Modern multiplayer warfare flares in Digital Illusion's Battlefield 2. As in the developer's original Battlefield 1942 (as well as its various add-ons and Vietnam-themed update), the focus of Battlefield 2 is on fast-paced, vehicle-enabled, online combat for a large group of players -- the sequel supports as many as 64 on a single map. Unlike earlier versions, however, Battlefield 2 is set in the near future instead of a glorified past. Players fight for the United States, China, or the Middle East coalition, using technologically advanced weapons, equipment, and vehicles.
The selection of over 30 usable land, sea, and airborne vehicles includes helicopters, hovercraft, jeeps, and jets. A variety of soldier types are available for play, including assault infantry, snipers, engineers, medics, spec ops agents, and others. Gamers can also choose to take the role of a strategic commander, directing units across the battlefields from an overseer's position, but not taking part directly in the action. As characters gain experience in online battle, they increase in rank, are awarded medals, and gain access to additional high-end equipment. The game's engine is designed to automatically scale the size of the maps to the number of players in the session.
I once heard a game developer refer to Battlefield 1942 as "lightning in a bottle." Released at a time when first-person shooters were all either over-the-top science fiction or ultra-realistic weapon simulations, the original Battlefield struck a balance between realism and fun that's been virtually unmatched. Infantry, tanks, jeeps, planes, and even ships fought online for virtual supremacy in a world where heavy weapons were used and discarded like facial tissues and parachutes could be opened and closed multiple times on the way down. Nobody complained that the Messerschmitt turning radius wasn't accurately modeled: It was fun to fly and fun to blow up. Whether on a LAN party or online, Battlefield 1942 was an instant addiction that had gamers playing all night and talking about their exploits with friends all through the next day.
Battlefield: Vietnam was a competent enough follow-up, but it didn't feel like enough of an upgrade -- it had plenty of rough edges and never caught fire the way the original game did. Now EA and DICE are back, looking to refresh the franchise with a full-on sequel -- Battlefield 2 -- that improves on the original game in almost every way. Although we have our nitpicks, this is the next must-have for PC gamers.
The core Battlefield game is still the same: it's a first-person shooter with land, sea, and air vehicles where two teams compete over key points on the map. The action is fast-paced, and while realistic weapons and locations are featured, fun always takes precedence over simulation.
Here's what's new: Battlefield 2 features an all-new graphics engine allowing for huge maps riddled with detail at every level. This time around the emphasis isn't on WWII or Vietnam but on modern warfare, with all the insane hardware you'd see on a contemporary battlefield. (There are three factions: the U.S., the fictional "Middle East Coalition," and the People's Liberation Army of China.) BF2 also brings to the table a complete integrated stats package, tracking your individual profile persistently online. Teamplay is kicked up a notch, with integrated tools to divide players into squads with their own missions, and a scoring system that provides big rewards for players who support teammates with medical aid, ammo, or repairs.
The maps in Battlefield 2 are huge, depicting detailed environments in potential hotspots around the world (divided between the Middle East and China.) There are 12 maps in total, but each one comes in three sizes, suitable for 16, 32, or 64 players. Gameplay can be radically different in each (especially in the small 16-player versions), so the 12 maps feel like a lot more. For example: the 16-player version of the FuShe Pass map (see our overview of all the maps) has three bases in question, with furious fighting over a base in the middle of a river. The 32-player version has the same location, but it opens up the action to fight along both coasts of the river valley. And if you fire up the 64-player version, the entirety of the valley and its network of bridges is up for grabs, with both teams striking out from enormous airbases.
Unlike Battlefield 1942, the maps can get quite complicated. Roads will wind up steep ridges, or networks of rivers will be criss-crossed by bridges and fords. As a result, it's not always a straight shot to get to the flag: you'll need to spend some time learning the ins and outs and quirks of each location. But once you do get to learn the maps, there's a particular brilliance in the design. Most maps have natural chokepoints to defend or particular strategies that the terrain encourages. Some maps are all about ground forces, some involve infantry skirmishes in tight city streets, and some benefit from lots of air power -- there's both strategy and variety in the locations.
From our play experience, most of the 16-player maps are nicely balanced, even if the starting positions on the individual levels aren't always even, especially on some of the larger levels. For instance, on several maps the U.S. team starts with only their home base and must try to take the entire map from the other team. This sounds like it would be hard for the U.S. players, but in fact the U.S. base is immune from conquest whereas the main enemy base is vulnerable to being taken over. What typically happens here is that the U.S. team attacks and eventually conquers the main enemy base, then monopolizes all that available heavy equipment to squash the other team into the middle of the map. If the opposing team is smart enough to leave some defenders behind, that just means they're outnumbered on the main battlefield. A handful of the maps are lopsided like this, and the truth is Battlefield 2 isn't always "fair." But these asymmetrical battles are interesting in their own way -- the battles still end up being fun, since teams can dig themselves out of nearly any position.
Battlefield 2 is pretty demanding from a technical standpoint, insisting on hardcore hardware (more on that shortly), but the game puts it to good use. What's stunning is the level of detail no matter where you are on the battlefield. If you're soaring high above in a chopper, you'll see a complex network of valleys and bridges and city streets. As you stand on the front lines you can see every detail of an individual vehicle, every little antenna and tread. Real-time shadows creep across the landscape as vehicles move along. And if you stand next to a fellow player, you'll see a soldier rendered with all of his equipment intact. Battlefield 2 brings the battle to life on every level.
While someone watching over your shoulder might mistake Battlefield 2 as more-of-the-same with updated graphics and modern weapons, there are a number of tweaks that really encourage teamplay, with a significant impact on the type of play you'll see online. One change is in the way that maps are scored: you can earn points for healing teammates or repairing their vehicles, just as you would for killing an enemy. Secondary classes like Medics, Engineers, or Support can now rack up the points by helping their team. More importantly, if one of these character classes is in a vehicle, that entire vehicle radiates that benefit to a nearby area. For example, if a Medic is driving an APC, wounded characters can be healed simply by standing near the vehicle. Similarly, Engineers can fix nearby vehicles while safely ensconced in a tank or APC, and Support characters can drive along passing out ammunition like candy at a parade. As a result, these characters are more useful than ever, and they're rewarded accordingly in the final score tally.
And scores matter now, because Battlefield 2 tracks you as a player persistently over time. You'll create an account, log in (almost as if you were playing an MMORPG), and as you play you'll earn medals and ribbons. As your accumulated score rises, you'll rise in rank: Private, Private First Class, Captain, General, etc. Dozens of medals are awarded for particular in-game behaviors, so just about any specialized activity that helps your team can earn you kudos: being a great squad leader, an excellent tank driver, a helpful medic, etc. On paper, it sounds merely interesting; in practice, it makes the game twice as addictive. During our testing I found the incentive to play "just one more round" was twice as strong, especially when I was "just a match away from that promotion!" It also provides even further rewards for doing well in specialized classes. The stats system is seamlessly integrated into the game and makes a big impact.
Battlefield 2 also sets out to give large teams a new level of online organization with built-in tools for creating squads (groups of up to six soldiers) and a commander: one player on each team who gives commands to the squads and can call in artillery strikes or satellite surveillance.) The ideas here aren't completely new (as Tribes 2 fans or Global Operations players will recall), but what really makes these ideas work so well in Battlefield 2 is how elegantly they're implemented. It is very easy to create a squad and give orders to your team up and down the map, and equally easy for a commander to keep track of multiple squads. It's not an overly complex system. As a result, it's much more likely to see use on crowded Internet servers as the game gains momentum. In our experience, having a commander was absolutely crucial to winning the battle, and great squad leaders could really make an impact on the map. Nice touches such as allowing players to spawn within the same vehicles as their squad leader allow young Erwin Rommels out there to make a name for themselves on the front lines.
So, the new graphics look great, and the new teamplay functions really make this a next-generation game. But at its heart this is still a Battlefield title, so the real action is in the interplay between the infantry and vehicles across the map. Here the game shines as well.
The different vehicles have a nice feel to them and great balance. Light vehicles zoom from map point to map point, leaning hard into the corners and sailing over ramps. Heavy armor rumbles along, bearing down with stunning firepower. Jets and helicopters soar overhead. Although the weapons are modeled on real-life hardware, the game has a reality of its own: Jets are fast, but slow enough to interact with all of the other elements on the battlefield. Similarly, homing missiles are powerful but not to the extent that you punch a button and grab a sandwich while your target is destroyed -- vehicles will detect missile locks and can use countermeasures. As with Battlefield 1942, the emphasis is on fun over realism, and the game delivers. Fans of the Desert Combat mod should feel right at home with the modern vehicles.
Unlike Battlefield Vietnam, where one American soldier class could carry both a heavy machine gun and a rocket launcher, Battlefield 2 has a much better balance between the different classes. Infantry gets to carry around some pretty sweet weapons regardless of class (even the Engineer has a pretty lethal shotgun for close-range action). Targeting feels more solid than in previous Battlefield games, so infantry combat is a little more satisfying.
The one possible exception is the Sniper. Although the maps have tons of great sniper nests, and the zoom on the sniper rifle is powerful, it doesn't seem to hit when it should. We've got guys here at GameSpy HQ who are masters of the headshot, but even in their capable hands the sniper rifle just didn't have the oomph that it should. But then again, considering how often some online games degenerate into snipe-fests (Joint Ops, anyone?) maybe this isn't such a bad thing after all.
Little additions to the gameplay add nicely to the arcade-y feel of Battlefield. For example, infantry can now sprint short distances, so that you can dash across a dangerous street or rush for a vehicle. It's offset by the fact that you can't fire or strafe while sprinting, which is a nice addition. Similarly, when using a parachute you can use your strafe keys to lean left and right, giving you a slight ability to steer. It's difficult to land where you want, but a lot of fun to try. They're subtle changes, but the keep the feel of the game and they're a lot of fun.
Our biggest beef with the gameplay is one we complained about in our Battlefield: Vietnam review. There's no connectivity between the capture points, so players can parachute way behind enemy lines to capture a base across the map from the fighting. This wrecks the ebb and flow of the battle: instead of having a defined front line, you have to constantly race from rear base to rear base putting out fires. On the other hand, it is a lot of fun to parachute behind enemy lines to take a rear point, and it's probably better for performance that battles are breaking out all over the map. It's debatable if this is a good feature of the game or not, but be aware that love it or hate it, it hasn't changed any since the original Battlefield 1942.
Lastly, gameplay is significantly impacted by the "commander" player, who can call in artillery strikes or send up unmanned radar drones to telegraph enemy movements to his team. This is itself is great, but it adds a whole new element to the game because these abilities are tied in with locations on the map. A commander can't fire artillery if his artillery guns have been demolished, and he can't fire up a satellite drone if someone blew up his satellite trailer. One map strategy, then, is to send some special forces teams to the main enemy base to blow up these key installations. Engineers are needed to fix them, giving these support classes even more to do. This whole element of the game works tremendously.
Every Battlefield game to date has been plagued with issues on launch, and while BF2 is definitely the most solid release so far, there are still a number of minor problems. All players are able to reserve a unique nickname for themselves, but creating an account and tying it to an email address can be a frustrating process. The keyboard controls are a real pain to set up, and once you've got everything the way you like it, your control profile isn't saved with your game profile so you have to reset them every time you sit down at a new computer.
For anyone interested in it, the single-player game is as weak as ever, and we can only scratch our head over claims that the bots had been "rewritten from the ground up." It's not that we expect people to buy this game for single-player action, but the options are ridiculously limited, and the bots just as useless. You can only play the 16-player versions of the maps with bots, so you can't practice the bigger levels. You can play as commander and give the bots orders, but they can never get it together to obey. And, despite their uselessness, it's a shame that you can't pre-populate a server with a handful of bots to help jump-start a game. (We're expecting this to be one of the first mods out of the gate.)
But the biggest complaint that we have with the game is the steep hardware requirements. You'll need a beefy video card: the minimum is a GeForce FX 5700 or a Radeon 8500. If you don't have the proper card, or the proper driver, the game dumps you unceremoniously to desktop without as much as an error message. We've got machines here at GameSpy with GeForce Ti 4600s that are capable of running Half-Life 2 or DOOM 3 with solid framerates, but Battlefield 2 won't even run on these systems. It seems that a huge audience could find themselves shut out of this game, which is a shame; if you've been looking for a good excuse to pick up a new video card, this might be it.
The Final Word
While the steep technical requirements might be an issue for some, what ultimately matters is the game itself and how it plays, and Battlefield 2 sets a new high watermark for online play. Once you strap into an F/A-18 and rocket over the landscape, once you're crouched next to a tank trying valiantly to repair it while bullets ping off of the armor inches above your head, once you defend a waypoint and ask for new orders from your commander over the radio, all of those nitpicks about map balance or sniper power fade. Battlefield 2 is a multiplayer experience that'll suck you in and keep you there for months to come. It's time to get your war on.
People who downloaded Battlefield 2 have also downloaded:
Battlefield Vietnam, Battlefield 1942, Battlefield 2142, Call of Duty 2, Call of Duty, Microsoft Flight Simulator X, Battlefield 3, Medal of Honor: Allied Assault
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