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Battlefield 3: Back to Karkand

Once more unto the beach, dear friends

It's another blistering hot day in the Gulf of Oman, and right now, we're the only thing standing between the US invader and total domination of the map. Those members of our team that aren't dead are pinned down in alleys surrounded by ammo boxes, or fannying around in one of Back to Karkand's new dual-gunned APCs to the north. There are tanks on the bridge to the north-west of the flag, and infantry massing behind them. We're making a decent fist of things, spot-marking the tanks for hypothetical engineers and picking off marines as they leave their base, but we're living on borrowed time.

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Every vaguely hazardous cylindrical object in the enemy's possession is now trained on our position. The apartment block we're camped out on feels it first. The corner of the roof goes, then the stairwell building behind us, then the west-facing wall. Still we cling on, inching forward to slot an Assault chap as he makes a run for the flag. Finally the floor gives way, dunking us two stories in a cloud of dust. Stumbling bleary-eyed out of the rubble, we meander up to the nearest silhouette and pull a knife on it, bagging one last kill before the inevitable happens. Victory! Sort of.

The four maps included with Back to Karkand (we're able to sample three at EA's preview event) pre-date the franchise's Xbox 360 debut, but oddly enough, the game they remind us of most is Battlefield: Bad Company. We're not sure there's more to destroy than in Battlefield 3's main maps, but what there is feels satisfyingly prominent, bringing the general vibe closer to the revolutionary days of Frostbite 1.

Layouts are more generous in their possibilities, with less funnelling than we've come to expect from DICE's latest. The on-disc maps are comparatively large and rigid, with a more obvious range of environmental variables between M-COM stations or flags (Operation Metro takes this to an extreme); Back to Karkand's offerings are more open-plan, breaking down more subtly to accommodate different styles. Gulf of Oman is quite centralised, structured around a single east-west road with buildings to north and south - a good sniping map if you tackle it left to right, a close-quarters affair if you veer up or down.

Strike at Karkand offers a classic alternation between wide-open tank country due south, and digestible urban grids to the north, with a strip of hillside down the west. There's good cover from vehicles, but you've also got more first or second storey camping spots to worry about. At one point we managed to hold off a squad with tank support by going prone in a shop front near the flag, elevated marginally out of direct damaging range.

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Though rather shop-worn after appearances in both Battlefield 2 and Battlefield 1943, Wake Island is the pick of the litter - a horseshoe of land enclosing a lagoon, bases evenly spaced around it, with the US spawning ground a battleship off to the north-west. There's focus enough to support a fierce game of Rush, but you can leapfrog knots of fiercer opposition by swimming across or keeping to the beaches. It's here that we're able to test out Back to Karkand's skittish new DPV buggy, careening off boulders while a turret gunner hyperactively spatters bullets.

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