A helicopter just buzzed over my head, thirty feet above the ground. It was moving quickly, skirting around a hill, firing its main gun at an enemy I couldn't see. I stopped running and just stared at it.
I do this a lot. Battlefield 3's multiplayer makes me want to place a deckchair in the desert and watch the chaos happening all around. On its best maps – like the 64-player Caspian Border – every pixel on screen flickers with battle. I'll climb to a rooftop and just freeze. In the distance, smoke stacks rise from a burning forest. In the air above me, jets twirl, chased by artillery. On the ground below, a tank has smashed through the lower floors of the building. I'll spot a glimmer from a hillside 300 metres away, and it'll be a sniper readying to kill me.
If someone had told me 15 years ago that this is what online gaming would be, I wouldn't have believed them. Battlefield games have always been grand, ridiculous, futuristic designs. Wouldn't it be cool if deathmatch had vehicles? Wouldn't it be cool if it wasn't deathmatch at all, but teams, and squads, and objectives, and dozens of players? Wouldn't it be cool if there were tanks and jeeps and helicopters and jets? Wouldn't it be cool if the maps were enormous and buildings could collapse?
Yes, it would. Yes, it is. No other modern combat shooter provides the feeling that playing Battlefield does. I love to watch that helicopter fly overhead and wonder where the person inside is going. To know that every thing I see is being controlled by another real person, each playing director and star in their own miniature war movie.
Battlefield 3's singleplayer is not a movie. It's a waterslide with pictures scrawled on the insides. It's a ten-hour long exercise in contractual obligation: here are the multiple protagonists; here are the vehicle sections; here is the terrorist intrigue and appropriate level of moral grittiness. It's an undercooked potboiler. It's the world's most expensive audition tape for the job of developing a Call of Duty rival.
You play Sergeant Blackburn, who starts the game by leaping onto the roof of a moving train, kicking in the back window and then shooting his way through each narrow carriage filled with terrorists.
The game never gets any less linear. At the end of the train, we're taken back eight hours to where Blackburn is being interrogated by two government agents. He's telling them tales of his adventures in Tehran, fighting the PLR, and you play each of his missions in turn. His story goes like this: “I shot a man, and then I shot ten men, and then I got shot and my eyes felt like they had jam on them, so I hid behind a wall for a bit and then I felt fine, and then I shot three more men, and then I threw a grenade into the next room, and then I shot six hundred more men, and then I realised that they were infinitely respawning.”
When you find the right weapon, and in moments where the level design is particularly fine, all the shooting is great. The guns feel punchy and responsive, and enemies mostly go down with just a couple of shots. A section set in Paris in the middle of the game is the best it gets. But too often, making your way from area to area, from cover to cover, feels like a dismal slog through uneven checkpoints. Death can be instant, and you'll play through the same three or four rooms again and again until you crack the one area that's giving you trouble.
The government agents never flinch at the ridiculous, super-soldier adventure either, but instead play good-cop/bad cop and occasionally interject with their own war-flavoured anecdotes. “What about Lt. Jennifer Coleby Hawkins?” asks one. “Hawkins? Never heard of her,” replies Blackburn. At that point you leap in to her story: she's a jet co-pilot, and it's one of the most beautiful looking on-rails gun sections I've ever played, and one of the least interactive bits of game. At its end, after you've fired all your rockets, launched all your flares and bombed some targets with the expected black-and-white bombo-cam, it cuts back to the room. “Nice story,” says Blackburn. “But I don't see how it's relevant.”
It's not relevant, and Hawkins is never mentioned again. Battlefield 3 is desperate to hold your attention by constantly throwing new experiences at the screen.
To its credit, it never reaches the manipulative, frothing madness of the latter Call of Duty games, but it never aims higher than providing a pretty looking slideshow, either. The jet section is beautiful, but you're merely the game's co-pilot, along for the ride. The tank section might put you in the driver's seat, but only so you can be the game's taxi driver. You survive an earthquake, rappel down a building, and skydive from a plane – but in every instance, you're a puppet going where you're told so the game can show you the next razzle-dazzle animation.
There isn't a single interesting decision to be made in the entire campaign. If you ever try to deviate from the script, even during that touted moment of moral greyness, you simply fall over dead. The only reason to even keep your eyes open during most of these scenes is the terrible risk they might turn in to another tedious quicktime event.
If someone had told me 15 years ago that this is what singleplayer games would be, I wouldn't have believed them. It would have been too depressing.
The co-operative mode isn't much better, either. It provides six unique missions specifically designed to be played with a friend, but they serve as a kind of hardcore mode, and each is much harder than the regular singleplayer. I found them more frustrating than fun, and subject to the same connection problems as the regular multiplayer.
If you want your games to be games, don't play Battlefield 3's campaign. Play the multiplayer instead, where the spectacle is far grander, more exhilarating and more cinematic for being entirely under your control. It makes you want to sit back and watch.
But you can't. Your friend just blew up the last M-COM station in the area and the defenders are falling back. You need to move up fast, so you sprint towards the cliff edge, jump and free fall. Fifteen feet above the ground, you open your parachute and land safely. It's a moment that happens to you in the singleplayer, but here you get to do it all by yourself. It's like graduating to big boy school.
If you've played Battlefield: Bad Company 2, the last game in the series, the multiplayer will be familiar. Conquest and Rush return, and so do many of the weapons. The most visible and talked about change is the welcome addition of jets, returning to the series for the first time since Battlefield 2.
You'll spend only a fraction of your time piloting them – they spawn at base, but it's first come, first served, and you'll be lucky to get there before everyone else. They're also ineffective against ground units, meaning that jet pilots are almost playing an entirely different game from everyone else.
Page 2: Multiplayer - Where it succeeds and fails.
This suggests they shouldn't make a big difference to the game, but they do. The spectacle they add completely changes the way battles feel, turning small skirmishes into all out war. They're a constant fixture in the skies above the maps that include them, and after playing Caspian Border and the few others that also harbour them, the smaller maps begin to feel like they're missing something.
The multiplayer is always at its best on the larger, or at least more open maps. I've rolled across Tehran Highway in a tank, levelling buildings and capturing bases in Conquest mode. I've rattled across Operation Firestorm in a jeep with a friend riding shotgun, and swerved as enemy jets have divebombed us. I've bailed out of helicopters hundreds of feet in the air and parachuted onto enemy sniper's nests atop cranes. These are the moments Battlefield was made for.
My favourite moment so far was when I saw an enemy helicopter taking off at the other end of Damavand Peak. I paused, I crouched, I readied my sniper rifle, and I shot the pilot through the head with a single bullet. The helicopter fell from the sky.
I've experienced the same thing in three Battlefield games now, and every time it feels incredible. It feels heroic and badass and looks amazing. It's also completely unscripted, born dynamically from giving every player control, options and then letting them play. It is completely the opposite of the singleplayer game's design philosophy, which is perhaps one of the reasons why the campaign is so frustrating.
Unfortunately, not enough of the maps are large and open, and too many force everyone into the same chokepoint, halting all progression for ten minutes until one team gets lucky. Operation Metro is the worst offender, but Grand Bazaar and a few others do the same.
The Medic and Assault classes have been combined, under the Assault name. For some players it requires some tough decisions, forcing you to choose between whether you want to carry the traditional Assault's grenade launcher or the Medic's healing medic pack. For me, the choice was easy. I've loved the Medic since Battlefield 2, and even here it's still my favourite class in the game.
The best change to the medic since Bad Company 2 is how much more quickly you can now unlock those precious defibrillators. It's the first item you're likely to get from playing the Assault class, and in a squad with friends, they make you utterly essential.
The progression and unlock system still won't be fast enough for some, especially players who are used to Call of Duty's temporary killstreak bonuses. You'll earn unlocks and ribbons in every round of Battlefield 3 – from gathered experience points, your kills for each weapon, or for performing helpful actions like reviving teammates – but the unlocks are paced to compel players to play for a hundred hours. It's still enormously rewarding in the early stages to get, say, an M-COM Defender ribbon at the end of a match, or a new scope for your primary weapons, but the best unlocks don't come for an awfully long time, and it'll take an eon if you want to get the greatest goodies for all four classes.
All of your stats and progress are tracked on Battlelog, a website which acts as Battlefield 3's social network, server browser and menu. It is brilliant, bizarre and broken.
I love that it tracks everything I do in the game, including weapon accuracy for individual weapons, my unlock progress, and how many kills, wins and losses I have compared to friends. The little bit of context it provides to each individual around you play makes your actions feel just a little bit more important.
But I have no idea why Battlelog also had to be the game's server browser and menu. First of all, why isn't the server browser part of Origin, EA's digital distribution service, where it could have been brought up in-game as an overlay? Right now, in order to change servers, you have to quit out of the game and head back to your web browser – which is a bit of a faff.
It's also absurd that it acts as the game's primary menu. When you launch Battlefield 3 within Origin, it opens Battlelog in your server browser, and from there you launch either a multiplayer server or the campaign. If the website is down for maintenance – as it has been frequently during these past two weeks – you need to switch Origin into Offline mode in order to launch your singleplayer game. That's an easy thing to do, but I don't even want to think about a website in that situation. Nothing was wrong with plain, uncomplicated menus.
Yet both of these are small qualms when compared to the ridiculous number of stability problems. Tom Senior's game crashes to desktop every five minutes. Rich gets disconnected from every server after a round-and-a-half of play, without fail. Tim can't connect to servers at all, most of the time. In over a week of playing and trying to play Battlefield 3 online, I've had all of these problems. There is a slight glitchiness to the singleplayer, including character models that occasionally fail to load, weapon models that vanish, and soldiers who run through walls, but the multiplayer simply does not work at all for some of the people, some of the time.
Given that this is the eleventh game in a series that started in 2002, a guaranteed huge seller, and a tentpole game for EA, why is it acceptable that it has had a clumsy, broken launch?
It's not. For all its similarities to the previous games in the series, Battlefield 3's multiplayer is still fresh and exciting. There's no other game out there that can provide the same chaotic spectacle, or the feeling of lying in the grass with friends, watching a battle roll towards you from the horizon. Even as the singleplayer is everything I hate about games, the multiplayer is many of the things I love about them.
That means it gets a good score, but it would have been higher if the game was more polished and less rushed to hit the Christmas games rush. I'm going to play it to bits – eventually. Right now, it's broken, and I'm going to wait. Buy it when it has been patched.