It's one o'clock in the morning, I've been in Sweden for all of four hours and I'm sitting in an underground Internet cafe, taking sniper shots at American marketing people from the back of a giant Zeppelin. It's fair to say I've had saner nights. The oddest thing about the whole experience is that the game in which myself, several representatives from Electronic Arts US, and the Battlefield 1942 development team (along with the company president's brother who owns the cafe and graciously agreed to let us in after closing time due to my late arrival in the country) are enjoying ourselves with Codename Eagle. We gave it 44 per cent when we reviewed it. Other magazines weren't so kind.
There is a legitimate reason behind this odd scenario, though. As Lars Gustavsson, lead designer on Battlefield 1942, explains the next morning over a strong coffee. "The original idea for Codename Eagle was actually closer to what we're doing now with Battlefield, but at the time the publisher of the game was more like a book publisher, and they wanted more of a storyline to it, not just a multiplayer game. Something more like Half-Life, an adventure with quests to solve and so on." Hence the game underwent major surgery and the original premise was turned into the lacklustre FPS we saw and ignored. Not that the original dream died, of course. If you delve into the multiplayer side of Eagle you get a taste of something greater. Sadly, not enough people did delve into that side of things. "Codename Eagle got off on die wrong foot," sighs Gustavsson, "because most of the reviews were solely concentrated on the singleplayer game, which we admit had good and bad points. If the emphasis had been on the multiplayer game, if people had played it like we did yesterday across the network, you'd have been seeing it in its true environment." Which is one of immense fun. Understandably, I shuddered at first when they mentioned the plan for that night, but after sitting down with it for a few minutes I found myself engrossed in the sheer mayhem that ensued.
The best way to sum it up is basically Counter-Strike with vehicles. TWo teams, Capture The Flag gameplay and a 1920s setting. You can run around on foot, jump into trucks, jeeps, motorbikes with sidecars, tanks, helicopters, fighter planes, bombers, AA guns, boats and Zeppelins. It's tremendous fun. It's also, basically Battlefield 1942 (if you add a WWII setting and much better graphics).
'The core idea, the kernel of Eagle is still in Battlefield," reassures Gustavsson, as we tour DICE'S new office and see the team at work. While smaller bits and pieces of gameplay have been thought over and redone. It's good to see the basic original idea is still there and is still working." In a nice reversal of fortunes, the emphasis on Battlefields development this time round is multiplayer, with the singleplayer campaigns attempting to recreate the feeling of playing online, rather than by adding a hastily thrown together storyline and changing the mission structure.
Each of the four campaign theatres - the Pacific, North Africa, East and Western Europe - allow you to recreate key moments from the war, from any side. Play as Brits, US GIs, Russian, German or Japanese forces, taking in everything from the storming of Stalingrad to Operation Market Garden to Iwo Jima. "Each map has certain control points," Gustavsson points to a sketch of one such battlefield covered in arrows and notes. "Omaha Beach, for example, has several points, a couple of bunkers, enemy barracks and so on, each of which have to be taken out."
Behind the scenes in each level there is a general 'ticket' system at work. While the Germans control several points, the American side will be losing tickets until they manage to take over certain points. On Omaha Beach, for instance, the tickets would symbolise all the soldiers being shot to bits by the German guns while you storm the beach. "It forces you to push on to each point rather than sitting back and sniping all the time," says Gustavsson. "Now you really have to take out that bunker and that machine gun nest to accomplish your mission." By using this ticket system, DICE can simulate pretty complex scenarios, assigning more units but less advanced hardware to one side, while loading the other with a small but technically superior force.
If Codename Eagle was Counter-Strike Plus, sitting down with Battlefield puts me more in mind of Operation Flashpoint. Although, with less emphasis on a structured squad system. The 'Conquest' missions don't put you in charge of large numbers of units or any of that business. You're one man and can do pretty much what you please. As, of course, are all the AI units on your side. This random factor sounds a little impractical at first, but fortunately Gustavsson insists that while the impression of unpredictability is there on the surface, there are a lot of controls going on in the background. "You have a multi layered A1 at work," he clarifies. "There are the small individual hot AIs and also the overall General AI directing you and giving orders. You get your mission briefing at the start of each level and can choose to stick with the AI soldiers, heading for the same control points as they do. These will always be interesting areas that have to be taken out. Or you can choose to go your own way, even though you don't know what you'll stumble upon. It could be a minefield or another machine gun in the bushes."
While the game structure seems to encourage lone wolf behaviour, the combination of the ticket system and the adaptive AI means that strength in numbers is often the best bet. "Sticking with the other soldiers may still be dangerous but it's usually the best way of succeeding," smiles Gustavsson. It also means that no two games are likely to ever be the same. 'There are very few scripted moments in the game," says Gustavsson with a small hint of pride. "If you see a burning plane fly over your head or a dogfight up in the clouds, it's not scripted. It's just pure luck that in that particular game it happened and you got a dramatic view of it."
While playing Battlefield, it rapidly becomes obvious that this is primarily being designed multiplayer title (it isn't long after being given the controls that an eight-player network game suddenly springs to life and I'm confronted by human AI for the rest of the afternoon), and we'll delve more deeply into that side of things in a month or two in Online.
That said, there should still be plenty of life in the single-player game, especially since DICE no longer has to deal with a publisher that insists on trivial things like storylines. Hopefully the freeform nature of Battlefield 1942 will set it apart from the ranks of other WW2 titles heading our way in the coming months.
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The vogue for transforming some of the 20th century's darkest and bloodiest moments into popular entertainment continues unabated. The film industry has exploited World War II for all it's worth, so nobody could begrudge the likes of Swedish developer Digital Illusions following up its relatively unsuccessful (in the UK at least) Codename: Eagle with another slice of digitised massacre.
To be fair, games such as Hidden & Dangerous and DI's forthcoming Battlefield: 1942 are all about playing soldiers - a more advanced form of running around the front room with water-pistols when you were eight years old. DI can therefore be forgiven for not exploring its subject with the solemnity of Schindler's List or the condemning savagery of Saving Private Ryan. In fact, Battlefield: 1942 looks just about as advanced as you could hope for Flashpoint, and as much fun as you could imagine.
The developers are keen to point out that they are aiming for a more arcadey approach to warfare rather than the slow tactical manoeuvres of Hidden & Dangerous, but it might surprise you to learn how much detail they plan to include. For starters, you can use a large number of vehicles -not only the usual fare of jeeps and tanks, but accurately modelled planes for a real flight sim edge.
By the time you've read the Flashpoint preview you'll probably be wondering what the point is of getting excited about Battlefield: 1942 when Bohemia's game promises so much. But you should keep in mind that this will be a much more player-friendly experience, appealing as much to the Quake community as to the Counter-Strike one.
But it does share with Flashpoint an open-ended structure and a fine eye for detail. And there is a reason why so many WWII games are made: they are incredibly popular. Set a mission on the Serbian border and people will nod appreciatively. Set it in Normandy and a strange glow starts to emanate from their excited eyes. Digital Illusion has already promised a mission that sees you landing on a beach amid a hail of bullets, whether you choose to control the landing craft or just throw yourself among the thriving mass of soon-to-be-dead bodies, while battleships behind you lend supporting fire. There's no denying Battlefield's enormous sense of scale.
The vehicles are sure to prove a popular aspect, but a war game is nothing if you can't climb to the top of a half-bombed building in a small village and start picking off enemy soldiers with a sniper rifle... and it does that, too.
If you're still not excited, you should consider the multiplayer aspects, ranging as they do from complex battles with land soldiers, pilots and players firing tanks, to the more intimate Counter-Strike sneak and shoot contests. DI is being careful to allow the Mod squads to tweak almost every detail and come up with their own ideas. Only time will tell if all these great ideas actually work on your monitor. For the time being, though, the screenshots are ample enough proof that this could be something very special indeed.
Imagine if Medal of Honor were online, only with a ton of human players controlling everyone (Allies or the Nazis/Japanese) from infantry to tank drivers to pilots and more. Thats Battlefield 1942. Now you can see what its like to fight in battles like Iwo Jima, Omaha Beach, Market Garden, etc. against real players instead of a bunch of A.I. drones.