higher player counts and therefore provides larger maps to accommodate that swollen populous. Battlefield 3’s DLC has for the most part reflected this difference, a reflection which has negatively affected how Battlefield 3’s DLC plays on one system or the other—be it PC or console.
When you examine Battlefield 3’s DLC up to this point, even briefly, you’ll see my point. And being that I might just be Leviathyn’s unofficial resident Battlefield 3 player/savant/fanboy, I feel like I’ve dropped the ball by not properly reviewing Back to Karkand (B2K), Close Quarters (CQ), and Armored Kill (AK). So before I get into an proper review of Aftermath (AM), I would like to take this opportunity to provide a small review for each previous Battlefield 3 DLC to help illustrate my point.
The first and arguably most successful DLC up to this point has been Back to Karkand (and I must confess I almost forgot about this one), which brought some of the series’ most popular maps back into the fold. While I, and many others, enjoyed what Back to Karkand brought with it (familiar maps and new weapons for each class), when you examine the DLC as a whole it merely re-added, repackaged, and reconstituted old material. It’s nothing fancy, but it is still effective.
Next came Close Quarters, which might arguably be the first real piece of Battlefield 3 DLC, as it added truly new content. Some criticized CQ as being too radical a departure from the series, more akin to Call of Duty than Battlefield. While this argument was supported by the smaller maps focused on small, fast paced infantry skirmishes and the inclusion of Gun Master, a game incredibly similar to Call of Duty’s own Gun Game, I actually really enjoyed what CQ brought to the table. Specifically, its smaller maps and lower player counts suit what those of us on consoles are used to. It is almost as if DICE was attempting to cater to console tastes with CQ, which of course alienated some, and caused them to decry CQ as a simple CoD clone.
If Close Quarters was an experiment to try something new in Battlefield 3, then Armored Kill was a pallet cleanser that promised to bring more of that wide-open vehicle action back into the fold. AK did ultimately succeed in doing so, but I would argue that in some cases it did so to its detriment. The maps are huge and they do leave room for lots of vehicle action, but on consoles, where I experienced AK, with a twenty-four player limit, the maps had a distinctly empty feel and the resulting gameplay was slow and off-putting. On PC, however, with those larger player limits, I’d like to believe that the AK maps feel a little less barren and is a little more exciting, and being that Battlefield 3 performs better on PC, it makes sense that Armored Kill is best suited to PC and perhaps caters more to PC Battlefield 3 expectations (in contrast to Close Quarters which is arguably more suited to consoles). Plus there was the whole gunship element, which while interesting in conquest, kind of ruined rush on the AK maps. The less that is said about the gunship the better.
Therein lays the experiential dichotomy present in Battlefield 3. AK is the anti-CQ; CQ is the anti-AK: both bring something to the table, but it is easy to find fault with each as DICE appeared to be catering to two different audiences with different somewhat different expectations.
This leads up to the recently released Aftermath, which combines everything Dice has attempted to do with previous DLC, creating a unified experience that does away with the more pronounced elements of that experiential dichotomy present in previous DLC. As a result, Aftermath is without a doubt the best and most balanced Battlefield 3 DLC to date.
Sticking to the established Battlefield 3 DLC standard, Aftermath adds four new maps along with new vehicles, a new weapon with four variations, and a new game mode. Like previous Battlefield 3 DLCs, Aftermath creates a single theme for its four new maps: that of post-earthquake Iran. That means a good mix of earthquake-ravaged terrain and crumbling husks of buildings, which accommodates both close-quarter and wide open encounters. Like everything about Battlefield 3, the visuals are impressive, and similar to CQ, the Frostbite 2 engine really shows exactly what it’s capable of.
The maps are incredibly well designed, and the post-earthquake theme works extremely well to create an all-around sense of desperation and vulnerability. This feeling really shows itself in AM’s new game mode, the appropriately titled Scavenger. Like Conquest Domination in CQ, Scavenger has players fight for control of five points scattered throughout a map where you can only spawn on fellow squad-mates or at a random location. There is a catch, however, in that you only start with your sidearm and must scavenge for primary weapons which are scattered across the map, to give yourself an advantage in securing flags.
The results are fast and frenzied, like Conquest Domination in CQ, but you can never quite escape that ever-present sense of vulnerability that the maps and game mode works quite well to foster. There are no gadgets or gear, only guns. No health to be thrown; no way to pick up fallen comrades or be picked up; no ammunition beyond a few magazines’ worth, which forces you to continually scavenge for your next weapon. And if you die, you start over with your sidearm and run the risk of being set upon by a much better armed enemy (rolling with your side arm is of course a viable option, but you feel vulnerable, naked even, until you are able to better arm yourself). This all adds depth to Scavenger—making every life, every bullet that much more important—and ensures that it is a game mode worth playing.
Honestly, it took me a few rounds to warm up to Scavenger, but once I got a few games under my belt and understood the game mode’s interesting dynamic, I realized just how fun, exciting, and tense one round can be. This isn’t a simple run-cap-run-cap game; there are layers of strategy introduced by how a flag is situated and the kind weapon you bring with you. If there are tighter corners you might opt for a PWD or shotgun. Conversely, with a more open flag you may be inclined to bring an Assault Rifle, Carbine, or Sniper Rifle.
Aftermath also brings with it the mighty XBow, which is capable of dropping enemies with a single bolt. Some of you might worry about the XBow’s power, but it is actually an incredibly balanced weapon. Yes, it can kill an enemy in one hit, but if you engage an enemy openly with it and miss, well you are DOA. The risk balances out the reward. The XBow also proves itself a quite versatile tool through its four bolt varieties: Standard bolts, unlocked when you initially unlock the XBow, for close range encounters; balanced bolts for longer range shots (great when paired with the scoped XBow); high explosive bolts to deal with vehicles; and finally, scan bolts to detect enemies. It is an interesting dynamic that combines and rolls the different skills and abilities of the classes into one package, making the XBow all-situations option.
Yet while the XBow’s bolts make it extremely versatile, the unique bolts are extremely balanced. Take the scan bolts as an example. The scan bolts give you an idea of what’s ahead, scanning any enemy movements within 10 meters of the bolt’s impact. However, you don’t get the perpetual coverage of a motion sensor, nor are you meant to. You are only meant to have a quick peek. The Scan bolt (or any other bolt for that matter) isn’t as good as some of the class specific gadgets it replaces, and this is what balances out the XBow. The XBow takes the place of a class specific gadget, but despite its usefulness, it cannot totally replace the gadget because it isn’t meant to.
Now I’m sure some of you are just itching for details on vehicles in AM, and while I wouldn’t say that vehicles are AM’s main focus, they are by no means forgotten. For new vehicles, DICE gives us three new modified transport vehicles—1 American, 1 Russian, 1 Civilian (with the Russian and American vehicles being slightly different versions of each other). The standard main battle tank and the scout helicopter also make an appearance. Like everything else about AM, the vehicles are, you guess it, balanced, and can leave you feeling particularly vulnerable. This is due, in no small part, to the earthquake damaged terrain AM features, which can at times hamper maneuverability, making you even more vulnerable to C4/rockets.
You are probably looking at the score and thinking to yourself, “Really Flynn, a perfect score. You couldn’t find something wrong, nothing to criticize?” And to be honest, I struggled with giving Aftermath a perfect score. I tried to find flaws, I really did. I went back and put more time into it with that goal in mind, but the more I played the more I fell in love with what AM adds to Battlefield 3. I really cannot say this enough: everything about AM is incredibly balanced—from map design, to the new game mode, to vehicles, to the XBow—and the resulting gameplay is incredibly fun. After a couple attempts, DICE has finally been able to give us some top notch DLC that successfully marries some of what DICE tried to do in CQ with what they tried to do in AK. Everything AM brings to the table works, making it the best, and truly the first must-own piece of Battlefield 3 DLC to date.