There’s a certain rhythm that permeates a well-designed Battlefield 3 level. What the game designers realized early in the development process was that the gunplay was the easy part to get right. The Call of Duty series has been getting it right for half of a decade, but what those games never accomplished was a feeling of truth in its environments. Battlefield 3‘s original set of maps were some of the most dynamic, realistic, and geographically diverse levels ever created in modern first-person shooters, but the subsequent map packs have been a mixed bag.
First up was a redesign of Battlefield 2‘s maps, which went as well as you would imagine, but the subsequent release—Close Quarters—was Battlefield 3‘s attempt to garner some of the Call of Duty crowd. Thematically, the levels were the same close-range combat that has typified the Modern Warfare releases. The Battlefield faithful were unimpressed, even in spite of the impressive graphical upgrades that came with the newly accessible processing power that is otherwise dedicated to tanks, jets, and helicopters on bigger levels. The third map pack—Armored Kill—trended too far in the opposite direction. Levels were so large that for console players, you went long periods without engaging anyone from the opposition. With the release of Aftermath, the Battlefield 3 designers have found their groove again.
Set in [Random Middle Eastern City], the four new environments have been shaken and destroyed by a recent earthquake. Culturally, these levels are standard fare: desert settings with shattered buildings, mountainous backdrops, and a war-torn feel. And aside from Epicenter, which features in-game aftershock rumbling, the inclusion of piles of rubble strewn about the levels doesn’t scream “earthquake”. These maps may have just as well been cities that had experienced significant shelling or uprisings but that doesn’t detract from their overall feel.
The map pack’s greatest achievement is Talah Market, an urban combat level that features narrow corridors with plenty of verticality for ambushes and vantage points. The objectives being placed in the shape of a + throughout the level creates circular, constant movement, and the internal design of the alleys and courtyards provides ample flanking opportunities. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Epicenter, nominally the release’s centerpiece, shows what happens when designers try too hard to make an interesting level. Most of the environment has been gorged by the earthquake, but it feels too serendipitous: good thing that giant crevice is just wide and deep enough for me to drive this van through. Previous Battlefield maps excelled at not featuring regions that you couldn’t access due to artificial means, but Epicenter breaks that tradition, blocking off lines of sight and vantage points with strategically placed fallen rubble.
The other two maps are the most visually stunning: Markaz Monolith and Azadi Palace. The centerpiece of Markaz Monolith is a crumbling shopping mall. With escalators extending four floors high and the exterior facade mostly demolished, the building acts as a sniper’s paradise and vertical nightmare for anyone trying to fight through it. On the Azadi Palace map, there are two primary battlegrounds: a crumbling palace and its outlying urban area. This map offers more variety than any of the others and requires a truly balanced team of close-range and long-distance attackers.
The inclusion of three “new” vehicles is ultimately negligible. They’re upgraded, urban versions of previous land vehicles and don’t offer any new tactical capabilities aside from improved firepower. The only meaningful addition to the arsenal is the inconsistent crossbow. Built as a catchall, class-independent tool, the crossbow features explosive, scan, and long-range arrows, all of which can be interchanged during a match. That versatility is a nice thought but ineffective when actually implemented.
Perhaps the expansion pack’s greatest attribute is the way that it conforms to all of the different game types: Conquest, Rush, Gun Master, Team Deathmatch, and the newest edition, Scavenger. In the past, it was evident which levels were designed with Conquest in mind but didn’t cater to the Rush crowd or vice versa. The design of the Aftermath levels all feel cognizant of these varying approaches to playing the game, allowing players to move between game modes without sacrificing playability.
For fans of Battlefield 3 this expansion pack was always going to be a necessity, but the way in which the designers have returned to their wheelhouse is encouraging for all players. With only one more expansion pack planned, this release of the game’s best downloadable content to date gives hope that the final installment will be just as pristine.