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Game Review: Battlefield 3 for PC

Platform: PC

Style: 1 Player Shooter (64 Players Online)

Publisher: Electronic Arts

Developer: Dice

Release: Oct. 25

ESRB: Mature

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Concept: Improve the long-running series with its best campaign to date and the fantastic Frostbite 2 engine.

Graphics: If your video card can support it, you won't find a better-looking FPS on the market.

Sound: A subtle score and unrivaled audio design complement the already-intense firefights.

Playability: Dice has been excelling at FPS control for years, and their experience shows more than ever.

Entertainment: Its multiplayer formula won't surprise fans, but "Battlefield 3" refines an experience that already was among the best in the genre.

Replay Value: High

Bottom line: 9.5

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Modern first-person shooters have started to resemble big-budget Hollywood blockbusters in recent years, a trend that has received both praise and criticism from gaming audiences. Being shuttled from one explosive set piece moment to another can be thrilling, but when this formula is overused it feels like you're on an on-rails Disneyland ride. While the "Battlefield 3" campaign isn't devoid of this feeling, its multiplayer offers a much more natural (and rewarding) sense of large-scale action. With dozens of players battling across nine massive maps in tanks, jeeps, helicopters, jets, or on foot, multiplayer matches feel like a genuine war rather than a small-scale skirmish.

Whether you're playing through the tense campaign or spending countless hours in multiplayer, "Battlefield 3" greatly benefits from the stunning Frostbite 2 engine. If your gaming computer is capable of supporting the highest settings, you're in for an aesthetic treat that tops everything else in the genre. Character animations look smooth and realistic, explosions have significant weight to them, and environments get torn apart in showers of concrete and debris. The stellar audio design matches the high quality bar of the graphics, featuring realistic sound effects, Hollywood-caliber voice acting, and a great soundtrack. Music doesn't blare throughout most of the game, but it's subtle and effective when it does complement the action.

Rather than delivering sweeping changes to the series' multiplayer format, DICE chose more subtle tweaks for "Battlefield 3." As with "Bad Company 2," players can choose from four classes, but the assault and medic classes are now merged (with the now-open fourth slot dedicated to the LMG-toting, ammo-dropping support class). I loved both classes in "Bad Company 2," so the ability to throw medkits and revive teammates while utilizing assault weaponry feels ideal. In a move that should please snipers and potentially annoy sniping victims, the ability to go prone returns. It's as annoying as ever to get picked off by camping recon players, but the kill cam and scope glint should tip observant players off about their location.

Rush, Team Deathmatch and the squad variants are solid modes, but with the return of 64-player matches, Conquest is once again the star of the multiplayer show. In my time on the game's pre-release servers, I never encountered lag. Even in massive battles featuring dozens of players and vehicles competing over a single flag, the action proceeded without the slightest hiccup. The size of the maps, variety of vehicles, and overall scale of Conquest rounds make for some fantastic moments that couldn't be recreated if you tried. During a match on the Operation Firestorm map, I was taking out enemy tanks by performing sweeping runs with my jet. After the opposing team lost a couple of vehicles, they sent their own fighter into the sky to hunt me down. Once my plane took too much punishment, I ejected and parachuted down to a nearby rooftop. As my teammates battled for flag control a couple of stories below me, I pulled out a stinger, locked onto my airborne attacker, and took the plane down with a homing rocket. I watched it crash about 100 feet in front of me, then hopped down to join the battle for the flag. These types of moments make the experience.

All nine maps that ship with "Battlefield 3" are fantastic regardless of mode, and unlike "Bad Company 2," you can play each map in any mode right out of the gate. The petroleum refineries of Operation Firestorm and the creeks and grassy hills of Caspian Border are my favorites of the bunch, but the other maps maintain a level of quality that reaffirms DICE is unrivaled in multiplayer level design. Even with the series' history of quality, I was surprised by the scale of these battlefields. At one point during a Rush round on Damavand Peak, I found myself in the passenger seat while a pilot struggled to maintain control of the helicopter. Fearing a crash, I bailed. As I parachuted towards the ground, I thought I was about to land outside of the map's boundaries considering how far away it was, but the objectives shifted as I was in mid-air and revealed that I was already well on my way to the next M-Com stations.

As exciting as the in-game action is, the method for jumping into matches is a hassle. Forcing players to exit the game menu to the Battlelog website when they want to switch between modes seems unnecessary, and I would have preferred to chat, manage my party, check server lists, and look at my stats from inside the game. The only thing Battlelog adds to the experience is a few additional steps to get to the action. Forming a party is easy if your desired squad members are already on your friends list, but communicating isn't trouble-free. Text chat is supported in standard multiplayer, but you'll have to back out of the game if you want to communicate with a co-op partner that doesn't have a headset. No matter what mode you're in, you'll have to hold the left shift button to speak to your party. Considering this is the same button as sprint, you'll run when you don't want to and your teammates will be able to hear you any time you're scurrying to the next objective. While Battlelog does have its issues, the act of actually forming parties and getting them into your game is simple (as long as you don't mind backing out of the game when you want to invite a friend). If your buddy hops online while you're in the middle of a round of Conquest, you just need to back out to Battlelog and drag him from your Com Center (friends list) to your game. From there, they'll automatically be added to your squad if there's room available.

Most "Battlefield" fans spend the majority of their time in the rewarding multiplayer, but this entry also delivers the series' most ambitious single-player campaign to date. While players filled the shoes of the jokesters of B Company in the Bad Company campaigns, "Battlefield 3" presents a dead-serious narrative about an imminent nuclear threat. You'll primarily play as Sgt. Blackburn, a soldier that's being interrogated about missing warheads as the story plays out via flashbacks. As I progressed through the seven-hour campaign, I couldn't ignore the numerous elements directly pulled from the "Call of Duty" format. By the time the end credits roll, you'll have assumed the roles of several globetrotting characters, taken out ground targets from a circling aircraft, witnessed several dramatic slow-motion deaths, partook in a tense sniping section with a fellow soldier, raced against the clock to stop a nuclear explosion, and sat through a scene clearly meant to shock players. While derivative, the campaign is consistently entertaining throughout. Tight gunplay, exciting set piece moments, and a more focused narrative than its primary competitor help to make this the best shooter campaign since "Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare."

"Battlefield" fans hoping for the most polished entry in the series won't be disappointed by this massive sequel. Multiplayer maintains the high level of quality DICE is known for, and the campaign is the best in franchise history. Outside of the annoying Battlelog and a tacked-on, uninspired co-op mode consisting of six short standalone missions, the only downside to "Battlefield 3" is the lack of substantial changes to the multiplayer formula. However, that shouldn't stop longtime fans and newcomers from enjoying one of the best FPS experiences in gaming.

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THE CONSOLE DIFFERENCE

Playing "Battlefield 3" on consoles is mostly the same experience as the PC version, but it's not identical. The game looks gorgeous no matter what system you're playing on, but you'll notice more pop-in and framerate drops on Playstation 3 and Xbox 360. Framerate tops out at 30fps, but occasional dips will occur if there is a lot of concentrated activity or several incoming vehicles at the same time. During an intense firefight on a bridge, I noticed a helicopter chugging along at a drastically reduced framerate at one point on the console version.

While the slight step down in terms of graphical quality might irk some, it doesn't really affect the gameplay. In terms of changing gameplay, the only significant difference between the two is the 32-player limit on consoles. These 32-player matches are great fun, but they don't have the impact that massive 64-player PC battles do. Maps are scaled down to accommodate this lower limit, so PC players will be playing on giant versions of maps that console players will never see. Even with the lower player count, I noticed occasional lag during console multiplayer bouts that I never ran into on PC. Console multiplayer may not operate on as big of a scale as the PC version, but at least it doesn't require you to deal with Battlelog every time you want to play the game or switch modes. "Battlefield 3" is a fantastic game regardless of system, but the PC version has the edge on its console brothers.

Console Score: 9.25

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