So yes, I’m a little late the party. But what a party. Where has this been all my life?
First some context. I was, at launch, a massive Call of Duty 4 fan (I’m trying to avoid retconning that particular title as Modern Warfare, COD4 it was and COD4 it shall remain). My housemate and I played it constantly. It was, in multiplayer form, the most fun I’d had since Counter-Strike, back in it’s Beta 7.1 form. Tight, action-packed matches with well balanced sides and that all important feeling that you were having as much fun playing it as everyone else. Of course, I wasn’t the only one that thought so. COD4 is perhaps the defining game of the last five years – and with great popularity comes great geekiness. Even casual COD4 players were putting in twenty or more hours in multiplayer mode. Folks got good. So good in fact, that online play became intimidating for newcomers. Friends of mine who came late to the COD4 party quickly became disillusioned with the combination of overwhelming firepower, map-familiarity, twitch skills and racism/homophobia/general intolerance on display from more seasoned players (mostly it seemed pre-pubescent Americans). Still, for those of us who were there from the start, disabling voice chat at least provided some respite from the never-ending tirade of immaturity and the action itself was entertaining and addictive, assuming you’d levelled up enough to access some of the more useful perks and firepower.
So it was with breath duly baited that those of us who enjoyed COD4 awaiting the culmination of the hype overdrive that preceeded the release of its sequel, the stupidly named Modern Warfare 2. There would be new maps, new weapons, new perks and new killstreak rewards. It would be the same, only bigger, better and shinier. Only it wasn’t. It was just… the same. Infinity ward had taken their winning formula and left it almost completely unaltered. Sure, it played the same. Some of the new maps were great and the ability to chose your killstreak perks added a hint of pre-match strategy. But it felt somehow wrong. Players like myself who had migrated on to other titles during the wait for MW2’s release were instantly destroyed by COD4 addicts who’d switched to the new title the second it was released and had already levelled up their characters to the upper echelons of the ranking system within days. Their finely honed twitch shooting skills, refined over months of constant COD4 play, made mincemeat of casuals like me – and rendered the online section of the game (and which of us honestly cared about the offline section) simply less fun that it used to be.
Maybe it was the game, maybe it was my own inadequacy, or maybe it was just that curious sense of disaffection one feels upon realising that something close to our hearts is actually an international phenomenon loved my millions of others, often with greater dedication that ourselves. Something just didn’t feel right.
There were other problems too. The killstreaks were overpowered. Rack up seven or so kills and out comes the chopper for half a dozen more. Fail to hit that magical figure though and any kill/death ratio the right side of 1:1 was impressive. The maps were ok, but didn’t hit the joyous heights of the game’s predecessor, and many felt too cramped – with just one or two choke points were the action invariably bogged down. There may have been loads of new weapons and props, but only a few of them were any fun to use. And there had been no innovations in the engine. Grenades were still capable of liquidizing the enemy at ten paces, but wouldn’t even shift a wooden crate ten inches away. And the camping. Far too many game modes and maps encouraged that old Counter-Strike favourite, the annoying sniper. Lying there in the bushes at the far end of a map picking off the enemy one tiny clump of pixels at a time, and racking up those ridiculously imbalanced killstreaks in the process.
So, after a week or two, Modern Warfare 2 went back in the “drawer of forgotten games” and never resurfaced. My online time was spent on sports sims and racing games, with the odd blast on Halo 3 for a spot of fun. When Call of Duty Black Ops rolled around, I didn’t even bother to pick it up. Too much hype, too much disappointment last time.
And then came Battlefield. I’ve been dimly aware of some positive reviews for the previous titles in the series, but never checked it out – at first assuming it to be a PC-based geeky Operation Flashpoint alike, then seeing it as just another COD4 clone. Still, I finally picked up Battlefield Bad Company 2, DICE’s follow up to the next-gen onlyBattlefield Bad Company, after seeing previews of the Vietnam DLC pack – more of which in a separate review later.
So it was to be Modern Warfare with vehicles. Fair enough, at least it might not have the same stagnation problems of its rival. It was worth a try. At worst, it would be another Frontline: Fuels of War. Entertaining but ultimately disposable. How wrong I was.
DICE has always focused the series on multiplayer, so I only took a cursory spin through the offline portion of the game to familiarise myself with the controls. It’s fairly ordinary stuff. An incomprehensible plot, overwraught voice acting and far too many cutscenes taking the player on a tour of different environments all clearly designed as map fodder for the online portion. The in-house Frostbite engine is shown off nicely with some lovely draw distances and dense foliage, but it’s nothing special. I almost didn’t go any further. But I had to check out the multiplayer action.
Fully expecting to get my newbie arse minced like burgermeat for the first hour or so I jumped into a few quick matches. Boy was I wrong. The game’s matchmaking system seemed to put me on servers with other relative newcomers (most were ranked 7 or below), and I kicked ass. Not in a “I’m so darned good at online FPS games’ way, just in a ‘I’m no worse than these guys’ kind of way. And that felt good.
Not quite as good though, as the first time I hopped in a tank and levelled an entire building full of enemies with a single shell. This is what videogame warfare should be about. Not sitting still next to some badly pixellated bushes waiting to press fire at the tiniest hint of movement on the far side of the map. Proper, visceral destruction with room shaking bass and massive clouds of smoke and flame. This was how COD4 used to feel. Fun.
So how does it work. Well for a start there’s a class system. Your weapons loadout and “specials” (kind of like perks) are determined by that class, with more firepower becoming accessible through experience-based unlocks (these are fewer and further between than in the Modern Warfare series). Choose assault and you’ll get a grenade launcher and assault rifle, with the ability to drop ammo for your comrades. Engineers get rocket launchers, less powerful guns and the chance to fix friendly vehicles. Medics can revive injured teammates and so-on. It all serves to introduce a nice balance to the teams’ make-up. There’s a healthy mix of all class types on each map. No-one seems to naturally gravitate towards one class at the expense of the others. This is a good thing.
Then there are the vehicles, perhaps the biggest draw for those new to the Battlefield series. More prominent, and more useful, on certain maps than others, they feel simultaneously powerful, yet never over-powered. For every Abrams tank there’s a TOW missile emplacement or RPG that leaves it vulnerable. There are quad bike (fast but fragile), APCs (somewhere between tanks and quads), and of course the big tracked beasts themselves (slow, heavily armoured, powerful). Each can take more than one player, with tanks offering a 50 cal turret for a second player to control while the driver deals with movement and firing shells. But that’s not all. Like COD there are helicopters and UAVs. But these aren’t perks introduced with the press of a button that have all the fun themselves. No – these babies are there to use. Want to use a chopper? There’s no need to sweat out a killstreak. Just find one, climb aboard and take off, preferably with a friend to fire the tracers while you despatch rockets at your quarry. Yes, they kick ass. But bear in mind that they’re a bitch to fly and pretty vulnerable once in the air. Again, firepower balanced by fragility. This is a good thing.
And of course, if you can fly choppers, you’re gonna need the room to do it. And there Bad Company 2 delivers again. While most of Modern Warfare’s maps feel relatively cramped, Battlefield’s are huge. That could leave players isolated, away from the action with nothing to do. But there BC2 plays another trump card. It grows the map as the battle expands. In the brilliant Rush mode, where the attacking team try to destroy an expanding series of targets, the play area starts tight, then grows as each area is cleared. By the end of the game there’s what feels like hectares to play with. Plenty to require the use of that chopper, but not so much that you spend all your game time travelling (hands up GTA IV).
Part of the key to the management of the maps is the brilliant spawn system. In COD you spawn where you spawn. That’s it. In BC2 you have options. Spawn up near the action on a friendly outpost near the frontline? Spawn back at the starting point, where regenerating choppers and tanks await your destructive fantasies? Or better yet spawn next to a team-mate in the thick of a firefight to keep up with the frontline? The choice is yours, each and every time you bite the, literal, bullet. It works fantastically, keeping you in the thick of things, and keeping the battle flowing. There’s added incentive to stay alive if the rest of your squad have been wiped out, so they can spawn next to you and keep pushing forward. This is, as you might have guess, a good thing.
And that’s not all. Remember those indestructible crates, doors, and well… everything in COD? Not here. Plant a tank shell through a shack window and the walls and roof are heading skywards. Spray machine gun fire towards an enemy crouching in a copse of trees and not only is he going down, but so is the vegetation. It’s not just there to look good either. The mechanic works brilliantly to deter camping. A few times I’ve found a building in my team’s back yard with a crafty window for sniping. A couple of headshots later, and there’s a distant and ominous whirr of machinery. I track my scope around just in time to see the a far-off tank turret turn slowly to face my hiding place through the dust and heat haze. A silent muzzle flash from the gun barrel and moments later the wall in front of me has vanished and I’m a smoking stain on the carpet. Oh how I wish I could drive just one of BF2’s tanks onto a MW2 map and wipe the smug look of the faces of those ghillied up campers who cling to the extremities of the maps. This is a very good thing.
And then there’s the GPS system. In COD, those who creep or have perks stay hidden from the map. Enemy UAV’s (another killstreak perk) reveal most of the opposition (and are up throughout most games), so most matches involve hiding somewhere and staring at the minimap for approaching red dots. Tense, but not much fun. In BC2 things work differently. Sight an enemy hotfooting it over open ground and you can hit the Back button to “spot him”, temporarily lighting him up on your team-mates GPS system. Indeed, well co-ordinated teams can sit a player high in a watchtower simply to spot bad guys. He needn’t open up with a sniper rifle and give away his (vulnerable) location unless absolutely necessary. So the map becomes less important, but just as valuable – as it should be. Another good thing. The same Back-pressing mechanic is also used, by the way, to urge comrades towards certain targets – a useful shortcut to help co-ordinate the, at times frantic, action.
You may have gathered that I like BC2. That’s putting it mildly. It has restored my faith in both the Modern Warfare genre, and online FPS combat. It’s addictive, inventive, refined, fair and above all bloody good fun. Everything that Modern Warfare itself seems to have strayed away from. It’s not perfect. There are v-sync issues that result in the odd bit of tearing. Up close there’s a bit of strange pixelation on some textures, and there are occasions when the matchmaking engine has failed to put me in a game. But that’s about it. Honestly this is right up there with the original Unreal Tournament and Counter-Strike as one of my favourite online shooters of all time.