Modern first-person shooters have started to resemble big-budget Hollywood blockbusters in recent years, a trend that has received both praise and criticism from gaming audiences. Being shuttled from one explosive set piece moment to another can be thrilling, but when this formula is overused it feels you’ve boarded an on-rails Disneyland ride. While the Battlefield 3 campaign isn’t devoid of this feeling, its multiplayer offers a much more natural (and rewarding) sense of large-scale action. With dozens of players battling across nine massive maps in tanks, jeeps, helicopters, jets, and on foot, multiplayer matches feel like a genuine war rather than a small-scale skirmish.
Whether you’re playing through the tense campaign or spending countless hours in multiplayer, Battlefield 3 greatly benefits from the stunning Frostbite 2 engine. Playing Battlefield 3 on consoles is mostly the same experience as the PC version, but it’s not identical. The game looks gorgeous no matter what system you’re playing on, but you’ll notice more pop-in and framerate drops on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. The framerate tops out at 30, but occasional dips will occur if there is a lot of concentrated activity or several incoming vehicles at the same time. During an intense firefight on a bridge, I noticed a helicopter chugging along at a drastically reduced framerate at one point. That said, character animations are smooth and realistic, explosions have significant weight to them, and environments get torn apart in showers of concrete and debris.
While the slight step down in terms of graphical quality might irk some, the only significant gameplay difference is the 24-player limit on consoles. These 24-player matches are great fun, but they don’t have the impact that massive 64-player PC battles do. Maps are scaled down to accommodate this lower limit, so PC players will be playing on giant versions of maps that console players will never see. Even with the lower player count, I noticed occasional lag during console multiplayer bouts that I never ran into on PC. Console multiplayer may not operate on as big of a scale as the PC version, but at least it doesn’t require you to deal with Battlelog every time you want to play the game or switch modes.
Rather than delivering sweeping changes to the series’ multiplayer format, DICE chose more subtle tweaks for Battlefield 3. As with Bad Company 2, players can choose from four classes, but the assault and medic classes are now merged (with the now-open fourth slot dedicated to the LMG-toting, ammo-dropping support class). I loved both classes in Bad Company 2, so the ability to throw medkits and revive teammates while blasting away with assault weaponry is ideal. In a move that should please snipers and potentially annoy sniping victims, the ability to go prone returns. It’s as annoying as ever to get picked off by camping recon players, but the kill cam and scope glint should tip observant players off to their locations.
Rush, Conquest, Team Deathmatch, and the squad variants are all solid modes. The size of the maps, variety of vehicles, and overall scale make for some fantastic moments that couldn’t be recreated if you tried. During a match on the Operation Firestorm map, I was taking out enemy tanks by performing sweeping runs with my jet. After the opposing team lost a couple of vehicles, they sent their own fighter into the sky to hunt me down. Once my plane took too much punishment, I ejected and parachuted down to a nearby rooftop. As my teammates battled for flag control a couple of stories below me, I pulled out a stinger, locked onto my airborne attacker, and took the plane down with a homing rocket. I watched it crash about 100 feet in front of me, then hopped down to join the battle for the flag. These moments make the experience.
All nine maps that ship with Battlefield 3 are fantastic regardless of mode, and unlike Bad Company 2, you can play each map in any mode right out of the gate. The petroleum refineries of Operation Firestorm and the creeks and grassy hills of Caspian Border are my favorites of the bunch, but the other maps maintain a level of quality that reaffirms DICE is unrivaled in multiplayer level design. Even with the series’ history of quality, I was surprised by the scale of these battlefields. At one point during a Rush round on Damavand Peak, I found myself in the passenger seat while a pilot struggled to maintain control of the helicopter. Fearing a crash, I bailed. As I parachuted towards the ground, I thought I was about to land outside of the map’s boundaries considering how far away it was, but the objectives shifted as I was in mid-air and revealed that I was already well on my way to the next M-Com station.
With no need to exit the game to launch a multiplayer match from a webpage like the PC version, jumping into the fray online is more streamlined on consoles. You can chat, manage your party, filter server lists, and look at your stats all from inside the game. The servers are also smart about grouping you with your pre-game party. Most matches I went into properly grouped me with my party, but if for some reason your squad gets split up, you can all exit the current squad and meet in one of the unfilled squad slots in the deployment menu.
Most Battlefield fans spend the majority of their time in the rewarding multiplayer, but this entry also delivers the series’ most ambitious single-player campaign to date. While players filled the shoes of the jokesters of B Company in the Bad Company campaigns, Battlefield 3 presents a dead-serious narrative about an imminent nuclear threat. You’ll primarily play as Sgt. Blackburn, a marine who’s being interrogated about missing warheads as the story plays out via flashbacks. As I progressed through the seven-hour campaign, I couldn’t ignore the numerous elements directly pulled from the Call of Duty format. By the time the end credits roll, you’ll have assumed the roles of several globetrotting characters, taken out ground targets from a circling aircraft, witnessed several dramatic slow-motion deaths, partaken in a tense sniping section with a fellow soldier, raced against the clock to stop a nuclear explosion, and sat through a scene clearly meant to shock players. While derivative, the campaign is consistently entertaining throughout. Tight gunplay, exciting set piece moments, and a more focused narrative than its primary competitor help to make this the best shooter campaign since Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.
Battlefield fans hoping for the most polished entry in the series won’t be disappointed by this massive sequel. Multiplayer maintains the high level of quality DICE is known for, and the campaign is the best in franchise history. Outside of a tacked-on, uninspired co-op mode consisting of six short standalone missions, the only downsides to the console version of Battlefield 3 are the lack of substantial changes to the multiplayer formula and 64-player matches. However, that shouldn’t stop longtime fans and newcomers from enjoying one of the best FPS experiences in gaming.
The console version of DICE's latest shooter may not have 64-player battles, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't enlist.