Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Digital Illusions
Release Date: October 26, 2005
And Using a Mouse and Keyboard is More Accurate, Too!
Not the PC game! Dumbed down! Neutered! These are the shrieking criticisms Battlefield 2: Modern Combat is fated to suffer as the Battlefield series' console premiere.
Judged among the recent crop of generation-ending Xbox first-person shooters, however, Modern Combat delivers a top-shelf online multiplayer experience, though admittedly with a single-minded campaign that might not engage gamers lacking the Live connection. Especially when you consider the bigger disappointments and outright failures among its contemporaries – Rainbow Six: Lockdown and Delta Force: Black Hawk Down, say – Battlefield 2: Modern Combat is an emblem of efficient design, atmospheric visuals and gameplay that encourages cooperation as much as it rewards well-honed killing skills.
Shoot, Drive, Swap
Battlefield 2: Modern Combat's gameplay, even in the single-player campaign, is essentially divorced from all narrative context. A familiar, ripped-from-tomorrow's-headlines story drives most of the cut scene content between missions, but the story bears only a superficial relationship to what's actually going on as you play. The bottom line is that trouble's brewing in former Soviet states, and the U.S., the Chinese, the Europeans and a coalition of Middle-Eastern factions all get swept up in the drama.
In each mission, you assume the role of a nameless soldier, sometimes defending a school as a US sniper, other times landing on a Kazakh oil platform with a Chinese assault force, securing it, and "holding it in trust for the Kazakh people." It's a familiar sort of scenario, and the presentation, in the form of news accounts from each faction's point of view, is more engaging than the story itself (do pay attention for a few cheeky details, though, like the news channel named Neo-Con).
As you progress, you play as several types of specialized troops, each with a unique set of weapons and tools to achieve specific battlefield goals. Snipers carry a sniper rifle, of course, but they also use a handy PDA that reveals the locations of nearby enemies, and they can paint enemy vehicles with a laser target that launches an insta-kill attack from a distant missile battery. Assault troops bring the brute force with grenade launchers and a heavy assault gun, while the more nimble Spec Ops types are better suited for sneaking around and planting explosive charges on sensitive enemy targets.
Modern Combat delivers a sizable fleet of vehicles for all situations, including tanks, lightly armored but more maneuverable fast attack vehicles, and some civilian cars and trucks when you just need to get out of the way quickly. These come into play more (and are more fun and less frustrating) in online multiplayer modes, but the campaign does demand that you destroy your share of targets with vehicle-mounted weapons. It puts you in a chopper early on – and be thankful for the training – to destroy a handful of assault boats running around an oil tanker at full-throttle. You need to pilot the bird yourself to take out the boats, but at other times, you can fire its mounted machine guns as a computer-controlled pilot shuttles you around above the action.
Vehicles, central as they are to the multiplayer experience, aren't the dominant feature of Modern Combat's single-player action. That honor belongs to the Hotswapping ability that lets you change the soldier you're controlling on the fly. While this has the decidedly unrealistic effect of allowing you to alter your perspective on the battlefield and change your weapons loadout almost instantly, Modern Combat's campaign isn't about realism anyway, so you may as well make the most of Hotswapping.
In one sense, Hotswapping just lets you take control of any given situation by using the best-positioned and most well-equipped soldier to do the job. After a few missions, however, Hotswapping begins to feel like a huge unfair advantage against already AI-challenged enemies. Opposing ground troops not in your sniper's line of sight? Hotswap to a friendly sniper on a rooftop across the street and get a straight shot. Need to get from a boat to a nearby island when the battle shifts onshore? Spot a friendly, and Hotswap to a soldier already standing where you want to be. Cheapish? Sure, but fun, too, and Hotswapping's showy visual effect helps keep it entertaining.
Mission designs don't do much to alleviate the run-and-gun feel of the campaign, which tries above all else to deliver a chaotic experience. The scenarios are most fulfilling when Modern Combat just sticks to its kill-or-be-killed nature and doesn't bother with too many mission-based contrivances.
Move in, mop up, and turn your balance-of-power meter completely blue. That's the essence of single-player, and it entertains on that level when it's not forcing you to complete trumped-up, timed tasks like planting charges to sink enemy subs or suffer through a whole lot of site-targeting and Hotswapping in sniper-exclusive missions (though, to be fair, if you're into sniping, Modern Combat delivers more satisfying snipe sessions than similar missions in Rainbow Six: Lockdown.
A reward system measures your team-player skills, how fast you blow through missions and how many troops you lose on the way to victory. If power stats are your thing, earning medals and moving up in rank might give you a compelling reason to complete the campaign, but the reward system mostly just reinforces the disconnectedness of the battle scenarios, both from each other and from any larger story. Otherwise, the simple pleasure of discovering the ins and outs of the next mission's level design is the best reason for moving on.
The character control scheme, neither entirely frustrating nor Halo-elegant, isn't without its quirks. The weapon-switching system might cost you a few cheap deaths before you master it, but still, the learning curve is well within the acceptable range. Transitioning to vehicles is fast and smooth, and the sensation of leaping into a chopper and firing up the rotor never loses its thrill. Actually piloting a helicopter with any precision, however, is a challenge, but given its awesome firepower, it's only fair that you have to practice a little before you get to lay waste from above.
Teamwork is its Own Reward
Xbox Live online play is where Battlefield 2: Modern Combat brings its heavy muscle. Only two multiplayer modes are available – capture the flag and conquest – but they work exceptionally well in terms of encouraging cooperation while also rewarding effective killing. In addition to capturing enemy positions and scoring frags, the point system recognizes your efforts in helping flag carriers return safely to home base and defending your flag from capture, so playing a more supporting role still lets you earn rank in each match.
That doesn't mean you don't encounter lots of players stampeding toward the enemy flag base – usually to their unceremonious and swift demise – but you're just as likely to come up against a highly coordinated team that knows how to make the most of the terrain and vehicles to dominate the map if your squad doesn't work together. You can also change troop types or kits between spawns, a convenient touch that lets you try different equipment and find out what gear best suits your playing style on a particular map.
The maps impress first and foremost with their size, full of rolling hills, dusty desert oases, snowbound Eastern European cities and rivers spanned with narrow foot bridges. Bunkers with fixed machine guns and anti-air missiles dot the landscape of many maps, while plenty of bombed-out buildings offer rooftops, balconies and shattered windows that let you target oblivious enemies from a safe distance. The first time you log on, try Backstab, a popular desert map with lots of vehicles, buildings and a river crossing that makes a good introduction to the multiplayer action.
All these details open up a rich array of gameplay possibilities that keeps you coming back to try out each character class on every map. Play as a sniper, and a helicopter can drop you off at an otherwise unreachable, but perfectly positioned, sniping point. Spec Ops troops can plant C4 on a tank, wait for an opposing soldier to jump in, and throw the switch. Support troops can heal teammates and call in mortar attacks on enemy strongholds. Artillery strikes become available at regular intervals to whoever finds the targeting computer first.
Strategic use of vehicles plays an appropriately huge part in multiplayer. Most accommodate a driver and another passenger to ride shotgun on a mounted anti-air rocket or other high-powered weapon. As dominant as the vehicles can be, well thought-out vulnerabilities balance their power. Tanks are always at risk from an agile Spec Ops soldier who's quick with the C4, and every car, jeep, tank and helicopter is a ripe target for snipers' laser-targeted missile strikes. The relative scarcity of helicopters makes them hot property, so expect to be teamkilled a few times by bitter, rocket-launcher-wielding compatriots when you beat them to the chopper spawn.
Some technical issues do persist. Aside from the rare lost connection and occasional lag, though, online play performs smoothly and reliably. Constant bulletins assure us that other issues – medal loss and stat tracking, in particular – are being worked on and that resolutions are near-at-hand.
Like a Dutch Master, or Something
Visually, Battlefield 2: Modern Combat is masterfully atmospheric, if not extraordinarily sharp and detailed. A hazy sunset hangs over desert maps like Backstab, while crisp blue skies with high, wispy clouds complement the evergreen forests of Honor. Mortar and artillery strikes blind and rattle players caught on the business end. Single-player levels pack decent visual appeal, too, with rain effects and patchy fog that's especially striking when you Hotswap across open water. Some extra-twitchy death animations are the visual low point, as they add an unintentionally comic element to the otherwise consistently painterly presentation.
Vehicle effects like rolling tank treads and whirring helicopter blades highlight Modern Combat's audio. The music hangs comfortably in the background most of the time, with vaguely Middle-Eastern and Asian-sounding tunes accompanying corresponding maps. When the Rainbow Six-style rawk kicks in, though, the soundtrack intrudes more than it excites. Voice acting in the campaign – as encouraging as it can be with gems like, "I'm in his house now!" – eventually recedes unnoticed beneath the gunfire, explosions and sounds of war machines in motion.
PC-Like or Not ...
Battlefield 2: Modern Combat is a thoroughly accomplished online multiplayer FPS, especially when considered alongside the other shooters appearing in the waning days of the big black box. The single-player campaign might not offer much to hold the attention of Live-less gamers hoping for a more tactical experience, but that's the lone disappointment of any significance. With a polished presentation and online play that achieves a compelling balance between frantic shooting and thoughtful coordination, Modern Combat is worth a last-minute withdrawal from your Xbox 360 fund.
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