Monday, November 14, 2011

Battlefield 3: Notes from the field.

I've been enjoying Battlefield 3 for a few weeks now and there's no denying the improvement in game play and visuals afforded by the Frostbite 2 engine.  Visuals are vastly improved and game physics provide an experience that easily surpasses any previous Battlefield title.

Navigation between the various game modes is a simple process using the web based control panel and player statistics are always close at hand.  Finding friends online for both co-op and online multiplayer modes is a simple matter of typing their name into a search box. 

Being the half-wit blogger I am, however, it's impossible for me to leave out a few quirks I've found with the game.  Rabid fans of the franchise would be advised to stop reading at this point.

For the majority of fans of the Battlefield series some of the issues I'll report may be of no consequence.  Still, I'm positive that I'm not alone in my annoyances some of which have plagued the series since Battlefield 2.

Let's get started.

I have an observation, most players of Battlefield 3 stink at flying Helicopters.  I can't blame the players, however.  The Battlefield series has always been weak when it came to flying non-fixed wing aircraft.  Battlefield: 1942 primarily had airplanes, there was a helicopter in the Secret Weapons expansion but few ever tried it.  The Desert Combat mod for that game had an excellent choice of helicopters and with some practice it was possible to become proficient. 

Something happened between The DC combat mod and Battlefield 2.  Helicopter control was nowhere near the same as the BF:1942 mod.  That was strange since the majority of the BF2 development team  at Dice also worked on the Desert Combat mod.

With Battlefield 3 history is repeating itself. 

The franchise has always had a dizzying amount of control options that generally take at least 20 minutes of your life before you attempt to fly or drive anything.  In BF3 you can set up on foot, vehicle, airplane, helicopter and common controls.   The issue is that the game sets certain default controls based on what it thinks you're using as a control device. 

Getting rid of those defaults can be a challenge.  For me it's the annoying tendency for the game to see my Wingman Attack joystick as a gamepad.  Convincing it otherwise has involved having to manually clear every individual setting in every category.  I'd have hoped that went away after BF2 but it hasn't.  There's an option to reset controls to default but that just brings back the erroneous settings you started with. 

As of this writing I still can't set the X axis in the helicopter section which makes it kind of hard to turn left or right.  Up and down work great though.  I guess that's why so many players tend to take helicopters to 50,000 feet and bail out.

Another issue I've run into in online multiplayer is an occasional problem with transitioning between maps.  I've found myself waiting for my next deployment only to be greeted with a black screen and frozen interface forcing a restart of the game.  The problem kept recurring until I rebooted the machine. 

Intermittent control issues within co-op game modes have also occurred. Mouse control becomes overly sensitive causing frequent examination of the nicely detailed ground and sky at inopportune moments. 

I've also noticed that it's still easy to get stuck on map elements that are otherwise unseen unless you run around constantly looking at your feet.  This is common issue in FPS games but it seems to happen more often in BF3 than say Modern Warfare 3.

I'm hopeful that the more egregious issues eventually get corrected as it seems game updates are fairly frequent.  Having experienced most of the franchise, however, I'm fairly confident that control setup issues will likely continue to plague the series.  At this point it's almost part of the Battlefield DNA.

If you're one of those BF3 players who rarely drive or fly anything then most of these issues are probably minor to non-existent and all of this amounts to little more than whining.  I'm of the opinion that if you're going to offer a game option it should work even if you never use it. 

None of these issues will prevent me from playing the game, however, as it still stands out as the best of the series.  Correcting minor issues can only make it more so. 
Article first published as Battlefield 3: Notes From the Field on Technorati.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Trials and travails of a half wit game blogger

Publish an article about a game and you'd better grow a thick skin.

I recently put up an article comparing and contrasting the new Battlefield 3 and Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3 on technorati. Now I realize most of my stuff never gets a read but sometimes it does and here's a sample of what I get when I get the attention of the wrong people...

"... do your research. BF3 Runs perfectly fine under Google Chrome. Geeez I hate half-wit bloggers. With that said I own both games for the PC. To sum it up if you want to run around like a rabid idiot with no tactics or squads tactics play MWF3, if you want to use your brain and feel a lot more rewarded for using tactics play BF3. I sure wish I didn't waste $59 on the patch called MFW3."

Now if you read the article you'll likely find it's pretty even handed. I usually try to eliminate any bias and only report what I've personally experienced.  I've never been a fan boy of anything so commentary like the example above mystifies me.  I'm fairly certain I spread the props and digs equally.

Ah well, you can't please everyone.

I've been considering a rewrite of the offending article to try.  It's very succinct.  Have a look...







There, that should do nicely...                            :)

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Battle of the Battlefields: Battlefield 3 vs. Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3

Article first published as Battle of the Battlefields: Battlefield 3 vs. Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3 on Technorati.

(Items that appear in yellow and in parentheses are updates)

As I wrote in a previous article I've had the unique opportunity to experience two very popular first person shooters close to their launch dates. EA's Battlefield 3 and Activision's Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3.

There's no doubt that these titles are gunning for each other as evidenced by a release schedule separated by only two weeks. Battlefield 3 launched on October 25th and Call of Duty MW3 launched on November 8th. Rumor has it that Battlefield 3 was actually rushed out to steal Modern Warfare 3's thunder.

That shouldn't be a surprise since both franchises sit at the top of the list for First Person Shooters on the PC platform and are likely to attract the most Pre-order and Christmas sales. 

So why choose one over the other?

That will depend on the type of FPS gamer you are. The decision will come down to how important factors like visuals, multiplayer experience and storyline are to you.

Let's start with the commonalities of the two. Both games are visually stunning even on low graphics settings. Both offer single, multi and co-op player missions and have the ability to play with online friends in both co-op and multiplayer modes.

Both games play well on Windows 7 and I tested them on both ATI 6900 series as well as older Nvidia 260 series graphics cards. It's important to note that Battlefield 3 will not install on an operating system lower than windows Vista since it's Frostbite 2 engine requires at least Direct X 10. Modern Warfare 3 will Run on XP or above and includes DirectX 9 support.
It should also be understood at the outset that these games will likely experience a number of patches over the next year. Both are 1.0 releases and game bugs and crashes are to be expected. As such I can't fault such issues at this point. Fortunately, such events are not a regular occurrence and haven't hampered my experience with the titles.

The primary difference between the two games has more to do with plot than game mechanics. Battlefield 3's single and co-op missions are loosely based on a squad based storyline that focuses less on plot and more on objectives. In contrast, Modern Warfare 3's single and co-op are tied more closely to a story akin to a Tom Clancy novel. In fact Modern Warfare 3's single player mission begins where Modern Warfare 2's ended.

Battlefield franchise devotees have been salivating for a full sequel to Battlefield 2 since the disappointing launch of Battlefield 2142. I should mention at this point that Battlefield 3 even bothering with co-op is an obvious admission that the lack of this game play option put the franchise at a disadvantage compared with previous versions of Call of Duty.

Modern Warfare 3 is the DeFacto sequel to Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 with both single player and co-op picking up from where Modern Warfare 2 left off. Modern Warfare fans were ill served by the recent Call of Duty: Black Ops whose single player campaign was acceptable but it's multiplayer only marginally redeemable with additional paid DLC content.

Modern Warfare 3's game mode options are almost identical to Modern Warfare 2 with Co-op, Multiplayer and campaign options. (I enjoyed MW3 but ultimately it's little more than a big MW2 DLC pack.  Even the missions are scripted similar to MW2 and if you're paying attention you can almost match them up between both games.)

Battlefield 3 is similar but relies on a web based interface instead of an in-game interface for all game interactions including game type, statistics and online functions.

This is both an advantage and an annoyance for Battlefield 3. The game requires Internet Explorer 9 and frequently needs to update browser plug-ins before any game session is initiated. This extra step creates opportunity for game bugs and disconnects due to this required abstraction from the primary game environment. It does allow more rapid updates to the player profile and statistical functions however. Finding online friends is also more natural than in Modern Warfare 3.

Multiplayer is frequently the barometer used to judge games like this so how do our contestants fare?

Hands down, Battlefield 3 is a much better online multiplayer experience. You have the option to select servers, jump into a game with an online friend just by searching their name and filtering the list to reflect the type of game and skill level of your opponents.

Modern Warfare 3's multiplayer is enjoyable but instead of choosing servers or finding your friends you are immediately matched with other online players with your only choice being the style of game you want to play such as Deatchmatch, Capture the Flag or Conquest.  (Team Fortress 2 recently added a co-op play mode which uses the same kind of player matchmaking and it's just as dreadful)

To its credit, the online multiplayer matching does make for a more even balance and more productive game play in Modern Warfare 3. (If deathmatch is your thing that is.  I don't play it at all anymore)

In contrast, Battlefield 3 will allow you to drop into an online game with far more experienced players which generally results in numerous rounds of "whack the noob" before you finally get off of the offending server. For some that's challenging, for others it's pointless. I fall into the latter category and generally look for "calmer" servers. (Things have changed after my first 190 hours with BF3.  It's still pretty much the same but perseverance does pay off.  As most FPS gamers will tell you, BF3 is indeed a more tactical game and once you figure out the strengths of a chosen player class it's far more rewarding than MW3 could ever be.  The biggest downside now is EA's discrimination against players that choose not to subscribe to their "Premium" (think COD Elite) membership. ))

In short both games offer a similar experience with the only difference being their context. Modern Warfare 3 is for gamers who enjoy a good story. Battlefield 3 is all about action with a nod toward a modest storyline. Modern Warfare 3 is a better single player title where Battlefield 3 is much more focused on online multiplayer. In either case the experience lives up to the hype and both are worthy titles.

For either game you can believe the trailers, they really are that good.

(I updated this article because it seems that we're doomed to repeat history and I'm positive we'll see the same issues with BF4 and the next MW)

Origin versus steam, the battle for the gaming sandbox

I'm not usually an early adopter of any game but with the Release of Battlefield 3 and Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3 it was an obvious opportunity for a comparison between Valve's Steam and EA's Origin. 
In recent months EA has decided to host its own Origin gaming portal for its games eschewing Valve's Steam client.  Whether it's bad blood between companies or just EA's desire to tightly control it IP assets it's obvious that anything with an EA logo is going to be handled by Origin. 

I have a decent cache of recent game titles which until recently could be serviced by steam just by entering the installation code using the "Activate game on Steam" option.  As a test I attempted to activate a number of EA titles on Steam the other day and found every code rejected.  At present the only EA game that still exists on Steam in my "Library" is the recent Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit.  I could not activate my codes from Need for Speed : Shift or Shift2 nor could I activate Burnout Paradise.

When I attempted to activate Burnout Paradise on Origin, however, it showed up as a game I could install. 
So as it stands now if you want to have a "Steam" like experience with an EA game, apparently you have to use the Origin client.

So what does this mean for the average gamer?  Probably little more than an inconvenience, truth be told.  I've grown to appreciate the maturity of the steam platform  and it's numerous improvements. 
For example; Steam would always let you play a game in your library while updates were active but only recently would it allow those downloads to continue while you played your game.  There's an area in the Steam client portal where you can monitor such downloads and can start, stop, resume or cancel them. 

With the advent of multi-core processors and powerful GPU's, it's less likely a background download will tax your system when involved in a graphics heavy game than in years past.  Before this change an active game would pause the download which could be annoying if you had a number of updates.  The prospect of waiting for them to complete could quickly derail a game night. 
Origin functions much like Steam except that it frequently has large client updates and a less intuitive interface.  It's hard, for example, to figure out whether a game update is happening or to find the game activation dialog (which is on the settings menu). 

Steam isn't perfect as I've had issues with hidden dialogs prompting for activation keys while I sit wondering why my game has frozen.  If you're one for third party content that isn't part of an official DLC pack it can be difficult to install.  I'd expect Origin to have the same issues.
Both Steam and Origin tend to want to default to your primary hard drive for installation.  This includes game titles unless there's a dialog that allows a change which is rare when a game is delivered via one of these portals. 

To their credit both Origin and Steam will recognize retail versions of new games and add them to your library of games but still use your media to install.  That's important as I'd rather install 12GB of game content from a DVD than wait a day for the download.  Still, if you lose or damage that media, you haven't lost the game, always a plus.
A major difference between the platforms concerns special pricing.  Steam frequently runs sales on older titles or holiday events.  Often Downloadable Content or demo versions are available via the Steam Client as well.  Origin's pricing generally mirrors suggested retail.  While I've bought many games on Steam at a discount, every game that shows up in Origin was purchased much more reasonably elsewhere. 

A welcome carryover from Steam to Origin is the portability of your gaming titles.  Finally you can play your favorite game on any pc so long as you have registered it with your Origin account.  I'm hopeful this signals a new paradigm where copy protection follows the user instead of the hardware.  To its credit EA was one of the first publishers to allow multiple installs in most of its recent EULAs.   I'm glad to see the Steam model adopted as a natural progression of that.  Perhaps this signals the end of treating every customer as a thief instead of a valued asset.
To be fair, Origin is still a Beta product which involves seemingly never ending updates and a less polished interface.  I have to wonder if it was wise to pull an entire library off of a relatively stable delivery platform in favor of a more questionable one. 

Origin makes the purchase of games convenient much like Steam but since it's a walled garden where only EA can play, there's not much room for competition.  I think until something changes EA will find itself activating its games from other sources like Amazon and Newegg more than via its portal which calls Origin's existence into question. 
People enjoy Steam for a variety of reasons including:

games from a number of publishers,

special bundles

and of course pricing.

I was hesitant to install origin because EA's past includes a history of invasive copy protection schemes, spotty server reliability and abandonment of older titles. 
Steam is a mature platform and the jury is still out on Origin.  If you like EA titles you're going to be stuck with it unless you don't install Origin which in the case of Battlefield 3 is not really an option.  Right now I prefer Steam but I'm glad to at least have access to my EA titles on Origin.
One more note.  As of this writing Steam has released a statement concerning recent compromise of their servers.  While it's unlikely that the intruders will be able to use any information gleaned I'd still advise a password change or your Steam credentials.
Article first published as Origin versus steam, the battle for the gaming sandbox on Technorati.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Battlefield 3: The Launch

I've been a bit slow on the uptake with Battlefield 3.  I actually had the game thanks to Amazon's release day shipping which had the game to me on October 25th.  However, I didn't get around to actually trying to install it till the following Friday.  Trying is the operative word. 

I guess I should have dug a bit deeper into the system requirements as  I received a surprise when I went to install BF3 after updating EA's Origin Steam clone. 

Unlike Modern Warfare 3, Battlefield 3 allows nothing lower than Windows Vista to install on the PC platform.  This is because the Frostbite 2 engine requires nothing less than DirectX 11 which isn't possible on anything lower than Vista.

Here's the Wiki link on the game engine by the way...Wiki page on Frostbite

My desktop gaming rig is currently  Windows XP.  So, pardon the pun but No Dice...

That's not where the story ends, however...

The game rig that resides at a friend's house is  Windows 7 on a slightly better hardware platform. 

I'm not sure if it was just me not paying attention or that I'm getting old and think XP is going to last forever but I do know a change has to come.  The change for the home game rig is an obvious need for an upgrade.  That doesn't mean I've had to do without, well mostly.

It's almost amusing to admit but the last time I had to upgrade a game rig it was for another game in the franchise, Battlefield 2.  I swore I wouldn't do that again for just one game but ultimately I ended up in a better place.  So it is with Battlefield 3. 

Since my experience at home was cut short I sought to redeem myself with my game rig at my friends house.  I felt fortunate that I spent the extra 8 bucks on the physical media as the game install itself is 12 Gigabytes. I'd hate to waste half a day just to download a game.  To Origin's credit, however, I was allowed to pre-authorize the game on my home XP rig which saved me trying to type 20 characters of weird algorithmic nonsense in the dark just to start the installation.

Once installed I was at a disadvantage as my friend had already put a few hours into the game.  I came into it cold launching immediately into a co-op mission.  I have no idea what the single player missions hold but at this point I really don't care.

I was instantly at home in this game and true to the franchise I had to spend a few minutes customizing the myriad of controls before I could do anything.  Of course that meant my friend died in the first co-op run but that was his problem.  I don't do anything till I've assigned my crouch and grenade throwing keys.

The visuals may be breathtaking but I didn't notice.  I was instantly immersed in the environment without any distractions from control or settings issues.  Once I had my controls set I was able to join in the fray and didn't look back. 

There's something to be said for DIrectX 11 as this is the first game I've seen that capitalizes on the platform and justifies the extra $100 you spend on a card with support for it.  I was never distracted by artifacting, anti-aliasting or anything else that gets beat to death in a benchmark.  It works and with my short exposure I'm thrilled with the fully fleshed out and very playable co-op. 

Somebody at Dice was listening as there has been no co-op option in a Battlefield game since BF:1942 and it appears someone paid attention to this glaring omission.

I do have to wonder, however, how well this game translates to the Xbox platform which is at its core at least 5 years old which takes us back to the days of DX9.  While I appreciate Frostbite 2's advantages why can I play Modern Warfare 3 on XP but not BF3? 

One thing that Call of Duty does right when Infinity ward is in control is Co-op.  I'll give up visuals for good gameplay any day.  Since my exposure to BF3 has been limited I have to reserve final judgment until I have a few more hours under my belt. 

Article first published as Battlefield 3: The Launch on Technorati.