Developing a big-budget shooter in 2011 is like performing in a soap opera; you've got winners and villains, people to feel sorry for, and it certainly doesn't hurt if you ham it up a little. It is important to back up the pomp and spectacle of this drama with some actual gameplay footage, though, so while EA CEO John Riccitiello was up on stage in New York telling advertisers how Battlefield 3 was designed to "take down" Activision's Call of Duty series, developer DICE was in London showing off the GDC 2011 footage which made such a splash to begin with.
Powering the game is the Frostbite 2 engine, which has been expressly designed to do stuff with things like shaders and real-time lighting that my tiny brain doesn't quite understand. What I can tell you, with absolute certainty, is that if a developer has constructed an impressive new engine for a highly anticipated military FPS, one which combines swanky animations with top-tier physics and destruction, it's probably a safe bet to assume big explosions are a case of when and not if.
In the case of Battlefield 3, DICE's latest manages to keep its impeccably modelled architecture out of an explosive blast radius for about five minutes - in the skittish world of the modern military shooter, however, five minutes feels like two weeks. The demo, set in the Iraq border town of Sulaymaniyah, is cut into three sections, all involving military actions that I really wouldn't ever want to be involved in. The finished game also promises to take players to, and then presumably destroy chunks of, Tehran, Paris, and New York.
There's no indication yet whether this globe-trotting will be done in the multiple-character style favoured by Call of Duty, but in Sulaymaniyah you're thundering around as military man Henry "Black" Blackburn, a nickname so unimaginative it proves how four years of endless modern shooters has truly caused the well of naming inspiration to completely dry up.
We're looking at this carefully selected piece of footage running on a PC powerful enough to blow a hole in the space-time continuum - the game hasn't been shown on consoles yet, but DICE is promising great things - and the whole demo is designed to proudly boast just how much Frostbite 2 improves on its predecessor. The opening scene, for instance, is a close-up shot of your squad arriving in an APC, and your three companions veer involuntarily to the right as the vehicle brakes. It's a lovely little feat of animation, and a perfect showcase of the new animation capabilities of Frostbite 2.
Back in the mission, and Henry "Black" Blackburn and company exit the vehicle into the piercing gaze of the arid climate and the middle of a deserted meat market, its scenery stocked with empty stalls and high piles of palettes. You're briefed by a stereotypically gruff commanding officer, who jabs his finger at a map to indicate he is in charge, and your job is to venture deeper into the town and locate a missing squad of marines.
You set off by running down a few dingy alleyways and through a vacant school, out into a parking lot where you are finally and inevitably assaulted by DLR insurgents. An allied soldier catches a bullet from a sniper and falls to the ground, and before leaping into the fray Black drags the fallen colleague back inside the building for cover. Bullets are initially fired in tight, deadly clumps but high recoil causes the weapon to spring upwards and quickly lose accuracy, though the person playing the live demonstration finds it easy to score a few kills with mid-range shots from the hip.
After knocking down an initial wave of infantry the expected RPG squad springs up to rattle off the explosions. One rocket hits a car near your character, and the resulting blast knocks you to your feet. A string of explosions rattle around, and your squad takes out the frenzied rocket squad with a few choice shots while cars explode and walls crumble. The sun pierces through thick bilious clouds of dust, and the audience coos at the technical aptitude while simultaneously trying to work out how much it costs to upgrade their PCs.
The game then cuts to a rooftop opposite the sniper from before, who fires a succession of shots from a .50cal to pop plant pots, shoot cracks in walls, and blast gaping holes through metal vents. After crawling into a vantage spot, you're thrown an RPG of your very own to fire at the hotel housing the enemy unit. Alongside the all-important kill you initiate a glorious chain of physics and destruction, blowing a hole in the side of the building and causing a large overhanging sign to come loose and scrape across the side of the hotel. DICE won't say whether these large-scale set-pieces events are wholly or even partially scripted at the moment, however.
Another transition pushes your squad further into the mission, where you've located the missing squad but found a suspicious wire which is suspected to be an IED. Black follows the wire through a series of dingy houses, dark basements and rat-infested vents to the device, where he gets involved in a QTE fistfight with an insurgent who, from what I can ascertain despite the language barrier, really doesn't want to see the bomb successfully deactivated. The person manning the demo fails the input just as Black is about to strangle the enemy using the IED's wire, but a few more mouse clicks ensures the guy is beaten senseless and dropped in the corner.
With the bomb deactivated, Black returns outside to his squad only to find the insurgents launching an all-out assault on the allied forces. You're instructed to position yourself on a nearby bridge and rain down hell with a LMG, and as your tiny squad has matured into a full-blown battalion over the course of the demo there's plenty of support from allied troops. One of the closing shots features Black looking up at an allied attack helicopter as it hovers overhead, with its minigun raining spent bullet cases on your head, and this is also the point when a massive earthquake inconveniently decides to go off and reduce the town to rubble. If the modern FPS is about delivering spectacle, DICE is clearly doing its very best to oblige.
Everything is all extremely impressive, of course, and it looks like Battlefield 3 is certainly on track to produce the kind of adrenaline-rich exhibition supposedly demanded of our top-tier FPS shooters. But if you're coming to this with a background in Battlefield 2, or you're one of the many who invested what feels like half of 2010 into Bad Company 2, then there's a genuine sense that this isn't quite what you want to see. You, like me, want to peer behind the single-player content and see the huge competitive maps, 64-player matches on PC, and massive chuffing jets. Firm details on multiplayer, for now at least, are still tantalisingly perched around the corner.
DICE insists on parity between the single-player and multiplayer components of Battlefield 3, however, so this phenomenal technology should directly carry over to the online experience - and that alone is enough to get millions of gamers all hot and bothered. Watching Battlefield 3 in action is more than enough to see why John Riccitiello is so happy to get up on stage and play his part in the FPS pantomime.
Battlefield 3 is due for release on PC, Xbox 360 and PS3 in November.