I still remember some of my first times playing the original Battlefield 1942. After endless hours of Counter Strike and Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, along came Battlefield offering a completely new experience. One moment you could be swooping around dogfighting with enemy Zero fighters then be storming the beaches of the South Pacific in a tank, and this all happens on the same map. You had the freedom to engage and play on so many more levels than simply shooting someone with your rifle. Just play that memorable theme music and you’ll have any Battlefield player reminiscing about some one-in-a-million sniper shot to take out a helicopter pilot in flight or some other equally ridiculous stunt. If you enjoyed the multiplayer experience of the Battlefield series before, chances are you’ll really enjoy Battlefield 3. However, if you’re mainly looking for a single-player game, I’d recommend checking elsewhere.

Battlefield 3‘s multiplayer continues to excel at unstructured play, giving you large maps, a wide variety of weapons and vehicles, and the freedom to use them however you want. For instance, I snuck close to the enemy lines and see an enemy tank leaving the base. Lacking any effective anti-tank weapons I simply marked it for my allies and hide. Sure enough, one of our helicopter pilots takes interest. A few rocket hits to the tank and the driver has to get out to try to repair it before the helicopter comes back. I get up from my hiding place, knife the tanker and proceed to capture 2 control points with my stolen tank. It’s a moment that doesn’t exist in many other titles and isn’t forced with some quick-time-event cutscene. Nearly all your actions from killing someone to repairing vehicles will award you points and experience, and it helps to promotes play beyond simply kill death ratios. Fortifying a good position, allowing squad members to spawn on you and reviving those that go down can sometimes be more valuable to your team and your own personal score than just shooting the enemy.

In many ways Battlefield 3 plays like the love child of Battlefield 2 and the Bad Company spin offs, for the most part combining the best of both worlds. Both Conquest and Rush modes make an appearance and are especially suited for the slightly lower player counts on the console version, 24 max vs 64 on the PC. Conquest requires players to capture and hold various set points, whereas Rush offers a changing map as the defenders try to keep attackers from destroying key locations and pushing their lines back . These modes each do a great job of funneling players towards points on interest. This along with multiple spawn points and squad spawning keeps the action up despite the overall large surface area of the maps and low number of players on the console.

From the Bad Company side, Battlefield 3 has adopted destructible environments. Firing a grenade launcher, exploding a section of wall and killing the guy on the other side never stops losing its appeal. Sadly, the destruction appears to be slightly more limited and constrained than the other titles. You won’t, for instance, make every flat road surface into a charred and cratered badlands as you have previously, and I didn’t witness any structures totally collapsing to the all too familiar sound of groaning metal. There are still plenty of walls and light cover to blast and shoot through, however.

Battlefield 2 brings its prone position and fighter jets back to the series, allowing you to freely crawl around on your belly for that perfect sniper position or drop some bombs on said sniper from the air. There’s also been some clever restructuring of the classes and their supplemental roles. The Engineer and Recon classes roughly fill the same roles as they have before, but the Assault and Support classes have traded some of their kits. It’s the Assault who can now throw down health packs and use the reviving Defibrillator, and the Support carries the ammo packs. I noticed a marked increase in the number of times I could find a health pack or got a revive than I had in previous games. This is a welcome change in a series that is often plagued with uncooperative team mates favoring a single class.

I really wish I had such high praise for the single player portion, but it is, quite simply, a mess. It’s boring, disjointed and lacks some key sense of context. Even graphically it has some failings. Normally the game is quite gorgeous with detailed textures, but be sure to make space to install the HD textures. There is some amazing use of lighting, especially in the transition from areas of varying degrees of light and dark, but all too frequently I’d hit a spot where the frame rate would slow down or lock up momentarily, often when transitioning from one state to another or when the game was spawning in enemies. It’s worth noting that I never encountered these issues during multiplayer. The game also annoyingly tries to emulate the gritty realism of a dirty camera lens almost the whole time, even when it’s completely not appropriate. Are the protagonist’s eyeballs dirty because he’s not wearing goggles or something?

The singleplayer campaign begins in medias res with Sgt. Blackburn jumping onto a moving train to stop a group of terrorists. The timeline then rewinds as Blackburn retells the events of each mission to a series of investigators. Without spoiling much, it’s all supposed to lead up to this big reveal of why Blackburn is in custody, but while the idea of that moment is sound and interesting, the execution leaves it really unjustified and wondering if there were other solutions. It also doesn’t help that there is little to no characterization, you just don’t care about any of these people. Only one of your squad members has anything approaching a memorable personality, and the game makes it even harder to connect with these characters by constantly switching your focus. Even worse, there are at least two occasions where the game is actively trying to elicit some emotion response from you by killing off characters, but you’ve sometimes only known or played as that person for that mission. The minute or two before the action starts is not enough to give you any kind of context or connection to them, so the suggested drama ends up feeling really flat and gimmicky.

However the gameplay does remain strong for the most part, with the sections themselves feeling well-crafted, if maybe a little generic. Some highlights include scrambling for cover along a bridge as a plane makes strafing runs against you and retracing your steps at night through the previous level after it’s been restructured by an earthquake. A few other issues bring it down though. Sometimes at night or at long ranges enemies can be a little too hard to spot, sure it’s realistic, but not when the enemy and your allies all have perfect laser vision regardless. I would often be waiting to see where I was getting fired at from before being able to respond. The game also makes liberal use of some rather boring or ridiculous quick-time-events, which feels like a complete divorce from what it does so very well in multiplayer. Taking my control away and forcing me to correctly match a button to kill a rat to avoid my own death is neither fun nor exciting.

Bottom line: Battlefield 3’s multiplayer continues to excel at providing a FPS experience beyond just shooting each other with handguns. The single-player barely holds up.

Recommendation: Buy it for the multiplayer or skip it if you are just looking for singleplayer.

[rating=4]

What our review scores mean.

This review is based on the 360 version of the game.

Game: Battlefield 3
Genre: Shooter
Developer: DICE (Digital Illusions)
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Platform(s): PC, PS3, Xbox 360
Available from: Amazon(US), GameStop(US), Amazon(UK), Play.com(UK)

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