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Previews

Battlefield 3 hands-on: Stellar games need more than stellar guns

Weapons alone won't carry DICE to victory

If you look at the guns alone, Battlefield 3 is the perfect shooter. They're as mouth-watering as you'd expect from a studio with a decade's military FPS experience under its belt, lean and beguilingly hefty, positioned close enough to reality to woo anoraks, but far enough away to cushion those of us who sometimes forget which end does what. The US Marine varieties are laden with bleeding edge touches like infra-red scopes, while the shotguns and rifles you'll loot from your enemies are more primitive but no less personable, sporting worn breaches and stripped, skeletal barrels.

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Pull the trigger, and it's clear that DICE's ability to give distance combat the punch of Quake-style room clearing remains unparalleled. The trademark muted thump and fleeting X-marks-the-spot reticule are back, subtly yet insistently communicating the damage you're doing to the snipers hundreds of metres off. Close up and inside, gunshots and the yells of punctured gunmen bounce off environment geometry with such aplomb you'd swear the firefight took place in your living room. Weapon quality is rock-steady across the board, the same forceful attention to detail evident whether you're handling a silenced pistol or a drum-fed grenade launcher.

But shooters aren't judged by their guns alone. They're also judged by things like creative, stirring level design, by how effectively the campaign differentiates itself as a structure, by how the developer arranges enemies and weapon drops, elevations and cover spots, sandboxes and setpieces. And on this count, Battlefield 3's co-op and single player campaigns feel a little lukewarm.

Our hands-on features the missions Operation Guillotine and co-op outing Exfiltration. Both should be familiar from our most recent preview, but no worries if you missed it, because a passing knowledge of the khaki-clad blaster fraternity in general will tell you exactly what to expect. Operation Guillotine can be summarised as a trot down a hill, followed by a shoot-out across a river, followed by a cursory investigation of an apartment block. Exfiltration sees two players retrieving a defector from another apartment building (preferably on the sly), then running point for an APC convoy, commanding turret guns and eventually rigging obstacles with C4.

Neither is as impressive as the game's jaw-dropping and interestingly refined multiplayer offering. The co-op in particular disappoints, with little sign of the dynamic elements that supposedly add up to an addictive arcade replay fest. The action is broadest at the outset, players either "going loud" on unsuspecting guards (and hence triggering reinforcements) or taking them down stealthily with synchronised pistol shots, but settles into a serviceable peek-shoot rhythm once you leave the building. If there's any element of randomness to how and where enemies spawn, it's negligible, and for all the accompanying bluster, the turret sequences are pure fire-and-forget.

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The slight tepidity of the proceedings is accentuated by occasional technical lapses. Battlefield 3 is a very handsome game on the whole, offering large, beautiful character models and huge quantities of on-screen action, but beneath the turned-to-11 marketing shots there lurks a patchier visual feast. Entering an apartment block, we unload a shotgun at a plush leather armchair and the muzzle flash erupts behind and around it, as though the object were pasted to the surface of the screen. The shot kicks up dust, but when it clears the chair is unmarked - a far cry from the destruction we encounter later, as tiles shower from pillars under fire.

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