This morning I was killed by a man called Shultz. Rudolph Shultz to give him his full name, a porky butcher’s shop owner from the south side of Berlin. Had this not been 1942, and had we not been fighting in one of the bloodiest conflicts in mankind’s history, then perhaps things would have been different. A lot different. Maybe we would even have been friends - me a jolly backpacker looking for tales to tell the boys back home (Porky, Dorky, Spot, Capper, Mapper, Dick and Spud - great guys), him a rosy-faced local of a town I’d be passing through. Perhaps we’d sit in the late afternoon sun over a couple of Bavarian beers, him slapping his lederhosened leg in hilarity as I regaled him with a barrage of anecdotes about 'ze braykeeng of ze vind'. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. What might have been.
Instead, my one meeting with Shultz ended in him performing a crude form of surgery on my intestines with a rusty standardissue German army knife. War does that to people. Turns normal, civil, peace-loving people into rabid dogs of war. But I'm still alive, fighting the fight, taking it to the enemy. And I know I’ll die a hundred times more before the day is out. But I’m not afraid. Why? Because this is a computer game, that’s why. And because no game, no matter how much it tries will ever replicate the true horrors of war. And this one is no exception, though it does have a fair old go.
It’s always hard reviewing games based on events as horrendous as WWII. Six-headed alien invaders from the planet Kthragrok I can handle, and fictitious battles against terrorist factions aren’t a problem. But a team-based WWII sim laced with shots of smooth arcadeyness, one in which you respawn every time your body is separated from your limbs feels a little, well, wrong. Disrespectful almost. However, this is a game (obviously) and I’m a games reviewer (what do you mean debatable?), so regardless of the moral tug of war that walks solemnly hand in hand with something like this, I suppose we’d better see how it plays.
There’s been a huge fanfare over Battlefield 1942, and a massive amount of excitement has been generated during the past few months - much of it resonating off the girly-pink walls of the office. 'The best team-based war sim in history,’ some have claimed with bolshy gusto. But is it really? For starters, let me venture a guess here. Those who make that claim haven’t played the single-player campaign yet. A campaign riddled with more holes than a Kan-Kanning soldier in no-man's land. What they’ve played is the massively diverse, exciting and instantly playable multiplayer games. So before we all cream ourselves in happy unison, let’s take each part separately (multiplayer and single-player), dissect them like lab animals and then sew them back up again before making a final judgment? Sound fair to you? Good.
As you may well have guessed. Battlefield's single-player campaign 'Aint all thaayt’. For those of you still a bit hazy about what’s involved, here’s the bit where you need to pay attention. Yes you, the one with the glazed-over look. That’s better. Fighting as either the Allies or the Axis through a series of key WWII battles (based in Africa, the Pacific and Europe), you and your team must prevail through any means at your disposal, first by selecting from one of five unique classes (Assault. Engineer. Anti-Tank, Medic and Scout), and then by utilising any number of vehicles (tanks, jeeps, APCs, ships, planes, bombers) to your advantage.
A limited amount of Command Points means that you only have a finite amount of equipment. The first team to run out of Command Points are the losers. It's that simple. No actually, I lied. Had you going for a moment though, eh? Actually, it really isn’t that simple at all in the single-player campaign, purely because your team-mates are the biggest collection of no-brained idiots you’re ever likely to encounter this side of a vegetable patch. To give you an idea, here’s just one example of what you might expect. The level starts. Everyone jumps into the nearest vehicle and drives off in random directions. You bring up your orders menu. "Stick together!’’ you scream. Everyone drives off in random directions. "Follow me!" Everyone drives off in random directions. "Back me up and I’ll let you sleep with my sister!" Everyone drives off in random directions.
Some vehicles have room for a driver and a gunner. Great you think, an Al driver will let me scatter bullets all over the battlefield and mow down the enemy without having to worry about steering. Right? No. An Al driver will usually make sure you drive off in the opposite direction to the enemy, allowing you to scatter bullets at badgers in the middle of a random field. But it gets better. Oh hold on, did I say better? I meant worse... and better. Confused? Read on...
For Better Or Worse
Stripping down to my bare torso I bear down on the enemy lines. Bazooka in hand, machine gun up each nostril, I rain down death on the hapless foe. The body count clocks up like a 1980s action movie, as I cut through their ranks like a scythe, when suddenly... defeat. My team’s defeat, that is. Baffled I try again, this time with new tactics. Donning a lacy dress. I sit at HQ playing hopscotch, stopping only to stroke a passing puppy and to pick a flower from a lush meadow and admire its beauty, when suddenly... victory. The lack of teamwork is bad enough, but the feeling of having no bearing on the outcome of a battle simply makes you wonder why you bother. Sometimes you can literally do nothing and win. other times you're death incarnate, but your team gets annihilated anyway. Go figure.
Don't worry though, it's not quite as bad as it sounds. You soon learn that if no one’s going to back you up, then you’re just going to have to support them. Linking up with a couple of friendly tanks as they wade into an enemy base and wiping out a superior force is a very satisfying experience. Jumping into a plane for a spot of dogfighting is also supremely rewarding, once you've mastered it and know what you’re doing. Manning massive cannons on board battleships and pounding the broadside of a passing aircraft carrier is exhilarating, and the first time you pull off an accurate bombing run is simply sublime. What's more, the dynamic campaign counts your successes and failures as a whole rather than as isolated battles, making you feel as though you’re embroiled in a massive conflict where both you and the enemy can afford to lose the odd battle and still prevail.
The levels are sprawling, varied and beautifully designed, with subtle vantage points to be uncovered and exploited for the good of your team. So you see. it's far from being all bad. Very far, in fact. Under the bugs and glitchy Al. there is a stunning game. So let’s get rid of the Al and replace it with real people, as we move swiftly onto the multiplayer game.
Keeping It Real
Multiplayer is where Battlefield 1942 really comes into its own (see the Playing With Each Other boxout for more details). It's how it's meant to be played. Find a group who are willing to play as a team, and you’ll soon realise it’s one of the most rewarding, in-depth and diverse multiplayer games you’ve ever expenenced. Apart from a few annoying bugs (pushing soldiers along with a tank when they should be being ground into a bloody pulp under the tracks), there’s little to fault. Everyone has a role to play, from the selfless medic to the heroic fighter pilot ace. from the gritty grunt, to the hotshot antiaircraft gunner. But as with every multiplayer game, it’s often the people who make the game great. Stumble across the wrong crowd, and even these nearfaultless multiplayer games can quickly become meaningless and lonely experiences.
At the time of typing this, I’m sitting here in front of my machine wearing high heels and stockings, err, I mean, at the time of typing this, the game has yet to hit the shelves which means it’s impossible to tell just how well it will be received by the online community (you know who you are). But on the evidence of the multiplayer games we’ve been playing on the office LAN, it’s going to be huge. Could this be the title to dethrone Counter-Strike? Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. But it’s possible. Very possible. As ever, only time will tell.
Download Battlefield 1942
It is rarely the case these days that when buying a first-person action game you can have your cake and eat it. Whereas this used to be true you’d buy a game and spend a couple of weeks completing the single-player game, then spend the next six months getting your money’s worth playing it online -today it’s more usual to invest in two separate games. There are exceptions of course, but even in the case of Half-Life, it was only when Team Fortress Classic and Counter-Strike were released that it could boast a multiplayer game to match its solo campaign. Look at Medal Of Honor and Return To Castle Wolfenstem, one excelling offline, the other a massive success on. Even the next round of shooters like Unreal II and Doom III will focus primarily on appealing to the one rather than the many.
It would perhaps be a little unfair then to pass judgement on Battlefield 1942 simply on the basis that it’s a single-player game, as the original review score was based on a combination of the multiplayer and single-player games (which despite the valiant attempt to prove otherwise), is little more than a series of training missions for the multiplayer. It’s great to be able to play across virtually every major battlefield of WWII -driving tanks, sitting behind the big guns of a battleship, strafing a column of advancing troops from the sky or simply crawling through the grass on your belly. But the fact is that until a significant update is undertaken. Battlefield 1942 isn’t worth buying unless you intend to play against other people.
Are You Experienced?
Online, however, Battlefield 1942 is almost a completely different experience, and it's exclusively thanks to the fact that your human allies and enemies don’t tend to have perfect accuracy behind a trigger. They also don’t have a pathological desire to drive around in circles or through impassable doorways when behind the wheel.
Of course there are some utterly stupid players out there, and it can be hit and miss finding a decent game. Some players even seem content to take up valuable slots and waste their time fooling around with heavy machinery when they should be doing their practising against bots. But when you do find a bunch of like-minded people who are willing and able to play the game the way it’s meant to be played, you really won’t find a better online gaming experience.
Aside from the way in which people conduct themselves, the multiplayer game plays out in identical fashion to the singleplayer. The 16 maps set across each WWII theatre - from the D-Day landings at Omaha Beach to the final days among the rubble of Berlin - are identical down to the last tree and sand dune, with tanks, jeeps, APCs, aircraft and ships available to hop into in the same places as you would expect. Climb aboard an APC and your human driver will at least head off in roughly the right direction, and even those left to journey on foot will happily follow behind to support your advance.
However, objectives may differ depending on the server. The Conquest mode charges you with capturing vital control points. You can also play Capture The Flag and Cooperative games as well. Co-op unfortunately isn't that hot, as vacant slots are taken up by Al goons. CTF on the other hand is quite a laugh, since rather than trying to steadily make an advance, you simply have to make it to the flagpole at the enemy base and bring home the cloth to score a point. Control points are still central in CTF games however, since the ticket system still applies as it does in Conquest games (the more control points there are under your side’s control, the quicker your enemy loses tickets used to buy reinforcements). However, unlike Conquest games, it is possible for a side with rapidly dwindling reserves to steal a point by racing in and out of the enemy base in a jeep.
Mo’ Dem Down
Singling out choice maps is considerably difficult since they are all of a high quality. Certainly the most popular are the Pacific maps like Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima and the Wake Island level from the multiplayer demo, as they feature all types of vehicles. Maps focused around urban combat (Stalingrad, Berlin) also seem popular, while desert maps co-starring British and Germans are lower down in the pecking order. Despite their almost universal high quality BF1942 would certainly benefit from some smaller, more focused locales for eight-player games or less.
If you are unfortunate enough to be lumbered with a 56K modem, you should find that you can still play games with up to 16 players, without too much lag but it's rarely the case that you will get a decent game. The maps are so large and the methods available to travel across them so varied, that despite what it says on the box, a humble analogue modem just can’t handle the job. Unless you have a high-speed digital or broadband connection, I'm afraid you might as well not have a modem at all for all the good it will do, and unless you’re prepared to set up a dedicated server, even hosting a game through your phat pipe can be problematic.
Thankfully there are plenty of servers available to join. Even if you do have to settle for one sparsely populated with players, it usually isn't long before all the spaces are filled and you can get on with the task at hand with a full complement of men on both sides.
There’s a massive amount of fun to be had playing Battlefield 1942 and on many occasions you’ll find it hard not to laugh out loud, whether it’s launching a rocket into the cockpit of an enemy pilot taxiing for takeoff, or, as happened to me, inadvertently driving a tank off a cliff, only to crush a squad of Japanese soldiers, who are alighting from a landing craft, hoping to pull off a sneaky attack. If you’ve got the hardware, I suggest you go and find out for yourself. That’s an order, soldier.
Watching a developer shift his weight nervously as he tries to let you know you’ve outstayed your welcome on his demo machine is never a comfortable moment, but it’s one we suffered gladly in the EA booth at E3, having secured a place in a networked session of the brilliant Battlefield 1942. Though sitting a notch below the best E3 shooters in terms of graphics, the multiplayer-focused action/shooter was a definite contender for most enjoyable game at E3.
The genius of 1942 lies in its superb combination of simplicity of design and ambition of execution. You enter the battleground as a basic foot soldier, armed with anything from a sniper rifle to a rocket launcher, and from there you can jump into any of 35 air, sea and land vehicles. Grab a jeep, a tank or lumbering bomber plane, man a fixed-gun emplacement, defend a battleship against waves of oncoming fighters, or simply run sabotage missions with a bulging sack of explosives. Rather than the hardcore war simulation it could have been, 1942 opts for a pick-up-and-play arcade sensibility that puts the focus firmly back on fun and frantic competition. Such is the superb balance of the game that whether you’re strafing enemy barracks from the snug confines of a Spitfire or sitting atop a guard tower nursing a shoulder-mounted boomstick, it seems like you’ve got the best seat in the house.
On current form 1942 appears to be a classic in the making, and with three months of fine-tuning still in front of it there seems little doubt that it will wind up being a multiplayer favourite for many years to come.
"This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning." The famous words of our wartime leader Winston Churchill, referring of course to the defeat of the Luftwaffe after The Battle Of Britain.
Aptly we are at a similar juncture in PC gaming - perhaps the beginning of the end (or the end of the beginning) of a phase that has seen a blitzkrieg of WWII-themed games over the last two years across every major genre, from strategy and simulation with Sudden Strike and IL-2 Sturmovik, to the recent first-person shooters Return to Castle Wolfenstein and Medal of Honor: Allied Assault. And with production lines still running on a war footing, there seems to be no let up in the number of WWII games coming our way. Whether or not fatigue could be setting in, one thing's for certain, it won't be over by Christmas.
Fortunately Battlefield: 1942 looks like it could be a lot of fun, for while it may look slightly inferior to both Wolfenstein and Medal of Honor, in the gameplay stakes it could well end up offering a great deal more. As you may already have worked out, the game will allow players to fight missions as diverse as the Normandy landings, the Arnhem parachute drop, Midway, the Tobruk siege and the massive Kursk tank battle. Even more important than the settings, however, is what you can do across them - an incredible 35 vehicles will be available to control, including tanks, jeeps and APCs on land, fighters and bombers in the air. destroyers at sea and even submarines under it. It's quite an impressive show of force, backed up by an arsenal of 19 different weapons, ranging from pistols, sniper rifles and machine guns, to bazookas, mines, flame-throwers and hardmounted weapons.
World Wide War
While you may be thinking this all sounds a bit over ambitious, let me just remind you that while Battlefield will offer a single-player game with bots, it will be online that developer Digital Illusions plans to take over from the likes of Medal Of Honor. Similar in scope to its predecessor Codename Eagle (which was a rubbish single-player game anyway), Battlefield has a lot more in common with games such as Tribes 2 and the up-and-coming PlanetSide, except of course that rather than mincing about in Power Rangers costumes shooting popguns and flying around on butcher's blocks, you could be escorting a bomber manned by your mates, while your comrades bombard the enemy defences from a battleship as 30 chums storm the beach.
As with Tribes 2, up to 64 players can fight across a single map, some of which will be a wide as 4km, which on foot could take a good half-hour to run across. Just to add a Team Fortress flavour to the mix Battlefield players will be able to pick a player class for their character, including Assault, Medic, Scout, Antitank or Engineer, and game modes will feature Team Deathmatch, Capture The Flag, Co-operative and Conquest modes - in which each team must capture and hold key areas, and the more they hold, the more it will eat into the 'lives' or respawns the other team has remaining.
It's with some thanks that despite its FPS mechanics. Battlefield: 1942 has ambitions away from the realism of today's more contemporary tactical shooters, the emphasis is squarely on team-based arcade action. And as the WWII war machine grinds relentlessly on without apparent end, Battlefield: 1942 seems destined to provide a good few of gaming's finest hours.
There was a hefty quota of WWII titles at this year's E3. but there is one that really stood out from the rest, and Battlefield 1942 is it. Although it has a solid multiplayer teambased focus, this single-player demo should still give you an inkling of what's to come when it hits the shelves next month.
This demo is set in Tobruk, the scene of one of Rommel's greatest successes in the North African campaign before Montgomery thwarted his efforts at El Alamein. A barren desert landscape means you'll have to make use of potholes, trenches and scattered bunkers to survive.
Your objective is to secure all the outposts, which to begin with are almost all occupied by the allies. However, playing as the allies isn't any easier. The German outpost is a large factory with several machine gun batteries and tanks at the ready. The allies have a few resources spread between a small base and five outposts.
The first thing to do is rush to the front and either commandeer a vehicle or get behind a bunker machine gun post. The enemy will probably flank you instead of going straight for your outpost, so make sure you know what's coming for you and which defenses you have on your radar.
As long as you keep your side's flag flying you should be OK, but you'll also need to check the map regularly to ensure all the outposts are still safe. If not, hop into the nearest vehicle, call over a gunner and go like hell. As well as tanks, you can control heavy artillery units and howitzers. In the final game, air and sea units will also be at your disposal.
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.
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.