In this screen grab image provided by Electronic Arts, soldiers make their way down an alley in the video game "Battlefield 3." (AP Photo/Electronic Arts)
"Call of Duty" games have been dominating the world of console online shooters in recent years, but another series that built much of its devoted following on the PC is making a strong push for its share of that space.
"Battlefield 3" ($59.99, for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC) is the latest installment from Electronic Arts and Swedish developer Dice, and its expansive maps, amazing selection of vehicles and intense gunfights are sure to keep gamers logging their online hours.
Sure, it's war, but the game makes war look as gorgeous as it possibly can with beautifully designed maps that come to life with incredible detail and lighting.
The Xbox 360 version comes on two discs — one for campaign mode and one for multiplayer — and suggests installation of an HD texture pack to bring out its full visuals. It's well worth the storage space.
The game has a short campaign mode, but it's clearly secondary to the online play so I'll touch on that later.
"Battlefield 3" really shines in online multiplayer, offering rush, squad rush, squad death match, team death match and conquest modes that are engaging and fun,
The intense 24-person battles are particularly fun in some of the tighter urban maps such as Grand Bazaar in Tehran. My favorite is Operation Metro in Paris, particularly when your squad finds itself under heavy fire and has to duck into some of the nooks around the map's subway section.
The key to surviving and scoring some kills in the smaller maps is moving fast and finding cover, but the game takes on a much different feel in expansive levels such as Operation Firestorm. Sure, you can hoof it on foot all the way to the oil refinery, but why not jump into a fighter jet or attack helicopter to save the wear and tear on those new boots?
The selection of vehicles in the game is astounding: tanks, armored personnel carriers, Humvees, amphibious assault vehicles, rigid-hulled inflatable boats and the aforementioned aircraft. Having a few mixed into a firefight can feel like sheer chaos at times.
Games in the "Battlefield" series and its "Bad Company" counterpart have always focused on teamwork, and this installment is no exception.
The class-based system gets past the typical online shooter goal of simply firing on every bad guy that comes into the cross hairs. Players can take on different roles of providing suppressing fire, handing out ammo to comrades or reviving downed squad members.
It's nice to have a bad session in which you barely get a kill, yet still get some points for helping to secure an area or weaken an enemy before a fellow squad member gets the final kill.
The game's launch was not without its glitches, with many game owners taking to the Internet to blog and tweet about early server issues. The Xbox 360 version, a week after its debut, was still warning about a problem with the Quick Match feature and suggested choosing servers manually. But I personally didn't notice any problems jumping into battle on both EA's and Dice's online servers.
The brief campaign mode, which should take no more than six to eight hours to complete, follows a story told by Sgt. Henry Blackburn, a Marine under suspicion of treason with information on a potential terrorist attack.
It jumps right into the action, throwing Blackburn into an intense battle with members of a militant Iranian insurgency on a moving train. But then it quickly slides into a military interrogation room with him recounting the events leading up to that scene.
The rest of the campaign scenes are flashbacks of what happened before, which is disappointing because it feels like you're simply acting out events that have already taken place.
The game also offers co-op mode, allowing a player to team up with an online partner to tackle scenes loosely based on the campaign with the goal of unlocking some additional weapons.
We'll soon see what new bells and whistles "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3" brings to the multiplayer online shooter arena, but until then, I'll be spending as much time as I can playing "Battlefield 3."
Three-and-a-half stars out of four.