Battlefield 3 is kind of a creature out of time. It’s official predecessor, Battlefield 2, launched in 2005. Even that recently it was a very different era: despite being a first-person shooter, BF2 was a PC-only title, and one of its rivals - the Call of Duty series - was successful but still not an annual blockbuster. Since then there have been several Battlefield spin-off games, at the same time as PC-focused shooters have become increasingly rare. Call of Duty's own spinoff series, Modern Warfare, is now pulling in more money than many of Hollywood's summer juggernauts.
The gaming industry has also become more consolidated and cutthroat, and to that end we have BF3. Make no mistake - the game's publisher, EA, desperately wants Battlefield to become the next Modern Warfare. BF3 has a much slicker presentation than BF2, and a massive marketing campaign behind it, complete with the slogan “above and beyond the call.” It's also launching simultaneously for the PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3, though for the sake of this review we'll be concentrating on the PC game.
Nowhere is the attempt to clone Modern Warfare more blatant than in its single-player campaign. The Battlefield games have typically been all about their multiplayer modes, but in BF3 there's a fleshed-out single-player component as well, complete with a storyline and professionally acted cutscenes. What you'll quickly notice is that it follows the Modern Warfare formula: linear levels, heavy scripting, spectacular setpieces, and a globetrotting, jargon-laced plot. BF3's story even goes as far as employing Russians, nuclear weapons, and multiple perspectives, the latter inflating gameplay diversity a little bit.
The campaign is reasonably entertaining, but flawed enough that you'll probably only finish it once if at all. Above all it often feels less like you're playing so much as along for the ride, owing not only to scripting, but the number of sequences that come off as extended tutorials or shooting galleries. One sequence even has you participating in a dogfight from a weapons officer's perspective, rather than actually flying a jet. If you compound that with issues like inconsistent AI, sudden deaths, and the overall linearity of the experience, you may quickly find yourself jumping into multiplayer, which is still the real meat of Battlefield.
In many senses BF3 multiplayer is simply an evolution of Battlefield: Bad Company 2, which is actually a high compliment. The two main modes are Rush (defense/assault) and Conquest (capture-and-hold), and players still earn experience points used to rise in rank and unlock gear and other perks. Where the new game differs is in the execution of details. There are just four classes: Assault, Engineer, Support, and Recon, the first doubling as a Medic position. Weapons have changed too, along with some associated mechanics. The best example may be the return of the prone position, which not only makes it easier to snipe or take cover but also lets machinegunners stabilize fire using new bipods.
There's also a slightly different arrangement of helicopters and ground vehicles, which are joined by a handful of jets. The jets are a bonus overall, making battles feel a little more grand in scale. My only real gripes involve their speed - unnaturally slow, probably by necessity - and the fact that they're almost useless until you can unlock missiles and countermeasures. Jets are the only vehicle type that requires any unlocking, which only seems to hurt new players rather than reward veterans.
Maps are generally as polished, well balanced, and varied as ever. A sample is Damavand Peak, which at one point requires teams to do an impressive base jump to get into the fray. As a rule, the maps also tend to preserve the open area philosophy that sets the Battlefield series apart. More controversial then may be maps like Operation Métro, which funnel most of the action into narrow corridors. These are in the minority thankfully, so they're easy to avoid if they begin to feel more like an annoyance than a change of pace.
Unexpected to some gamers may be the addition of a co-op campaign. This pits two online players against the AI in a series of six missions, where they're tasked with accomplishing objectives that tangentially connect to the single-player storyline. In reality these tend to play out like Gears of War's Horde mode though, and you'd better be friendly and in voice chat with your teammate, or else the entire experience may feel dry and unsatisfying.
Whatever the case, it should be said that BF3 is currently the most attractive game for any platform, hands-down. Lighting, texture and particle effects are top-notch, and the quality is only amplified on the PC, where everything is as sharp as your video card will allow. The new animation system is extremely fluid, and as if that weren't enough, the destructible terrain makes for spectacular firefights where the wall you're hiding behind can disappear in an instant.
Some other traits distinguishing the PC version of the game are a web-based server browser, and support for up to 64 players in Conquest mode (the 360 and PS3 versions support up to 24 players). I expected to hate the browser, but in practice it's neither here nor there; it even has some nice touches, like news feeds for friend activity, a "drop zone" for multiple invites, and of course the ability to keep surfing while you wait for a slot to open up. A full 64-player server meanwhile is a sight to behold - assuming lag is under control, it really helps the scale of the game live up to its name.
The appeal of Battlefield 3 ultimately lies where it has for the entire series, which is some of the best multiplayer in existence. EA will probably be disappointed by poor reception to the single-player campaign, but the game as a whole is guaranteed to be popular so long as enough people can sink their teeth into Conquest or Rush. At that point, any comparisons to Modern Warfare will be irrelevant.