When we meet Sergeant Henry "Black" Blackburn, the U.S. Marine is precariously perched atop a speeding New York commuter train. The damp air whizzes past his helmet as he drops to the side of the last car and crashes through the window and kicks a shady terrorist in the gut. A fistfight begins and the locked combatants wrestle into the sides of the train like two rams ensnared in each other's horns. Blackburn finally takes out his knife and deals the final blow.
This is just one of the pulse-pounding action-movie set pieces one experiences during Battlefield 3's eye-popping single-player campaign. Many reviewers have already lamented the linearity of the six-hour globetrotting affair, but in the light of recent military-themed first-person shooters, it delivers a bracing ride. Battlefield purists know the deal: Testing the true mettle of these games is best done by saturating yourself in their online multiplayer arenas. And in that sense, Battlefield 3 delivers in spades.
Let's linger on the single-player campaign for a spell though. When you're not controlling tanks and planes or sniping enemies in a darkly lit mall, DICE links up the somewhat pedestrian terrorist through line with a series of stilted, albeit beautifully rendered, interrogation cutscenes. Fans of Call of Duty: Black Ops will experience déjà vu. These serious sequences are thankfully short. (Gone are the inside jokes and jovial pranks of Battlefield: Bad Company 2's Haggard, Marlowe, Sarge, and Sweetwater.) Taking down the tyrannical Solomon and his nuke-wielding PLR army from blowing up major cities is the dead-serious goal. It's not an original story, but not many current first-person shooters have those.
The diversity and appearance of each mission is to be commended. Battlefield 3's powerful Frostbite 2 engine delivers jaw-dropping eye candy here and during the multiplayer campaign. The use of smoke, light, shadow, and smudged lens flares is dazzling. You'll marvel at the dust-particle animations in the tank levels, the ocean swelling around an aircraft carrier, and an earthquake toppling an Iraqi building. A gargantuan shockwave ripples pavement slabs, and the tower block trembles like a colossal brute hit with a tranquilizer dart. Before long, the structure falls toward Blackburn and knocks him unconscious. There are several thrilling moments like this.
A few annoying bugs pop up in regard to the single-player campaign's AI and some destructible environments, but it's one hell of a ride while it lasts. Even the subtle, dubstep-esque score is tops. Overall, Battlefield 3 performs like a hardened war veteran. Also, for the first time, a co-op mode has been added. Its six short standalone missions are a nice diversion, but not as inspired as everything else you can sink your teeth into here.
The warzone gets even hairier when you go online with your buddies. This is an exceedingly replayable portion of the game. Essentially, Battlefield 3 has five different modes, but most players will glom onto Team Death Match, Rush, and Conquest. Each offers an enjoyable experience across nine expansive maps. I wanted to return to Operation Firestorm's well-lit petroleum refineries again and again. The PC version of the game allows huge 64-player matches, but on the PS3 and Xbox 360, players have smaller maps and a 24-combatant limit. Despite these technical limitations, the console versions provide a veritable sandbox. Hop in a jet or helicopter…or snipe from the top of a building while lying prone. Be careful, though, as your scope's glint or the death cam will soon give away your location to others. Also, the four classes from Bad Company 2 return. The only difference is that the assault and medic classes are now amalgamated.
Despite the campaign's minute hiccups, Battlefield 3 is an excellent first-person shooter that should be acknowledged. It adroitly drops you into the thick of battle via its thoroughly enjoyable and deep multiplayer game. DICE already had a strong legacy to uphold going into 2011 and the series's latest iteration proves the developer can still craft visceral simulations that turn heads.