Platforms: PC | PS3 (tested) | Xbox 360
Publisher: EA Games
There's something wrong here. I'm stumbling about from checkpoint to checkpoint, helping to secure positions for my team as one would normally in Conquest mode in a Battlefield game. I can hear gunfire in the distance, and chatter over the headphones, but something's off and it's rather obvious what it is, too. There are no tanks in sight. Not even the whiff of a tank. No jeeps, no trucks, no buggies, no planes...and no tanks whatsoever.
What's more, Battlefield 3 is failing to live up to its name. There's not a field in view, just alabaster pillars, marble floors, mosiac-ridden courtyards, and walls. Everywhere. Walls. Honestly, if things weren't so gloriously shiny, courtesy of Frostbite 2, you'd never guess that this was Battlefield 3.
Perhaps that's the point. Just as we see examples of the proverb that begins "if it ain't broke..." numerous times in this industry, it's perhaps a bit refreshing to see a studio taking on a "nothing ventured..." approach. Except that it looks like breaking new ground for Battlefield 3's claustrophobic expansion - Close Quarters - means giving up the series' eponymous staple in terms of competitive staging, and turning more towards the competition.
So is this exciting new territory for DICE, or further echoes of the cries of COD-wannabe that accompanied BF3's singleplayer campaign?
Well it's not as if getting a little friendly in a more cramped environment is necessarily anything new for the series. Operation Metro, for example, was heavily focused on short-range, close-quarters combat. But we're not in an underground station today; with the Ziba Tower having already been featured in a number of trailers thus far, we leap in on a 4-v-4 slice of Conquest Domination set in the Donya Fortress - an Arabian-flavoured palatial complex, with a water-featured central courtyard.
The Donya Fortress trailer is typically chaotic, with replete with the distorted electronic buzzes that have become the series' mainstay. But the big centrepiece is Frostbite 2, spewing chunks of debris everywhere, as plaster and pillars are demolished with blasts of shotgun fire. Needless to say, we were eager to see if the frenetic action captured on film would be reflected in the game.
Sadly, that's just not the case. Although the level layout succeeds in penning players in far more, with the corridors and rubble-strewn tunnels branching out from the central courtyard providing some tense thrills, the frenetic pacing is never really captured visually. But the action is faster, the pressure-cooker environment creating a necessity to keep moving, cover entrances and exits, and remember to check your rear every once in a while. It's twitchy, nervy stuff, that cannot help but remind us a little of another blockbuster FPS franchise.
Normally you have the ordinance to deal with structures in your way in Battlefield, but the walls withstood a large amount of firepower, making it difficult to get an idea of just how much the Frostbite 2 engine has been tweaked to account for a more chaotic experience this time around. That said, we were still able to nab a cheeky kill after punching several holes in one of the weaker walls adjoining the courtyard.
But it's Conquest Domination itself that roots us in the Battlefield 3 experience, with a smattering of conquerable points littered across the Fortress, one in the soggy cellars underneath the courtyard, one on a balcony high above the courtyard, one in an airy room just off the centre of the map. You never really hung around in the more expansive Conquest matches before, but these positions are defensible, and require a little more strategic thought to capture. There are entrances and exits to cover, plenty of opportunities to find your back riddled with bullets, but the time it takes to capture a particular point is lessened than in the main game, adding to the fast-paced feel. It's unwise to remain in one place for too long, particularly if your squad is all huddled together.
Teamwork is still key, though, and co-ordinating attacks is just as important, if not more so, than ever. It's not enough to simply split up and pick a capture point each, as we found out in our first game. Pairing up, though, meant the majority of angles were covered at all times, with wayward enemy mavericks punished swiftly with impunity.
So the big question is does it feel a little more like Call of Duty. Well, yes. But it also retains a surprising sense of self. If DICE can ratchet that destruction modelling up to 11, this is will no doubt delight those fans looking for an injection of something a little new to their Battlefield adventures. Stat tracking breeds loyalty, and it makes perfect sense for DICE to want to offer a little close-quarters material for fans who'd rather stick with the core mechanics of their series than look elsewhere for an infantry-on-infantry quick fix.
Besides, it's not like DICE have forgotten what Battlefield is all about. Armored Kill is coming next after this, and that's rumoured to feature the biggest maps the series has ever seen. So sceptics can watch this space. Meanwhile, the rest of us will hopefully be blowing the Donya Fortress to smithereens and cackling with glee.
Battlefield 3: Close Quarters will be arriving this June on PC and Xbox 360, with a week's headstart for PS3.