The way I see it, Battlefield 3 and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 aren't really competitors. They're just two modern shooters that happen to be coming out two weeks apart from each other.
When I suggest this to Kevin O'Leary, brand manager for Battlefield 3, he's quick to agree. But he's also quick to point out why he thinks Electronic Arts' flavor of modern warfare might fare well against Activision's.
But before I entertained somewhat subtle argument by O'Leary for why Battlefield 3 might be better than Modern Warfare 3, I watch him play Battlefield 3 on a Playstation 3.
The console version is less impressive than the computer version, but not in a way I find functionally meaningful. The gameplay I watch unfold before me takes place in the campaign. What differences I see between it and Modern Warfare 3 are so subtle that they'd likely be lost on all but die-hard fans of either series.
In the scene, O'Leary guides a soldier through a building and into a courtyard where his team of soldiers are assaulted by enemies in nearby buildings. At first blush this is another modern-day shooter. But then I notice that O'Leary's return fire is chipping away at the low wall behind which an enemy is hiding. The visual and audio fidelity of the game is also impressively different than Modern Warfare—more realistic.
There's not a lot here, though, to show what separates a Modern Warfare 3 from a Battlefield 3. But this isn't where games like this live. Multiplayer, online gameplay is the bread and butter of most modern shooters. And it's online where the games feel so very different.
There's something about the way the two games present in multiplayer that make them feel like entirely different games. A fan of Battlefield 3's online play may not like Modern Warfare 3 and vice versa. There's also a different skill set, a subtle difference, but one that can make quite a difference in a gamer's successes in one game versus the other.
I mention this to O'Leary. I don't think that these two games are really competitors—not for the people who play them.
O'Leary agrees. So does the executive producer of the game, Patrick Bach, who's said in the past that Battlefield 3 is not trying to be Modern Warfare 3.
"Our game focuses on this battlefield experience. Even if it's not a big map it feels like a big map," O'Leary says when I ask him to explain why shooter fans like myself may view the games as very different. "We give you so many tools; you can choose your vehicles, your weapons, your class."
These choices directly impact they way you play online as well. If you choose a class armed with an rocket-propelled grenade because you want to take out tanks, and then find there are none to take out, you're going to change your class.
The inclusion of destructibility and vehicles also has a major impact on the feel of the game.
The end result is a shooter that at its core feels like a much more objective-driven, holistic approach to warfare, rather that a deep dive into the ground soldier's war.
That doesn't make one game better or worse. It just makes them different.
And at first O'Leary sort of seems on board with that notion, saying that this is a "fantastic year" for gamers because there are so many great games coming out.
"People can go for this sort of first-person shooter or that first-person shooter or say ‘Do I want both?'" he says. "We expect that a lot of people will go for both."
Then O'Leary mentions a phrase I've not heard before: Ultra-hit buyers. That's Modern Warfare 3's big advantage in this competition between non-competitors.
When O'Leary uses the phrase I interrupt him, asking him to explain what he means.
Ultra-hit buyers, he says, are the people who buy a game because it's hugely popular or because their friends bought it, not necessarily because it is the best option.
It's those opinion makers that Electronic Arts is hoping to win over with Battlefield 3. Shift their interests from Modern Warfare 3, goes the plan, and EA could win the war.
"We want to win over the hardcore guys who may be on the fence," he said. "We want to do that with Frostbite 2."
Frostbite 2 is the engine that runs Battlefield 3, the engine that allows for destructible environments, impressive graphics and—unfortunately—a lower frame rate on the console than Modern Warfare.
On a computer, both Modern Warfare and Battlefield play at 60 frames per a second (or more), but Battlefield drops to 30 on a console.
But the frames per second are ancillary to the experience. Battlefield 3 is about "how do you deliver the best all-out war experience," O'Leary said . "It's 30 frames per a second on console, but we have destruction, vehicles, a new animation system."
"It's not about a number. It's about the full experience."