Before we get into it, a few Battlefield 3 play notes: I'm running the Xbox 360 version, because that arrived first, and the PC version's still downloading from EA's Origin servers this morning. The 360 version comes on two DVDs: one for solo play, the other for multiplayer. Nothing to sniff about, but plan on installing the high-definition texture pack to your hard disk if you want stuff like the signs to be legible or the zigzag tread on tires to look like they'd pass legal muster. If you want to see the difference between "standard" and "high definition," there's a helpful video here.
Size-wise, you'll have to sacrifice 1.5 GB of your hard disk for the high-def texture pack. Total install size for both discs, plus the install pack, plus a 167 MB pre-play downloadable update, is 15.5 GB. So it's basically like installing all of Final Fantasy XIII (three discs), or a game like Lost Odyssey (a four DVD game) to your hard drive.
If you want to play online, you have to redeem an "online pass." It's included with the game, but—and I realize this isn't news—buying the game used, down the line, will require you purchase an online pass from EA for 800 Microsoft Points, or $10. Once redeemed (or purchased), you'll download a small 108 KB file that unlocks Battlefield 3's multiplayer mode. But I'm going to talk about the single-player game here, since I'm planning to do MP on my PC, and the campaign's how most of you are going to greet Battlefield 3 after you've finished installing, updating, registering, and when all that's finished 30 minutes to an hour later, finally bringing up the load screen (like I said, your Xbox 360 is now officially a PC).
Off the block, Battlefield 3's solo campaign feels awkward. The bad guys seem capable of targeting you with aplomb as you hide behind objects like train seats, but react at the speed of molasses if you suddenly step into the train car's middle aisle, eschewing protection, to mow them down, point blank. They're also ghost-like, leaving syrupy pools of blood, but their bodies blink out of existence moments after dying (do a full view rotate, and poof, they're gone). At first it's like playing a much older game, where bodies vanished to save processing cycles, but here it eventually starts to screw with the feedback mechanics (more on that in a moment).
Shortly after the "hey-I'm-on-a-train, no-idea-why!" intro, you wind up in the sequence trumpeted this summer to show off the game's visuals. It sure looks nice for a game running on a six-year-old console, somewhere between the Ghost Recon games and Crysis 2 if it matters, but things tend to alias out past 100 yards, complicating long-range gunplay and basic tactical planning. Note that if you have even a modestly powerful PC of recent vintage, you're stepping well down the visual ladder, playing either of the console versions.
As is customary in this sort of military shooter, everyone else in your squad tends to be garrulous and fond of four-letter words, while you're mute and mostly yelled at. The backstory's all but nonexistent (you're in Iraq a few years from now), and the enemy, when he finally shows up, is shooting gallery fare. We're talking a caricature of enemy tactics here: These guys tumble obliviously over the sides of walls and run from behind corners, easily picked off by you a couple dozen feet away. In fact they'll often run up right beside your swatch of cover (I mean exactly beside you) and ignore you until you turn and fire. DICE's idea of a challenge seems to involve overwhelming instead of outsmarting you. No one's this dumb or suicidal, save in this game, as the enemies pile up around objects like snow that you "shovel" with your gun until the game blinks them out of existence and the process repeats.
That said, playing on the hardest difficulty setting, a single bullet can kill you dead, so you have to exercise basic battlefield care, but it rarely involves more than finding some cover and popping up for shots. You'd think a game called Battlefield might involve actual battlefield tactics, and the game has some—"Stay away from the cars!" shouts one guy, because the cars tend to blow up—but by and large, hunkering behind corrugated metal or slabs of concrete (or even cars, most of the time) and picking off enemy drones wins the day.
I mentioned distance aliasing before. That's a problem when you're playing "spot the guy with the RPG," which'll more likely be in your face before you've had a chance to think about reacting. I mean that it oten takes time it shouldn't to sort distant threats from graphics-engine noise. I'm betting this'll be a bigger problem in multiplayer (in the console versions), where the maps are freeform and huge, not broken into linear runs, as in the campaign.
Sometimes your teammates will come up and knock you out of cover because teammate scripting trumps all (they're immovable objects if you try to push back). Enemies often pop into existence, and I mean that literally—they'll visibly appear out of thin are before charging for cover or taking aim at you, reinforcing the sense that you're just a gamer in a shooting cauldron, not a soldier fighting a dynamic, tactically intelligent foe. Scripting overrules realism, too, so an enemy pushing up a metal gate is impervious to a hail of bullets until the action (of opening the gate) is finished. And getting back to the disappearing bodies thing, that's a serious problem: If you're shooting through smoke or fire from barrels, especially at night or in the dark, you can't verify your kills, thus frustrating your ability to tell whether your ballistic approach was effective or not. Assuming Battlefield 3 cares at all about battle realism, that's a schoolboy design flaw, to say nothing of the ethical implications (battlefield sanitization?) when you've wrapped your game in a controversial current event.
Battlefield 3's solo campaign in a word: unimpressive. In a letter, probably a C or C-minus. Not that I'm shocked: The core/trunk Battlefield games are online animals, and that's what I'm hoping to rediscover when I fire up multiplayer on my PC this afternoon.