Battlefield 3 holds the weight of the gaming world on its shoulders. With the unavoidable comparison to Call of Duty, all eyes are on DICE and EA create something awesome. Since June, we've seen little to no news of progress beyond several demos of Operation Metro, a touch of the campaign, and a glimpse of what it's like to fly jets. Additionally, the public beta birthed widespread concern over whether or not the game can live up to the hype. With just over two weeks until the game arrives on store shelves, this dearth of info served as a red flag -- until now. After tackling a combination of single player, co-op, and multiplayer in a fresh build of Battlefield 3, I must say I'm pleasantly surprised.
Is it as glitchy as the beta? Not in my experience. If you've noticed, the beta hasn't updated on consoles and the build available to the public is over six weeks old. My time spent with these maps on PC, PS3, and Xbox 360 flowed smoothly the entire time. I never saw anyone fall through the map and no long-neck avatars squirmed across the ground twitching. Not only that, enemies appear to take more damage to kill -- another qualm I had with what I'd played before the latest demo. Steady aim is paramount to success and I'd often have to run down a wounded player to finish them off. I too escaped death a few times after absorbing some damage and rushing to safety.
As a match faded in on a level called Operation Firestorm, I breathed a sigh of relief. The map is enormous. Built for 64 players on PC, this Conquest map screams Battlefield through and through. Tanks, jeeps, and buggies rumble across the desert while jets and helicopters tear through the skies. Burning oil fields decorate the horizon with black smoke, and the sheer scale of the experience feels like a return to the series' roots. Running (as well as driving or flying) from point to point to raise my team's flag felt great and I couldn't help but forget my growing concerns from what I'd experienced of Battlefield 3 in the past.
This feeling continued on a smaller map called Grand Bazaar that featured tanks rumbling through the town square, and tight nooks and crannies dotting the shuttered store fronts of the level's marketplace. Fighting through the objectives in this map showed off destruction, allowing you to blow holes in walls to make your own doors and get through buildings quickly. The balance of tight corridors and a wide open center area made for a great balance, and again a better representation of the series' aim than the narrow length of Operation Metro.
While it's too early to make any calls on Battlefield 3's narrative, a few campaign levels show a familiar storytelling device. Set against the interrogation of a Sergeant Blackburn, the actual campaign levels are memories the Sergeant recollects to two suits prodding him for info about a New York terror plot. Remember how each level of Call of Duty: Black Ops played out as a memory of the protagonist?
Without spoiling the story, there are a few key elements of the single player experience to discuss. The levels do force a certain linearity that strays from the more open levels of Battlefield: Bad Company 2. But after seeing a greater portion of the game than our last preview, the levels do break into larger, open firefights. The only problem is that the enemies then spawn from set points and seem to suffer from a Medal of Honor-ish "enemy dispenser" problem.
One fun level from the campaign showed off an interesting approach. Stepping into the shoes of a female pilot you take the backseat of a fighter jet, taking off from an aircraft carrier and shooting down enemy Migs north of Tehran. While you're not in control, you're tasked with spotting jets chasing you, releasing flares to avoid incoming missiles, and locking on to bad guys when you have the shot. It's a refreshing balance to the levels set shooting your way through tight Middle Eastern marketplaces and rubble.
Still curious about more ways to play? Meet co-op. Co-op levels are separate from the single player campaign but revolve around scenarios linked into the main story. I'd liken the experience to a roaming survival mode. Each map has an objective or task, and you and your partner need to stay alive to accomplish that feat. Thus, you need to stay alive as enemy after enemy burst through doors and try to take you down -- at least in the level entitled Hit and Run that I played. With only a handful of time spent in this mode, it feels like fun additional content to keep the fight going outside of the main story.
Guess my concept for a mod where soldiers fly about on winged unicorns and fire rainbows at one another isn't going to happen any time soon.
The final version of Battlefield 3 still isn't ready for us to review and DICE have been frantically implementing notes from the beta into their current build. What I experienced of the game still revealed some minor glitches, but it's come a long way from the beta you might be playing right now. While the campaign may hold shadows of familiarity and cliché, the multiplayer places its best foot forward and looks to please longtime fans of the Battlefield series itching to drive and fly to online glory.