There's a truism in the world of marketing, oft ignored it must be said, that goes: you can't polish a turd. No matter how much you shake things up with visual finery, how many designs and redesigns you go through, unless the meat of your metaphorically-mixed stew is well cooked and tasty, all you're going to be left with is good-looking dishwater. I Having seen the jaw-dropping screens and shaky-cam movies of Battlefield 2 that slipped out of E3 and onto pom site browsers the world over, you may well have been jaded enough to mink: "Sure, looks nice but it'll probably just be the same old game with modem tanks and that." Luckily for all of us, DICE Studios is only too aware of what's required to challenge those widely-held preconceptions.
We have a pretty good rule, or recipe, that we follow which is: one third old, one third new and one third improved ," says Battlefield 2 producer Sean Decker from his cool and pleasant Swedish office. There are those things you really want to keep that are fun and make the game what it is. When someone opens up Battlefield, they expect a certain experience. But there are still things that people wish they could've had in BF1942, so that's the improved' part for us. But also, when you open up the box you expect something new. You don't expect to pay your 50 euros for something that's just the same experience rehashed. We have to try and balance all these factors."
You can't throw a stick onto the Internet these days without hitting a Battlefield server. The phenomenal success of the original game had a lasting effect on the world of online gaming in a way not seen since Counter-Strike. It's a little bit overwhelming, definitely," admits Decker. It's interesting that whenever we pick up a magazine, we find dozens of references to Battlefield, but in articles about other games. It's something that a lot of other designers always get asked -are they going to go in our direction with their games. But even with all of that, we really aren't seeing a lot of games coming in our direction."
That said, the Battlefield trends are certainly picked up on - witness how every game that arrives nowadays features sprawling levels and vehicles with multiple player mounts. Of course, BF1942 pioneered vehicle use (well, Codename: Eagle actually pioneered it, but no-one remembers). For Battlefield 2, the improved' part of the recipe takes this into account.
Every position in a vehicle will be usable, assures Decker. No more sitting in the back of an APC waiting to die because the guy driving it ran into a tank somewhere. If you're in the back of an LAV troop carrier, you can shoot through the firing ports. If you're in a Humvee, you can use your hand weapon to shoot out through the windows."
Artillery is also getting an overhaul for the sequel. Decker freely volunteers that in BF1942, the concept was an unintelligible mess that was hardly ever used. It was horrible, he grimaces. If that wasn't in the game, it would still have been fine. So that was one of the things that we wanted to make dead, dead simple. If you're in the backseat of an F-15 Strike Eagle and some guy on the ground laser paints something, you hear, I've got a target, drop a bomb', and you see instructions on how to do it.
Press this button to fire the missile, or this button to select another pilot. Whatever you need to do will be simple and you'll be able to understand it. It's a pet peeve of ours and we're determined to make it work in terms of simplicity.
Being set in the Near Future, in a three-way war between the US, China and a Middle Eastern coalition fed up with the US imposing its will on everyone (We're just creating sandboxes to play in," says Decker prudently. We stay out of the politics of it all"), there's a lot more than just F-15s on the table in terms of equipment.
Our general rule for creating anything was that any vehicle that's either in use now or that's being prototyped now is an ideal candidate, reveals Decker. Something like the Joint Strike Fight, for instance. Not in production right now, but it's in testing and has been ordered by various military forces, so that might well be in there.
Ground vehicles are more of an issue, especially tanks. Since WWII, most major armed forces (and certainly the ones in the game) have scaled back to just one or two variants. The M1 Abrams for the US, the T-72 for the Russians, the Challenger for us Brits. In order to add variety to the game, DICE has had to take the basic templates for each type and rather than alter the models, instead provide differing equipment for each. So you've got the M1 with mine clearing equipment on one map, or the heavy metal one with greater levels of armour on another.
Modem weaponry means things aren't just about being in a different era -they change the gameplay too, says Decker. That's a challenge, but it gives us a lot more grist to play with and more ways to play the game.
So far it's all improvement'. What of the new'? The most notable change for Battlefield 2 has come as a result of the increase in player numbers on each map. With servers now capable of supporting up to 100 players (possibly more depending on how well current testing at the DICE office goes), there needs to be a streamlined communication interface at play - lest every match becomes a nightmarishly unplayable free-for-all session. Hence the squad systems.
There are two command elements at work. Individual squads work like small teams in MMOGs. Anyone can start a squad, invite their friends, lock it or make it public. You're given a huge set of tools that means you can coordinate your actions and issue small-scale commands (cover that door or take that tank and so on).
Toys For The Boys
Then there's the overall command leader. He has more tools and toys and probably knows more than the average Joe as far as where the enemy is, where the good guys are and so on, Decker explains. "There's only one per side, so it's an interesting-and different way of playing Battlefield. You get a different view of the map. So it's for those that want that prestige or like more RTS-style games - or are just control freaks. Commanders can lay down strategies, issue specific goals and objectives and call in all-important air strikes. As a regular soldier you're free to ignore him, but inevitably any side working as a cohesive unit is far more likely to succeed than a side with 50 Rambos running around at will.
So the idea is to provide structure for those that want it without losing the basic pick-up-and-shoot gameplay that the series is famed for? Decker nods: There are certain rewards you get for following orders, but there are no penalties for not following them. You can play the game the way you want to: if you don't want to be in a squad, you don't have to be.
You may not want to be in a squad, but then you'd really be missing out on half the game. As well as experiencing the sheer joy and love that comes from supporting your fellow man, working together is also the best way to stay alive long enough to unlock the game's reward structure.
"One thing we always wanted to do that we weren't able to previously was have more permanency, Decker confirms. "You play a game right now, you play for 30 minutes and then all the rewards disappear. Consequently, Battlefield 2 now has a permanent online stats system for every player that logs in. However, in-game it's about more than just numbers. "We thought, Why not also reward people for being able to play for long periods'?" says Decker. When you get to a certain rank, why not give them something to go with the title besides just the bragging rights? Ranking is essentially a way of comparing your in-game success levels with your fellow combatants. A way of showing how much better you are than the rest of us mere mortals. But with the rank come rewards in the shape of different weapons and equipment. Not better, necessarily - just different.
We also have some surprise ones in there, Decker grins. So, just for example, multiple knife kills in one round might unlock a piano wire as a new weapon. There are also ones that are tied to different awards that you may pick up along the way. Not only weapon rewards, but also gameplay ones that give you new abilities to affect the way you can use certain things.
Loud And Clear
Having a squad-based game automatically means you need a communication system that works well enough to cater for 100 players at a time. The good news is that you won't have to mess around with tricky third-party software just to be able to say, Stop shooting at me, I'm on your side', to your American friends. The even better news is that it's been designed in such a way to avoid swamping the channels with players spouting the usual gibberish.
If you've ever played with voice comms on something like Counter-Strike describes Decker, you really don't want to listen to everybody -especially in 100-player games. So we're being very strict on channels. If one of the things you love is getting together with your buddies and just talking all the time, then you're probably best off doing it outside of the game with some other VoIP program.
Instead, Battlefield 2 uses context-sensitive voice commands. If you're a medic, only you hear the calls for medical help. Meanwhile, engineers only hear requests for repairs, and chopper pilots are the only ones plagued by the endless screaming calls from dying soldiers for a pick-up.
Up to 100 players. Yeah, roll that one around for a moment. Even the best level designers in the world would have trouble creating environments that provide enjoyable, focused experiences for both ends of the numerical scale. Luckily, DICE has a plan: variable map sizes. Each has been designed at four scales -16 players, 32, 64 and the big one - double-oh. Decker provides an example. Take the BF1942 map Market Garden. There's a German base, two bridges, a small town, a church pnd an American airbase over the hill. A 16-player game would only take place between the bridges and the church.
For the 32-player game, you expand it beyond that to the current size seen in BF1942. For 64 players, you make it bigger still and extend the river down further, adding another crossing point. Then for 100 players, you add another airbase and plenty more flak and so on."
Changing the map sizes also means changing where the control points are and which vehicles are available. Every version of a map is then a different experience, rather than just a case of piling more players onto the same map until it bursts.
Originally, the team toyed with the idea of on-the-fly map scaling, changing the parameters as people joined and left a server. Not the best idea they ever had.
It was one of the things we tried prototyping originally, confesses Decker. We got it working and discovered that it was very strange to be playing a game, have more people join and suddenly everything changes. Where the control points are, where the tanks are located and so on. Or, when people leave a game, the death material comes in on you like a big amoeba and you're running in front of it trying to find a safe combat area. It wasn't really intuitive." You heard it here first folks. Battlefield 2 - no death amoebas.
You've probably guessed by now, but Battlefield 2 is heavily reliant on the broadband explosion currently taking place. The graphics engine alone is so state-of-the-art, Decker is confident that rival engines such as Half-Life 2's or Unreal 3.0 won't be so far ahead when they launch. But are the days of 56k modems finally over? They are for us, he laughs.
Which is perhaps the one environment Battlefield 2 is going to have to really fight over. BF1942 pretty much spearheaded the development of the online shooter genre. But with more piranhas fighting over gamer pie than ever before - Joint Ops, for instance, is about to steal a march on the 100-player, multi-vehicle team-based shooter genre well ahead of DICE'S schedule - BF2 has to prove it has enough firepower not just to hold its own, but to redefine the way we play once more. Certainly nothing we've seen so far indicates it's in any way lacking.
Playing With Yourself? You'll Go Blind
There's no doubting where Decker sees BF2's place in the world: We're primarily a multiplayer game. We realise that's our sweet spot. However, that doesn't mean the singletons out there are being shafted (a state of affairs they're all too familiar with). The Al is being given a complete overhaul for the single-player game, with five new programmers and a dedicated producer having been hired especially for the task. We're pushing hard as we realise we didn't really deliver what we thought was a very satisfying experience on the single-player side before, admits Decker.
With good reason too. It hasn't been our focus, but in our research we've found a lot of people do play single-player, for whatever reason. In our last poll, we had 13,000 respondents - and 25 per cent of them said they play single-player exclusively. We don't want to disappoint them. Plus, we just feel we can do better.
Think Of It As Battlefield: Flashpoint-Cold War Crisis
The temptation for a sequel is always to want to make things bigger, bigger, BIGGER! With maps already large enough to support 100 players, you may be wondering how much bigger DICE can go. But then, you might also remember a little game from a few years back called Operation Flashpoint.
DICE might not yet be ready to head down the persistent world PlanetSide route with the Battlefield franchise, but there could be an interim solution by having a Flashpoint-sized, total island map hosted permanently on several EA servers. This could have dozens of control points scattered all over, along with safe zones that can't be attacked by the enemy - from where the commanders and squad leaders can plan out detailed attacks.
Think You're Safe Indoors? Think Again
It's selective in terms of what can be destroyed. Players being players, we wouldn't have a battlefield left if everything was destructible. Producer Sean Decker is so in tune with the mindset of most online gamers it's scary. I can totally see three guys just getting into tanks and blowing up everything in sight until everyone's just playing in a big desert.
One of the big leaps forward for BF2 is that scenery is no longer invulnerable to your gunfire. Aside from bullet penetration of doors, walls and so on, hi-ex weapons can lay waste to much more than just human tissue.
It was always frustrating to chase some guy in a Tiger tank and he'd run into a shack and be safe, explains Decker. We basically decided that it'd be much more interesting to let somebody blow that shack up, or at least put bullets through it. We think it's going to change the way people play in terms of when hiding behind a bush or a concrete wall, you'll understand that the bullets are going to go through the bush. And then through you.
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It Is My solemn duty to report that the time has come. If you have a copy of Battlefield 1942, it's time to pack it away, it's obsolete, redundant; its services are no longer required. Play it one last time if you must and savour the memories; of bloody victories fought over sod and ruin, the comrades lost in courageous assaults and the calluses that forever fused index finger to mouse. Yes, be mournful of its passing, but be thankful that its spirit lives on.
OK, OK, a bit too melodramatic I know, but during the few hours of downtime before I sat down to write this review, I realised that Battlefield 1942 would soon be departing my hard drive after three years of distinguished service. Eyes clouding over with nostalgia, I was genuinely moved to fire up Digital Illusions' ground-breaking shooter one last time, smiling with genuine endearment at the still inane displays of so-called intelligence on the part of the computer-controlled combatants. Gawd bless 'em. Fear not though, because the future looks bright. Treated to one of the most frantic and exciting intro movies ever inserted into a game, and given the sheer breadth of new features and the near-future setting, it's surprising how quickly you settle into Battlefield 2's new surroundings.
Same As It Ever Was
The interface has barely changed: movement, shifting through the weapons, finding and driving the various vehicles is exactly how you expect it to be, but better. On foot, movement seemed to overcompensate for your actions in previous games, but here turning, advancing and strafing seems far more natural - more how it should be. Break cover and double tap on the forward key and you lurch into a sprint, stamina bar depleting as you near your destination. Jump and your stamina falls further, so you dive behind a bush to catch your breath, waiting for the next dash to take the enemy position.
Going back to '42 or 'Nam, you realise how basic the first-person shooter component of each game was. Here, you can avoid vehicles completely (although the occasional lift to the front line will always be welcome) and have just as much fun as those who prefer not to stretch their virtual legs.
BF2's maps are far more diverse and dynamic than its predecessors'. Buildings that were little more than shacks are now fully realised structures of stone and plaster. True, they're not quite as intense as in Counter-Strike, or as sinuous as Planetside's innards perhaps, but there are enough places to avoid mechanised warfare and indulge in more traditional means of FPS death dealing here.
Sewers wind underneath bases enabling Special Forces to creep about without fear of being intercepted by missiles. Tall cranes peer across oil refineries, affording incredible views for snipers to bead over. Outside, maps are littered with pipes, crates, horse carts and other detritus, some of it easily destroyed, most of it frustratingly permanent. The upshot of all this is that infantry firefights are a driving focus of each game and when a tank does appear, avoiding its gaze (and slapping a satchel charge on it) is very much easier.
That's not to infer tanks and other such methods of conveyance are in any way obsolete (this time around grenades are strictly for soft targets). After all, it's that very mix of first-person action and vehicular combat that makes Battlefield the series it is. Fast buggies, APCs, M1 tanks, choppers and jet fighters are all faithfully represented and are quickly settled into should you already be accustomed to their forebears from BF: Vietnam.
Unfortunately, there are no artillery units this time. While I appreciate that such pieces were often sequestered as second-class tanks, their presence behind the front line was more than decisive in battles I've been party to. Thankfully though, instead of doing away with artillery strikes altogether, control over static heavy guns is placed entirely In the hands of the battlefield commander, a role that prior Battlefield games have sorely lacked. The commander is now a central figure of any side that professes to employ teamwork in order to rise above the other.
This time around there are three combating nations to side with: the US (Marine Corps), the Chinese People's Liberation Army and the fictional Middle Eastern Coalition, who, for the sake of gameplay, are remarkably well equipped.
Despite the near-future backdrop however, the developer has opted not to linger on desperate political events in and around the Gulf, instead setting battles as far apart as Northern China, the Red Sea and Oman. There's no mention of Iraq, but you may assume otherwise given the woolly descriptions of some of the locales. Perhaps intentionally, all the battles seem to involve securing oil fields rather than caches of biological weapons.
Each side boasts the familiar mix of vehicles and weapon types, with the Chinese and MEC offering a similar range of technology. In terms of effectiveness though, weapons are by and large identical between nations, with the US boasting perhaps greater air superiority, the MEC the larger number of fast ground-attack vehicles. In the main, there's little to choose between them save for the voices that blare out from your speakers.
Whatever side you do choose, the most important decision prior to any game is which equipment to place about your person. In place of the Scout kit is the sniper, and while he can no longer spot targets for distant artillery, he does now have a cache of anti-personal Claymore mines instead. Sniping is a popular and effective role for obvious reasons, but even with larger maps and the aforementioned vantage points, their lethality is tempered by the improved effectiveness of medics. These health angels are now able to equip shock paddles that can quickly bring a fallen comrade to full health and heal the injured without needing to actively use' medical kits.
Similarly, engineers can repair nearby vehicles automatically, and can do so while aboard a vehicle of their own. Such abilities not only make the engineer a natural choice for drivers, but also foster teamwork between mechanised units as two tanks driven by engineers can - forgive the pun - tank each other until overcome. Being one of my favourite player-class types from previous games, I'm pleased at their new abilities, if a little disappointed that their main weapons are largely useless.
Moving along, the assault trooper no longer has a heavy machine gun, instead favouring an under-slung grenade launcher alongside a more traditional assault rifle. Meanwhile, the support variant - one of two new classes - acquires the big gun and the ability to re-arm nearby troops in the same way that the medic heals and the engineer repairs. All of which leaves the antitank specialist and the other new player class, the special forces operative. The latter is my current favourite, who may perhaps not have the most powerful weapon in the game, but can set satchel charges to destroy (some) bridges, blow holes in (some) walls and destroy (most) weapon emplacements.
Lead From Behind
The biggest change to the dynamic of the arcade war that BF2 preaches is the presence of the aforementioned commander, a role selected by popular vote rather than by choosing a kitbag. As we all know, being in charge is a thankless task, more so here as players are free to disregard your orders. Plus, should you fail, demotion to the lower ranks is consequently swift. But with a good leader, games can be every bit as intense as any team-orientated shooter we've played - PlanetSide, Savage or WW// Online among them.
Your companion is your overview map, where call barrages (that's if the enemy haven't sabotaged your howitzers), send out remote spy drones, scan the map or drop supplies.
Despite such high-tech tools, the most decisive is the commander's ability to detect the enemy and direct his troops to deal with them. It's a fiddly interface for sure, but to master it is surely the point of aspiring to take the lead. Zoom in on a part of the top-down map and enemy vehicles are instantly revealed. However, you must quickly relay what you see to your squads (right click, unit spotted, at which point it's briefly highlighted on everyone's battle map), and should you linger too long on one part of the map, you may miss what may be happening in other areas. In addition, let's not forget that as commander, you have a physical presence on the battlefield. This means that even if you happen to be far from the front line hiding under a building, you can still expect to be discovered and a team of special ops or high explosive shells sent your way. Despite being the embodiment of teamplay, it's amazing how much of the game as commander is spent alone.
Hot Bots Or Not?
Which leads us neatly onto the single-player game, which is in many respects a massive improvement over both 1942 and Vietnam. First and foremost the Al. If you happen to be wounded and request assistance, a nearby medic will head for your position, as they will with defibrillators should you be in danger of breathing your last. Similarly, engineers and support troops will make good any repairs and ply you with ammo if requested. They won't go on suicidal runs to save you if they're under fire, which is fair enough, but they will go out of their way (more so than human players) to ensure you stay active on the field.
Al Is A1
Another bonus where the Al's concerned is that if a transport whizzes by and you need a lift to the front line, ask them to stop and they generally do. Well, not every time, but enough for you to cast a verbal 'thanks chief' their way whenever they're courteous enough to offer a seat. And while talking to bots is not something I'm proud of, I'm man enough to show appreciation even if it's unlikely to carry favour in future encounters.
The bots are less adept at driving though, and while they aren't as imbecilic as they were in the initial release of 1942 (who were impossibly good shots as well, remember), there's the odd instance of veering off a road in a vain attempt toride a tank up a sheer slope. Such an instance led me to take charge just in case the Al driver decided get creative. Much better is their command of the skies, which isn't so surprising given the lack of obstacles. However, you can be confident that should you wish to man the wire-guided missiles on an Apache, your pilot will be fairly competent at keeping you aloft. Even the Al commander is surprisingly proficient.
No, this time the Al isn't a problem. This time it's the lack of options for singleplayers. You see, in the multiplayer game there are essentially 36 maps -16,32 and 64-player variants of the 12-map basic set. In single-player there are just ten of the 16-player versions. They're clearly designed to give instant gratification, something they accomplish well enough (I played them for three days solid and didn't get bored). However, training yourself in the fine art of captaincy is not easily done here and you cannot customise the Al settings or enjoy 32- or 64-player offline games.
All To Fight For
The developer has always insisted the single-player game was a tutorial for the multiplayer game, but as improved as the Al is, there's no substitute for human interaction. At the time of writing there remains a certain amount of acclimatisation going on across public servers - a period of intense learning. Understandably, players are rushing to try out the vehicles, trying to pull off defib kills, standing on runways with antitank weapons, haring off in buggies to capture points solo - all things that they should be doing offline and all things they did when BF1942 first arrived.
However, as soon as everyone understands the need to communicate and follow orders, the experience will undoubtedly improve. The in-built voice chat system is helping - the fact that you can only communicate with your squad means that tight relationships are already forming between players. In a few short weeks, there should be enough veterans leading the way to keep the loud-mouthed recruits in check.
As much as war has changed in the 60 years that separate the settings of the two Battlefield games (Vietnam being a sideshow, metaphorically), online combat has changed almost as dramatically in the three gaming years that separate 1942 from this. Whereas BF1942 had to cater -albeit unsuccessfully, it must be said - to those still encumbered with squealing 56k modems, Battlefield 2 is unrepentant in indulging the broadband generation to the exclusion of those hamstrung by such ancient devices. In short, you need a heavyweight PC and a lightning-fast connection to enjoy BF2 to its fullest, yet enjoy it to its fullest you must.
Graphically it's stunning to behold, geographically vast to explore and whereas the first Iwo games in the series were typified by anarchic rushes for armour, BF2 promotes and rewards altruism and teamwork like no other. There's room for lone wolf heroes and selfish cowardice still, but if you enlist to fight across Battlefield 2's near-future hotspots, know that you must relent to being part of a cohesive force of unified aim.
BF1942 was a training tool for the virtual battlefield, a place to learn weapon craft, tactics and how to drive a truck. Battlefield 2 adds the tools for command to the mix, and to ignore them is to spit in face of its lofty ambition.
It's all fantastic news for fans - DICE'S latest multiplayer shooter is exactly the experience we all wanted. Of course, you don't really have to uninstall BF1942, but I warn you now, as soon as you've experienced its successor, you won't be looking back.