You know that moment in an action film when the escaping hero dashes towards a ridge, only to have his escape interrupted roar of a chopper's blades as it rises into view? That happened to me on Alborz Mountain in Battlefield 3 today. Twice.
The first time the chopper's guns span up and obliterated me before I could unsling a rocket launcher. The second time, the chopper span sideways and exploded. I looked over at the barrel of my RPG launcher to confirm that I hadn't actually fired anything when WHOOSH. A friendly jet boosted out of the valley right in front of me, twisted and disappeared behind the mountain, afterburners aflame.
Not for the first time, I wish that Battlefield 3 had a salute button.
I've been playing Armoured Kill for a few hours, and it already feels like it was made especially for players who saw Close Quarters as a step backwards for Battlefield 3. I saw it as more of a step sideways, an attempt to broaden Battlefield's appeal by beating Call of Duty at its own game. I still enjoy a few rounds of Gun Master when time is tight, but this is different. Armoured Kill supports battles on a scale that few shooters can match.
Armoured Kill adds four maps, new vehicles like tank destroyers, mobile artillery and the AC-130 gunship, and an all-tanks-all-the-time mode called Tank Superiority. At around £12, it's a hefty payout for a chunk of DLC that's more of a map pack than an expansion, but in Armoured Kill, your money's buying some seriously vast virtual real estate.
Bandar Desert has taken all of the headlines for being the biggest Battlefield map ever (and it is), but the other three maps are also huge. Alborz Mountains became my instant favourite. Battlefield 3's first snow map is gorgeous. Half frozen rivers carve silvery trails through huge valleys. Control points sit exposed at the base of sweeping white slopes, which provide perfect overwatch positions for snipers. High altitude control points are nestled amid the rocky peaks and narrow, well covered roads provide flanking routes and act as safe passage for light vehicles.
Each map looks and feels very different. Death valley is Armoured Kill's only night time map. It's set in a swathe of scrubland on the border between Turkmenistan and Iran. The scarred, rocky landscape is irregular enough to allow for small vehicles and infantry teams to move about without being instantly spotted by the AC-130 or passing choppers. The valley is bathed in silver moonlight, so visibility isn't too much of a problem, and orange explosions pop beautifully against those midnight blue background tones.
Gulf of Oman players will recognise some of the half-built office buildings that surround capture points in Death Valley. They're as effective here as they were in Back to Karkand. Those skeletal concrete constructions deliver interesting geometry without too much visual noise and on Death Valley, their unlit innards are very dark indeed. I've had fun stalking through those dim rooms with a silenced pistol.
Death Valley feels like Armoured Kill's most infantry-friendly map, but assault and support classes will feel at home in Bandar Desert's built up areas. Battlefield's biggest map provides a good balance between urban zones and wide open plains. Jet pilots will enjoy stretching their wings across the 5 square kilometres of airspace, but will likely find themselves too busy hunting big game to take in the vista. It's their job to deal with AC-130 gunship, a constant threat on all Armoured Kill maps.
The team that captures the AC-130's ground base gets to occupy its two gunnery seats as it flies in stately, predetermined circles around the map. I was worried that the AC-130 would only be fun for those lucky enough to get a seat behind those mighty cannons, but it's a choice target for air crews. The dogfights surrounding the gunship liven up the skies, and the spectacle alone almost makes up for those frustration of being nailed on the ground by an unreachable airborne enemy. As a foot soldier I found myself wishing for a verbal or visual “gunship overhead” notice.
I've been running around Armoured Kill in Conquest almost exclusively so far, which feels like the mode that these new maps were made for. There the AC-130 is an occasional nuisance, in Rush, it's a constant frustration. Attackers have exclusive control of the gunship, and it respawns surprisingly fast. My team would spend a lot of time picking off the lumbering attack ship, only to spot it overhead again minutes later.
I also squeezed in a couple of rounds of tank superiority, which gives everyone access to a small number of Battlefield 3's beefy tanks and lots of the new tank destroyers. Tank destroyers are vulnerable, but their speed makes them great fun to drive and their rapid fire AP cannons make short work of enemy armour.
Tank superiority is a good way to get some quick vehicle levels, but it feels more like a quick distraction than a game mode I'd return to night after night. Heavy armour battles in Battlefield lack the nuance that makes World of Tanks bouts tactically interesting, but what you lose in depth you gain in ridiculous, skating battles on the ice sheets of the Alborz.
Both teams fight over a single point in tank superiority, so there's value in taking up a distant sniping position to cover the point. I parked a tank destroyer on a steep spot halfway up a mountain with that aim in mind, only to discover an enemy tank above me with exactly the same idea. I took a massive shot from his main gun before I even knew he was there.
The giant red "WARN" light started to flicker so I dived out to start repairs. A second shot slammed into the tank destroyer's rear. It caught fire and started to slide down the mountain. I gave chase with repair tool outstretched, putting the fire out as it slid slowly towards the river like a thirsty iron whale. "Stop, you bastard!" I shouted in vain.
My tank destroyer responded by bumping gently into a tree and exploding. A quick check of the scoreboard confirmed my fears. That tree had killed more tanks than I had that round.
Given that performance, it's probably for the best that our man-in-a-clan, John Strike, is on review duty for Armoured Kill. We should have a proper verdict for you soon. The third Battlefield 3 expansion was released on Tuesday for premium subscribers, it'll be available for Battlefield 3 owners to buy on September 25.