Battlefield 3 is a creature of contradiction. On the one hand, it's everything games should be about - a trip to worlds few of us will ever glimpse, an operatic war-scape wrought to screaming pitch by what is undoubtedly a next-gen engine in waiting. There are cut-scenes enough to fill out a box blurb, but much of the drama derives from sheer kinesis: office blocks collapsing into flakes of brick and plaster, the aural white-out of a grenade going off, and the drunken flop of punctured bodies.
Frostbite 2's difficulties on Xbox 360 hinder, but ultimately don't hobble DICE's panoramic aspirations. Yes, the textures won't match what you'd see on a nitrogen-cooled super-computer, but those textures make up environments of an unrivalled scale, bustling with visual noise. Between the smoke clouds, the flare of machinegun fire, the forlorn tumble of loose objects and the tiered wedding cake of explosions that is a tank biting dust, you'll never feel inclined to dwell on a smudgy boulder. Battlefield has always done spectacle well, thanks to its genesis as a PVP war simulator, but Battlefield 3 wants to deliver maximum fidelity up close to boot, and if the strain shows at intervals, that's because DICE has set the bar so high.
It's the ultimate Battlefield, content-wise at least, boasting ten times the multiplayer unlocks, new competitive modes and a new suite of co-op missions. As you're doubtless expecting, much of what it introduces is the property of a certain competitor, but the aim, ultimately, is to out-manoeuvre rather than "beat" Modern Warfare in classic Conquest fashion - seducing Activision's customers with thunderous trappings and deathmatch's instant appeal, then teaching them the value of breadth and teamwork.
In some respects it's a game from the future, a statement of how the big budget mainstream FPS should be five years from now - more leisurely, evenly spread rather than clustered into flashpoints, giving you time to take stock between shoot-outs. But it's also a game where, at the climax of a hectic, yet wholly cosmetic car chase through New York's Times Square, you save the universe by tapping three or four buttons when you're told to.
You're bossed around a lot in Battlefield 3. Supremely confident in multiplayer, DICE's insecurity as a single player studio sees it adopting Modern Warfare's tight train of prompts and bullying hand-holders wholesale - not necessarily the wrong way of doing things, but a formula that's been showing its age since 2008, and not played to perfection here. The result is another strangely disempowering "blockbuster shooter", an "interactive experience" which seems to actually resent its own interactivity. In Battlefield 3, the player is less the driving force as an embarrassing elderly relative, needing constant mollycoddling lest he dribble over somebody's niece or put ketchup in his tea.
Stray into an alley you're not supposed to, and the game will drown your screen in static, bellowing at you to fall back in line. It's a step down even from the infamous invisible wall, a threshold around each area beyond which players are shouted and blinded into submission. Sprint ahead of a comrade as you would in any other linear campaign, and you're likely to be confronted by a door only the AI, in its infinite wisdom, can open, or a wall too high for you to climb alone. (This becomes especially annoying when the AI glitches - at one point I was trapped against a wall for five minutes because a squadmate elected to take cover there.) Even when the layouts balloon later in the story, as your character Sergeant Blackburn and his squad of crisis-averters gallop down Iran's Caspian Valley, the game compensates by paradropping the entire Russian army into the fray, leaving you little opportunity to stretch your legs.