Battlefield 3 is easily the most important holiday release for Electronic Arts. All year the publisher has aggressively hyped the DICE-developed sequel as a Call of Duty-killer, and with Modern Warfare 3 still two weeks from release, EA has the vital first-to-market advantage. Although EA seems to have bet the farm on this title, analysts still expect Modern Warfare 3 to outperform Battlefield 3 by a 2:1 margin. Last year’s Call of Duty game, Call of Duty: Black Ops, generated over $1 billion in revenuewithin its first six weeks on the market.

Unfortunately, a host of technical shortcomings and a disappointing overall package make Battlefield 3 not only one of the biggest blunders of 2011, but it also positions rival Activision Blizzard’s upcoming blockbuster to be the clear winner of the first-person-shooter fight that, ironically, EA picked.

The game debuted on Oct. 25, on the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC. This review is for the Xbox 360 version.

Single-player offers tons of expletives, not much else

I’m not going to spend too much time on the single-player portion of the game, since obviously the developer didn’t either. One of the most common things you’ll be hearing (or saying, if you’re a rabid Battlefield apologist) is that Battlefield 3 didn’t need single-player, and that it’s all about the multiplayer anyway. I find it hard to swallow that a seasoned triple-A developer such as DICE (Mirror’s Edge, Battlefield series–including the story-driven Bad Company spin-offs) should not be expected to deliver single-player campaign in their biggest release yet just because they’re not good at it. It’s like saying Anna Kournikova doesn’t need to play well to be a great pro tennis player simply because she looks good on the court. Battlefield 3’s campaign is mercifully brief, clocking in at an average of five hours, even on the hardest difficulty setting. I have no problem with the brevity of games like this. I actually prefer shorter games, so long as they’re engaging and entertaining, and eschew the endless room-clearing, wave-spawning nonsense that most games implement to artificially increase the playtime listed on the back of the box.

While Battlefield 3’s campaign isn’t particularly horrible, it is soulless. Regardless of how good a level looked (assuming the HD texture pack is installed), I always had this nagging familiarity as if I had already been there in one or more of the hundreds of shooters to come before it. At least it should be fun to blow stuff up, right? After all, the upgraded Frostbite 2 engine is the leader in physics-based destructible environments in the industry, according to EA. Sadly, any meaningful destruction is few and far between, and it’s all scripted. Likewise, the few dynamic destructible walls or environments are very limited, and look like a piece of hard candy that’s been snapped in half, rather than an actual building that’s been eviscerated by a rocket.

Who the hell are these characters, and what are they going on about?

DICE decided to copy Infinity Ward’s (Call of Duty Modern Warfare developer) multi-character narrative, yet forget to duplicate their superior story-telling and tension-building. Some of the playable main characters talk, some of them are inexplicably mute. It is completely asinine for a fighter jet co-pilot to not speak during take-off, when spoken to, or during an actual dogfight with enemy targets. The supporting characters all talk, but in-between F-bombs they don’t really have anything interesting to say, nor are they fleshed out the same way the cast was in Battlefield Bad Company. And don’t you dare take cover where your artificial intelligence (AI) comrades are scripted to go, lest you literally be pushed out into enemy fire by your selfish and invulnerable squadmates.

The game is also lacking that “epic factor” that even the shooter games Crysis and Homefront were able to capture to some extent, and that the Call of Duty series is so well-known for. In addition to all the aforementioned reasons, the musical score straddles the line between underwhelming and non-existent. Am I the only person who noticed that they seemed to outright lift their new “theme” from the Terminator: Salvation trailer?

The single-player campaign begins and ends in a sitting, and there are a few decent moments interspersed throughout, but it’s all just so hollow. I will give credit to DICE for creating what I feel is the best dogfight sequence in any game to date. I’ve struggled for years to enjoy games like Ace Combat and HAWX, and I’m grateful that I’ve finally gotten it out of my system, even if I did so on-rails, where your pathway is pre-determined. The last stage is also the game’s most unique and exciting sequence (though also the most implausible as any New Yorker will know). It’s just unfortunate they couldn’t extend that level of energy and urgency to the rest of the game.

There’s also a handful of co-op missions, though these are essentially variants of the single-player content for you and a friend to suffer through together. Like any disappointing Hollywood blockbuster, if you’ve seen the Battlefield 3 trailer, you’ve already derived about as much enjoyment out of the single-player as this game has to offer.

Next page: Multiplayer offers few surprises

Multiplayer is tried and true, but nothing new

DICE has been in the Battlefield business for nearly a decade now, with the first installment, Battlefield 1942, releasing in 2002. Although I’ve played every single iteration since, my favorite remains to be Battlefield 2 for the PC. Up until then I had been playing Return to Castle Wolfenstein (released in 2001) non-stop, so Battlefield 2’s massive, wide-open Conquest maps and gratuitous vehicular warfare were the perfect complement to Wolfenstein’s generally tighter quarters. I remember hopping in a fighter jet at my camp, boosting over to my objective and parachuting out. It never got old, and I’ve been waiting for the next evolution of that experience ever since.

Battlefield 3 is not that game.There are an ample number of modes to play, including the signature Conquest mode, where two teams of up to 12 players each attempt to take control of capture points spread across the large maps. Other modes include Squad Rush, Squad Deathmatch, and for the first time since Battlefield 1942, Team Deathmatch. Although they all offer something slightly different, I prefer Rush, where teams are split into Attackers and Defenders. The Attacking team must race to destroy the enemy’s MCOM stations before time runs out. Each time two are destroyed, the Defenders are pushed back to a new area and must attempt to stave off the Attackers. It keeps things fast and furious, and the constant change of scenery prevents the surroundings from getting stale, though the random invisible barriers can be frustrating.

There are four classes to choose from, each with their own unique purpose on the battlefield. The Engineer is proficient at repairing and destroying vehicles, while the Assault can drop medic packs or revive fallen comrades. There are also tons of weapons, accessories, and specializations (ie. perks) to unlock for each kit, though I’m not particularly fond of Battlefield 3’s setup. Anyone coming into the game a week after launch is going to be sorely outgunned, regardless of skill. Just having a reflex scope on a starter weapon makes all the difference in a gun battle. This system is a growing, industry-wide practice, but so is paying for on-disc “DLC.” It doesn’t make it okay.

Battlefield 3’s multiplayer is mostly the same as it has always been, but there are a number of notable, suboptimal mechanics bringing the entire affair down. Whether it’s the annoying inability to exit multiplayer before or after a match (you have to load the next match and then quit in-game) or the plethora of glitches, many of which are leftover from the beta and were seemingly not addressed in the day one 167 megabyte patch that you have to download. As I mentioned before, the destruction engine is drastically underutilized, and there’s no denying that the home console versions being restricted to 24 players (as opposed to the PC’s 64) has vastly diminished the intended Battlefield experience.

For a franchise as seasoned as Battlefield, there are a lot of components that just don’t seem to be as polished as they should be. In both single-player and multiplayer, other characters are not always clearly designated as friend or foe until it’s too late. I spent five minutes chasing some poor kid around unloading clip after clip into him because the game never registered his name on my screen or his icon on the map. He turned out to be on my team. This kind of fighting assumes you can even see who’s around you, as there’s always some thick cloud of smoke or dust reducing visibility. Worse yet are the “smudges” that appear on your screen for a variety of reasons. It’s not the same as the suppression effect, which actually makes sense, when your vision is blurred because you’re being shot at; this is just DICE trying to be artsy and realistic and failing in a very obnoxious way.

Knifing an enemy from behind is occasionally shoddy, especially if they’re crouching or prone, and players equipped with mortars have already found ways to infinitely spam enemy objectives with an impenetrable wall of explosions. Perhaps the most amateurish design flaw, however, is the archaic respawn system. When placed in a squad, you can respawn on any living member at their precise location. In many cases, this will either be right in the middle of a firefight where you’ll die before your HUD even appears, or you’ll often see one enemy, then turn around and three of his friends have magically appeared right behind him. It’s extremely unbalanced, and something DICE should really have figured out at this point. The squad system itself is broken, as you will often be separated from your friends when starting a new round.

DICE never learns

Like literally every game since Battlefield 1942, Battlefield 3 suffers from severe server issues. This does not just mean lag or random disconnects, which do happen, but rather the EA Online servers have been going up and down for hours at-a-time, effectively cutting day-one purchasers off from the only redeeming portion of the game. Last year, EA offered the poorly reviewed Medal of Honor up against Activision Blizzard’s Call of Duty Black Ops, which outsold the EA title several times over. It’s even more absurd after EA CEO John Riccitiello’s chest-thumping, insisting that Battlefield 3 was superior to Modern Warfare 3 in every way, and the fact that multiplayer requires an EA Online Pass just to access.

All things considered, the many issues Battlefield 3 on the Xbox 360 is suffering from are inexcusable, and when the game is working, what’s there is not particularly exceptional. I’m somewhat confident that over the next few months the servers will be stabilized, gameplay balances will be made, DLC will be released, and bugs will be fixed, but I’m not a fortune teller, and there’s a reason this review isn’t called “Battlefield 3: 28 days later.” For potential customers looking for the best version of Battlefield 3, you may want to seek out the PC version instead.

Rating: 69 out of 100