- Review Price: £28.00
It’s all a question of ambition. The first online 3D shooters gave us bursts of exhilarating action, but little real depth or tactical complexity. Then, while the likes of Team Fortress, Counter Strike and Unreal Tournament showed the genre taking baby steps towards a more sophisticated, team-based gameplay, Battlefield 1942 took a deep breath and leapt forward. With large maps that could cope with up to 64 players, a multitude of vehicles and a complex set of inter-dependent character classes, the game took the small-scale, bloodthirsty dramas of those earlier games and turned them into something operatic.
Which must have made the sequel a tricky proposition. A change of setting and a new graphics engine might be enough for some developers, but not one of DICE’s ambition (Battlefield Vietnam only did the former, and was never a proper sequel). Some changes to the gameplay were needed, but when you’re cooking on a grand scale, you run greater risks when changing the ingredients. How do you make the action feel even more epic, but still make the player feel they count? Amazingly, Battlefield 2 does exactly that.
At heart the premise remains pretty simple. We might have moved on from the Axis vs Allies of Battlefield 1942 to (hopefully) fictional modern-day conflicts between US Marines and the Chinese People’s Army or a ‘Middle East Coalition’, but the basic objectives are the same. Two sides battle for control of a map, fighting over specific points that a) control where players can respawn after meeting their demise and b) affect the number of spawns that side has available. Once all control points are captured and the enemy eliminated, or the other side runs out of spawns, the game is won.
In action, it doesn’t seem so simple. With 63 other individuals out there, some on foot, some in jeeps, tanks or assorted all-terrain vehicles, or even taking to the air in jets or helicopters, what seems so easy can quickly turn into a disorganised mess, with spawn points won and lost every other second, and no real sense of a bigger picture. How do you stop this happening?
Battlefield 2’s solution is twofold. The first part is the introduction of a new role: the commander. The commander takes a step back from the fray in order to provide information and leadership. This means they only get a dull map to look at during play, but does offer several compensations, in being able to set orders, call in satellite sweeps, reconnaissance drones or supply drops or – best of all – target artillery strikes on enemy positions. That’s a lot of power, and a lot of responsibility. Using your information to set the right objective and using artillery to advantage is the name of the game, and if the commander fails, their team mates can easily vote them out.
While this encourages a degree of top-down organisation, it only works because of a second fundamental change – squads – formed of up to five troops and a squad leader. The squad leader takes orders from the commander, and then filters these down, either using a range of keyboard based commands and objective markers on the mini-map, or the old fashioned way – speech, using Voice over IP. To keep things simple, players can only speak directly to other players in their squad, and only squad leaders can talk to the commander.
Now, nobody forces you to join a squad, but doing so gives you some important bonuses. First, in a balanced squad with medics and engineers, you have more support when things go wrong. Secondly, when things go really wrong you have a special spawn point at the current position of your squad leader. As one of the biggest frustrations of a game with such large maps is that a death can mean you’re several minutes away from the action, the ability to respawn back with your squad mates is a pretty enticing proposition.
If all this sounds a little too organized, then rest assured that Battlefield 2 doesn’t make you feel like just another cog in a well-oiled machine. Partly it’s because of the variety of roles it has to offer, with players choosing between seven ‘kits’ that run the gamut of special forces, assault troops, engineers, medics, snipers and anti-tank specialists. Whatever your proclivities, there’s going to be something to suit and a valuable part you can play. And as you can change kits every time you respawn, you can always transform to meet the changing needs of battle.
And that’s before we get to the vehicles. Some are designed just to get troops rapidly from A to B, others are your basic heavy tanks, but all have a major impact on which way the victory turns. Where Battlefield 2 really rings the changes is in the increased role of air-support. Helicopters can still be used to ferry troops into battle or allow for parachute attacks, but they also have tank-busting and strafing capabilities that make them a force to be reckoned with in any assault. This, in turn, makes the inclusion of jets all the more important. Not only are they great for tackling helicopters, but with practice they’re also fit for carpet bombing and precision raids. Note the ‘with practice’. Flying aircraft is a skill, and one that’s worth building offline against vaguely intelligent bots before you plummet into the hills with a full load of angry team-mates onboard.
Amazingly, it’s all very well balanced. No kit seems particularly overpowerful, and while tanks can dominate a map if given free reign, they’re easy meat for a skilled anti-tank troop, a smart engineer or even ordinary troops if they work in concert. If it flies, it can be bought down. If it moves, you can blow it up. Even snipers – the terror of many online games – are limited by the fact that they often need two hits to kill from a distance and face a long reload between shots.
It’s also a game where your individual efforts feel rewarded. You get points for kills, but also for assisting kills, capturing or holding control points, healing allies as a medic or repairing vehicles as an engineer. Even better, these points don’t disappear when the game ends. Play on a ranked server and your tally will be added to a permanent record, with the promise of a juicy promotion or some cool new weapons once the points rack up.
However the really wonderful thing is that, at its best, Battlefield 2 makes you feel like part of an ensemble cast in the best war movie ever made. The new graphics engine certainly helps, and if the concrete installations, ruined buildings, massive hangers and sinister silos get samey, you can never say the same about the game’s wide rivers, rolling hills, dusty streets, or towering bridges. With an equally impressive physics engine, superb character models, and incredible EAX surround sound effects, the whole experience is simply breathtaking. Every Battlefield 2 player will have his favourite moments, but if there’s anything more thrilling than that last ditch defence as the tanks and helicopters roll in, that race to heal a fallen comrade under sniper fire, or that lunatic assault on a badly-defended enemy base, then it’s not in any other online game I’ve played.
So why not the perfect ten? Well, Battlefield has three major problems. The first is system requirements. The game will run on a mid-range Pentium 4 with 512Mb of RAM and a GeForce 5600/Radeon 9600, but you may need to switch to a lower resolution and medium to low detail settings to make it playable (don’t worry, it still looks good). Secondly, it doesn’t seem all that stable, and it definitely suffers from lag. Settling for a 32 player server certainly helps – and the game arguably plays better in the more concentrated 32 player maps – but mid-game crashes and occasional chug-a-thons are to be expected until the inevitable workarounds and patches emerge. At the moment, playing Battlefield 2 isn’t always the seamless experience it should be.
The third problem? Well, it’s not DICE’s fault – it’s us. Even though we have a game that goes out of its way to encourage team play and provides sophisticated means of communication, an awful lot of us aren’t taking full advantage. Squads are often dysfunctional or practically non-existent, VoIP is barely used. Commanders seem to exist primarily so there is someone to vote out when the team starts losing. Vehicles which could be used to ferry a whole squad into battle are grabbed by the first player that comes along and driven into the heart of an enemy camp (where they’re promptly blown up). It’s all mildly depressing.
Still, given time we might grow out of it. Remember playground football? How initially everyone wanted to attack, nobody wanted to defend, and even the goalie rushed out to have a shot at scoring? Didn’t we eventually find it a waste of time and learn how to play properly, using whatever talent we had and working as a team? Well, it’s probably the same here. At the moment, DICE has given us an amazing online action game to enjoy. One day, we might actually discover how to play it.
The next leap forward in online warfare, bogged down slightly by stability issues and the fact that hardly anyone plays it as it should be played. Give it time, and it’s going to be essential.