Blinded by the night.
We're so accustomed to EA releasing expansions and calling them sequels, we were a little surprised when we first caught wind of, like, an actual expansion for Battlefield 2 releasing a mere six months after it initially stormed shelves. Still, we were cautiously optimistic that Special Forces would be more than just a fancy box and some new skins, because we knew Digital Illusions was on the job, and they've always found ways to impress and amaze us.
After spending some time with Special Forces, both our fears and hopes have been realized. The expansion adds several awesome features spread across eight new maps, but the main selling point – night battles – aren't quite as impressive as they sound. We're amazed that DICE was able to quickly add such powerful new content to their game, but we wish they'd taken it further.
The crux of the expansion - the whole point of the thing, really - is the inclusion of nighttime maps, where squads attempt to raid or defend submarine hangars, airports or villages under cover of darkness. The main difference is that at night, you have to wear night vision goggles. With these creepy peepers equipped, any class can scope out enemies who would otherwise be hidden in shadow.
There isn't much of a gradient between dark and light areas, however; if you're in the dark, you're really in the dark. There are sporadic bright spots, but when standing under a street lamp without your goggles equipped, you can't see a thing outside the radius of the light, while players wearing goggles can at least see your silhouette well enough to line up a head-shot. The whole 'hiding in the light' notion is a good idea, but in practice, it's suicide.
So you'll always be rocking night vision, at least until the batteries run out. I usually die before that happens, but when it does it makes me want to die. You're useless without goggles and they take forever to recharge to any meaningful level. It's more efficient to just kill yourself and respawn with a fresh battery charge. Then again, if everybody on your team does that once, you potentially lose 32 points, so you're screwed either way.
And frankly, the Battlefield games don't need any more wait times. You already have to wait for vehicles to respawn or make long runs across blank stretches of land if they don't. The last thing you need is to spend idle, dark minutes waiting for your batteries to recharge.
That doesn't mean, however, that there aren't any good gameplay changes here. For starters, assault troops get flash bangs and support troops get tear gas. Flash bangs should have been in there in the first place and work well. The tear gas, on the other hand, is an unexpectedly awesome addition. Tear gas launchers fire little canisters that explode after a short delay, flooding the immediate area with thick, yellow gas. If you're caught in the cloud, your vision will distort wildly, you'll lose your radar and you'll move at a staggered pace. These effects last several seconds, even after moving clear of the gas.
All classes come with gas masks, which makes tear gas especially useful in capturing flags. You pop on the mask, flood the area with gas, and fling yourself down next to the flag. On night maps it's even more powerful; enemy troops will be forced to don masks to escape the effects, but without their goggles they'll be blind as bats. It's just a smart addition.
Of course, to capture a flag you have to get there first, and two awesome new tools make that easier and potentially sneakier than ever before. Assault units and anti-tankers get a grappling hook, while support units and snipers get the zip line. The hook can be thrown impressively high, letting you scale or descend any virtual face in the game. The zip line, conversely, can be fired from a high point to a low one, allowing you and any of your friends fast access to any point on the ground. Both of these features are well implemented and make working together as a team even more effective.
Then again, if climbing hand over hand isn't your cup of PvP, you can always drive in OG Battlefield fashion. There are two new choppers, an amphibious tank, a humvee with a TOW (tube launched, optically tracked, wire guided) missile launcher, a desert raider (a big dune buggy bristling with guns), cars, trucks with mounted guns, ATVs, and my personal favorites, jet skis. DICE didn't want their new maps to be dominated by big vehicles, so they went small, even if they didn't go interesting (except for the jet skis). Running a jet ski up onto a bank and over a prone enemy's back has to be the sauciest kill the series has ever seen.
You'll need these new vehicles to traverse the eight new maps, most of which are great. To further get away from big vehicle domination, DICE added tons of cover and huge buildings with rooftop and indoor flags, and then made most of the maps in the raid style (where one side starts with a spawn point immune to takeover and tries to capture all the enemy's bases).
Where Battlefield 2 only incorporated three factions, Special Forces ups the number to six. Hold on to your ski masks, though, because this means very little without any new classes. Whether you're the Russian Spetsnaz or the British SAS, you're still using all the same basic templates.
Well, you will be when you finally get the game installed. From the time we took Special Forces out of the box until we fired our first shot, at least three hours passed. The expansion itself is huge, roughly 4.1 GB, and after you've crammed that onto your machine you'll still have to download a 250 MB patch to get the game running. Once you get everything installed the game runs and looks just as good as Battlefield 2, but getting there is more trouble than it should be.
The best thing about Special Forces is the fact that it's an excuse to revisit a great game with a couple new toys on some new maps. Still, we expect more for thirty dollars. We want loads of maps, more meaningful lighting, more classes, more new vehicles and maybe a play mode other than Conquest. It's probably worth another tour of duty, but we wouldn't rush to enlist