By Darren Franich
Updated October 31, 2011 at 10:00 PM EDT

The videogame industry hasn’t had a truly defining cross-court rivalry in years. In the early ’90s, Sega set itself apart from Nintendo by acting like the coolest kid in class. It was the Nickelodeon to Nintendo’s Disney Channel, Judd Nelson to Emilio Estevez; Sega was cooler, hipper, ToeJam and Earl-er. A decade later, Sony and Microsoft became embroiled in a console arms race, constantly trying to one-up each other with better graphics, bigger games, Blu-ray. But the current generation of consoles has mostly settled into a quiet three-way détente. Nintendo has grown fat off all that casual-gamer money. Sony and Microsoft have split the hardcore markets. Most major games are multi-platform, so choosing a PS3 over a 360 isn’t an existential choice: It just means you like God of War more than Gears of War.

In such a relatively calm environment, it’s understandable that this month’s military-shooter duel between Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 and Battlefield 3 has been built up into a veritable pop culture showdown. The games are similar enough in subject matter — although the Modern Warfare series has always been a bit more outré, with its Red Dawn-ish portrayal of evil Russians attacking America. But gameplay-wise, the two franchises have two very different philosophies. Battlefield models a strategic, class-based multiplayer structure that emphasizes teamwork — which is arguably more “realistic,” and certainly more cerebral, than Call of Duty‘s emphasis on lone-wolf Deathmatch badassery.

More importantly, the Battlefield/CoD showdown is a classic David vs. Goliath tale. The annual November release of the newest Call of Duty has become an annual sales holiday, with Modern Warfare 2 and Black Ops setting cosmic first-week sales records. So Electronic Arts has painted the Battlefield franchise as a plucky upstart, a Call of Duty killer, the brainy alternative for the discerning consumer. The first-week sales of Battlefield 3 are encouraging, and the multiplayer is undeniably fun, although the PS3 and 360 versions of the game were both plagued with server errors in the first week.

However, in at least one respect, Battlefield 3 is a tremendous disappointment: The single-player campaign is a boring, punishingly unfun slog. It’s especially disappointing because the game gets off to a good start. There’s a swaggery prologue level where you fight a group of terrorists on a moving train. There’s some nice ambient dialogue, including a conversation where one of your fellow grunts says, “Bro, America was founded by terrorists, for terrorists. History is determined by the motherf—-ing victor.” Johnny Cash’s apocalyptic rendition of “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” gets played on the soundtrack. It’s fun, atmospheric, pulpy.

Then the actual game starts, and it all goes to hell. The first part of Battlefield is a repetitive race through a destroyed urban environment. Every action that doesn’t involve a weapon is awkward. (The Quick Time Events in particular feel straight out of the “Press X Not to Die” awkward game cliché handbook.) Because the gameplay is so shoddy, the awkward dialogue and haphazard plotting are even more unbearable. There’s also an endless plane level that feels like something out of a mid-90s PC Simulator. And considering that a central aspect of the Battlefield franchise is teamwork, it’s surprising just how glitchy your interactions with your NPC teammates tend to be: I can’t tell you how many times I was hiding under cover, and then one of my fellow soldiers ran up and pushed me out into the open.

Here’s the thing: I’m not sure if it matters that Battlefield 3‘s single-player experience is horrible. It’s become accepted wisdom among videogame fans that the campaign is the least important part of a First-Person Shooter. After all, you only really want to play through the story mode once; if you’re even a minor FPS junkie, you could play hundreds of hours of the multiplayer. Still, even if the campaign is just an affectation, it doesn’t have to be an afterthought. The last couple Call of Duties didn’t have particularly innovative campaigns, but they were at least trying to be something — even if that something was “Complete Batcrap Astronaut-Killin’ Castro-Assassinatin’ Grand Guignol Insanity.” That franchise has figured out a seamless way to graft the aesthetics of their multiplayer system onto the single-player campaign — a lesson that seems to have unfortunately eluded the makers of Battlefield.

Campaign Grade: C-

Multiplayer Grade: A-

Cumulative Grade: B-

Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich