War is heaven.
First-person shooting has all but dominated online gaming over the past few years. Though massively multiplayer role-playing has been catching up, it doesn’t come anywhere close to matching the success of the online fragfest. Counterstrike, Return to Castle Wolfenstein, Quake III, Unreal Tournament, Tribes 2…the list goes on for days.
But despite their subtle (and not so subtle) differences, nearly every first-person shooter out there plays the same way. You start off sucking, then you learn the maps and the weaponry, then you dominate. And without fail, all of these games take place largely on the ground.
The fact is, very few confrontations in real war are so one dimensional, yet EA’s Battlefield 1942 is really the first game that seems to recognize this (Digital Illusions, the folks behind the game, came close with an earlier title, Codename Eagle). Say goodbye to terra firma and hello to the Y-axis – this is a whole new level of online first-person fragging, and though it’s not without its missteps, it’s about as close to the front lines as you’re gonna get while staring at your monitor.
As the name suggests, the game is set against the backdrop of World War II. Allied and Axis forces are engaged in different theaters all over the globe. BF 1942 focuses on the pivotal battles in the different regions, such as the Battle of Midway, Iwo Jima, and even the infamous Omaha Beach.
You play a soldier for one of five sides: America, Japan, Germany, Britain or Russia. Not a bigwig General or fancy Lieutenant; just a regular Joe thrown into the fray doing what you’re trained to do – kill the other guys, especially the ones with the biggest guns.
Unlike other FPS games that merit individual accomplishment over group success, Battlefield 1942 takes the Tribes route and is built for team play. Each side starts out with a certain number of ‘tickets.’ Every death costs your team one ticket, so staying alive and keeping your team in one piece is key. The other way to deplete your enemy’s reserve of tickets is to capture key points on each game map, denoted by either Allied, Axis, or gray neutral flags. When one team controls a majority of these points, the other team starts losing tickets at a steady rate until they recapture a point and even it up again. Thus, the game is like one big king of the hill tug of war.
Battlefield 1942 understands that a good army is a balanced one. There are five types of soldier to choose from: Scout, Assault, Anti-Tank, Medic, and Engineer. Each has different equipment and can perform certain functions that the others cannot. The medic can heal, the engineer can repair vehicles and lay mines, the scout can snipe and call in airstrikes, the anti-tank soldier hefts a bazooka, and the assault soldier is an all-purpose grunt with a payload of grenades.
You can switch your specialty while you are dead and waiting to respawn, which comes in handy. For instance, if you were a scout that just got run over by a tank, you could respawn in as an anti-tank guy and try to exact revenge. Because of this there is no one prevailing soldier type – all five come in handy.
However, once you’re behind the wheel of one of the game’s 35 vehicles, your class becomes less important than your driving/piloting/navigation skills. Tanks, jeeps, and half-tracks dominate land, battleships, submarines and aircraft carriers patrol the seas, and fighters and bombers rule the skies. Everything is drawn to scale – you can actually get lost just walking around on the aircraft carrier.
It’s here where BF 1942 really earns its stripes. The transition between on-foot and vehicular combat is seamless. You can hop into a jeep, zip out to a contested control point, hop out of the jeep and hurl some grenades at a few enemies, then grab an empty tank to hold your position. Next, you might want to hop out of the tank and man an AA gun to take out one of the fighters flying overhead, or make your way to an airfield and nab a plane for some dogfighting, or maybe even respawn on an aircraft carrier and DRIVE it. The possibilities are really quite endless.
This is all made possible by an impressive new game engine (dubbed the ‘Refractor 2’) that places functionality and enormity over detailed precision. It’s not as flashy as the Unreal Tournaments of the world, but it does its duty with decent explosion effects, realistic vehicles and functional animations. The 16 maps are really, really big – some are so big that they almost require you to use a jeep or a plane just to cover ground. The maps are all modeled after real-world battles, which gives the action an unparalleled sense of realism. Omaha Beach, for example, is an incredibly intense, immersive experience from either side.
This is particularly true when you’re playing BF 1942 the way it was meant to be played: online. The game supports up to 64 total players at once, though the most I ever played with was about 20 per side – which, by the way, was totally chaotic. I can hardly imagine what 32 would be like.
There are three multiplayer games – Conquest, Team Deathmatch and Capture the Flag. Conquest is the main game mode, focusing on the need to secure control points while minimizing casualties. Team Deathmatch and Capture the Flag are somewhat self-explanatory and also somewhat extraneous, as the Conquest mode is clearly the most fun of the three.
Regardless of the mode, BF 1942 is simply a great multiplayer game. Whether you’re storming an outpost with your teammates, holding a control point against an enemy push or even just running around like a crazy Rambo, the sense of war has never before been so palpable.
The game oozes with authenticity, thanks in part to the sound. The language changes depending on which country you’re fighting for. Bullets scream past your head as you’re running for cover and engines roar as planes streak by overhead. Though there isn’t much ambient noise, there’s enough going on in here that the few moments of silence are actually sort of pleasant.
You’ll marvel at the way the game engine manages to hold up regardless of your particular situation. I was once flying a plane on the Iwo Jima map, sending a flurry of bullets into the enemy base. As I swooped away, I was shot to ribbons by an AA gun. I managed to eject before my smoking wreck landed in the ocean, which is also where I ended up. So there I am, suddenly surrounded by a LOT of water and no transportation. My only option? Swim back to land. Which is exactly what I did, and though it took a good 3 minutes to make it, it was just long enough to make the enemy who shot me down forget that I might not have died with the plane. I crawled back up to dry land, spotted my enemy and lobbed a grenade at his feet.
The poor guy didn’t know what hit him… but he knew who did it. You just don’t get that kind of satisfaction out of yet-another-ion-cannon-kill in those other shooters.
However, this all comes at a price. BF 1942 is a burly game and requires serious power. Lower-end systems will function but won’t look good. It’s also not the most stable PC game I’ve ever played, and pre-patched has a tendency to crash out occasionally. Of course, it’s primarily an online game, so patching is sort of part of the equation inherently.
While the game balance is pretty good, the learning curve goes through the roof when trying to fly the planes. It becomes clear very quickly that being a good pilot is the key to really racking up the kills, and it takes time to master the touchy flight options (you can opt for mouse/keyboard, keyboard alone or even a joystick). You can easily wipe out a whole gang of enemies with one decent carpet-bombing or just thrash foot soldiers with low flying fighters. You’ll need to practice in the single-player.
Yep, that’s right – there is a single-player mode. Unfortunately, it leaves a lot to be desired and was obviously designed as an afterthought. You can romp through a campaign spanning all 16 maps, but there’s very little tying it all together aside from minor text briefings.
The big problem here is the weak enemy AI. Though the game allows you to distribute more or less of your system’s processing power to AI (a nice touch), it doesn’t make much of a difference. The game has no scripting at all, which makes for a much more varied, free-form experience, but also means that enemy AI often just runs about with little rhyme or reason. They’re really easy to kill and are not creative in the way they approach the game. Think of the single-player as little more than training for multiplayer and it makes more sense.
Besides, once you’ve gotten sucked into the incredibly fluid, dynamic experience that is BF 1942 online, you won’t care much about the single-player letdowns. Instead, you’ll be sucking down pints of coffee to keep you awake as you test out more strategies late into the night. This is a very, very compelling game and shouldn’t be missed by those with good rigs and plenty of time to kill.