Battlefield 3: Back to Karkand Impressions

If you seriously enjoyed Battlefield 3 multiplayer, you should seriously be playing the Back to Karkand maps.

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Earlier this month, the Back to Karkand downloadable content for Battlefield 3 arrived on the Xbox 360, PC, and PlayStation 3. The pack includes four maps (remastered from their Battlefield 2 incarnations), three new vehicles, a handful of new guns, and a new gimmick for unlocking said guns. Any BF3 owner who bought (or buys) the Limited Edition of the game (which costs the same as the non-limited edition and is still available) is entitled to download Back to Karkand for free. Anyone else hoping to play these maps will have to pony up about $15 for the privilege, but if you're still interested in Battlefield 3 multiplayer, it's a good buy. Read on to find out more about Back to Karkand and see if you agree.

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The main selling point of Back to Karkand is the maps. Wake Island, Gulf of Oman, Sharqi Peninsula, and Strike at Karkand all appeared in Battlefield 2, and while they are all easily recognizable to those who knew them well, each has received a significant visual overhaul for Back to Karkand. Wake Island, for example, ditches the saturated colors of its appearance in Battlefield 1943, offering instead a more washed-out, war-ravaged setting for battle. Though the maps all look good, visual appeal isn't the reason you'll keep coming back.

That distinction belongs to the environmental design. With the exception of the fairly barren Wake Island, the urban spaces in each map create superb venues for firefights of all sizes. The narrow streets and alleys of Strike at Karkand offer close-quarters building-to-building combat, and taking a light vehicle or tank through the streets is both dangerous and deadly. One-third of the city is at a lower elevation than the rest, so ramps and stairwells are key to navigation. A low-lying marketplace feels similar to Grand Bazaar, but Strike at Karkand outclasses that map in both size and complexity.

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Gulf of Oman is another large map with dense urban combat opportunities, but a wide freeway running through it gives it a more open feeling. This feeling is augmented by the surrounding desert, which provides a quick way to flank your enemies if you are willing to leave yourself and your passengers exposed. The desert buggy vehicle has speed enough to make such runs feasible, though gunners will find the restricted turret movement limits their effectiveness. Large matches on Gulf of Oman are also great places to hop into the STOVL fighter jet and try your hand at hovering.

Sharqi Peninsula also boasts urban combat areas, including a few multistory buildings without any walls, which afford a greater field of view at the expense of cover. Sharqi even goes so far as to place some capture points above ground level, making the approach to the TV station perched on a hill even more perilous. And as anyone who watched our Now Playing for Back to Karkand on the PS3 knows, Sharqi's hotel pool is a hazard drivers would do well to avoid.

Wake Island's lack of tall buildings and flanking aircraft carriers make air combat particularly fierce, especially on big Conquest matches. Back to Karkand also includes the Conquest Assault mode, which is a variation on Conquest with fewer capture points. Furthermore, one team starts with control of every point (and the ability to spawn at each one), while the other starts with more respawn tickets. This twist drastically changes the initial conflict in a match; rather than everyone scrambling to grab points, you have an attacking force trying to oust entrenched defenders. It's a great variation, though it may make you yearn for the larger scale of Conquest.

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None of the new guns are real game-changers, but some folks will no doubt be delighted to see the FAMAS and PP-19 back in action. To unlock the new weapons, however, you'll have to target your battlefield efforts more specifically. There are 10 assignments divided into five pairs; you must complete one to make the other available. Tier one conditions are generally lighter (for example, perform 10 heals and 10 revives) while tier two conditions are more time-consuming (for example, 100 kills with light machine guns, 50 suppression assists, and 50 ammo resupplies). Tying unlocks to specific feats is uncharacteristic of the Battlefield series, but it's nice to have something to strive for even after you've played a ton of multiplayer.

Fifteen bucks may seem like a lot for four maps and a few other new bits, but the high quality of the maps makes it a reasonable proposition. Each one offers a great diversity of combat spaces that makes them feel more replayable than the original BF3 maps, so if you're itching to get into some excellent multiplayer action, Back to Karkand is a good bet.

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