There's no easy way to put this, so I'll just say it: Battlefield 3's single-player campaign is a bit of a mess.
This will surely come as a disappointment for the many military first-person shooter fans out there who were hoping and expecting DICE's latest effort would be the greatest game the genre had ever spawned, and it's a particularly bitter pill to swallow for someone like me, who loves a finely crafted, action-packed solo adventure more than just about any other kind of interactive enteratinment.
On the other hand, most people purchase Battlefield games for their online play, and this iteration's multiplayer experience is every bit the blast many gamers imagined it would be.
Howerever before we get to what DICE got right in head-to-head play, I'm going to look at what the Swedish developer got wrong with the game's short story mode.
You can't fault its spectacle. From a battle set in the midst of a skyscraper-toppling geological event in Tehran to a mad dash through a stunningly recreated Paris en route to thwarting a nuclear explosion, there is no shortage of visual or psychological thrills. The globe-trotting narrative, which, similar to last year's Call of Duty: Black Ops , is presented as a series of flashbacks from the perspective of an American soldier under interrogation, takes us on terrifyingly realistic tank runs, taut sniper missions, and even a ride as a gunner in a jet in a truly marvellous sequence in which the player must frantically spin his or her avatar's head left and right to track tailing MiGs through the cockpit window while the pilot performs dizzying barrel rolls, dives, and steep climbs. Meanwhile, layers upon layers of audio effects -- pinging bullets, deafening explosions, tinkling shells -- will make players with fancy home audio systems feel as though they're in the middle of a war.
Sounds terrific, doesn't it? And there are definitely instances when it is a breathtaking experience. But by my count there are three big problems.
The first is glitches. I saw characters move through pillars, walls, and doors. Weapon effects cut out several times, leaving me to fight with eerily silent pistols and machine guns. My allies, under the mistaken belief that areas were cleared of all enemies, would occasionally begin jogging past bad guys who were still firing at me. And once, during a parking garage firefight, my avatar suddenly began to swim through the air. Literally. He started doing a breaststroke and moved through the air like it was water, floating well off the ground. It would have been funny if it hadn't been such an immersion-killing event.
My second gripe is that the story strives for an emotional resonance that it never quite achieves. There are horrific moments that almost made me want to look away, but I never felt a connection with the game's characters, who, despite their ability to spout authentic jargon that sounds as though it was pirated off a military radio channel, have little in the way of personality. For the first half of the game I had to rely on names bobbing in the air above my comrades' helmets just to distinguish who was who.
But my greatest disappointment in solo play is the way the action has been designed. Firefights feel staged and predictable. Enemies often spawn and run to the same spots over and over again, their dead bodies piling on top of one another until the player moves to the next waypoint, survives for a set amount of time, or reaches a hidden magic kill number. Midway through the game I realized that I was no longer trying to identify enemy tactics, but instead the events and locations that would trigger the release of a wave of terrorists from a door or a vehicle.
You may think this would make things easy, and it does to an extent, so long as you can figure out where enemies are coming from. I occasionally experienced great difficulty trying to pinpoint targets in foliage and city ruins. What's more, these adversaries took advantage of my inability to see them, repeatedly picking me off with murderous, inhumanly accurate shots. I was even spawn-killed once, something I can't remember ever happening before when not playing against other humans.
However, while the single-player portion of Battlefield 3 is an exercise in graphically and aurally sumptuous mediocrity, the online play is a testament to DICE's unrivalled ability to deliver instantly engaging multiplayer experiences with the sort of depth, tactics, and community that will keep millions of people logging on for years to come.
Perhaps strangely, it doesn't feel that much different from previous Battlefield games. Several modes exist, including the objective-based Rush, the always popular Team Deathmatch, and a couple of squad-based romps, but the franchise's famed Conquest mode, which has players capturing and holding control points in a battle of attrition, is still the chief draw. Massive maps filled with a variety of ground and air vehicles make for enormous combat playgrounds that give rise to a continuous stream memorable events, like a plane crashing into and obliterating a stronghold, a pair of tanks blowing each other up at the same moment, and a parachuter landing on top of an unsuspecting sniper.
As has almost always been the case with Battlefield games, strict discipline is key. Well rounded, cooperative teams with an ace pilot, a couple of talented tank drivers, and a pair of tight knit squads will be able to rule most engagements. Organization is especially important in the console version of the game, which limits player counts to a maximum of 24. With so few players on such large maps, it's essential that they to work together to set up effective assaults. PC players, on the other hand, can play with up to 64 soldiers on a single map, making for a more frenetic experience.
While the overall experience is similar to Battlefield 3's immediate predecessor, Battlefield: Bad Company 2, there a few noticeable changes, and they're generally for the better.
For example, players can now go prone, which lets front line warriors quickly turn themselves into much smaller targets when caught in the open. Hitting the deck also makes sniping a much more rewarding and authentic experience (much to the chagrin of guys like me, who like to try to save a few seconds here and their by hoofing it across open spaces).
DICE also decided to mix up the game's four traditional soldier classes, combing assault and medic into one and creating a new light machinegunner class. The result is that small, organized squads can move forward much more quickly and effectively, with all members acting as effective aggressors.
Environments don't seem quite as destructible as they have been previously, but, with the exception of a few key structures, you can still demolish most of the things you set your mind to destroying. Few things are as satisfying as razing a single story building with tank shells and watching as your machinegunner picks off the soldiers that had been hiding in it as they run for fresh cover.
Adding to the online experience is a smart progression system that encourages a variety of play styles while doling out unlockable weapons and equipment at a tantalizing pace that will turn even casual players into addicts playing long into the night in order to earn their next reward fix. Battlelog, a free service that tracks player statistics and creates communities among Battlefield 3 friends outside the game, ensures a connection to the Battlefield world -- if not the game itself -- wherever they have access to a web connected computer.
Electronic Arts has, if not explicitly then at least implicitly, suggested that Battlefield 3 would surpass Call of Duty to become the world's pre-eminent military shooter. I don't think that will happen. It's online play is certainly a match for Activision's powerhouse franchise, and its distinct flavour will likely earn the game plenty of converts. However, its middling campaign keeps it from offering the kind of full package for which Call of Duty games are renowned.
Of course, whether the latest Call of Duty game -- Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, which is due out in just two short weeks -- will live up to its predecessors is still unknown. However, if you plan to budget for just one military shooter this fall, my advice is to wait and find out what Activision and Infinity Ward have in store.
Platforms: Xbox 360 (reviewed); PlayStation 3; Windows PC
Publisher: Electronic Arts