Previews

Battlefield 3: Has CoD finally met its match?

DICE blows GDC away - and then teases more to come...

It all starts so unpromisingly. A jaunty, Hurt-era Johnny Cash number screaming "Team America with feelings!". A bunch of artificial marines cracking wise about clichés referring to death and taxes. Lip-syncing that makes CD:UK look heartfelt.

Okay, that last one might show our age - but we're feeling pretty jaded right now. DICE has just spent a good ten minutes bigging up the role its 2011 Battlefield class - including pay-what-you-like Play4Free experiment - will have in redefining the FPS. And yet we're watching a CoD-lite bunch of numbskulls fretting about the reasons their canvas-topped Jeep has come to a halt.

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Our well-worn cynicism is the perfect bedding ground for shock and awe, of course. Perhaps that's what DICE was going for all along.

Before we know it, the tolerable - if conversationally meagre - troops that introduce CVG's introduction to Battlefield 3 move out of their transport capsule, to investigate what is obviously becoming a hostile situation.

And it's only when the sunlight of an everyday Iraq warzone stings the eyes that we realise; DICE has created a game of quite stunning contrasts.

Contrasts such as that between the first gunned down, flame-damaged ally we spot, and the dank garage into which we desperately drag his bleeding body; the smarts of the enemy's hideouts and the "now I see you" vulnerability of their protective walls; the clipped fizz of the insurgents' bullets snipping past our heads - and the lasting echo of destruction outside of our hastily discovered shelter.

But before all that, Battlefield 3 looks amazing. The way DICE's Frostbite 2 Engine almost arrogantly plays with light - from its innocent illumination of an everyday Middle Eastern town's afternoon glare to its nuanced reflection of the eye-searing explosions an RPG causes in full anger - is almost frightening in its realism.

The demo we witness throws our heroes into an almost immediate battle in an Iraqi courtyard - as a militia attack within a dusty car park threatens our forces from all sides. The poor soul we end up scrabbling to safety has been the unlucky one in an early barrage of flames; and the mo-cap representation of his pain will bring out the empathy in even the most grizzled virtual war vet.

Crumpled on a heap in the floor, knees grasped with desperation, his distress is obvious. It's only when we haul this comrade to shelter from the open space of the outside fight that we notice DICE's first masterstroke: wonderfully subtle audio dynamics.

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The rasping "chk-chk-chek" of the weapons outside are immediately both dulled and echoed by our movement indoors. As we head back out, the sheer percussive fury of the enemy assaults the eardrums. Later, a rocket launcher will pretty much shake our aural capabilities to the core. DICE's award-winning audio team has obviously pulled out all the stops here.

Having disposed of our first few enemies, intelligence barks new information into our headset: a suspected bomb has been spotted underground, and it's up to us to sprint downstairs and do the decent, diffusive thing.

Getting to the explosive is relatively painless - even if the dark, humid, claustrophobic stairwells are not a pleasant place to be. We find the bomb with two jacks plugged in. Confidently, the game's on-screen indicator recommends we pull out one of the cables.

After we do so, a fast-paced beeping comes to the fore. In no language is this good. Although we're bellowed at to "cut the red wire", our ambitions are snipped short - as an Iraqi meddler smacks us square in the chops.

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