Summary: Battlefield 2 is here and Jakub's got a review of it. We'd have had it for you on day 1, but what's the point - there wasn't much of a way to test it online, was there? So without further adieu...
In fact, one's initial impressions could be that this is a Desert Combat-like mod with pretty graphics, but there are some key differences that make it a new gameplay experience, though they require player co-operation. In the main, however, this is still your friendly neighborhood Battlefield game and DICE has certainly not messed with the formula.
For those few of you who haven't played a Battlefield title, we'll briefly recap that. The Battlefield series is a relaxed realism combined arms shooter that takes place on servers that range anywhere from 16 to 64 players, typically striking a good balance in the middle at 32. Players spawn as infantry of several kinds of classes, and can continue as infantry or find a vehicle to use. Usable craft include buggies, hummvees, armored personnel carriers, tanks, helicopters, jet aircraft and light overboard motor boats.
In previous Battlefield titles, the class of infantry spawned dictated not only the special equipment available to the player, like satchel charges, mines, or a rocket launcher, but also the effectiveness of his primary weapon. Battlefield 2 evens out the main weapons significantly - the superiority of the M16 over the M4 or MP5 is noticeable, but not dominant. In fact, the only default weapons that don't fall into the assault rifle or SMG category are shotguns and sniper rifles. The shotguns are absolutely deadly at close quarters but their utility beyond 30 feet is questionable at best since the hit pattern becomes quite random, while the sniper rifle is balanced by its relatively low damage potential. The pump-action shotgun of the Chinese engineer seems to have far and away the best single-hit damage, though this is balanced out by a tepid rate of fire.
Teams compete for flags in Conquest or Double Conquest modes, which are minor variants of each other. Each flag acts as a spawn point and typically has some sort of vehicle or at least stationary item near it. The spawn locations around the flags tend to be widely dispersed, making base rape camps difficult but not impossible. Each time a player spawns in, he uses a ticket, and these measure the score. Tickets are non-replenishable and go down through respawns, and automatically begin to tick down as one team starts to hold the decisive advantage in flags. Once all flags are captured, or one team's tickets go down to zero, the round is over. Maps seem to go to a best-of-5 series, though this is undoubtedly variable and up to the server admin.
There are 12 maps, though there are three versions of each - for 16, 32 and 64 players. This has its advantages and drawbacks, no doubt to be debated heatedly on various forums, but in general we'd say that the pros and cons of this decision cancel out. The maps are generally solid, with no stinkers, but none so far seem to have caught players attention like Guadalcanal, Wake Island or Kursk did for the original.
There is a nominal singleplayer mode that has only 10 maps, and they're always limited to 16 players. This is no doubt to keep the number of bots down, but also keep them from vehicles they're clearly not comfortable in - like aircraft and boats. How do we know this? Well, it's a safe bet when one considers that the two maps that are missing are both boat-heavy. In general the bots are significantly more competent than in previous Battlefields, but are not up to the superb level of the UT bots yet.
SIDEBAR: My favorite class is still the Special Ops, like in the demo, but there's really no single class I dislike except the sniper.
Despite the abundance of vehicles on most maps, infantry is quite potent. Typically, the more heavily armored a vehicle, the slower it is. Top gunners make tanks and APCs much more difficult to sneak up on, but the machine gunner is obviously vulnerable to small arms fire. Fortunately, modern tanks are equipped with gun shields that at least protect him frontally, making the position not quite as suicidal as it was in Battlefield 1942. The terrain rolls a lot and provides much cover - both against guns, like rock formations, ruins, and trees - and just plain grass and bushes to hide in. A tanker's life isn't easy.
As always, the damage system is simplified but generally sound. Vehicles take a lot of damage from the rear, less from the side and less still from the front. Only powerful weapons like missiles, bombs, rockets or tank guns can destroy tanks reliably, though grenades still do token damage. Three infantry classes specialize in attacking ground vehicles. Obviously there is the anti-tank class with his guided missiles, but the engineer and special ops have their tools as well. Engineers lay mines on the ground, which are extremely effective at denying routes to enemy tanks. They're much harder to spot than in BF1942. Special Ops have satchel charges which can be thrown from close range at the tank and will then stick to it. Two charges are enough to blow your enemy to bits.
Classes have duties other than combat as well. Satchels from the Special Operators can be used to destroy UAV launchers, radar sets and even that damnable artillery. Obviously the engineer, in addition to repairing vehicles, can be tasked with repairing these items as well. Medics, quite naturally, spend their time healing their teammates and distributing health packs. The Support class re-arms his allies. It should be noted that when these classes board a ground vehicle, they create their heal/repair/resupply auras automatically.
Above all the mere classes is the elected Commander. Possibly the most important position in the game, it's virtually a full-time job with 32 or more players, leaving little time to actual combat. Commanders deploy UAVs, drop artillery, scan the battlefield and drop supply crates (which heal, repair, and re-arm at a pitifully slow rate). Most of all, if the players are co-operative and form squads and fight as squads, the commander can give them objectives that they can see on the map and the screen. In the hands of a good leader with a willing team, this means the difference between victory and defeat.
Best of all, it actually works. These features are all optional but attractive. They're not so weird as to scare players away and their effectiveness, especially with the built-in voice comms system, is so great that people are willing to try squads. Depending on the server and your team this may or may not be difficult to accomplish, but at the very least clans are willing to go into one squad together. The streamlined and thorough implementation is to be admired.
SIDEBAR: Why don't I like the sniper? Well, it's an all-or-nothing kit. On some campy maps, it does really well, on most others it's a waste of time. Also, snipers are utterly useless teammates. Snipers don't cap flags and rarely ever stop flag cappers. They're pests.
The issues come up immediately, in an area that we really didn't expect considering how much flak DICE got over this last time - the interface. The interface, specifically the server browser and keymapper, are not designed badly so much as they perform terribly. The browser in particular is extremely ponderous and slow to respond. It's hard to believe an interface can lag, but it feels like the player's computer is connecting to itself through a 14.4Kbps modem. The server list is particularly egregious, where even merely scrolling through it can be an exercise in frustration.
This isn't helped by some of the design decisions that went into the browser. An inordinate number of servers show "0" as their ping time. Presumably, these are servers that are timing out or not responding to ping queries properly, but the end result is that when the player sorts servers by ping time, these end up on top! So to find servers that actually responded, this means struggling with that unresponsive scroll bar. It's all needlessly frustrating, and would be an easy - and we think obvious - fix for a top-tier developer like DICE.
Opening the front menu during combat by hitting the escape button is not unlike committing suicide outright. The loading time and quit time for the menu could be measured on a sundial. This seems to afflict new commanders and squadmates especially, who are trying to quit the command/squad menu (Caps Lock) by pressing the escape button. Of course, the escape button is also easy to hit when the player is trying to switch between positions on a vehicle, which is done by the function keys (F1 being the default position, of course).
Then there are some gameplay issues that have been unaddressed and perhaps never can be. Team damage is important in a game with so many area-effect weapons, thus most servers run it. To help deal with the teamkillers, there's an option to forgive or punish a teamkiller, for the person who suffered at his hands. Now whether or not people use this appropriately is out of DICE's hands, but some people go out of their way to BE teamkilled. The most egregious example of this is the minerunner; a type of griefer who jumps into a vehicle and seeks out friendly mines to run over and thus report the "teamkiller" engineer. This was an issue in the past and is one in other games, like Enemy Territory. There's no perfect solution to this, but mines that don't do team damage are probably better than kicks and temporary bans of players trying their best to play the game properly.
Continuing with the player issues, there's no manual kick/squelch menu as far as we can tell. It seems that a player must commit teamkills repeatedly to get kicked. Thus, the annoying prick spamming chat or voice can do so with impunity unless there's a server admin present. [Emphasis on the "as far as we can tell" -ed.]
The game's performance is also suspect. While leagues better than Battlefield 1942, which had serious issues on even powerful systems at the time, Battlefield 2 has some odd stutters and hiccups. We're not sure if these are lag issues, a lack of main RAM or video RAM, but certain areas of some maps can be very problematic for players, especially when they're crossed for the first time. Regardless, Battlefield 2 runs much better in general than BF1942 ran on its contemporary equipment, so this is only a minor point. The only thing we'd like to emphasize is that FSAA is a must in BF2, there are so many bump maps and shadows that the pixellation can become quite annoying.
SIDEBAR: I had to cull about a dozen screenshots because people were really swearing. Worse than even Mexican Jew Lizard!
SIDEBAR: Jason McMaster, one of our freelancers, runs a small server for 16-player maps. I'd play there but I don't want to develop a bad reputation among friends.
Those looking for a completely new gameplay experience will be disappointed, as will those hoping for more realism. However, if you're looking for a faster, cleaner and more polished Battlefield, this is it. Digital Illusions didn't roll any dice on this one (pardon the pun), they stuck to the formula but fleshed it out and polished it up.
If only the same could be said for the keymapper and interface...
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