It didn't take long for EA and DICE to turn out Battlefield 2: Special Forces, the expansion to this year's smash online action game. And judging from the teething problems that the expansion is having, it looks like EA and DICE Canada (the developer of Special Forces) didn't take long enough. That's because Special Forces is an excellent expansion that delivers more of the intense online combat that fans of Battlefield 2 adore, but it's also crippled by some potentially showstopping bugs. If you can get it running, though, you're in for a great time.
There's some really great new content in Special Forces that builds on the strengths of Battlefield 2. Special Forces adds a total of eight new maps, including a spaceport complete with a launching pad and rocket, gutted-out cities, an airfield, and an island. All these maps have an infantry-heavy focus, even on their larger, 64-player variants, and that's good news to Battlefield 2 fans, since the most popular levels in the core game are the urban ones, such as Strike at Karkand. The other good news is that the expansion features a number of urban levels similar to Karand and Sharqi Peninsula. In fact, they may be a bit too familiar, as there are some buildings and objects recycled from the core game. Still, there's enough new content in the levels to differentiate them from their predecessors and to provide more urban playgrounds to romp around in. For example, there's a palace level in which one side has to battle through a city to the palace's gates and then into the palace itself, which provides a large mix of indoor and outdoor combat. Yet perhaps the best new map is a reverse amphibious assault, in which the Middle Eastern Coalition forces must board and take over a US aircraft carrier defended by Navy SEALs; the action takes place on the carrier's deck, in its vast hangar bays, and in its corridors and rooms below.
Meanwhile, there are six new factions in the expansion, which is a big number considering that Battlefield 2 itself only shipped with three. These new factions are needed to justify the scenarios (for example, Russian special forces versus an insurgent group, or British SAS versus a different type of rebel group), though one of the disadvantages of having six factions and only eight maps is that you see factions only once or twice throughout the game. You still can't mix and match factions and maps to create different face-offs (DICE says this is for balance purposes), so it seems like you get to see your favorite new faction on only a couple of occasions. Then again, the factions are all fairly interchangeable to begin with, since they feature similar weapons and vehicles.
Even though we're dealing with Special Forces in this expansion, each faction is broken down into the same classes as the conventional factions in Battlefield 2. So each faction has a special forces class armed with a carbine and plastic explosives, a support class that carries a light machine gun and can drop ammo packs, an antitank class that carries a submachine gun and a tank-killing weapon (there's even a new RPG!), and so on. Speaking of the new RPG, there are a slew of new weapons to round out the arsenals, though for the most part these simply feel like cousins of existing Battlefield 2 weapons. For example, there's a new British assault rifle that has a grenade launcher attached, and a new SEAL carbine with a scope, and they operate just like the weapons in Battlefield 2. The major additions to the game are new toys that you get to play with that you didn't have access to before. These include the grappling hook, zip line, and flashbang and tear-gas grenades.
The grappling hook and zip line provide a whole new level of mobility to infantry, and now you can haul yourself up to a previously inaccessible rooftop or perhaps bypass a heavily defended stairwell by climbing up the side. Since you carry either a hook or a zip line, you'll need to work together with your team if you really want to exploit these new capabilities. These new items are balanced well so they're useful without being overpowered. For example, climbing up the rope is a slow process (just like it was in gym class), so you're completely exposed to anyone passing by who wants to take a few free shots at you. Meanwhile, zipping down the line can also leave you a sitting duck if you're not careful. The new grenade types are a bit too much, though, and they're already being overused in matches. For example, you can carry up to four flashbang grenades, and they're being tossed left and right in some matches. As you'd expect, these can temporarily blind you and make you pretty helpless. Then there are the tear-gas grenades that make your vision swim like you're in a drug-induced daze. Tear gas can easily be countered by a gas mask, which limits your stamina due to the difficulty of breathing through it, but the thick, yellowish clouds are still useful for providing concealment, and because of that, thick, yellowish clouds appear in any contested area now.
Special Forces also introduces night-vision goggles, though these can be used only on the handful of night-based levels in the expansion, since they're unavailable in daytime missions. Night vision is something of a double-edged sword, as the developers are trying to go for "realistic" night-vision effects. Since night vision works by amplifying ambient light (such as moonlight), if you come upon a brightly lit area, the goggles overamplify that light, and it becomes impossible to see anything. This balances out the use of the goggles in the game, though it does raise some interesting issues about not being able to shoot out lights.
Though there's an emphasis on infantry combat, there are several new vehicles in Special Forces, including a Jet Ski, an ATV, and several new types of wheeled vehicles, including junked-out cars and technicals (pickup trucks with heavy machine guns mounted in their beds). The Jet Ski and ATV are a bit gimmicky at first, but you'll quickly discover that they're an excellent way to zip around the map, provided you don't slam into anything. There's also a sense that there's less emphasis on vehicles overpowering the levels, as they can do in some Battlefield 2 maps. There are fewer tanks and jets and more light vehicles and transports.
While Special Forces features a single-player mode, it offers no improvements over the single-player found in Battlefield 2. For some reason, only six of the game's eight levels are available in single-player, and they're all limited to the 16-player map variant. Single-player is just like multiplayer in terms of gameplay, only with bots instead of real human players, and the bot artificial intelligence is a mix of both smart and brain-dead. At this point, single-player is useful only for familiarizing yourself with the levels, and since two of the levels are unplayable in single-player, it's not even that helpful.
With the heavy focus on infantry, the role of squads and teamwork is more important than ever, as an organized squad can easily overwhelm a handful of defenders, and an organized team can be absolutely unstoppable. With that said, the same issues regarding teamwork that appeared in Battlefield 2 are present in the expansion. Mainly, you're going to have to look for a good dedicated server that features teamwork, because the vast majority of servers are a big free-for-all where players join and run around uncoordinated the entire time. Once again, the built-in voice communication in Special Forces is a nice touch, but only if people use it. Another big issue with the expansion is that as good as some of the levels are, the sheer amount of action and number of players packed into confined levels have a pretty detrimental effect on the frame rate. On a system that played Battlefield 2 well, we constantly encountered significant drops in frame rate, especially when there were lots of effects or players on the screen at once. And the expansion itself is a resource hog, much more than the original game. The already long times from Battlefield 2 drag on for much longer than before, as well as the data verification stage after loading ends.
Yet Special Forces is plagued with bigger issues. There are a slew of issues that are hampering players from even installing the expansion. For instance, there's a required preinstallation patch that requires 3GB of free hard drive space in order to install, and this is affecting some players out there. We encountered a different error that prevented us from installing the patch on one machine, even though we had tons of free hard drive space. An even bigger issue involves EA's new digital distribution service--there's a CD key issue preventing some users from playing the game (EA has acknowledged this issue and is looking to fix it). But even if you manage to install the patch and then install the expansion successfully, you must install a second 280MB patch to get the game up to date. All of this makes this feel like a product that was rushed out for the holidays.
The pity is that while these technical issues will probably be addressed, they mar what is otherwise an excellent expansion to one of the year's best action games. Special Forces delivers more of the intense urban combat that fans of Battlefield 2 love, and there are a lot of cool moments in the game, from the way you parachute into one level, to the intense and desperate firefights that can erupt for control of a flag. If you love Battlefield 2, then the expansion is a no-brainer. But there's plenty in here for newcomers to appreciate, as well. Just wait a while for EA to settle out all the issues first.