I'm writing this in short bursts at the keyboard, stopping every sentence or two to swivel in my chair slightly, turn a little toward the television and pick up a controller.
A, A, A. I press the Xbox 360's green face button three times and wait. Sometimes the message pops up immediately: "You have lost connection to the session."
Sometimes, like just moments ago, I get in a full round of play, maybe two, before the game kicks me out with an error message. Sometimes I get in a full night of play.
It's a testament to Battlefield 3's lively online carnage that I'm slogging forth. Evidence that no matter how sour the experience may become thanks to an overwhelming abundance of early technical issues, I'll keep trying to play. I can't get enough of Battlefield's online warfare.
There's a lot that separates Battlefield 3's timbre of play from that of its rival Call of Duty. Every time I drop into a round it's the sounds of the game that grab me first. In the distance I can hear the percussion of heavy gunfire, mixed with a nearby higher pitched clangor. The rumble and pops, the sizzling gunplay in the streets, the destruction, the near misses are overlaid by shouts of pain and anger. Sometimes this soundtrack of war tears through the more natural sounds of rain hitting pavement or my footsteps. This wave of sound crashes over me every time I drop into the game and no matter how many times I play it, it momentarily unsteadies me. I swivel around looking for safety, for action, for direction, but that game's open vistas, its mammoth maps always seems to confuse me.
Eventually I do get my bearings and head off toward the closest sound of gunfire. Battlefield 3 allows you to spawn in a location you choose after you die (or at the start of the match). Your decision can drop you in the middle of crossfire or a five-minute walk from anything. If you decide to become a member of a squad, you also have the option of appearing next to your squadmates, often in the throes of battle.
The reward for being a squad member, not having to wander a battlefield in search of action, augments one of the key components of Battlefield 3: It's heavy reliance on teamwork.
While it's hard to play the role of a strictly support member, each of the game's classes provides you with not just a weapon, but a non-killing way to help out your teammates. You can heal teammates, repair vehicles, provide ammo, or secure a place for people to pop in next to you even if they're not in your squad. Each of these classes level up separately. This provides an incentive for players to choose a class early they want to master and stick to it. It's a smart way to get people to focus their efforts in a genre that too often is about players not working together. The classes all naturally work together to form a unit that is more effective as a group than each individual is separately. This is a basic component of Battlefield games, but it's nice to see that it survived the game's latest iteration.
It's obvious that developers EA Digital Illusions CE didn't just take everything they had done before in a Battlefield game and throw it into this one. Their choices seem selective, crafted around an experience they wanted to expand. And for the most part, it was an effective set of decisions.
There are some dazzling additions. You can, for instance, pin down an enemy player by firing directly at them. This suppressive fire blurs the vision of the other player, making it hard for them to fire back and hit you. More importantly, caught up in the moment at the receiving and of that stream of bullets, it rattles you, gets you to sometimes make stupid in-game decisions. Another class has a flashlight that can blind a player temporarily.
There are vehicles, tanks, jeeps, planes, helicopters, to get into and use in battle, a hallmark of the Battlefield franchise. But delivered to an experience so soaked in action, sound and visuals, the addition of vehicles create spectacular experiences that often made me stop and gawp at what was going on around me.
The game's sense of scale, augmented by massive maps, high body counts and vehicles, help to create experiences that feel more like war than do shooters that by comparison deliver a relatively claustrophobic experience. These online matches are sprawling, rolling engagements won or lost by collective effort.
But as of this writing I still struggle to get into the game and play it. It's a gamble. From the top of this article to this point in it I've managed one connection and a lengthy series of matches. Every other attempt has been met with an error. There are times when the PC version is much better, but early issues with the game's anti-cheating Punkbuster software often resulted in matches that lasted seconds, rather than minutes.
The game's struggle with getting and staying online is heightened by the fact that online is the only way I want to play this game. I carefully picked my way through the game's campaign, but was left cold by how technically flawed the experience was.
Missing character animation, strange enemy behavior, rollercoaster difficulty and surprising offline lag marred what could have been at least an interesting story. In the fiction of Battlefield 3 you play as several characters, but the mainstay is a Staff Sergeant Henry Blackburn. The game uses a debriefing by the CIA to walk you through a series of flashbacks, in medias res—a familiar story-telling trick in the genre. Instead of heightening the experience, using those flashbacks to cut through the boring preamble that often mark a gameplay level, this approach confuses things a bit too much. I did enjoy that the story was attempting a different take from the jingoism typical found in first-person shooters, but it mostly got lost in the clutter.
Coupled with strangely out-of-sync quick time event, the campaign wraps up as, at best, a forgettable experience. While the campaign's early level's disjointed delivery and hodge-podge gameplay left me confused, the single-player experience started to gel about half-way through the game. I enjoyed the single player of Call of Duty: Black Ops. While a bit too short, I also enjoyed Medal of Honor's story. But Battlefield 3's never quite approaches either. There were a few key moments, especially one level that involved some surprisingly effective use of camo, that approached the sense of wonder delivered in nearly every online match of Battlefield 3, but it was rare and never fully hit its stride.
The game also include cooperative levels, but these too need to be played online. They're also rather short and not very inspired.
Which brings us back to the experience people will spend most of their time playing in Battlefield 3. The multiplayer. When it works, it's spectacular. The game courted a bit of controversy with it's use of Electronic Art's in-house, relatively new online service Origin. While I was worried about this new service, Origin hasn't been as problematic as I expected it would be. I enjoy being able to log into a site and see my stats on both console and PC in one place. I like that I can chat with Battlefield buddies and, for the PC version, quickly join them in battle.
The inability to host my own server, unless I'm missing something, is disappointing, but it also seems to be a sign of the times.
I'm delighted that in their pursuit of Call of Duty's enviable spot at the top of record-breaking game sales, Electronic Arts created an online experience that isn't just better in many ways, it's different. It also, as of this writing, remains broken. Hopefully that will change soon.
[This review was drafted on Friday; as of today, EA claims most online problems are resolved. –Ed.]