Version tested: PlayStation 3
This, the third in Battlefield 3's conveyor belt of downloadable content, finds DICE showboating in style. If the developer were a rock star, it'd have its foot on the monitor right now, as the audience held their lighters aloft. Back to Karkand's updated fan favourite maps was the obligatory run through the classic hits from yesteryear while Close Quarters, with its blatant COD tempo, was a punchy, punky cover version thrown into the mix to shake things up. To stretch the stadium rock metaphor to breaking point, Armored Kill is the epic ten-minute blow out, all guitar and drum solos, a ballad of fire and smoke.
This is Battlefield at its biggest. Quite literally, as one of the four new maps - the sprawling Bandar Desert - takes the crown as the largest Battlefield map ever. Over twice the size of Caspian Border, it occupies five square kilometres of digital real estate, taking in a crescent bay front with residential buildings and construction sites dotted around its circumference. Further inland there's an artillery base for the taking, surrounded by an expanse of open desert and rolling dunes and with a highway slicing through the centre. It's all hemmed in with rocky outcrops and cliffs that direct the action down and into this vast crucible of mayhem.
That's not to say the other maps are slouching. As the name suggests, Alborz Mountains, set in Northern Iran, has a ruddy great big mountain in the middle. The first snow map in the game, this has acres of forestry to provide cover and a large frozen lake for those bold enough to venture into open ground.
Death Valley also earns its name. Set at night in and around a ruined highway overpass, it balances out lots of higher ground - not least on the exposed but strategically useful road bridge - with a rabbit warren of containers, pillars and structures at ground level. Dash into action against an organised team here and you'll be pinned from all sides, trapped in a killing box of your own stupidity.
Finally, there's Armored Shield, the least interesting of the bunch. Set in the Russian countryside, it's mostly fields and dirt tracks with a few pylons scattered around as cover for the hapless soldiers who find themselves traversing it on foot.
And you really don't want to be a pedestrian on these maps. The addition of quad bikes cuts down on wandering time, but quite apart from the sheer scale of the larger maps making it unfeasible to jog to the nearest hot spot in anything less than five minutes, your lifespan is directly related to how much steel you can put between yourself and everyone else. Armored Kill is more than a name. It's an order.
Selling this concept is new game mode, Tank Superiority. The title doesn't leave much room for ambiguity, and it's as simple in execution as it sounds. Two teams, each with access to plenty of tanks, battle it out for control of the sole capture point. The maps are constricted to accommodate this more focussed objective, but that doesn't stop it being one of the most ferocious ways to play an already fearsome game.
"You really don't want to be a pedestrian on these maps... your lifespan is directly related to how much steel you can put between yourself and everyone else. Armored Kill is more than a name. It's an order."
It makes sense for DICE to spotlight the tanks, especially since it was that dazzling footage of the single player tank section, Thunder Run, that really established the game as a contender for Call of Duty's throne last year. Not coincidentally, Thunder Run takes place in the same Bandar Desert that now expands Battlefield even further than before. The challenge to COD supremacy may not have been won in terms of sales, but Armored Kill sees Battlefield drawing its line in the sand, confident that no other shooter franchise can pull off the scale on display here.
There are no new tanks here, but there are new vehicles that help provide balance to the shift in emphasis away from infantry combat. Both US and Russian forces get their own anti-tank options - the M1128 for the Americans, or the 2S25 Sprut for Russians - both of which are faster and more agile than their lumbering prey, but less protected. Tactical use of the terrain means they can easily stop the heavier vehicles in their tracks.
Mobile artillery also enters the fray, an option that players in this early access stage for PS3 Premium subscribers are still getting used to. Successful use of these long range bombardment weapons requires both a good understanding of the maps with regard to range and elevation and also a canny touch when it comes to aiming. Right now, most people seem to jump into the gunners seat, loose off a few rounds into the sky, then get bored and go and find a tank for more immediate boom-bang-a-bang action. The player who masters these vehicles, however, will be able to dominate almost any match.
Also dominating is the AC-130 Gunship. Rather unusually, you don't get to actually fly this beast of the air. Instead, you gain access to it by capturing its base. The plane itself circles the map on autopilot, following a preset route. Players can spawn into its gunner seats and absolutely lay waste to whatever is below, as well as operating powerful anti-air turrets to fend off attacking choppers and jets.
You can also use the AC-130 as a persistent spawn point for paratroopers, making it both versatile and a powerful strategic tool. The downside is that it's slow and poorly armoured, and its predictable movement pattern and unmissable size make it an easy target. Even so, between the gunship and the existing helicopters and jets, the majority of the Battlefield action on Armored Kill maps seems to be in the sky.
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Out today on PlayStation 3; PC and Xbox next week.
Get all these elements working in harmony on a Conquest or Rush game and you've got the closest thing to what long serving fans would call the classic Battlefield experience. This is true warfare, not just carefully contained skirmishes, and lone wolf run-and-gunners will get creamed with hilarious regularity. At this size, the maps simply don't lend themselves to the tactics that lead to success in typical deathmatches, and nor are there any obvious spots designed to aid the player.
These aren't maps with pre-defined "bits" to use. These are actual maps, in the Ordnance Survey sense of the word, and it's up to you to make the terrain work to your advantage. Master the dips and peaks of the Bandar Desert dunes to hide a tank or to gain an advantage. Decide in the moment if charging through the trees surrounding the Alborz Mountains is a better bet than taking it slowly around the rocky passages above. What makes sense in one match might be suicide in the next. It's thrillingly organic, and devoid of the sort of generic map design that might as well put up neon signs saying "great sniper spot here!"
The downside, for console players, is that these maps are pushing up against the limits of the maximum lobby size. With up to five capture points, DICE does its usual great job of subtly directing the flow of the match into interesting spaces, but 24 players are easily lost on maps this size. It's also not much fun to wait around at a spawn point for a vehicle, drive all the way to an objective only to be wiped out by an AC-130 and have to do it all over again. PC players, naturally, will have no such concerns - 64 players and seven capture points will fill these maps far more effectively.
That minor annoyance aside, there's not much criticism you can throw at Armored Kill that won't just bounce off its battle-hardened exterior. The maps show DICE at its best, crafting natural looking environments that throw up thrilling possibilities on the fly, and the new vehicles have been shrewdly chosen and balanced to enhance the gameplay while still offering the thrill of the new. For Battlefield fans, this is an essential expansion.
8 / 10