Monday, February 23, 2009

Blowing Up, Beautifully

Battlefield 1942 told the new millennium how people would play first person shooters online. It invented the control point system as we know it. It made vehicular combat a cinch. It upped the ante for old favorites like team deathmatch and capture the flag, which suddenly seemed pathetically antique.

But for those who can’t fathom spending their time getting dressed down by bossy 10-year-olds, 1942 offered little to nothing. The single-player battle against bots was good for little more than an interactive tour around the map – your opponents got stuck on trees, drove tanks into the sea and plowed their planes into hillsides.

Throughout countless expansions, one half-sequel and one full-blown, present day sequel, the single player mode suffered from the same clueless AI. It was practically a pedigree. Idiot bots? Must be Battlefield.

With Battlefield: Bad Company, DICE sought to create a story-driven campaign for its more misanthropic gamers. They were bringing the noise, in a big, bad-attitude kind of way; personally, the swaggering ad spots, the sudden pretentiouns to single-player credibility and the smiley-face grenade all made me retch. Could they pull it off? I had doubts.

They did, for the most part, and that’s kind of cool. But boy, does Bad Company ever let you blow shit up!

Let’s get this out of the way: BC has a single player mode, and it’s pretty fun. You’re in a misfit unit fighting a near-future war against the…Russians?...and your squad has the token black sergant, the cousin-buggering bumpkin, the wiseacre, etc. Honestly, the more I write about it, the less I like it. Suffice it to say the story rips off Three Kings, and most of the jokes get old pretty fast. If you’re looking to be moved, surprised, or even entertained, lower your expectations to somewhere slightly north of “unoffended.”

DICE knew a lot was at stake with BC. Despite their rousing success with their multiplayer franchise, they needed to gain ground with, ahem, single players (add puns to taste). They rolled out their new proprietary engine, Frostbite, for the occasion. And Frostbite kicks fucking ass – you need to experience it to understand how thrilling it is to flatten a village with a semi-automatic grenade launcher. 90 percent of the environment is destructible, which means everything from trees to huts to office buildings can be blasted to crossbeams and rebar with enough high explosives. Before I jaw about the resultant gameplay innovation, I need to tell you that for sheer adrenaline, kinetic punch and glitzy, gritty eye candy, very few games can beat BC. The busted bricks and cinder are so real they’ll knock your teeth out.

The tactical game is obviously changed. Hiding behind a wall? Not anymore. Now a tank is riddling your ass with .50-caliber rounds. Sniper pinning you down? No problem. Blow his cover with a radioed-in mortar strike. If a tank rolls into town, you can run, but you truly can’t hide.

The Frostbite engine, the fantastic sound engineering, the rollicking feedback of rifles on full-auto – all of this creates some incredibly kinetic gunplay. But if it looks, sounds and feels great, is it fun? Yes and no. BC’s combat is marred by an unfortunate pacing problem and a respawn system that is, in a word, retarded.

If the player is wounded, a quick press of the D-pad will summon a convincing-looking health syringe, which the player happily plunges between their second and third ribs. D-pad to full health takes about four seconds. Not such a big deal, until you’re doing it every thirty seconds – then it just seems obnoxious. You’ll end up protesting your frail, needy body by throwing it into gunfire in pure frustration. Shoot, heal, shoot, heal, run, heal, shoot heal – sound like well-paced combat to you? Me neither. It gets old.

In the likely event that you get greased, the world doesn’t stop – why should it, you narcissistic prick? You pop up at a distant respawn kit with your gun, full health and another crack at an enemy force diminished by your previous efforts. Sure, it breaks the dramatic tension like a fart at a funeral, but seeing as the story is something of a bit, wet fart joke, this seems tolerable – and then you respawn ten miles from the combat, say loudly fuck this and pop in Call of Duty 4.

Once I was attempting to slam through a tank-reinforced checkpoint in a jeep. By the fifth time I respawned in a new jeep, I not only had to contend with the (unbothered) tank, but also an ad hoc roadblock made from the charred remains of my previous efforts. Did DICE really think that stopping the clock was so bothersome? It’s a case of ain’t-broke-don’t-fix it.

Play this game, if only to experience the Frostbite engine – it’s truly an accomplishment, and I can only hope DICE uses it to full effect in coming titles. As for BC? It’s fun. Its shortcomings are forgivable, with a minimum of effort. And you get to blow shit up. A lot.