"You're almost tricking me into a position where I'm telling you about the story!" laughs Patrick Bach, Battlefield 3's senior producer. After witnessing the code in action at DICE's Stockholm HQ, I asked him about how earthquakes in the game affect the storyline, and whether this catastrophe-mechanic is in any way similar way to Spec Ops: The Line's sandstorm-sundered Dubai. But no dice.
There are inarguable business imperatives for not revealing the big secrets of your game - such as the storyline - so far ahead of its launch, especially when you're working in the most competitive genre in entertainment. And right now, trying to wheedle plot arcs out of DICE is like asking George Osborne to comment on corporate tax-dodging. So let's work with what we know: Battlefield 3 is a contemporary US-military shooter set on the Iran/Iraq border. Earthquakes are making a perfect mess of things for the US forces. And it's built using DICE's new proprietary engine, Frostbite 2.
The game is demonstrated on the PC, the dev-team's lead platform, with Bach at the helm, and charts the progress of the player and his squad-mates through the wartorn streets of Iraq. From the moment they step out of their armoured transport and receive a briefing from their commanding officer, the level of detail goes through the roof.
Materials, such as clothing, skin and weapons, are startlingly well-defined. The character animations are very human, whether your buddies are sauntering casually or crawling along on their bellies under enfilading fire. When the combat begins, the sense of bullet impact as it smacks off brickwork is so palpable, it makes you want to duck. Frostbite 2 looks bloody magnificent - on the PC, at least. CryEngine beware.
The first flashpoint occurs as the squad enters a car-packed courtyard. Iraqi militants appear on balconies above and spray the area with fire. It's a classic clusterf*** moment, with the surrounded squad diving into cover and peeking out to return fire. But it isn't until one of the militants hefts an RPG and blows a hole in the road that more interesting mechanics begin to break cover.
One of your team is caught in the blast, and curls foetally on the floor. At this point, Bach darts towards him, presses the appropriate action key, grips him under the arms and drags him into an abandoned garage on one side of the plaza.
Out of the line of fire, the soldier is patched up to rejoin the fight, and Bach hints at more such supportive actions: "These actions are as important as shooting; it's a more... real portrait of what actually happens. It's about helping others succeed, and we think that having this as a part of the single-player experience is very important".
One of the things you notice when stepping into a new environment, such as this garage, is the way the audio alters. It's echoey, but still sounds close, and somehow amplified. We're used to games adding reverb effects, or simply damping the sound a little to imply distance, but DICE's sound team goes one better. Actually, they go 84 better. After the demo, audio director Stefan Strandberg explains the process of creating Battlefield 3's soundscape.
"We need to take a scientific approach. And it's important to know that when you record stuff, there is no actual truth to sound. There are different ways of recording it, many different kinds of microphone you can use... you can build your own reality, and that's what we do."