Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Digital Illusions
Release Date: October 26, 2005
It seems like tactical war-simulation strategic kill-'em-all-with-smarts historical/real-world shooters (or whatever these things should be called) are balling up like a giant katamari. Each year, the releases continue, and they are exactly what the Prince from Katamari Damacy wants to roll up: junk. But the prince rolls up junk for the honorable cause of replacing the stars shattered by the honorable King of All Cosmos, while these tactical-whatever games are rolling out because of trendiness and their money-making skills. It's not often that a good one comes out anymore.
Rainbow Six is the game that I like to say started it all, if only because it was the first one that did it well. Spec Ops was always junk; Delta Force was never better than average. Nothing, outside of similar series from the same developer, really took R6 to school, at least on consoles, until SOCOM happened.
Another enormous katamari of a genre, historically inaccurate World War II-based kill-'em-all-and-forget-the-struggles-of-our-grandparents shooters (or whatever these things should be called), spawned its best game a little later. It was called Battlefield 1942, and its multi-vehicle, team-based action captured the hearts of many a jaded gamer, including my own. It took some time to get used to the various control-maps for the different vehicles, especially the airplanes, but difficulty curves are what PC gamers are all about, and the feeling of mastering the game was sublime. While the netcode left quite a bit to be desired, the game was just to darn fun to let that ruin the experience.
Enter Battlefield 2: Modern Combat. A chunk of the modern-tactical-shooter katamari fell off, as did a piece of the forget-your-grandparents-WWII katamari, and somehow they remained just sticky enough to form the true sequel to Battlefield 1942. By all means, this should have been the most unholy matrimony, a meeting of two genres that have been worn to the bone, but the addition of modern settings into the Battlefield 1942 formula has proven to be one of the better ideas thrown onto the PC and console first-person shooter scenes. Team-based FPS gaming just doesn't get any better than this, and while the PlayStation 2 version is the most inferior of the bunch, it's still the best multiplayer shooter to release this year.
Instead of the incredibly recognizable World War II setting of 1942, Modern Combat takes the route oft-traveled by other developers of latter-day shooters and puts the player in command of peace-keeping situations in obscure ex-U.S.S.R. locales, starting with Kazakhstan. The story is extremely loose from the get-go, giving players only the most basic reasons to kill, kill, and, uh, kill. But of course, this is not a feature film but a video game, and quite honestly, I doubt that many of us would pick up a game like Battlefield 2 for any reason but to run around and shoot things with only the best technology of the present and near-future.
New to the console versions of Modern Combat is a character-zapping system, which, as its title describes, allows players to swap at will, most of the time. (This is the solitary feature of the console versions that will have PC gamers frowning with jealousy). If the player dies, the camera swoops from the site of the death to another, Geist-style, living and breathing soldier on the same team. This will continue until the enemy troops so overwhelm the good guys – noted on the screen by a handy blue/red circle, blue=good, red=bad – that the mission is considered a failure and aborted. And of course, the player can zap at will at the press of a button, if the mission so allows.
Normally, character-zapping is a good thing, but some missions, namely the oil rig defense mission, prove frustrating to complete if the original character dies. For some reason, even when there are multitudes of perfectly usable soldiers on the most crucial side of the map, the player will be consistently forced to respawn far from the action. When that means grabbing a boat and slowly sailing to the rescue as teammates fall like flies, this can be a very bad thing; when it means swimming there because there are no boats left, it's even worse.
As the game progresses, new weapons and classes are slowly unlocked, somewhat unique for a tactical shooter, which usually allows for the entire arsenal to be accessible from the start. After Rainbow Six, I might be inclined to prefer the realism of self-selecting tools on a per-mission basis, but for the more action-packed – some might say "arcade-y" – pace of a Battlefield game, I prefer the exhilaration of unlocking a new weapon and excitedly running off to give it a whirl in the next mission.
Vehicle control is, as with 1942, somewhat of a pain to get used to, especially where flight is concerned. The most basic vehicles take only a few minutes to get a hold of, such as turret-enhanced jeeps and motor-boats. And, unlike SOCOM 3, the A.I. gunners and drivers manage their jobs admirably instead of firing willy-nilly and driving head-first into enemy fire.
Helicopters are another story. The dual-stick controls are sensitive and fussy, and the exact purposes of each button are difficult to figure out during a heated single-player mission. However, some time spent learning the ropes the training mode lessens the curve dramatically, and, as with 1942, rewards the players who master flight.
Multiplayer is exactly like single-player, but with headset-squawking and real people to command, somehow changes the entire experience for the better. The missions are mostly the same, but with live players on both sides, and no AI to exploit, things are very different. And, unlike the SOCOM experience that has proven so popular, characters can respawn, which keeps the pace of the game moving quick, although players care much less about staying alive because of this. Thus, the slow, methodical pace of most tactical shooters is replaced with a more Quake-like feel, which, in the face of the current spat of tactical games, may come as a relief to most players.
The 24 player limit – 12 per team – does lead to some inevitable slowdown, but for the most part, the game trucks along just fine, and doesn't touch the levels of lag seen in the 32-player SOCOM 3 matches, for the obvious reasons.
Battlefield 2 looks great on all platforms, but the gap between the Renderware-powered console versions and the beautiful PC edition is, of course, enormous. The port seems somewhat quick, too, as the quality of models and textures is highly variable, giving the game less of a consistent look.
The PlayStation 2 version especially suffers from draw-distance problems, covered up loosely by the addition of fog. The only time this truly hurts the gameplay is when sniping, as it forces players to rely more on the scope than they probably should, allowing more localized deaths to come to them at least a little more often. There is little music abound in Battlefield 2, which is a blessing, as it would have been distracting if it were present. The ambient sounds are perfect on their own, and thankfully, there are many of them. Any good tactical game should force the player to be almost as reliant on sound as on visuals, and Modern Combat is no exception.
With quite a few past and present shooters to choose from, it is hard to make a decision to focus on just one. SOCOM 3 is there for the more methodical crowd, Rainbow Six: Lockdown even more so. The upcoming Ghost Recon game seems promising, looking to be a better bet than previous titles in the series. But my bid goes towards Battlefield 2 – regardless of platform – because it is fast, fluid, mostly stable, and offers more fun than any military shooter I've played since Rainbow Six: Rogue Spear. SOCOM 3 might still be better for you, but if single-player modes are of any importance, Battlefield 2 deftly takes the crown.
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