Battlefield 3 suffers from an identity crisis.
It delivers scorching multiplayer, fitting of its decade-long pedigree of famously expansive big-team battles, but stumbles over a generic single-player campaign that feels like a different game.
While DICE may not deliver a memorable story here, it doesn't need to when Battlefield 3's online warfare raises every bar imaginable, delivering one of the best multiplayer experiences of the year. I doubt Battlefield purists will complain much about the campaign, honestly; I know you're enlisting in this battle to bring down entire armies online.
From the beaches of Kharg Island to the hills of Damavand Peak, Battlefield 3's multiplayer maps provide an immediate sense of scale. Everything about their design screams size, personalization, and the need to take creative initiative to succeed. Choose to pop headshots from the prone position, spin barrel rolls in a jet outfitted with personal unlocks, or see how many dog tags you can knife from your opponents; Battlefield 3's multiplayer is about the freedom of choice.
The online fight feels like a geography lesson (in a good way). Depending on the game mode, each map utilizes a different area or shifts wider and wider as gameplay progresses. You might not see half of a map like Caspian Border or Seine Crossing during your first few Rush matches. Yes, certain areas feel empty and repeated map elements like shipping crates conjure deja vu, but the sense of scope is exhilarating. Where many online shooters teach you the nooks and crannies of every map, Battlefield 3 is a wide sandbox that encourages variety and exploration. Battlefield 3 shines in matches with 63 other players, where every bullet has a new enemy's name on it.
Is the gameplay balanced? Battlefield 3's online teeter-totter comes down to personal preference. I've been pinned down at my spawn point in Operation Metro by a dozen, well-stocked snipers and I've taken over an entire conquest map single-handedly. I'm no Maverick in a jet, so I learned to rain down hellfire from a chopper. For any class or tactic that doesn't work, like a painter's palette, Battlefield 3 offers alternatives. All four streamlined classes (Soldier, Engineer, Assault, and Recon) get their own problem-solving unlocks, so leveling each one is paramount to sitting on top of the leaderboards.
Battlefield 3's rewards and progression will keep you coming back to its online rumble for a long time. From adding heat-seeking missiles to an Anti-Aircraft Tank to simply changing camouflage, there's always a carrot dangling just out of reach -- if you can wrangle the score to earn it. While the newly implemented Team Deathmatch modes encourage high kills and low deaths, Battlefield remains a team-based game where you can sit atop the scoreboard no matter how many times you've died. Heal an injured teammate, resupply a sniper, or make sure a tank gets fixed up, Battlefield is about working towards the greater good and it's just as refreshing now as it was in 2002 -- all while looking outstanding on PC.
From sun flares to smoke bursting from a collapsing building, Battlefield 3's Frostbite 2 engine provides marvelous visuals. It performs admirably on lowered settings, but for anyone who's doubled up on their NVIDIA GeForce GTX 580s, Battlefield 3 provides a gorgeous spectrum of environments speckled with detail to brag about. Nighttime elements present a stark intensity, with glowing fluorescent signs dotting the cityscape and street lights blinding you from seeing enemies. The waves crashing on a beach below a late-game villa are mesmerizing -- as is the simple scrub brush dotting maps like Operation Firestorm. At maximum settings, Battlefield 3 looks stunning.
The engine isn't perfect by any means. I encountered prone legs jutting through walls, saw snipers half-buried in mountainsides, watched my dead body stick through the hood of a jeep, and even noticed a story character float in a straight line from point A to point B, walls be damned. I've seen flower pots float in midair, noticed AI soldiers in their shooting position long after death, and I somehow committed suicide by running over the lip of a crater. These glitches are annoying, but they don't break the game. But they do break the immersion of the story and in the case of an undeserved multiplayer suicide, cause unneeded frustration.
While longtime fans know Battlefield as a multiplayer experience, its campaign and cooperative experiences can't be ignored. For those of you more interested in the single-player campaign than multiplayer, definitely take note. Whereas both Battlefield: Bad Company games added a story underwritten with humor, Battlefield 3 takes a more serious path. Its tale of global threats reads like twenty years of military fiction thrown in a blender and turned into a checklist. WMDs? Check. Russians? Uh huh. Insurgents tucked into Middle Eastern alleyways? Yup. It's all there and woven into levels through the recollections of Sergeant James Blackburn during an interrogation (didn't we see this in Call of Duty: Black Ops?). There's inherent tension in the threat of a terrorist attack, but Battlefield 3's campaign feels like well-trodden ground.
Battlefield 3's campaign does hit some memorable moments (especially in the graphics department), but as a whole it's trite and frustrating. The campaign jams Battlefield 3's multiplayer into a linear box where freedom of choice gets thrown out a non-destructible window. There are only a few buildings to blow holes in, barely any vehicles to take the wheel of, and quicktime events adorn enemy encounters in almost every level. While you can literally crash a helicopter on an opponent's head while parachuting to safety if you so choose in multiplayer, campaign makes you hit spacebar at just the right moment to avoid getting punched -- they're two different games.
The co-op missions surround the events of the campaign, yet feel more enjoyable as individual levels. Working with a teammate leads to more creative approaches of attacks, though the same AI frustrations are in place. While opening doors and during other set animations, AI enemies gain invulnerability. They also have an uncanny ability to pick you out of the crowd. Even while using an AI teammate as cover -- not standard operating procedure, I know -- enemies still find you.
Additionally, most levels feature a bottleneck where death hits out of the blue. Whether it's a grenade exploding without an indicator, a blast from an unseen enemy, or late-game quicktime event that introduces a new button, the campaign and co-op levels are a minefield of frustration -- especially when cranking the difficulty up to hard. All told, it's a brief affair -- I burned through the single-player portion in under six hours, the co-op content adds another two or three.
When you shut down Battlefield 3 and let the Frostbite 2-powered dust settle, it certainly has some problems. But DICE’s adoration of and expertise with the online experience permeates every aspect of its multiplayer. Regardless of the narrative missteps or the occasional glitches, Battlefield 3 offers an unforgettable, world-class multiplayer suite that's sure to excite shooter fans, whether they fired their first bullet in Battlefield 1942 or have just now heeded Battlefield's call of duty.