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Battlefield 3: Aftermath hands on: scoping out the enemy

The crossbow: serious business.

You're going to be roughing it in Aftermath. The fourth expansion for Battlefield 3 will have you scavenging for weapons, picking your way through the ruins of an earthquake-hit city and driving into battle in heavily-modified civilian vehicles. Things are going to get grimy.

This is a welcome return to basics for Battlefield, as, once again, the game is all about running and gunning. After the popularity of so many low, open and vehicle-dominated maps, DICE have introduced tighter urban spaces with a greater emphasis on the vertical. Snipers can now climb up into the lower floors of ruined buildings, while narrower roads and the rubble-strewn pathways of a ruined neighbourhood present greater restrictions for roving vehicles.

Personally, this is right up my alley, as these maps become much more about maneuvering and making use of cover instead of worrying about being chased by tanks and bullied by gunships. With gunfights becoming much more intimate, you'll want to choose loadouts that are suited to close-quarters combat. Engineers may as well put their rocket launchers in the bin and everyone is in far greater danger of being stabbed. For the first time ever, I found myself scoring several knife kills in quick succession.

Now, I don't want to give you the impression that vehicles have been completely sidelined, but they're quite different creatures in Aftermath and their improvised adaptations give them something of a Mad Max flavour. The Barsuk, Phoenix and Rhino are all heavily modified trucks fitted with machineguns and, in the case of the first two, grenade launchers. They're rough and ready creations, rather fun to drive and unique to the Aftermath maps. Be warned, though, as they're not as sturdy as everyone's favourite Abrams.

A lot of players will be looking forward to the new crossbow and I can confirm that, yes, it is a super-quiet one-hit-kill weapon with an agonising reload time. Like many of Battlefield's toys, you can play Firearm Lego with it, attaching either a scope or a red dot, and if the standard crossbow bolts aren't exciting enough, there's two more available for use. The scan bolt which will detect nearby members of the opposing team, while the explosive bolt turns the weapon into a miniature rocket launcher.

To my surprise, the crossbow isn't a primary or secondary weapon, but is instead an extra item in your inventory and one you'll have to earn through the game's new Scavenger mode. Scavenger games bring a twist to the Conquest mode, seeing players start with only a pistol and a single grenade, tasking them to scour the map for better weapons. There are hints on screen that point out both where other weapons can be found and how powerful these are, but with every player seeing the same hints, you can bet that someone hostile is going to be closing on the weapon that you want.

Add to this the fact that there is no ammo regeneration in Scavenger mode, and you'll find yourself constantly on the hunt for new hardware, chasing another hint or taking what you can from still-warm hands of a fallen enemy. It's a frantic, even desperate experience which can see several players converging on the same prize, only to find a particularly devious camper has been lying in wait nearby.

Aftermath looks like it will bring an injection of energy to a game that's feeling just a little bit tired now. It's the penultimate Battlefield 3 expansion, with End Game arriving in March next year. While PlayStation 3 owners will get to enjoy the game a week early, Aftermath will be available to PC gamers on December 4th.

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