To be fair, there are some exceptional sequences. A running battle through offices and trading floors and onto the streets of Paris has some fantastic moments, as bullets chew their way through cubicles, glass walls and monitors, and while the inevitable tank mission is particularly dull, it’s hard not to find a little love for a game that lets you drive a tank through buildings. Overall, though, the single-player campaign is a bit depressing. Battlefield: Bad Company 2 left us hoping that Battlefield 3 would be a new benchmark for the military FPS genre. Instead, it’s just another stone in a well trodden road.
At this point, then, you might be wondering where the generous score comes from. Well, this is where the other big ‘but’ comes in. For all its problems as a single-player game, the multiplayer Battlefield 3 experience is just magnificent. The goodness starts with the co-op missions, which while limited in number, are more entertaining than the single-player just because you have another player involved. However, the real heart of Battlefield 3 is its large-scale team-based multiplayer. This is classic Battlefield, with big maps, well-balanced troop types and a lot of vehicular mayhem, and – on console – it’s the first time we can really say that. PC owners, of course, get an even bigger game, with 64 players instead of 24. And while there are some teething troubles with matchmaking, particularly on the Xbox 360, we’ve found it remarkably easy to find a stable game on PS3.
Perhaps the best thing is that there’s real variety. If you want to play on huge, sprawling maps, battling over control points and steadily whittling away at the enemy forces, then you can. If you want to drive a tank, dive out of an exploding helicopter or play gunner on someone else’s ride, then you can. If you want to play seriously, with squad tactics and voice communications, then you can. And if you prefer smaller-scale, urban arenas that feel a little closer to Modern Warfare, then maps based in the Paris Metro or on the banks of the Seine give you just what you’re looking for. In particular, playing in Rush mode, where the two teams attack or defend specific positions, tends to concentrate the action very nicely. We also love the new mechanics for running and jumping over walls and barricades – it gives the action an even more dynamic edge.
This is hideously addictive stuff, with a scale and grandeur that’s curiously absent from the single-player campaign. A persistent experience system with perks and upgrades to unlock helps keep you hooked, but the action is so compelling that it’s almost unnecessary: you just want to do better next time, and work your way up from the guy who dies to the ultimate armchair warrior. There’s also a real sense of experimentation. Why just run towards a control-point when you can drive a vehicle into it, running over the opposition before leaping out to claim it for the team? While every game has its share of cowardly-custard, yellow-bellied snipers and selfish, tank-squandering halfwits, it’s a game where the team mentality inspires you to new flights of heroism. Sure, it’s a different multiplayer experience to the more clean-cut, kill or be killed battles of Modern Warfare 2 and Black Ops, but we’d argue that it’s a richer, deeper and more varied one. In fact, it’s so good that it doesn’t just redeem the disappointing single-player campaign, it practically renders it irrelevant.
Despite the mostly duff single-player campaign, Battlefield 3 is an essential buy for its fantastic, epic-scale multiplayer action. While PC gamers get the best of it, with a higher player cap and better graphics, console games still get the authentic Battlefield feel, and the most drama-packed, spectacular online warfare in town.