Battlefield 2 is heading to the stores later this month, but we couldn't wait to get our hands on it. Thankfully, EA was kind enough to oblige us by sending us the newest and latest preview version of the game. Needless to say, we installed it as fast as our DVD drives could spin, started it up, and kicked the treads on some of the nicest looking tanks (and jeeps, and planes, and helicopters, and…you get the idea) to appear in a game and participated in some wild and woolly multiplayer combat with a bunch of EA's European testing team. And what we can tell you so far is that it's good. In fact, it's very, very good. Here are some of our first impressions.
As you probably know, Battlefield 2 is the first major upgrade for the Battlefield series, and it most definitely shows. This is Battlefield on a whole new level--visually. And while the core games remain the same (you run, drive, fly around in a huge virtual battlefield alongside up to 63 other players), this feels much more like the sequel than Battlefield Vietnam was. In the game, you can play as the forces of the United States, China, and the fictional Middle Eastern Coalition in a near-future conflict, which means that you get to play with all the hottest high-tech weapons and gadgets that are in service or on the drawing boards.
The first two levels that we played were about as opposite as could be from one another. First off, we tackled a Middle Eastern city with a dust storm moving in, and the sheer grittiness of this level was amazing. Since we only had about 32 people on the server, we got the medium-sized version of the map, which meant that there was still plenty of infantry combat as we went street by street and alleyway by alleyway. There were also some tanks, wheeled vehicles, and armored personnel carriers, which look phenomenal up close, not to mention fun to drive and fight in. In particular, infantry can jump into the APCs and look and shoot out the various gun ports, which means you can scream up a street with gunfire blazing out the sides of the vehicle…at least until someone with an antitank missile or someone manning one of the stationary TOW missiles ruins your day. Thankfully, if someone does lock onto your vehicle with a missile, a warning buzzer goes off, giving you a chance to at least try to get out in time.
The town level is full of all sorts of cool places to explore. Ladders let you climb up to various rooftops, giving you a chance to ambush vehicles and soldiers on the street below (but also leaving you incredibly vulnerable in a 360-degree radius). A river runs parallel to the town, and the bridge creates a choke point for vehicles, though you can try to swim the river (and believe us, it's pure joy to machine-gun a defenseless swimmer). We lost count of the many incredible, split-second moments that we encountered in the game. Like the time we ran out of ammo and had to switch to a pistol to get a headshot kill up close, or when an antitank missile went flying by just inches from our head. Overall, though, there is an incredible feeling of gritty verisimilitude, and the level looks incredible. Though Battlefield 2 is set in a fictional conflict and in fictional settings, you can't help but wonder if this is what street combat in Iraq might be like.
The second level that we played took place in a swamplike setting somewhere in Asia, and there were plenty of small rivers for assault boats, as well as small farm huts and villages, and a lushness that wasn't present in the desert level. There was also a fair amount of mist, which added a foggy feel. This level also pitted the Chinese against the US Marine Corps. We got our first look at helicopters in the game, and just like the land vehicles, they look fabulous. Helicopters are particularly useful in transporting troops quickly across the map. By foot, it's a cumbersome journey with all the waterways and curvy roads.
Squads Stick TogetherThe third level simply blew us away and let us know that we were playing a true sequel. Admittedly, the short draw distances in the first two levels made us a bit nervous, but the third level took place on a clear sky map, where you could see as far as the eye can see. This was the infamous dam level that we've seen in the many trailers to date, and it's going to be a crazy baptism by fire for most Battlefield 2 players. First off, it's simply a huge level, and this was the first time that we could see multiple jets screaming overhead, dogfighting and strafing ground targets. Meanwhile, attack helicopters made rocket passes on the poor saps below, and the valley floor became a huge kill zone, especially for anyone on the high ground. There were countless cranes, as well, which means that a sniper can climb to the top of a crane and have a bird's-eye view of the entire valley floor. We saw some audacious moments playing this level, and we were simply stunned when we saw an F-18 pilot fly his plane through the small circular flow tunnel at the base of the dam.
The new squad mechanic in Battlefield 2 seems extremely useful. A few players on each side can designate themselves as squad leaders by selecting the squad tab on the class-selection bar. You can also choose to join another person's squad from the same interface (up to six players can populate a single squad). There are several advantages to being part of a squad in Battlefield 2. One of these is coordination. The squad leader can designate areas on the map for attacking or defending, and these objectives are denoted on the screens of all players in the squad. Another advantage to being part of a squad is that the squad leader acts as a mobile spawn point. If you die, you have the option of spawning right next to your squad leader, if he or she is alive. If the squad leader is driving a vehicle, you'll actually spawn right into the same vehicle if there's an open seat. The advantage here is tremendous, as it allows you as a squad member to get right back into the action after you die and helps keep the pressure on the enemy.
The first thing that happens after installation is that a calibration screen for the game's built-in voice chat capability will appear. Voice will play a huge role in Battlefield 2, and if you have a headset, or even just a microphone, hooked up to your PC, you can automatically chat with the members in your team in a variety of ways. Unfortunately, this wasn't of much use to us in the multiplayer matches today, as most of our teammates spoke in various European languages. However, it certainly is a nice addition, and it eliminates the need and hassle of setting up third-party voice-chat solutions.
While there is real-time voice chat in the game, DICE has also streamlined the regular, non-voice communications system. Instead of the clumsy menu bar that stretched across the screen in previous Battlefield games, all you have to do is hold down the T key and it brings up a circular menu command. Simply click on the option you want, like "request orders," and you'll hear your character in the game speak the request out loud. (And yes, you hear the MEC and Chinese sides speak in their languages, though there is an English-only option as well).
The minimap seems to play a much larger role in Battlefield 2 than in past Battlefield games. With the introduction of the commander mode, as well as squads, objectives that are given to you by the commander or by your squad leader will appear directly on your minimap, making it easy for groups to coordinate attacks. For example, if a squad leader marks a location as a new assault objective, you'll see an orange line leading out from your position on the minimap to the location you need to attack. You'll also see the objective marker on your viewscreen: an orange sword. If you ever become disoriented, you can easily find the location of nearby squad leaders on your minimap, as they are marked with an oversized dot and a number denoting which squad they're heading up. If you're a medic, the minimap also reveals the locations of nearby teammates who've gone down and are asking to be revived. This makes it easy for you to locate them and apply the shock paddles to revive them on the field. There's so much useful information in that minimap that it's often tempting to stare too long at it and lose focus on your immediate surroundings.
We noticed that the infantry weapons aren't quite as powerful as the preview trailers made them seem to be. If you're coming straight from Battlefield 1942, then you're definitely going to notice a distinctly smaller amount of recoil on the weapons, to the point where many of them seem to have almost no recoil at all. Even if you can aim incredibly well, the spread is still going to make it difficult to hit enemies at medium range. Firing off small bursts will definitely improve your aim, but even then, you don't want to just fire away at a distant enemy, since there are very few ammo boxes. If you use up all your ammo on a hard-to-hit target, then you'll be defenseless, save for your sidearm. Of course, if you have a support-class teammate nearby, you can take advantage of his ability to restock your ammo and just fire at anything that moves.
One Smooth BattlefieldAnother big change to the gameplay here is the lack of scope drift, which is somewhat disconcerting. Snipers in Battlefield 1942 had to contend with the slight but present drifting of their aim after zooming out and shooting, but in Battlefield 2, scope drift seems to have been eliminated altogether, which may have some adverse effects on the balance of classes on servers. Those of us who played a lot of Battlefield 1942 have fond memories of trying to win matches when half of our team was up in the hills, missing three quarters of their shots and not even bothering to attempt to capture flags. The lack of even a minimum of scope drift to make the class at least seem difficult to play may result in more problematic situations, where all the new players insist on doing their worst Vasily Zaitsev impression and wind up making it difficult for their team to capture flags. Heck, there isn't even any scope drift when you zoom while standing up (we managed to make a few 100-meter kills this way). Not that it's necessarily easy to be a sniper, and the ability for opposing players to sprint is going to make it difficult to hit moving targets. Still, a little more difficulty, if only to make the class something that requires practice to get good at, would've been appreciated.
It's also worth noting that our online testing with Battlefield 2 was done on a server based somewhere in Europe. The matches involved 20 to 25 players on maps that were scaled for 32 people. While our ping times ranged anywhere from 120 milliseconds to 200 milliseconds, we still enjoyed pretty good responsiveness in our controls. Gameplay was very smooth even without ideal network latency, and we noticed little to no teleporting or jumpiness while observing the other 20 or so players running and driving around the levels.
We've also had a chance to check out the single-player portion of the game, and the news is good on this front as well. EA and DICE had promised to improve the challenge in bot matches, and they seem to have largely succeeded in this goal. While they're still not necessarily superintelligent, the bots in Battlefield 2 at least have a good idea of where to head and when to swarm a contested control point, and you can still stand 100 meters or so from them without worrying too much about getting hit. But bot matches are no longer the cakewalks they used to be, especially on the hardest difficulty. While online play is still obviously the main attraction here, you can at least have a decent time with the AI enemies when your Internet is down or while you're trying to fine-tune your graphical settings for maximum "killitude."
We were also very nervous about the game's performance, but it ran well at high detail on a 3GHz machine with an older Radeon 9800 Pro video card. However, you will definitely want to beef up on your memory, as this is definitely a game that could use it. Our test systems had more than 1GB of RAM, and even then load times were fairly long. The good news is that this is certainly a game worth spending the money on upgrades. We should also note that the first time you play, Battlefield 2 takes several minutes to calculate the shader performance of the game, taking your video settings into account. Once this is done, the information is written down somewhere so you don't have to sit through it again. However, if you change the settings or your video card, you'll have to wait for it to recalculate new shader settings.
Put it all together, and it's no exaggeration to say that Battlefield 2 simply looks fabulous at this point, and that's going to make the wait for the game to ship later this month even worse. However, after a few hours of playing time, it's hard not to be excited at the prospect of a summer full of Battlefield 2. This preview just covers our initial impressions of the game, and we're going to need a lot more time with the final version of the game before we can come in with a verdict. But it's safe to say at this point that this is definitely going to be one of the biggest games on the PC this year.