Penning this Battlefield 3 review has been tricky because the problems lay in conveying BF3's manifold strengths and weaknesses without resorting to the inevitable COD comparisons.
Sure, to ignore Activision's Unicron of an FPS would almost be to deny Battlefield 3's raison d'Ítre, especially when you appreciate how EA has been aggressively marketing its title as a bona fide COD-killer, but - that said - we'll try to keep those boresome direct comparisons to a minimum. We're all friends here, right. Right?
For a console and multiplayer verdict read our Battlefield 3 Xbox 360 and PS3 review.
Bad Company 2's a more relevant title in a way, because this is such an improved single-player campaign that's it's almost impossible to believe the pair hailed from the same development stable.
It's also tricky to write a 2000+ word review without, y'know, spoiling anything - so we'll try to be as informative as possible while keeping the hard deets to a minimum. Anyways, enough with the disclaimers and on with the fun...
There are shades of Black Ops in the flashback-heavy, interrogation structure that neatly frames the narrative - but BF3 feels a lot drier, more adult in its execution. Whether you prefer this po-faced exposition to the Michael Bay-ian sound and fury of COD is probably a matter of personal preference, but it's all equally as confusing - in the traditions of the best cinematic potboilers you likely won't have a flying fig what's going on until the big 'ah!' moment near the climax of the adventure.
In retrospect, BF3's story is actually pretty damn smart - but its presentation lacks a certain je ne sais quoi slickness and - despite a couple of pathos-inducing/COD-alike 'shock' segments - neither the characters nor the storyline will likely resonate as a classic.
Personally though, we found it a marked step up from the idiotic banter of Bad Company 2 and it's certainly a more mature, sophisticated counterpoint to the increasingly mental exploits of Messrs MacTavish and Pricey. In short, it's entirely possible to equally appreciate both approaches; they certainly both have their own place in the FPS pantheon.
Price is Right
Compared to the outrageous scale of the grander multiplayer maps, BF3's campaign might initially - surprisingly - come across as rather claustrophobic, despite the convincing smoke and mirrors and illusion of sprawling battlegrounds. In short, there's tons of handholding, and at times it frustrates.
Some of the larger-scale shootouts - of which there are admittedly a fair few - emancipate you to some extent, but at heart this is just as much of a high-tech, set piece-heavy shooting gallery as COD; you won't find anything that compares to an epic multiplayer map like, say, Back to Karkand, here.
Would that be an unrealistic expectation though, and/or have we just been spoiled by the multiplayer? Probably, but it's ever so slightly disappointing nonetheless. However, we reckon we can see exactly what DICE/EA were thinking of here - we wouldn't go as far as to say BF3's single player apes COD, but it's patently been designed to poach as many players from Acti's series as is physically possible.
So perhaps there's a cynical method in the madness, with the big battles and tactical gameplay coming chiefly from online, and the Hollywood moments stemming from campaign. Ergo, on the one hand it'd be easy to criticise BF3's campaign for its unoriginality - sniping, bombing, flying, tank-driving, one-man army, squad-based sections all say 'hello!' at one point or another - but, heck that's the nature of war... and the way the majority of these are executed is mind-blowing.
For instance, when you're actually punching through buildings in real-time in a rumbling Abrams tank you realise that although you might have sat in the belly of many a metal beast before, but you've never truly appreciated what these war machines are capable of... and that philosophy probably encapsulates what Frostbite 2 and Battlefield 3 best bring to the military shooter table.
Several other moments resonate in particular - emerging from the darkness of the troop transport into the wincingly strong sunshine of Sulaymaniyah to the strains of Johnny Cash at the commencement of 'Operation Swordbreaker'. The pounding waves of the Persian gulf or the ascent through the clouds in a supersonic F/A-18F Shark in 'Gone Hunting' and sweeping across the plains of Tehran in that hulking M1A2 Abrams tank during 'Thunder Run', or the seismic judgement call at the climax of 'Kaffarov'... They're all unforgettable gaming moments, forever seared into our retinas.