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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.