The Back to Karkand expansion for Battlefield 3 started a war inside my head. On one side, the cynic. On the other, the boy who likes shooting things. “£12 for four old maps, ten old weapons and a few scrappy vehicles?” The cynic scoffed. “Shut up!” the boy cried. “I just killed a tank by shooting a rocket through a hole in an apartment block!” It's an argument the cynic was never going to win.
The maps are fantastic. But then they should be: Wake Island, Gulf of Oman, Sharqi Peninsula and Strike at Karkand are all Battlefield 2 maps, rebuilt to work with the graphical power and explodiness of the Frostbite 2 engine. The four-year old architecture has been tweaked and iterated upon countless times. They're finely honed, fair, and consistently deliver great games.
Strike at Karkand and Sharqi Peninsula provide the most memorable fights. Almost every building can be blown apart. The streets are dominated by rumbling tanks, but the warrens of narrow alleyways let assault fighters take the battle away from the monstrous vehicles. Gulf of Oman is also fantastic: its tall buildings and leering cranes offer some creative vantage points for snipers and it's more densely urban than the Battlefield 2 original.
The slender horseshoe of Wake Island is perhaps the weakest of the bunch, but still delivers a great spectacle. Its wide open walkways and bridges are a nightmare for infantrymen on foot, and its weird shape and increased size makes it hard for fighters on one end to get to the other. It's a great hunting ground for pilots of the F-35, however. The VTOL jet makes a return from Battlefield 2. It's much more sluggish than Battlefield 3's jets, but the ability to hover and pick off infantry make it a devastating and satisfying weapon.
Other returning vehicles include the speedy, vulnerable DPV buggy, the BTR-90 Armoured Personnel Carrier and a new, tiny yellow digger that DICE have added for a laugh: there's an achievement on offer if you somehow manage to run someone over with it. Back to Karkand also contains ten weapons, all of which originally appeared in Battlefield 2. You can unlock these by completing Assignments, tasks that ask you to rack up a certain number of kills, revives and ammo supplies across the maps.
The maps are top notch, but the £12 pricetag is still troubling. At almost half the price of the base game (which is required to play Karkand), we should expect a little more than a few remastered classics. Bad Company 2's Vietnam pack succeeded because it took us into a different place where the weapons were rustier and the warfare dirtier. Back to Karkand gives us more Battlefield 3, with the same highs and lows (Battlelog is still a nuisance: long load times and regular disconnections). Back to Karkand isn't an expansion, it's a good but expensive map pack.
Only two of Battlefield 3's original maps delivered the full, sprawling warfare experience of jets flying overhead as tanks duelled below. The four new maps added by Back to Karkand show Battlefield 3 at its biggest and best. It's strange that DICE have had to reach into familiarity to really show what Battlefield 3 can do, but there's no denying Back to Karkand's quality.