With the arrival of Battlefield 3, it's tempting to spout clichés like "the wait is finally over" or "it's time to look beyond the hype," but that would be misleading. As anyone who has followed the games press for the last few months will tell you, EA has made a herculean effort to position DICE's return to the core Battlefield franchise as one half of a double-act: a formidable veteran pulled out of retirement to take down a bloated, domineering champion.
The "champion" is, of course, Call of Duty, and the underdog narrative EA has constructed cannot reach its climax until Activision shows its hand. Only then will we know if the corporate mud-slinging, the suspect websites, and the oddly familiar advertising slogans were worth it. Battlefield 3 was never going to beat Modern Warfare 3 on sales, but it was supposed to be a clear winner on quality.
Judging from the reviews on both PC and console, that victory is far from certain.
If Battlefield does fall short, it won't be on its multiplayer features, which are as robust and brilliantly executed as the DICE faithful expected them to be.
"With dozens of players battling across nine massive maps in tanks, jeeps, helicopters, jets, or on foot, multiplayer matches feel like a genuine war rather than a small-scale skirmish," gushes Game Informer's Dan Ryckert in a 9.5 review almost entirely devoted to Battlefield's online play.
"Rush, Team Deathmatch, and the squad variants are solid modes, but with the return of 64-player matches Conquest is once again the star of the multiplayer show. In my time on the game's pre-release servers, I never encountered lag. Even in massive battles featuring dozens of players and vehicles competing over a single flag, the action proceeded without the slightest hiccup."
"The size of the maps, variety of vehicles, and overall scale of Conquest rounds make for some fantastic moments that couldn't be recreated if you tried."
Game Informer's review, it should be noted, is of the PC version, and there is a noticeable increase in the number of technical problems in console reviews. An example of this is Ryan Winterhalter's review for 1up, in which he awards the game a B+ - a grade lower than the PC version, which received an A-.
"There are notable graphical flaws that can't be conveyed through screenshots, and these sometimes interfere with gameplay," Winterhalter says. "The PS3 version suffers from noticeable screen tearing. Graphical pop-in is a noticeable issue on both platforms; certain models -- characters, objects, weapons -- pop in and out of the world as the camera shifts, even at close distances. The most common offender is foliage, but I've seen this happen to pipes on buildings, and even enemy players in multiplayer matches."
For many, comments like these will confirm the longstanding fear that DICE's predilection for using footage from the PC version for pre-release marketing masked the impossibility of replicating that performance on consoles.
"In a screenshot-for-screenshot comparison, Battlefield 3 is obviously better looking than any of its competition, but when you actually sit down to play and look at it in motion the tradeoffs that DICE made for the consoles quickly become evident, and its status as the best looking console game around can be called into question."
The tradeoffs that DICE made for consoles quickly become evident, and its status as the best looking console game around can be called into question
Ryan Winterhalter, 1up
However, for those that can tolerate the odd bug, or have the patience to wait for the inevitable patches, the Battlefield 3 experience is still ahead of its console competition.
"Other games may have much higher player counts, or have a better focus on infantry combat, but no other title features Battlefield 3's combined arms combat. When your teammates work together and dominate the enemy, it's amazing. Even when things don't quite work out, the progressive unlocks combined with the Battlelog social network are enough of an incentive to keep playing."
Unfortunately, the word "amazing" was never once applied to the single-player mode in any review we read. Indeed, the excellent work in the game's multiplayer features seems to be mirrored by its underwhelming, derivative campaign.
"Only tangentially related to the multiplayer side of the game, and more concerned with the sort of Hollywood heroics that propelled Activision's franchise to the top of the tree, it's remarkable just how badly it sells the Battlefield brand," says Eurogamer's Dan Whitehead, in his 8 out of 10 review.
Whitehead singles out a first-person, pre-mission sequence in an aircraft hanger that seamlessly transitions into explosive aerial combat for particular praise, but what follows perfectly illustrates the problem with Battlefield 3's single-player content.
"It's amazing stuff, a true work of digital theatre, offering immersion and realism beyond anything we've seen in games before. It's also almost entirely non-interactive, and leads into a mission that starts disappointing and only goes downhill from there. You're not the pilot, it turns out. You're the co-pilot. Your job is to point and shoot at the enemy fighters as the plane goes through its scripted banks and rolls. Later on you get to take aim at ground targets, a duck hunt dressed up in a Tom Clancy uniform."
"This is the weakness of Battlefield 3's single-player in a cockpit-sized nutshell. It's often so busy trying (and often succeeding) to impress you with immersive detail that it forgets to give you anything meaningful to do."
This is only exacerbated by the technical problems that besiege the console version, because the odd mission that opens up the play-space beyond a restrictive corridor cause, "the console architecture creak most alarmingly... At one point my iron sights glitched, making it impossible for me to strafe right. Moments later, I was able to walk right through a tank."
Joystiq's Arthur Gies played the PC version for his 9 out of 10 review, but while glitches and bugs were predictably absent from his critique, Battlefield 3's campaign is greeted with similar disdain.
"Battlefield 3's campaign isn't just a straight line, it's tactically linear. Firefights almost always unfold the same way. This is partly due to enemy AI that often seems stuck to a six foot leash from where they initially appear, but it goes deeper than that. For all the talk of destruction and immersion, Battlefield 3's campaign is a step backward from the manic calamity of Bad Company 2. There's no more blowing holes through walls to make an alternate route. Environmental destruction is cosmetic or scripted."
"None of that is a death sentence -- Modern Warfare drew the blueprint for the modern linear shooter, and it still managed to be fast, fun, and exciting. But Modern Warfare always gave you something to do, and enemies that were fun to shoot. Battlefield 3 is clearly referencing that blueprint, but it fails in this regard. There aren't that many enemies to shoot, and DICE has made up for that by allowing them to fire through geometry with pinpoint accuracy. It leads to a lot of trial by death and memorisation. It's not fun."