There's never been a shortage of games with war themes, but recently WWII has been a particularly popular setting for PC action games. Battlefield 1942 bears some resemblance to EA's other recent WWII game, Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, especially in that they both combine a convincingly realistic look and setting with action-oriented gameplay. Battlefield 1942 is focused on large-scale multiplayer battles that combine land, sea, and air vehicles with class-based infantry combat. This might sound somewhat similar to last year's World War II Online, the massively multiplayer game designed to combine simulation elements for a wide range of vehicles, but in fact Battlefield 1942 is more like Tribes 2, just set in WWII. The battle maps are suited for dozens, rather than hundreds, of players, and games are to be hosted on private servers. As we found out while playing the closed beta this week, that doesn't keep the game from feeling like a battle in the making.
Battlefield 1942 is scheduled for release late this year, so it's not surprising that the beta is still quite limited. EA added just 50 volunteers to the Battlefield 1942 beta this week, and there's generally just one server with an appreciable number of players, from 20 to the current maximum of 32. Just two of the game's 16 maps are playable, but given the variety of tasks a player can carry out, that's been quite enough to keep us busy. The maps give a sense of how the game uses historical flavor to up the ante in multiplayer competition. Both re-create historical battles: the Japanese assault of the Pacific island of Wake in December 1941 and the German siege on British forces that held Tobruk in North Africa for most of 1941. In the beta's conquest game mode, the mission goals are clear: Assault and capture control points or defend those points while taking out the attacking team's ability to fight. As a defender, you'll immediately recognize incoming Japanese Zeros and German Panzers. There's no better way to get motivated for a fight than to identify with the side you're playing.
The two beta maps are very different in style. Tobruk takes place in rolling desert terrain crossed with two battle lines initially held by the British. Along the lines, there are barbed wire, obstacles, and machine gun nests to slow down the handful of tanks and vehicles that spawn in the German base, but the British mostly need to use antitank troops and the few tanks at their disposal to keep the attackers at bay and retake the control points that will inevitably fall into enemy hands. For the Germans to win, there are six bunkers to control in the middle portion of the map, plus they have to rush into the desert town of Tobruk to take the main British base. Although it's not that hard to run on foot from one battle line to the other, Tobruk is a huge map by most games' standards.
Wake is even bigger. The Japanese start out in a carrier and battleship off Wake's north shore and have to capture five control points on the horseshoe-shaped island, including a US airfield. The attackers can immediately jump in the couple of planes that spawn on the carrier's deck, take off to shore in landing boats, man the antiair guns to keep off Allied torpedo planes, or drive the battleship and its big guns to attack other parts of the island. Players on the US side have at least as much of a challenge, since they can score points only by sinking the Japanese carrier with planes and big shore guns and at the same time have to fend off attackers across the big island. Fortunately, there are plenty of vehicles to help get around the island: jeeps, tanks, and APCs equipped with machine guns.
Vehicles are central to Battlefield 1942 but not all-powerful. The land and sea vehicles use the standard WASD or arrow keys for control, and it's really quite straightforward. Navigating a tank through obstacles may require switching to the third-person camera and back to first-person to fire, but that's about as tricky as it gets. The tanks, APCs, and battleships all have multiple stations that you can switch through with the number keys, so although vehicles are often at their best with two or more crew members, one person can be effective, alternating between driving and shooting. As you might expect, the planes aren't quite as simple, but still the game's relatively simple physics keep things manageable. Flight control is limited to the mouse (joysticks aren't in keeping with Battlefield 1942's action-game feel), so don't expect to do intricate maneuvers. Skillful pilots can still wreak destruction from above, as bombs are quite effective at taking out tanks and other ground targets. Considering how it can be tough to get in a plane just as it spawns on a busy server, there's incentive for the best pilots to land and rearm to stay in the battle. But with large maps like Wake, just about anybody will find it useful to jump in a fast plane, rush to an enemy control point, and parachute down for a surprise assault.
The vehicles may steal the show but are limited enough in number and slow enough to respawn that you'll spend plenty of time in one of five infantry roles, or "kits." Currently, the most commonly played classes are the antitank kit (armed with a bazooka, pistol, and grenades), the assault kit (with a BAR and grenades), and the engineer kit (with a bolt-action rifle, remote-controlled detpacks, land mines, and a wrench to repair vehicles). Also in the game are a scout kit that comes with a sniper rifle and binoculars to spot for artillery and a medic kit that's equipped with an SMG and a med kit. Control points are captured if you are in range of an uncontested flag for 10 seconds, but it's easy enough for a defender to hide out in a nearby structure to keep the flag contested, so capturing can come down to clearing rooms on foot or blasting them with tank shells. If you're wondering how a lone soldier might have any chance against a tank, it usually comes down to surprise. Infantry are much harder to see and hit when they lie prone, and the explosive power carried by the antitank and engineer kits are particularly effective against the lightly armored back and sides of a vehicle.
The 16 maps in the final game will represent the major combatants and theaters of the war: Pacific, North Africa, and Europe's eastern and western fronts. There's already plenty of variety in the current maps, but the final game will have more vehicles, including bigger planes like the B-17 bomber. It's safe to assume that some maps, especially those that re-create big battles like Midway and Omaha Beach, will likely focus attention on a different mix of sea and air units.
In the current version, Battlefield 1942 is already remarkably fun. As you'd expect from a beta, there are a number of minor technical issues, but none really got in the way. In its current state, the game requires a fairly beefy system and a recent graphics card to get smooth frame rates. The game ran well on high-end Athlon XP systems, but the 933MHz system we tested it on suffered from a stuttering, if playable, frame rate even with a GeForce4 Ti. With a fast PC, the game's graphics are detailed and attractive, and the engine can handle drawing objects far out to the horizon, which helps maintain the sense of large-scale combat even when there are only 20 players in a server. If Digital Illusions can ensure the game's networking code can handle popularity's heavy burden on servers, then Battlefield 1942 will have a lot going for it when it comes out this fall.