Like Call of Duty 4 and Halo 3 before it, Battlefield: Bad Company is going a step above the usual prerelease demo with a limited-access multiplayer beta. Despite the fact that the full version will arrive on both the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, this sneak peek is being delivered only to Microsoft's console. If you've found yourself among the unlucky masses unable to secure a download key from the various promotions offering them, we've got some hands-on impressions that should interest Battlefield veterans and series newcomers alike.
The beta offers two maps: one that displays what the series has been known for, and the other where it's headed. The bigger of the two is known as Oasis. This one is set in a Middle Eastern desert. In terms of layout, it's a long, narrow map flanked by a river on one side and sniper-friendly hills on the other. The long stretches of dusty road make this map friendly to vehicles, which is good because there are plenty to choose. You've got the standard Humvee, a dune buggy, a high-speed boat, light and heavy tanks, and a helicopter. Those who prefer to remain stationary can entertain themselves on the numerous turrets, cannons, and mortar launchers stationed all around. Fans of the series will feel the most at home on this map. Though the number of players has been reduced from 64 to 24, there's still a fair amount of chaos going on at any moment with all the vehicles careening around and exploding near you. You'll also notice that the series' trademark emphasis on teamwork and coordination hasn't gone anywhere, thanks to the number of passenger seats available and the sheer amount of terrain that needs to be crossed from one base to another.
The other map is called Ascension. This one is set in a rural mountain village with an elevation that dramatically rises from one end to the other. Though the village you're fighting in seems to be located in the middle of nowhere, the level is densely populated with numerous two- and three-story houses (plus one massive cathedral). The presence of all of these buildings in such close proximity turns Ascension into a playground for testing Bad Company's most noticeable addition: the destructible environments. Nearly everything besides a building's frame and ceiling can be blown away with explosives. We often found ourselves blowing up walls for no real reason other than to witness the realistic-looking damage. Besides the walls, grenades and mortar blasts leave canyons of varying sizes on the outside ground, and trees and fences are also fair game (even against a simple knife).
All of this destruction isn't just for show; it manages to influence team strategy in a number of ways. This is primarily because the one gameplay mode offered, Gold Rush, is essentially a territories mode in which teams will need to either defend or attack specific points in a building. In Gold Rush, it's the goal of the attackers to destroy two gold crates in the defending team's base. Once those crates are destroyed, another pair of crates pops up farther down the map. If the defending team can keep the attackers from getting the final pair of crates by either holding the attackers back or forcing them to exhaust all of their respawns, the defenders win. Given that these crates are located indoors, the attacking team will usually try to knock down the walls of the buildings to allow for easy entry. The job of the defenders becomes much more difficult when the building with a crate gets aired out for any invader to waltz into. Likewise, the defending team can use altered terrain to their advantage by littering the roads leading to their base with explosive-blown canyons to slow down the attackers' vehicles--think of them as wartime speed bumps.
Although the destructible environments look great, we have noticed one or two minor issues. The most nagging one is that buildings get destroyed rather swiftly. Oftentimes you'll join a match that's been going on for just a few short minutes only to see a crumbled wasteland all around you. We won't deny that blowing out a wall is so much fun partly because of how quickly you can see the fruits of your labor, but considering that this building is gone for the duration of the match--which generally last in the neighborhood of 20 minutes--it sometimes feels as if the fate of the environments are decided much too quickly. However, this issue is minimized by the fact that a new section of the level is unlocked every time the defending team is pushed back.
Once you move beyond crashing helicopters and adding new windows to people's homes, the rest of Bad Company feels pretty standard. You can choose from five classes, which include your usual assault class, sniper class, and one particularly interesting catchall class that's one part medic, one part light machine gunner, and one part auto repairman. These classes, each with varying loadouts and unlockable weaponry at later ranks, provide a good sense of balance to the action found in the beta. In the two maps featured, none of the classes seemed to dominate the others.
PC gamers making the transition to the 360 or PS3 will find the controls familiar. The controls feel good, though fans of some of the more popular console shooters will notice a slower pace in the action, thanks to a combination of slightly slower movement and a 10-second respawn timer when you die. In our experience, that inability to really run and gun required us to rely that much more on our teammates, which is very rewarding when you pull together for a win.
All in all, this beta succeeds in making us hopeful for the final version. The sheer size and enormity of the battles might have been scaled back from what veterans of the series have come to expect, but there's still a lot to impress those who've spent their lives playing consoles. Battlefield: Bad Company is scheduled to arrive on June 23.