Martin digs into DICE's new gambit.
The outstretched hand does my head in. Such a small thing, but that one single animation quickly became more painful in my brain than fingernails on a chalkboard. You'd die (I would die more than most) and your character, vision blurring and seconds from his temporary demise, would reach out while you waited for a defibrillator or, more likely, to respawn. Every time.
I often think: just what is he always stretching for? The neck of the person who designed Operation Metro? Some of Battlefield 3's almost impossibly lush scenery? Reaching frantically for some of Activision's tasty Call of Duty profits, perhaps? Truly, the enigma behind these outstretched hands has become one of history's greatest mysteries, filed comfortably between Shergar and the Mary Celeste.
You don't see the outstretched hand nearly so often anymore, thankfully. You don't see it at all if you're playing on the new Close Quarters modes. That's because, just like that reaching hand, Battlefield 3 isn't staying still. Its most adventurous (and controversial) gambit to date, Battlefield Premium, launched roughly around the same time as game's third patch at the start of June - a mammoth update that, amongst other things, finally fixed a dreaded controller lag issue on PlayStation 3 that had been blighting Sony's version of the game for over 200 days since launch.
Yet this controller tweak affected all platforms - so now the speed of aiming as infantry has been radically tweaked, over 9 months after launch, for anyone playing on a game pad, regardless of console.
Since that patch my K/D ratio has shot up from a lowly 0.8 to an acceptable 1.2, and while we're on the subject don't even get me started on all the ping-ponging they've been doing to the suppression mechanic over the months. Simply put, these are big changes.
But Battlefield 3 has always been a game of big changes. It certainly changed the way EA handled its business (it is EA's most successful launch of all time) and likely strengthened the publisher's focus on post-release support that we saw at this year's E3 conference. When John Riccitiello stood on stage and spoke of creating "connected worlds", it was impossible not to think of his thoughts being spurred on by Battlefield 3's impressive success.
Battlefield Premium is EA's vision in its most distilled form. A flat fee (4000 Microsoft Points or £39.99 on PC and PlayStation Network) grants you early, red-carpet access to all of the game's DLC packs, along with a cache of other perks and bonuses designed to psychologically make you feel like a classy VIP.
The real draw is all that DLC, of course. For your cash you get five chunks of content, though in a slightly confused manner one of these just so happens to be Back to Karkand, which was released last December as a pre-order incentive. Which means much of Premium's target audience almost definitely have it already.
The other four, however, are of greater value - the out-now Close Quarters, September's Armored Kill, December's Aftermath and March 2013's End Game. You'll save about £6 buying Premium upfront, or a more competitive £16 if you've yet to get hold of Karkand.
Each DLC pack will contain four new multiplayer maps, but DICE has made a point of thematically framing each new chunk of content: Karkand was about reviving retro maps, Close Quarters is infantry-only firefights and Armored Kill is all about the vehicles. We don't know what Aftermath and End Game are going to revolve around yet, so ultimately you're buying Premium with faith that the latter two packs aren't going to be completely rubbish.
DICE and EA's lavishly suited executives have also managed to wrangle out a cash-generating exclusivity deal in a way that doesn't render the whole thing so painfully complicated it takes an Excel sheet to properly understand - take notice of that, Activision. Premium subscribers get their DLC two weeks ahead of their non-paying chums, but over on the PlayStation 3 side everything is bumped forward by a week.
Of course, then there are all the other bits and bobs being chucked in to try and secure your purchase. Something DICE hasn't made clear is that Premium players get access to their own private double XP weekends, scheduled to run every month from June 2012 to March 2013. From August 2012 onwards the calendar also offers another monthly Premium-specific event, but isn't making the details available at this time.
You also get Soldier packs, to be released in June, July, October, November, January and February. The first pack, already released, contains the ACB-90 knife and a set of unlockable black dog tags and assignments, plus Berkut and Woodland Oak camos on the Russian side alongside Airman Camo and Tactical Camo for the US. There's also four weapon skins chucked in for good measure - the F2000 navy digital, SCAR-H desert, PKP woodland and L96 airman - and I'd say it's likely you'll see four different weapons jazzed up with each content drop. Does any of this stuff matter? Not really, but it's been enough to convince me to pick up each of these weapons again.
Less valuable so far are monthly exclusive videos, and four strategy guides being released in July, September, December and March. Only one video has been released thus far, of lead designer Niklas Fegraeus walking us through the Close Quarters maps; if this is any indication of the quality we can expect in the future, I recommend that you steer clear.
"With these exclusive videos we'd like to give you an inside look at what Premium is all about," says a reluctant Fegraeus, in something that comes across more as advert rather than content, before giving us almost zero insight whatsoever. Brilliant.
You aren't going to get those 10 minutes of your life back.
There are some other little touches, too. You can reset your Battlelog stats (though I'm not really sure why) and save five of your favourite match reports into an archive for posterity. The game's main menu also gets transformed into a Premium menu, which is a nice little psychological trick as the game pretends to pander to your ego every time you slip the disc in the tray - look at you, you're Premium.
But the most nebulous addition is quite easily queue priority, which means you're bumped up the line to get into busy servers ahead of everyone who hasn't paid their Premium tithe. Battlefield 3 is a game that sits behind an online pass but which, for all intents and purposes, has recently wiped its free servers off the face of the Earth. It would be easier to thread a camel through the eye of a needle than find an official DICE server in operation these days. If everyone decided to stop renting out their dedicated servers on the same day, we'd all be screwed.
It's also a little disconcerting to see that such an overwhelming percentage of server admins have chosen to fiddle with the game's ticket amounts, and in doing so a majority of servers have severely unbalanced the Rush gametype in favour of the attacking team. I rarely come across a game electing to play on regular ticket rules anymore, and with no official servers to steady the ship I've found myself abandoning the mode - my favourite Battlefield mode, no less - for Conquest.
Still, one thing that does surprise me about Premium is just how many players have been willing to take the plunge - over 800,000 at current count. I play on Xbox 360, and I can't go a single game without seeing a good chunk of premium indicators hovering over the death screen. While message boards are lit up with disgruntlement, the core Battlefield 3 community has clearly already bought into the idea.
But is Premium worth it? Unlike with Activision's factory line process for Call of Duty development - a 'if it's broke we'll fix it with next year's game' mentality - DICE still seems to be battling away on determining the correct values for Battlefield 3's weapons and mechanics. There's a noticeable sense that Battlefield 3 is going to keep changing and developing over the next year, and if you're looking to get invested in an online shooter right now I'd say this is the current cream of the crop.
Saying that, though, I still get the impression DICE and EA isn't quite sure what they want Battlefield to be, or perhaps that everyone involved wants it to be something completely different. For all we know DICE could drop a patch in a couple of months that sucks everything good about the game into a black hole, or at least removes some of the stuff you've grown to love. And let's never forget how easy it is to scoff incredulously at the whole concept of Battlefield Premium after DICE and EA both made such a song and dance about Call of Duty: Elite last year.
Overall, though, it's a great time (touch wood) to be playing DICE's latest. Premium launches as the game finally hits its multiplayer stride, with Battlefield 3 finally becoming the game it should have been when it launched last October, though I'd love to see a few more (any?) official servers, and it would be great if DICE could find a way to remove that outstretched hand for good.