How do you take down a game like Call of Duty? Record-breaking launch after record-breaking launch has propelled Activision's epic shooter franchise into an unrivalled number-one spot — which is exactly where rival publisher EA wants to sit.
Battlefield 3 (EA)
So this year, EA is taking the first shot with Battlefield 3, which releases a good two weeks in advance of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. Boasting a flashy, best-in-class engine and a huge marketing blitz, Battlefield 3 appeared on shelves this week accompanied by a slew of glowing reviews for the PC versions, but a curious lack of comment on its accompanying Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 releases.
That's a break from the usual editorial routine, which typically ranks the PC versions of cross-platform games as an afterthought to the consoles. The reason? If you believe the scuttlebutt, publisher EA only sent out early console review copies to a handful of critics, and made a bunch of tweaks and bug-fixes to the game in a patch that only went live the moment the game launched.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the PC version is scoring better than its console siblings. Lots better. A tight field of excellent PC scores currently puts its average at a tremendous 92%, well ahead of the 82% critics have thus far awarded the Xbox 360 version.
Why the difference? The PC version is bigger, for one thing. In multiplayer, it supports up to 64 players, whereas on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 it's limited to 24 at a time and has scaled-down maps to suit the lower headcount. If you have the PC to meet its steep system requirements, it's an absolutely stunning-looking game. In short, it's a game that was written with a potent gaming PC in mind, and then scaled down for consoles, and that's a rare thing these days.
On all its platforms, though, reviewers universally lean towards the multiplayer portion of the game. Battlefield 3's single-player and co-op campaigns come in for indifference at best, and outright unpleasantness at worst.
"This portion of the game," says 1UP in what's otherwise a glowing write-up, "really is a round of terrorist whack-a-mole, just like Call of Duty. You'll face an unending wave of brain-dead suicidal terrorists until you manage to inch your way up to whatever checkpoint controls enemy spawning, take a few seconds' break, and do the whole thing all over again. It's not bad, but it is frankly uninspired."
Contrast that with IGN's Peter Eykemans waxing lyrical on the PC game's expansive multiplayer.
"From the beaches of Kharg Island to the hills of Damavand Peak, Battlefield 3's multiplayer maps provide an immediate sense of scale. Everything about their design screams size, personalization, and the need to take creative initiative to succeed....Battlefield 3's multiplayer is about the freedom of choice."
Calling the game "an absolutely massive experience," Gamespy falls broadly in line with IGN's praise.
"It's the explosive multiplayer mode that makes this the must-have FPS of the year," say writers B. Ring and M. Sharkey . "There's simply no other shooter that lets you wage war on a scale this huge, but even better is the infinite number of satisfying ways to lay the hurt down on your opponents."
So whether or not you should buy Battlefield 3 depends entirely on what sort of gamer you are. Have a top-flight gaming PC and love an engrossing multiplayer challenge? For you, this is a Game of the Year contender. Prefer to play on consoles and don't care much for multiplayer? Unless you're a committed Battlefield fan, we'd suggest waiting just two short weeks until Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 hits. The war is on.
Also new this week:
Dance Central 2
First of the week's big Kinect releases, Dance Central 2 lets you put your left leg in (and your left leg out) to everything from Daft Punk to Bananarama. Scoring well with reviewers, it even landed an A from 1UP's Christina Troup, who commented: "I've got fist pump fever, and the only prescription is more Dance Central 2." Who are we to argue with that?
Kirby's Return to Dreamland
Let's not beat around the bush: it's been a quiet few months for great Wii exclusives. Heck, it's been a quiet year for great Wii exclusives. Still, this week sees the latest Kirby platformer hitting Nintendo's flagship console, and it's sucking down a good-to-great set of review scores to boot. It's the perfect game to tide you over until next month's superb-looking Zelda: Skyward Sword.
'Tis the season for dressing up as Disney characters -- and as luck would have it, that's exactly what Disney Universe lets you do. As you romp through its Lego Star Wars-style co-op action-adventure gameplay, you'll be able to don the mantle of the mouse himself, together with over 40 of his pals.
If Battlefield 3 and the forthcoming Modern Warfare 3 aren't enough to sate your first-person shooter needs for the time being, we suggest seeking medical attention. If that's not going to cut it, you could try this Kinect-compatible shooter based on the actions of the controversial guns-for-hire. But we suggest you wait for some reviews, as early buzz on this release has been decidedly mixed. Mixed, as in mixed between "bad" and "terrible." Tread with care.
Kinect Sports: Season Two
You know the drill. Kinect Sports. With football, golf, baseball, tennis, darts, and skiing. Plus voice control, quicker multiplayer setup, and a new challenge mode. Generic though it might sound, it's attracting a surprisingly strong set of review scores thanks to, well, just being darn good fun. It's a good week to be a Kinect owner.
Castle sim Stronghold reaches its third installment this week, bringing its unique blend of economic management, siege battles, and real-time strategy combat to a new level. Sounds a little dry? Not a chance. Consider that among Stronghold 3's weaponry is the ability to launch a sackful of diseased badgers -- yes, badgers -- over the walls to infect your foe's peasants. Developer Firefly Studios has always had a quirky sense of humor, and it looks like Stronghold 3 is keeping up the tradition.