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. The competitive multiplayer mode in Battlefield 3 stays true to tradition, delivering an online combat experience that is amazingly addictive, immersive, and exciting, with refinements and new elements that make the familiar action feel fresh. Unfortunately, the stale single-player campaign fails to capitalize on the strengths of the series and feels 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 64 players to fight it out in a variety of urban, industrial, and military locations. These places all look beautiful, 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.
Regardless of what loadout you choose, there are a lot of ways to earn points for your actions. In addition to kills and kill assists, you can now earn points for suppressing enemies who are subsequently killed by your teammates. When a player is suppressed by enemy fire, they suffer from blurred vision and decreased accuracy. This disorienting tactic can help you mitigate the effectiveness of enemies who are peppering you from a prone position, which returns in Battlefield 3 after being left out of the Bad Company games. Battlefield 3 may be a successor in name to Battlefield 2, but in spirit, the competitive multiplayer is a refined version of that offered in Bad Company 2. Nevertheless, it will be immediately familiar to veteran players of either game, though fans of Bad Company 2 will encounter a few other small but notable differences. Buildings are not easily destroyed in Battlefield 3 and underslung grenade launchers are, as of now, far less prevalent. Furthermore, you can't just run up to someone and stab him in the face for an instant kill; you need to get in two swipes or sneak up from behind. Nor can you simply rely on explosives to destroy M-COM stations in Rush mode because arming and detonating the charge is now the only way to progress.
As with the previous Battlefield games, the focus is on teamwork. Diverse loadouts encourage you and your squad to make complementary choices, and point bonuses reward you for working together. Every vehicle is better with teammates in it, and even the simple act of spotting enemies is an effective way to contribute to your team's efforts. Teamwork is woven throughout the fabric of Battlefield 3's multiplayer action, and when your team is working well together, it's one of the most gratifying experiences you can have in a game.
Battlefield 3 also has six cooperative missions that require teamwork on a smaller scale. These stand-alone sorties have a narrative connection to the campaign, but they are tougher to complete than most campaign missions and you can unlock some nice weapons for use in the multiplayer. Setting up voice chat with your teammate is helpful here, especially in the stealthy sections, because the spotting mechanic doesn't sufficiently differentiate enemies at long distances. Your foes are fairly tough, even on normal difficulty, though some unexpected quick-time events can also catch you off guard. The most notable mission here puts you in the cockpit of a helicopter, which provides the only chance outside of multiplayer to practice your flying skills. Earning all of the weapon unlocks requires repeat playthroughs of these missions, so it's a shame there aren't more of them to keep you busy.
Finally, there's the campaign. Battlefield 3's single-player adventure tells a harrowing tale of a fictional modern conflict. It follows a familiar formula by delivering a short campaign with diverse combat scenarios and dramatic set pieces. The story is solid and has some good acting, but the "Now tell us about this mission" interrogation mechanic makes the structure feel stale (having made a notable appearance in last year's Call of Duty: Black Ops). The focus on realism makes the unrealistic elements like the heavy-handed linearity, quick-time events, and reckless foes even more noticeable, but most disappointing of all is the campaign's utter failure to capitalize on any of the series' strengths. The lively personality of the Bad Company games is nowhere to be found, nor is the operational freedom on which the series has thrived. When you climb into the cockpit of a fighter jet, you are merely the gunner in an on-rails sequence rather than the hotshot pilot. There are some gorgeous environments and a few exciting sequences, but these are outweighed by the overly familiar cityscapes and set pieces that were clearly inspired by other shooter campaigns from the past few years. This contributes to the pervasive sense that this campaign is not only outdated, but also outclassed.
Fortunately, Battlefield 3's competitive multiplayer is among the best in its class, providing immensely rich and immersive combat zones. These are complemented by the slick browser-based Battlelog, which serves as the hub from which you access each game mode. With EA's Origin software running unobtrusively in the background, Battlelog tracks your unlock progress, displays your stats, and enables you to join parties and launch games easily. Battlefield 3 may not offer much beyond the multiplayer, but there are so many ways to contribute and feel like a powerful soldier that after hours and hours of playing, all you'll want to do is play more.