GDC: Battlefield 3 Trailer Tells Us Plenty About the Game

I wasn't at EA's splashy GDC Battlefield 3 event last night, and it sounds like I missed nothing, except maybe a predictable attempt to deafen the crowd. That might've been something to hear with earplugs.

Contrary to popular reaction, the new FX-saturated trailer isn't just a flak-shellacked sound and light show. In fact I think you'll find it tells us plenty about the game, and I don't mean the pretty parts everyone else can't stop gushing about.

Let's start with the milieu, the Iraq/Iran border in 2014. Coalition forces led by U.S. Marines are running "pacification" operations to "restore stability" to the region.

"You ever ask yourself how this part of the world gets so ****ed up all the time," quips a soldier crawling from the shadowed interior of an armored personnel carrier into the blazing daylight.

"We just work here, Dave," replies another.

In other words: The visual pinnacle of PC gaming's angle on prickly subjects? Leave the politics at home, let the pretty graphics and snappy one-liners wash over you. Except it's getting kind of hard to buy these guys as wisecracking cartoons. It's the uncanny valley of design "realpolitik": The more a game feels like the real deal, the more the design team has to work (or tiptoe carefully) around the context to politically subtract you from it.

But okay, back to stuff EA wants us to pay attention to. While the soldiers clamber and jog more plausibly than they do, say, in Crysis or GRAW 2 (they still lag well behind Madden NFL 11 and Fight Night Champion, or when it comes to facial animation, L.A. Noire) I'm not so sure we're watching real soldiery. The guy at 1:20 who looks up for the obvious light-ray pan (gaming's "feature placement" trope) probably isn't reflecting on the situation's irony (in real life, he's probably getting his head chewed off by the guy behind him for rubbernecking). And the one at 1:30 whose running footfalls sound almost like snapping mousetraps tells us the sound design team's after exaggeration, not fidelity. Again, okay, I understand it's a game, I'm just passing along what caught my eye. Like I said, the more "realistic" a game tries to be, the more this stuff draws attention.

There's the incumbent "disembodied" rifle-zoom-cam, which looks vaguely cyclopean, as if watching externally you'd see the guy's head magically disappear replaced by a smooth-tracking machine gun. I realize it looks weirder watching instead of playing. I'm just more a fan of third-person over-the-shoulder, where at least I don't have to pretend my way around the gamey camera angles. And of course you can stand straight up in crossfire (see 1:57 and 2:04) and spray bullets everywhere. Contrast with your teammates, who--unlike you--hunker naturally behind cover. Again, a first-person failing, not a third-person one.

And scene. The trailer's second part airs March 16.

Will the full game model real U.S. problems, like the "austerity" issues that leave U.S. garrisons without running water, working toilets, and routine mail service? Will it make more than passing reference (if it's referenced at all) to the opening of the al Sheeb border station to thousands of Iranian tourists? Will we fight alongside trained Iraqi soldiers? Be involved in their training, as current border forces are? Will we have to grapple with cross-border oil and alcohol smuggling?

We'll see. I hope so. The area's a political hotbed right now. I can't imagine it'll change much over the next three years.

Leaving the trailer aside, the most important takeaway from EA's GDC Battlefield 3 event can be summarized in just five words: It debuted on a PC.

Take that, not-updating-anytime-soon console gaming.

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