When it comes to virtual battlefields, nobody does it quite like the Battlefield series. It has a long history of creating sprawling conflict zones where players have an exhilarating range of ways to make powerful contributions to the war effort. Yet it wasn't until the Bad Company games were released that Battlefield really made a splash on consoles. As you might expect, the PC version of Battlefield 3 still boasts better visuals and larger matches than its console counterparts, but competitive multiplayer on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 is incredibly addictive, immersive, and exciting. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for the single-player campaign, which fails to capitalize on the series' strengths and ends up feeling like an off-brand imitation. The six cooperative missions fare better and offer a tougher challenge, but only the competitive multiplayer provides a compelling reason to buy Battlefield 3. With online battles this excellent, though, that reason is all you need.
There are many factors that combine to make these battlefields as good as they are, most of which will be familiar to series veterans. Nine great maps set the stage for up to 24 players to fight it out in a variety of urban, industrial, and military locations. These places all look great, though the grassy hills and blue skies of the Caspian Border are naturally more appealing than the drab urban corridors of the Grand Bazaar. The maps vary widely in size and offer diverse environmental elements, including claustrophobic tunnels, coastal roads, desert plains, and a variety of multistory buildings. Many man-made structures can be damaged or destroyed by the explosive tools at your disposal, creating new infiltration routes or removing cover positions. The maps are designed to create opportunities for combat at all ranges, and the element of destruction lets you manipulate the environment to create even more.
Combat is not just about where you are, but also about how you get there, and the variety of vehicles is one of the things that makes Battlefield so uniquely engaging. Small maps might only have a Humvee or a light armored vehicle, while larger ones boast buggies, tanks, amphibious transports, helicopters, and jets. There are a few variations within each class of vehicle that make them better suited for troop transport, anti-infantry, antiair, or anti-vehicle combat, and learning how to get the most out of each one is a blast, even if you're sometimes the one getting blown up. Whether you're piloting, gunning, or just going along for the ride, vehicles offer a key tactical element that can change the tide of battle when used by a savvy squad. Using a vehicle well can earn you powerful upgrades and bonus weapons, but it can be tough to get the hang of the flight mechanics for helicopters and jets. It's a shame there's no way to practice flying them outside of active multiplayer matches (with one exception), though you can take comfort in knowing that you are at least entertaining your fellow players when your jet nose-dives into a mountain.
The maps and vehicles allow for a great degree of strategic freedom, but choosing your class and loadout is the first and most important decision you make before spawning into combat. Abilities and weapons have shuffled around a bit since Battlefield: Bad Company 2, so now the assault class slings health packs and totes defibrillators, while the support class carries light machine guns and ammunition boxes. Engineers still thrive on vehicle support/destruction, and recon delivers long-range death. New gadgets like robots that can arm charges (engineer) and mark targets (recon) give players more to look out for on the battlefield, and claymores and mortars (support) ensure that the engineer class isn't the only one packing an explosive punch. Unlockables include class-specific weapons and gadgets, gun-specific sights and attachments, and specializations that can make you tougher and deadlier. Focusing on one class to unlock higher level gear has its advantages, but so does spreading around your progress in an effort to be more adaptable to the ebb and flow of combat.