This is Caspian Border and I am Prince Caspian!

I’ve not seen nor swam the waves of the world’s largest enclosed body of water, the Caspian Sea, but I have ran the ridges and tracked my jeep down the dirt and street roads of Battlefield 3’s Caspian Border. For its final week of testing EA opened  the 64 player map, Caspian Border, to everyone who had access to the Battlefield 3 [BF3] beta on the PC. For months, we all watched YouTube videos, caught press releases from video game conventions and heard, via word of mouth, from games journalist about the epic nature of the 64 player map. Those with any interest in the first person genre salivated at the idea.

The cruelty of the BF3 beta was that for the majority of the beta access was only allowed to the one map mentioned in my previous post, Metro. Again, it was a dirty fun crawl from one MCOM station to the next in Metro but it wasn’t the months of anticipated fun we imagined having in Caspian Border featuring lions (jets), tigers (helicopters)  and bears (tanks)… oh my. Adding to the torture was the fact that EA did have password protected Caspian Border servers listed on Battlelog.

The torture ended for the last weekend of beta testing when EA announced they would open Caspian Border to all PC beta testers – on Saturday October 8th, 2011 I got my first taste. My first foray into Caspian Border was a mixed bag. I got into a server fairly easy and was instantly mesmerized by its scale. I stood in my teams spawn area watching people takeoff in the F-14 modeled jets from a dirt runway, as were a couple of other people in my squad. This was my first true experience of being part of an audience in a game… just watching the game.  The other side of the equation here was the lag. Not enough lag to make it unplayable  but just enough to be a thorn in a lions foot. I spent about 2o minutes in this sever, acquiring my first tank kill with the help of a couple of well placed mines and a final tap with a rocket propelled grenade and then searched for one that hopefully didn’t suffer from any lag.

Just a small sliver of the huge map, Caspian Border.

My second venture into Caspian Border was everything it should be (thanks to a server ping of 40). I joined Mother Russia in defense of her lands and my squad and I set out in a jeep to take a capture point atop a mountain/hill. By the way, the  topography of Caspian Border is feast for the eyes in its own right. Everything is very far away from each other so vehicles are a must and the highs and lows of the land make trekking by foot a long process. Once we got our off road Jeep clone to the point we captured it, set up to defend it  by placing mines around the dirt road access points and hunkered down for an assault – we didn’t have to wait long. The first attack was deflected well thanks to an early kill of the opposing tank but what ensued was a knock down, drag out fight. We ended up holding the point, thanks to a team member staying prone in some vegetation so we could continue to spawn off of him after we died, but we lost the overall battle. Even in a pretty overwhelming defeat I totally enjoyed the experience and took some pride in being the best squad on our team.

My last time spent in Caspian Border (out of eight visits) was the most enjoyable and will keep me looking forward to Battlefield 3’s full release. After capturing a point early in the game our squad moved on to a more forward point that was fairly close to the opposing teams main spawn. We secured the point and then moved into gorilla warfare mode by setting up ambush points from within the buildings surrounding the capture point. With mines staggered across the most likely entrance point we braced for the oncoming attack. It started off great with just an opposing squad with no armor and/or aerial support walking right into our trap, they were wiped within minutes. It was the second attack that we felt the full force of the enemy having a very close main spawn area.

A tank rolled up the main entrance to the small town that housed the capture point and stopped just prior to the mines. Those mines were aligned directly next to my perch in a two story building. I could see the tank clearly from the second story balcony and when I stepped downstairs quickly to take a peek I could see there were infantry in support. The tank must of spotted my fellow squad mates because it open fire just I started heading back upstairs. From above, I open fire on the two opposing infantry men next to the tank taking them both out. The death of those two men brought the attention of the tank on me as I saw it aim its barrel up a few notches to were I had just reigned down lead. I went prone and crawled to the interior of flimsy building and braced for impact. Honestly, I was at my computer and could feel my body clinch, I was completely immerse. The shot rang out and the sky opened up to me but my little soldier buddy was still kicking, hurt but kicking. I popped up and launched an RPG at the tank, hitting it in the side. The tank inched forward looking for a better shot. BOOM! That inch forward was just enough to set off the mines I had laid on the street 5 minutes prior. The tank was still operational but stuck in place. It was a stick in the mud. I then saw the crew exit the vehicle in a desperate attempt to avoid avatar death. I crouched around the new hole in MY building and like Peter Pevensie himself I slaughtered King Miraz and his men and watched as the last few tics of the opposing force left my hub and Narnia, I mean Caspian Border, was won.

So yeah, I’m looking forward to the games full release on October 25th, 2011.

Beta For the Better: Will Battlefield 3 See the Changes it Needs?

With 15+ hours worth of beta experience I have become very intimate with the Battlefield 3[BF 3] beta and overly familiar with the one map it offers for play, Metro. I’ve also become very aware of the issues that need to be resolved prior to the games full release on October 25th, 2011.

For starters, the process to get in a game and start playing is tremendously tedious. The process goes as follows:

1) Start EA’s online store Origin

2) Launch game out of Origin

3) Launching the game then launches the internet browser Battlelog

4) You use Battlelog’s server browser to find a game

5) A plugin, Game Manager, starts its connection process to the server

6) The game connects and you click Join Game within Game Manager

7) The game launches in a windowed form

8)  You hit alt + enter to put the game in full screen

9) You start playing

A fellow beta companion and friend compared the process to Inception… a game within a game within a game, and I completely concur. The hoops one must jump through is like a scientific experiment on how much one will endure for the satisfaction of playing. A recent video (below) explains what Dice (BF 3 developer) is trying to provide to the gamer but I think they are missing the point. Gamers what to play and the more obstacles you put in their way the quicker they will migrate away from a game.

On day two of the beta release, the last day before the beta became public, I experienced the most widespread clipping issue ever encountered in a beta. One person coined it as Batttlefield Clipping 3 in the all team chat and it was hilarious and accurate at the same time. Clipping is the act of players, vehicles etc… not being bound to the generated parameters of gravity or world objects, such as the ground or walls. The issue was not that clipping was occurring in a beta, that happens and can almost be expected to some measure. The worry was how widespread the clipping was. Matches were unplayable in many cases and the same issue was prevalent from one server to the next. A good example of the clipping problems experienced can be seen in the video below.

Thankfully within a 24 hour span Dice seemed to have corrected the majority of the clipping issues but on occasion it has reared its ugly head, especially (all jokes aside) when your soldier is in the prone position.

The most frustrating aspect of the beta, that has been constant throughout, is the inability to join seamlessly with your friends in a squad and even within a server. Battlefield 3 is heavy on squad level tactics like covering fire and flanking, which means communication is key. So joining with your friends in the same squad is essential to a successful and enjoyable experience. This would be less of an issue if the voice chat system was up to par so you could communicate basic information with strangers. BF 3’s voice chat system, based out of its Battlelog server, is already inconvenient and the, admittedly, limited experience I’ve had with it has been ear damaging. Heavy static and background noise is not beneficial to a squad trying to take a MCOM station while under heavy suppressing fire. As I have done with many chat heavy games before, I’ve have resorted to the highly effective services of Skype.

This is the beta, which I tell myself regularly as I run into the above mentioned issues, so I can let go of some of the frustrations I have run into ‘prone’. I do hope that the beta will lead to better… The moments of pure joy are there; like having a friend attach his C4 to my EOD robot and then driving it up on some unsuspecting enemies and then telling my friend to detonate. Or lying prone in the exit/entrance of a metro, providing suppressing fire, while RPGs careen over head and echo behind me in a tremendous immersion of sounds and dust. The beta is fun, the frustrations are not, but lets hope the suffering of the beta is for the better.

A Two and a Half Hour Beta Session With Battlefield 3.

The best way to describe my first 2 1/2 hours with the Battlefield 3 [BF3] beta is through a time line. An up and down ride, mostly down, that ends with bliss and wide eyes of hope for a great beta experience that will lead to an even better full game release. The beta is running from September 27th to October 10th so there is plenty of time for them to tweak the problems I ran into with my initial experience and those that will present themselves later in the week.

9:45 AM – Received BF3 beta key via email.

9:46 AM – Logged into EA’s Origin (that is in beta as well) and imputed beta key and started download.

10:30 AM – Download complete. Start BF3 beta and automatically launches Battlelog; EA’s website dedicated to the BF 3 community.

10:32 AM – Install “Game Manager” who I will soon learn to hate.

10:32 AM – Use server browser headquartered within Battlelog to navigate potential servers to join, all RUSH* style maps are full.

10:33 AM Find a server with spots open for the Operation Metro rush map. I attempt to connect.

10:35 AM – After waiting on Game Manager for 5 minutes in queue I abandon my attempt. I just want to play.

10:38 AM – I find another server with a low ping. Attempt to connect.

10:39 AM – Game Manager informs me that the, “Server is changing maps and I should try again soon.” I withdrawal my attempt and search anew.

10:40 AM – Click the Quick Match button and watch Game Manager inform me that it is “Matchmaking…”

10:45 AM – Game Manager still showing “Matchmaking…”

10:55 AM – Game Manager still showing “Matchmaking…”

11:00 AM – Game Manager still showing “Matchmaking…”

Game Manager (lower left) showing "Matchmaking..." message after clicking on the Quick Match button (upper left).

11:05 AM – Game Manager informs me that it, “Could not join server because server could not be found.”

11:06 AM – Take a break from the screen and grab a cup of coffee. Try to calm frustration by repeating, “It’s in beta. It’s in beta. It’s in beta.”

11:07 AM – Browse running servers and find a hopeful listing; US Multiplay # 079 TX 0/32 Players Rush Operation Metro Ping 61.

11:08 AM – With fingers crossed, I attempt to connect to the Texas based server.

11:10 AM – Game Manager shows “Server queue…” message.

11:11 AM – Game Manager shows “Server queue…” message.

11:12 AM – Game Manager shows “Server queue…” message.

11:13 AM – Game Manager shows “Server queue…” message.

11:14 AM – Game Manager shows “Server queue…” message.

11:15 AM – Game Manager still shows “Server queue” message… and I have to poop. Not just any poop, but post workout protein and morning coffee poop.

11:17 AM – I “RUSH” to the bathroom.

11:19 AM – I return victorious from my real world “RUSH” map, sufficiently wiped. Game Manager still shows “Server queue…” message.

My, at one time, hopeful listing; US Multiplay # 079 TX 0/32 Players Rush Operation Metro Ping 61.

11:21 AM – I start reading EA’s FIFA 12 Manual for the PS3. Game Manager still shows “Server queue…” message.

11:22 AM – See section in black and white manual entitled “Accessing The In-Game Manual” and realize what I am holding amounts to a book mark. Game Manager still shows “Server queue…” message.

11:24 AM – Game Manager still shows “Server queue…” message.

11:28 AM – Message Sp0d (AKA my friend Wyatt) through Origin chat that I am still haven’t actually played the beta.

11:29 AM – Game Manager, more like Game Missmanager! Game Manager still shows “Server queue…” message.

11:30 AM – Remind myself this is a beta. I relax. Wait. Game Manager still shows “Server queue…” message. I wonder to myself if people listed in the server browser as being in game are actually in game or are just waiting in the server queue like me.

11:32 AM – Debate closing Game Manager and starting over.

11:33 AM – Close Game Manager… Realize I am unable to close Game Manager!

11:34 AM – Close Battlelog website, restart beta, click “Quick Match” button – note that is doesn’t false advertise and say “Quick Play.”

11:38 AM – I am manic. I close the Game Manager and return to the server browser.

11:39 AM – I try my luck with a UK server. I immediately receive a NVIDIA driver error. Close down everything and search for a driver update.

11:48 AM – Driver installed along with four Windows 7 updates. Restart CPU.

11:50 AM – Warm up a light lunch, Campbell’s Vegetarian Vegetable – I laugh to myself as I realize how redundant the name is.

11:57 AM – I launch the beta again.

11:58 AM – Receive “Generic game error” message from Game Manager upon an attempt to enter a server.

11:59 AM – Try another server. “Server queue..”

12:00 PM – Receive Game Manager message “Changing Maps, Try Again Soon…”

12:01 PM – I threaten the lives of my cats. They scatter.

12:02 PM – Receive most hopeful message yet from Game Manager, “Joining Server…” This is immediately followed by and NVIDIA driver error “Current driver 280.26 min req 285.27.”

12:03 PM – Quit beta.

12:14 PM – NVIDIA does not list driver version 285.27 as an available driver.

12:19 PM – Search NVIDIA website and locate dirver version 285.27…beta. Yeah, the driver I need is in beta as well. Here goes nothing.

12:25 PM – NVIDIA driver 285.27 beta installed. Launch BF 3 beta again…

12:27 PM – Click to join a UK server. Gamer Manager message reads “Joining Server” followed by “Logging In”! Game Manager updates again and reads Loading Level then Game Ready and finally Go to Game!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

12:28 PM – I click on Go to Game.

12:29 PM – I’m in. I die. I get a kill. Another kill and another!

12:36 PM – I am promoted!

12:39 PM – I am feeling okay with my 5 to 7 kill to death ratio.

12:40 PM – Promoted! Our team loses but I lose as a Private 1st Class.

12:53 PM – Burst fire is effective. Placement seems to matter more than in Battlefield Bad Company 2 [BFBC 2]. Yes, it is beautiful, even in its beta form. Guns, when fired, have a satisfying feel to them and they appear to be a more accurate then BFBC 2.

12:57 PM – Your Team Won! I’m hooked.

1:00 PM – I log out, with 2 hours of frustration wiped away by just 30 minutes of game play – that is a pretty good sign of things to come.

*Rush maps involve an attacking force trying to destroy MCOM stations and a defending force trying to, well, defend the MCOM stations from the attackers.

Master Beta: Battlefield 3 Beta is COMING!

“First comes Alpha then comes Beta, then comes the baby in the baby carriage.” This sing-song holds somewhat true if you consider the baby in the baby carriage to be a finished game being “born” on release day. On September 29th (Septemberr 27th for those of you who preordered through Origins) the Battlefield 3 beta will be released for testing and I am just as excited for the beta as I am for the game… until the game actually releases on 10/25/2011.

As the name implies, as does the sweet song above, beta game versions come out after extensive alpha testing. Alpha testing of a game entails running a version of the final product (usually not the complete game with all of its features enabled) through the ringer and the testing is usually done extensively by the developer of the games employees. Betas of games are a more finalized and polished form of the alpha that usually include more features that will end up in the final version.

An even bigger and more important aspect of beta testing is the increased number of testers. Betas are usually made available to all those who have preordered the game, do beta testing for a living or, through a “friends and family” connection to the developer. The sheer number factor involved in beta testing is what makes it such an important step in the development cycle. It is important to have more eyes on the product and more importantly, eyes that are not that of the developers. Beta play (also another way to say frapping I guess) gives the developer the chance to have thousands of players test their product, usually at little direct cost to the developer, that are looking at the game for the first time. Fresh eyes spot fresh mistakes.

By the time the beta is being tested the game is almost complete. It gives the players a chance to try to find and make use of exploits and it gives the developer the chance to fix them before final release. Balance questions like “Is this weapon/class overpowered?” or “Do we need to limit the range of this spell/tanks cannon?” can be answered during beta testing because if something in the game provides an unfair advantage, then you can be sure players will take advantage of it.

For the master of all betas that is Battlefield 3, one of the biggest issues that will be certified will be EA’s [Electronic Arts] server ability. With 64 player maps (that include simultaneous action via jets, helicopters, tanks, Humvees, ATVs, ground troops etc.) being a major bullet point to the game, server quality will definitely need to be verified and stress tested extensively. With beta testing you enable the developer to test their servers under game day release conditions and cleanup any hiccups that present themselves prior to final launch.

Starting the beta provides that wee bit of relief for a gamer who is pent up with tension and needs some release before the final version comes. It also provides the developer and publisher some extra, late in the game, marketing vibe. Here’s to the master beta and to its success at providing us with a happy ending and a smooth release.