Platforms:  PC, PS3, Xbox 360

Developer:  DICE (Digital Illusions CE)

Publisher:  Electronic Arts (EA)

Rating:  “M” for Mature

Written by Nick Cohen

From September 27th through October 10th, I got to sample the much-hyped “Call of Duty killer,” Battlefield 3.  Thanks to DICE, EA, and my Limited Edition copy of Medal of Honor“”which granted me access to the beta two days earlier than most people””I got to sample two maps and modes from the most-anticipated FPS of the year.  Does Battlefield 3 look as spectacular as we’ve been led to believe?  How does it play?  What are the differences between the console versions of the game and the PC version? Will it be able to topple Call of Duty this holiday?  Read on to find out.

Being a Battlefield veteran (I first played Battlefield 2 on PC years ago and have played every installment in the series ever since), I kind of knew what to expect from the Battlefield 3 beta””huge maps with tons of vehicles, amazing graphics, and an extremely well-polished gaming experience”¦none of which I actually got from the beta at first.  Wait, what?

Let’s talk presentation first, since everybody has been floored by footage of Battlefield 3.  This is where disappointment and reality first creeps up on you; the Operation Metro map does not look that good.  It’s pretty, to be sure””and sometimes it looks amazing, particularly when leaving the subway tunnels and entering the city square at the end of a match””but it’s initially disappointing.  It looks like Battlefield:  Bad Company 2 with better lighting and textures.  What’s so great about the much-hyped Frostbite 2 engine?

At least it sounds great:  weapons are extremely loud, explosions have a lot of aural impact, and the lack of music means that you can hear everything going on around you.  This may be the best sounding game I’ve ever heard.  If the graphics were this good, no one would be complaining.

The one mode on offer for most of the beta””and the entirety of the beta on consoles””was Rush on Operation Metro.  This mode makes a return from the Bad Company games and charges two teams of either 12 (consoles) or 16 (PC) players with either destroying (attackers) or defending (defenders) four waves of two objectives.  The battle starts in an outside area, then moves into the dark and cramped subway tunnels (easily the best part of the map), and then finishes outside in the city square.  In the beta, there were no vehicles in this mode.

Operation Metro is fun, but not the best way to show off Battlefield 3.

Rush on Operation Metro is fun, but not indicative of the greater Battlefield 3 multiplayer experience.  Infantry only on a smaller, more narrow map is not what Battlefield  does best, making it a strange choice for the public’s first hands-on time with the game that is meant to take down Call of Duty.  Still, it is fun.  What it does do is highlight the core gameplay of Battlefield 3, showing just how good it is.

What makes Battlefield 3‘s gameplay so great is the realistic way weapons feel.  As opposed to the more arcadey feel present when shooting guns in Call of Duty, Battlefield 3‘s feel extremely powerful and realistic.  As mentioned above, they sound great.  However, there is more to it.  Each weapon has an appropriate level of recoil, meaning that spray-and-pray is not a legitimate tactic for most weapons.  This is in contrast to Call of Duty, in which holding down the trigger produces very little recoil.  Another reason Battlefield 3‘s guns feel great is the way DICE has simulated muzzle flash.  Most games either ignore this completely or have a steady stream of yellow flames erupting from the barrel of the guns; not so in Battlefield 3.  It’s hard to explain, but watch videos of players shooting guns in Battlefield 3 and you’ll see what I mean.  It’s a small detail, but it’s the little details that separate the great games from the good ones.

What does all this mean?  Well, it means that it’s fun to shoot at enemies in the game, more so than in any other FPS I’ve played.  And DICE has politely provided players with tons of guns to shoot at enemies.  Unlike Bad Company 2‘s small selection of weapons and unlocks, Battlefield 3 features a huge””even intimidating””amount of weapons and unlockable equipment.

The way unlocks work in Battlefield 3 is truly impressive.  You have a general ranking that increases as you play more, up to level 50.  This unlocks things such as customizable dog tags (which weren’t in the beta) and weapons that every class can use, like shotguns and pistols.  Then, each class (Assault, Engineer, Support, and Recon) has its own set of unlocks.  Assault-class soldiers get things like better assault rifles and the defibrillator for reviving teammates (the Medic from previous games has been combined with the Assault class).  Support soldiers get better machineguns for laying down suppressing fire.  Engineers””practically useless for much of the beta””get Stinger missiles for taking down aircraft and better SMGs.  Recon players get things like better sniper rifles and mobile spawn point drops.

But wait, there’s more!  You see, each weapon also has its own unlocks.  Assault rifles gain reflex scopes while heavy machineguns gain bipods for better accuracy when stationary or prone, for example.  Battlefield 3 may actually have more unlocks than Call of Duty, which is really impressive.

Unfortunately””this being a beta””there were glitches; lots of glitches.  Falling through the map and not being able to aim down the sights of your weapon were just two examples of common gameplay glitches players had to deal with.  Weird visual bugs like reanimating corpses and strange lines appearing onscreen cropped up.  Even the fantastic audio would sometimes cut out at random!  Thankfully, this won’t be a problem when the game is finally released.  DICE has said that the beta code was well over a month old, with the console versions being particularly unpolished.  The PC version still had problems, but the consoles were much worse.

A lot of players were put off initially by the buggy and somewhat-unimpressive Operation Metro level.  For PC players who stuck around until the last weekend of the beta, however, there was a huge surprise””64 player Conquest on the already-legendary Caspian Border map.  Anyone who has played this (including me!) no longer has any doubt as to how good the final version of Battlefield 3‘s multiplayer on PC is going to be.

Jet combat on Caspian Border--it looks and plays better than you can possibly imagine.

Literally everything that wasn’t so good about Operation Metro is fantastic in Caspian Border.  The graphics are amazing””even on my computer that can only run the game on medium settings (this game is quite the system hog!), Caspian Border looks phenomenal.  In fact, this map is easily the best looking thing I’ve ever seen in a video game; you walk over a hill on the Russian side and are astounded to see just how huge the map is.  The terrain stretches out as far as the eye can see (which is really far””the draw distance is massive and there is no texture pop-up), there are planes and choppers flying overhead while tanks and Jeeps drive by, the trees look fantastic, the sunlight blinds you if you look directly into it, there’s a huge communications tower looming over the center of the map”¦words don’t do it justice, you have to see it for yourself.  I can’t even imagine how amazing this looks on Ultra settings, but nothing else even comes close to this visually on medium settings.

As mentioned in the above rant about how amazing the graphics in Caspian Border are, there are a ton of vehicles for you to try out.  Jeeps and tanks patrol the streets, while helicopters and the heavily hyped jets fly overhead.  They all control beautifully (although it’s hard to fly the jets and helicopters at first””you need a bit of practice before you feel comfortable flying them) and are balanced extremely well.  The sense of scale they impart is truly impressive, aided by the gargantuan size of the map and the huge player count.

Caspian Border was also less buggy in general than Operation Metro.  Sure, the occasional bug would crop up, but it was usually nothing as major as falling through the world in Operation Metro.  Caspian Border is just insanely fun; I couldn’t pull myself off of it.  It truly represents some of the best multiplayer experiences I’ve ever had in any multiplayer game.  It makes the relatively small maps and lack of vehicles in other FPS games seem pathetic by comparison.

Which brings us back to the big question:  does Battlefield 3 have what it takes to take down Call of Duty:  Modern Warfare 3 this holiday season?  The glitchy and unimpressive Operation Metro map would seem to indicate that Battlefield 3 is just going to be another missed opportunity.  I’m sure it scared off many potential players who think the rest of the full game is going to be like that.  However, Caspian Border looks, sounds, and plays better than any other multiplayer game out there.  If the rest of the game looks and plays as good””and from what I’ve seen and heard, it does””Call of Duty‘s days as the top FPS on the planet are numbered.  It may be too early to tell””the rest of the multiplayer could be terrible, after all””but the Caspian Border map in the Battlefield 3 beta combined with everything else I’ve seen and heard about the full game makes me think that Battlefield 3 is going to kick Call of Duty‘s butt when it releases on October 25th.

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