Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Digital Illusions
Release Date: June 21, 2005
Back in the day, I used to play a fair amount of pick-up hockey. One the rare occasions when we'd have someone to act as the coach and we felt like listening to him, we'd have a fair amount of success on the ice, but more often than not, we'd just be a bunch of winded idiots hogging the puck.
That's what Battlefield 2 is like: No other game of this type places such a high reliance on people working together as a team. While the rest of this review will be filled with the usual, expected, boring minutiae, the fact this game require soldiers to — gasp — actually work as a team is the biggest change to the series. This time around, you get points if you help capture a control point, kill someone, or are even the driver of the vehicle from which the passenger kills someone.
Dice has taken the group concept and made it the core of the game by allowing you to form six-person squads. In fact, it's such a key component forming squads should be mandatory. You'll see your squadmates on the map, be able to spawn next to your squad leader (truly the best feature) and get commands from your leader on which targets to attack or defend next. A commander, who has a unique bird's-eye view of the map, can then order all of the squads around. Also, you'll finally be able to use voice chat without the need for a third-party program like Teamspeak, as BF2 supports voice chat out of the box. You can turn this off if you get on a server with that inevitable moron who feels like shouting, "OMG U SUXX0RZ" every 10 minutes. That's not likely to happen, since I've rarely seen voice chat used in a pick-up game.
There's also an emphasis on eliminating time-wasters, like getting back into the battle. If you're in a squad, you can re-spawn on your squad leader, even if he's in a vehicle (assuming of course, there's room for you). Most spawn points have a vehicle or two to move you back into action faster. As you look around, you'll see all the flags (even if they're blocked by buildings) and who controls them, so you can tell at a glance how the battle is going. The mini-map is your new best friend, showing you teammates, lines to where your squad leader wants you attack and who's yelling for help.
Like the previous games, Battlefield 2 lets you choose a "kit" that acts as your class, and each kit has a place in the team. This time around, the medic can actually revive dead players on the spot, hand out health kits, and use the defibrillator to kill the enemy with, which is truly the most shameful way to die. The sniper provides long-range support while Special Forces wreak havoc behind enemy lines by planting and remotely detonating C4 packets (they are the only unit that can destroy the UAV trailer and radar that the commander uses). The assault and anti-tank crowd form the bulk of the grunts, and the engineer keeps the tanks running smoothly.
If you get on a server with people who share the team concept, you will have an amazing play experience. However, on pick-up servers with strangers, this is like finding love in a red-light district; you may think it's true love, but it's not. Roughly half the playtesting I did was on a private server hosted by a colleague, and the games I played on that server (where we acted as teams, forgave each other for our sins, and talked about the game later on the message boards) were much better than the games with the Great Unwashed Masses. I'm stating the obvious, but if you are serious about playing, hook up with an organized clan.
Speaking of clans, you can track your stats if you play on a ranked server to show off to prospective clans just how great (or, in my case, how not-so-great) you are. These stats track darn near everything: your accuracy, which kit you're the most effective with, who you've killed the most, who you've been killed by the most, who turned you down the most for dates (ok … I lied about that last one).
One thing they did in terms of clans that makes zero sense to me is how your "handle" is managed. You cannot change your handle, which makes sense given how the stats work, but your clan affiliation is part of your handle. So you either go through your career without a clan handle — most likely irritating your clan, and if you're in a good clan, you want to show off the colors — or you change your handle if your clan trades you for a used serial mouse and a player to be named later. Really, the smart thing to do would be to let players create a unique handle, but have a changeable field that's the clan name. Maybe it'll show up in a patch since this is a major hassle for clan-jumpers.
One other thing about the stats: playing on a ranked server also lets you earn medals for your actions and over time, you'll unlock different weapons for your class, and there's a hefty amount of grinding involved to gain the necessary ranks to do so. Your rank also affects how likely you are to become commander.
There are three sides: the US, the Chinese and the Arabs. While it seems topical, given the U.S.'s general level of antagonism towards North Korea and the Middle East in general, BF2 manages to make no judgments and it's really "my team against that other team." Unlike Battlefield Vietnam, which had to at least pretend at some level of historical accuracy, here each side gets the exact same weapons and vehicles so everything balances out quite nicely.
One thing that hasn't changed is how bad the server browser is. For such a key component, it's inexcusable that EA actually manages to make each game's browser worse than the previous games. I'd expect at this point I'd be able to keep a buddy list, track what server they're on, and keep a favorites list of common servers, but alas, I can't. It's really amazing how much pain and suffering EA forces people to go through just to play the game. It's an unnecessary blemish to an otherwise outstanding game. One thing that bears mentioning, though. After the 1.02 patch, the browser went through significant performance improvements and now at least works, which is a key component that wasn't there at release.
One other common complaint I've seen is how bad the load times are, and to a certain degree, this is a valid complaint. I tested BF2 on two systems; one suffered long load times, and the other did not, but there were enough hardware differences between the two (and one was running a fresh install of XP) that I can't say for certain which piece made the difference. The common hang-up was when the Punkbuster anti-cheat software loaded, so once they get that one sorted out, things should improve tremendously. What's odd is the load times seem to get worse over the course of play sessions.
While billed as a multi-player game, there's actually a decent single-player game here. The bots are finally competent this time around. Truth be told, for the first time in the series, I had as much fun playing single-player as I did online; depending on the players on the server, single-player was probably more fun on some nights. The bots actually form up squads, wait for you to get in the vehicle before taking off, and make good tactical decisions. Oh, heck, who are we kidding — most times, the bots are more intelligent than real players. One key omission is that you can't use the bots in multiplayer. I really enjoyed being able to hook up with two or three of my friends and play against the bots in previous games, and the inability to do this is a big minus. Also, why does it still do the Punkbuster check when I load a single-player game?
The big improvement Battlefield 2 brings to the series is reliance on team-play, immersion and complexity. The complexity doesn't make the game any harder to play; while there's a decent learning curve here, most of it falls in the "gee, I didn't know I could do that" category. Figuring out the squad and commander commands is probably the hardest part. It's a lot less arcade-y, too. The days of being able to one-shot a tank with a RPG is long gone, and it now takes two or three shots to destroy one. Helicopters are more powerful and have uncommonly hard armor. It seems like our choppers in Iraq can be brought down with a peashooter, but these will take some effort to ground. The helicopters are fairly easy to fly, especially if you have joystick that lets you twist the handle (boy, that comment sure came out wrong).
The game's immersion is where the heaviest toll may be felt. You will want the very best hardware available to play at an acceptable framerate. The venerable workhorse of a video card, the GeForce Ti series are now obsolete; Battlefield's reliance on more advanced shader technologies mean it won't run on anything but a newer video card (those of you with older ATI cards that support Shader Model 2.0 are ok). It's worth the upgrade, though; the graphics enhance the great gameplay to suck you into an incredible level of immersion. While the tanks, vehicles and player models look as good as you'd expect, it's the little things that suck you in, like the smoke that rises during battle and the red pulse that fills the screen when you find yourself in the middle of an artillery barrage. One other graphics note: users of the Radeon X800 series will want to use the Catalyst 5.8 or higher drivers, as that fixes some texture issues with those cards.
The 12 maps are well laid-out and feature a nice mix of urban, jungle and beach assaults. My favorite is the Kubra Dam, a nice, tight little map that offers sweeping vistas and is nearly impossible to capture all the spawn points. It doesn't show up on the server list often, though, and maps like Gulf of Oman and Operation Clean sweep, while fun, get old fast. This is probably one of the first games where there weren't any maps I really didn't like, but there were ones that I got sick of quickly. The maps also scale in size depending on how many players there are, so gone are the days of you roaming around a map designed for 64 players looking for one of the other eight guys playing.
Battlefield 2 has certainly raised the bar for multiplayer gaming. It's so well put together that the flaws that do stand out are minor, and while they do add up, they are generally forgotten about once you actually get into the game. It has definitely seized the top spot in its genre.
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