The first Battlefield 3 map pack has arrived, and it’s magnificent.

For those unfamiliar with Back To Karkand, this collection of classic Battlefield maps is free for anyone who pre-ordered or purchased the limited edition of Battlefield 3. The four maps included – Strike At Karkand, Sharqi Peninsula, Gulf of Oman, and Wake Island – are some of the most revered locations in the series history. Best of all, unlike Bad Company 2’s Vietnam expansion, they integrate directly into Battlefield 3. You still gain experience, unlock base game weapons, and rank up  just like you would playing Caspian Border or Kharg Island.

Each map retains its classic layout, but they also look slightly different. DICE updated each location with new buildings to make it feel like time has passed since you last visited, and the advanced Frostbite 2 engine brings more fidelity to the experience. The wide-open design featured in these highly lauded maps gives players more angles of attack than most of the more funneled settings of Battlefield 3. In the more urbane maps like Strike at Karkand and Sharqi Peninsula, you can skirt along the edges of the maps, drive a tank straight down the street, stick to the alleys, traverse rooftops, or make your way carefully through the buildings. Gulf of Oman features small collections of buildings surrounded by short expanses of desert, and when you’re defending these control points, an attack could come from any direction. The multi-dimensional freedom these maps afford players is empowering and exciting. I hope DICE sticks with this design philosophy in future expansions rather than building more confined maps like Operation Metro, Grand Bazaar, and Seine Crossing. Fans disappointed by Battlefield 3’s toned down approach to destruction will also prefer these maps because several of the buildings can be razed like in the Bad Company 2 days. 

The four maps support all the game modes included in Battlefield 3, but Conquest has reverted back to its classic Conquest Assault form. This traditional approach gives the defensive team all the control points at the start of the map, forcing the assaulting team to capture bases out of the gate to slow the ticket bleed. I prefer this version of the mode, as it creates a sense of urgency when attacking. My only complaint is that the ticket counts are too low; most of the matches I’ve played lasted less than 15 minutes. 

To spice up the action, Back to Karkand includes 10 weapons and three vehicles from Battlefield 2. The vehicles are open season as usual, but players must complete class-based assignments to gain access to the arsenal. Unlocking the first tier of weapons for each class is simple. For instance, if you want the FAMAS assault rifle, all you need to do is heal and revive 10 people. It takes a while longer to receive the second tier of weapons. To unlock the L85A2 for the assault class, you need to rack up 100 assault rifle kills, 20 kills with a noob tube, and win five squad deathmatch rounds. The only annoying part of the assignments is you can’t check your progress between matches. A small progress bar appears between matches, but to break down what you need to do specifically to receive a weapon you need to back out to the main menu.

The console download also features a patch previously introduced on PC that cleans up the squad management HUD and introduces some general gun balance fixes. Disappointingly, these changes didn't include some of the more requested changes like allowing players to leave a server after a round before the next round loads. DICE plans to keep supporting the game moving forward, so hopefully this will be addressed in a new patch further down the road.

The only major blemish in Back to Karkand is the disappointing alterations DICE made to Wake Island. By removing two of the conquest control points (the furthest points on the crescent island) and giving them to the assaulting team, they essentially removed the amphibious assault angle from the battle (save for one lumbering Amtrak vehicle). I'd much rather rush the island in speed boats from the aircraft carrier. Wake Island's sparsity also makes it a lackluster rush map.

But one lackluster map can't keep this expansion pack down. Whether you own the limited edition of Battlefield 3 and get the maps for free or need to pay $15 for the 2GB download, the chance to re-experience these classic Battlefield 2 maps makes Back to Karkand a must-download for both hardcore Battlefield fans and newcomers who have yet to visit these legendary locales.