First, let's get the elephants out of the room. Elephant one: Battlefield 3 isn't as handsome on console as it is on high-end PC. It's a great looking game, but it doesn't straddle the gap between this and the next generation of consoles. Elephant two: the single-player campaign - always a weak spot - is damn good, but it can't hold a candle to the sublime multiplayer. Elephant three: it's a better game than Modern Warfare 3. Well, actually, that needs some clarification...
Problem is, although Battlefield 3 ticks all the right boxes, it's an unbalanced package, excelling in some areas and lagging behind in others. No question, it's a technical showcase but this winter has also seen Uncharted 3 (which does spectacle better) Batman Arkham City (which does fine detail better) and Skyrim (which does epic scale better). It outshines CoD's creaky engine - especially when it comes to animations and setpieces - but we can't shake the feeling that the extraordinary Frostbite 2 tech the game has been built on has been squeezed uncomfortably onto current console hardware. And while DICE have done a great job, we can't help glancing across at the PC version with envy and wondering what might come in the future. It's a strange feeling, discovering solid gold and wishing you'd struck platinum.
One thing that definitely feels genre-leading is the multiplayer. If you're confident venturing online (and to clarify, it feels much more polished and traditionally Battlefield than the recent open beta) this game is essential. We've said it before of Battlefield games, but the team at DICE know how to create compelling, perfectly paced online experiences. Actually, scratch that - DICE know how to craft the tools and environments, which can be transformed into near-perfect multiplayer. Battlefield 3 is another masterclass in giving power to the online player while staving off anarchy. Reactions not so good? There's a combination of kit and tactics that will compensate for your slower trigger finger. Can't do vehicles? There's an anti-vehicle set-up for you. Want to camp out with a sniper and still contribute to your team? Yes you can. In other words, there's always a role for you on the team.
However, despite being so accommodating, Battlefield 3 loses none of its online savagery. If anything, we found this game to be slightly more aggressive than Bad Company 2. That's encouraged by some of the smaller maps, such as Grand Bazaar - a finely balanced maze of dangerously open squares and twisting kill-zones, and by the wealth of kit on offer. Even starting weapons feel lethal, whereas later unlocks like the SPAS-12 border on the overpowered. This more aggressive feel only emphasises those Battlefield moments you get during every game - like getting a triple kill before desperately defusing a Rush winning MCOM bomb seconds before it detonates, as enemies pour in and a helicopter crashes inches from your face. While you're on fire. At it's best Battlefield 3's multiplayer is utterly thrilling, and without equal.
If there's any criticism of the multiplayer it's that team deathmatch adds nothing of substance, and feels like yet another box-ticking exercise to make sure the Call of Duty converts feel comfortable. Rush and Conquest offer the same style of action, only with added tactical punch, leaving deathmatch redundant. But if Battlefield's multiplayer is an exercise in giving players the freedom to create their own spectacle - what the marketing types love to trumpet as emergent gameplay - the single player is the polar opposite.