Electronic Arts launched its Battlefield 3 multiplayer open beta test today for fans of the combat series. EA opened the game to all players on the PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 in advance of the game’s official launch on Oct. 25.

This game is one of the potential blockbusters of the fall season, and it represents EA’s big challenge to market leader Activision Blizzard and its Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3 title, which debuts in November. If EA gets this one right, it could generate hundreds of millions of dollars in sales from one game alone. The multiplayer beta is EA’s way of kicking the tires on the massive server infrastructure required to handle this kind of high-intensity game.

EA has released a single battle map called Operation Metro, the same one that the company showed off at the E3 conference and at a company event earlier this summer. To get the game, I had to sign up for EA’s Origin digital downloading service and then log into Battlelog, the online social network for Battlefield gamers on the PC. I also downloaded the game beta to my Xbox 360 game console. I was looking forward to getting a good look at the graphics of the game, as this kind of title lives or dies on whether it looks real or fake.

After I downloaded Origin, I got my first look at Battlelog, which will compete with Activision Blizzard’s Call of Duty Elite social network. EA hasn’t previously disclosed much about Battlelog. It looks pretty basic as an online service.

Pictured at top, Battlelog’s main page shows you the options you have for playing (only multiplayer quick match is available now). It shows what your avatar character looks like, tells you your rank, and says what rewards and unlocks are coming up. If you want to drill down on it, you can see your player stats and change details on your profile.

You can also jump right into a game. Naturally, that was the first thing I wanted to do after downloading the three gigabyte file for the beta. But the server seems overloaded today, as the game manager can’t find an open match for me. If I can get into the PC version, I’ll do an update, as the graphics on the PC should look much better.

Update: I managed to get into the PC version, after downloading a special Nvidia driver patch for the beta test. The graphics on the PC were awesome. The smoke, flames and glaring lights can blind you temporarily. But it’s cool to look through the sniper scope and see some ultra-real imagery. You can shoot at enemies who look like real soldiers, not just little stick figures. That’s what Battlefield is all about, giving you a sense of realism.

It took a while for me to get used to the mouse and keyboard, so I made an easy target for the other team. But once I did, I was having some fun. The first thing I had to learn to do by necessity was to use the “Z” key to go prone. I found that if I stuck my head up, I would get shot. I played a couple of rounds now and have had a very hard time shooting anybody, though I’ve gotten some assists. I’ll see if I can get into a mode where I can stay alive for a longer period and actually enjoy myself. If I can, then the PC version could be a real challenger for the Call of Duty game. End update.

So I switched to the Xbox 360 and was able to get into a match pretty quickly. I pulled out my assault rifle and was immediately shot by an enemy camped directly in front of the spawn point. I respawned on top of some rocks looking out across a park in Paris near a couple of combat targets. I was placed into a squad on the attacking team, and our goal was to arm and detonate a couple of bombs at the target sites. I ran across the grass, got shot, and did this a few times until I figured out what the enemies looked like. You have to quickly distinguish the little red indicators for enemies compared to the blue and green ones for friendlies. I lined up my cross hairs on some targets but couldn’t really hit targets that were far away with the assault rifle, which has very coarse cross hairs.

I shot one or two guys but was getting beat pretty bad, so I switched to a sniper rifle. That worked much better. Once I figured out how to duck, I found I could move along the barriers, bushes and rocks of the park and pick off some of the attackers. It was exceedingly hard to shoot anyone who was moving at an angle, mainly due to the lag. First day lag is to be expected, so I didn’t mind it so much. Hopefully, EA will correct that problem over time. The graphics looked reasonably good and the game moved somewhat faster, but it was a lot slower than Call of Duty Black Ops, which runs twice as fast. The Xbox 360 version didn’t look nearly as good as some of the trailers that EA showed earlier this year. But it was good enough to be worth of the Battlefield name. The Xbox 360 version looked pretty much the same as the PlayStation 3, which I played earlier this summer.

Our team managed to blow up the bombs. After that, you advance further on the map and push the enemy into the underground train tunnels. There, the sniper rifle wasn’t as useful, as close combat was a lot more common. I switched back to the assault rifle. The game play is interesting, since you can earn points for your team by throwing out ammo or health packs. When you’re under heavy fire, the screen blurs. That makes it hard to shoot back. That is called being suppressed, and you can earn points when you do that to the enemy. Some of these features are particularly good for novice players, who aren’t as likely to get kills.

Players can lie down prone, but the graphics don’t look so pretty when you do that. Overall, EA has a competitive game that will be a contender for one of the most popular blockbusters of the year. If it can fix the lag problems on the network in the coming month before the official launch, that would be good. Having played Modern Warfare 3 multiplayer, I still have to say that I like Call of Duty multiplayer better, mainly because of the faster graphics and more accurate shooting. But EA is at least in the same arena now.

EA’s advantages include bigger battles, the use of playable vehicles such as tanks, more accurate physics, and destructible environments. We’ll find out soon enough what gamers think about it.