Battlefield 1942 Preview

World War II was never this frantic. We take a look at EA's upcoming fast-paced shooter.

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For whatever reason, action games based on World War II have become immeasurably popular in the last year. But while Medal of Honor and Return to Castle Wolfenstein are soaking up all the limelight today, closet tacticians know that the World War II setting has been around in PC gaming for decades, largely in the form of more serious war games that simulate land-, sea-, or air-based vehicular combat. So what happens when the accessibility of this new breed of first-person shooters is meshed with gameplay elements from classic flight, tank, and naval simulators? Battlefield 1942 happens. Currently in development at Digital Illusions in Sweden, Battlefield 1942 is an extremely accessible first-person shooter that takes place in all the major theatres of World War II and features 40 different playable wartime vehicles, including the Japanese Zero, the Russian T-34, and everything in between. We recently had the chance to try our hand at the latest build of Battlefield 1942, and despite the fact that the game is still several months away from completion, we walked away impressed with its current state and its potential to be on par with the likes of a Counter-Strike or Wolfenstein.

A scout provides cover fire for an anti-tank soldier.
A scout provides cover fire for an anti-tank soldier.

The game is spread across all four of the major theatres of combat of World War II. Battlefield's 16 levels are split between the eastern front, North Africa, the Pacific, and Europe, each of which consists of four unique maps that are all based on actual battles. One of the levels in the eastern front, for example, is Kursk, home to one of the largest tank battles of the entire war. The North African campaign has locations like El Alamein and Tabrook; Wake Island, Midway, and Guadalcanal are three of the four battlefields you'll find in the Pacific theater; and the European levels include the Battle of the Bulge and Operation Market Garden. Of course, no World War II-themed shooter would be complete without its own Omaha map, right? The Omaha Beach level in Battlefield 1942 is significantly larger than its cousin in Medal of Honor or Beach Invasion in Wolfenstein. It's so big, in fact, that it has three different "tiers" that are almost levels onto themselves: the actual beach area, the machine gun nests and town above the beach, and the big gun emplacements beyond the cliff walls. There is even a pair of tanks loitering around the level that you'll have to contend with.

An engineer makes quick work of a pair of tanks.
An engineer makes quick work of a pair of tanks.

Battlefield 1942 is primarily a multiplayer game, and as you'd expect, you'll choose to play as either an Axis or an Allied soldier. Each side has five different classes, or "kits," as they're called in the game. Despite their unique name, these kits--scout, assault, anti-tank, medic, and engineer--basically function like classes that you might be familiar with from other games, except for the fact that they all share the same movement speed. Each of these classes either has a unique ability or carries a unique weapon. The assault class, for example, is unique because he can carry the most grenades. The scout is the only class that carries a sniper rifle and has the ability to call indirect artillery onto any location on the map simply by using his binoculars--essentially, anyone manning an artillery unit will be able to see what the scout sees. The medic, naturally, can heal teammates, while the anti-tank class is the only soldier capable of carrying a rocket launcher. The last class, the engineer, can place land mines under and detpacks onto any vehicle in the game, and he also carries a monkey wrench that can fix any damaged vehicles.

Let's take a look at how these classes function in practice.

Rock, Paper, Scissors

"Battlefield is all about finding the proper balance," explains producer Ken Balthaser. "It's like rock, paper, scissors--plane beats tank, anti-aircraft gun beats plane, tank beats anti-aircraft gun." To allow for this type of rock-beats-scissors gameplay, Battlefield 1942 will include a multitude of vehicles. If you've seen it on The History Channel, chances are it'll be in the game: Corsairs, Mustangs, Stukkas, Zeroes, Yak-9s, Spitfires, B-17s, Shermans, T-34s, Tigers, jeeps, destroyers, submarines, and even aircraft carriers--they're all in here. But Balthaser stresses that no one vehicle is a superweapon, and with proper teamwork, every one of these vehicles game can be overcome, and overcome quickly.

The Omaha level in Battlefield 1942 will be the largest one yet.
The Omaha level in Battlefield 1942 will be the largest one yet.

In fact, you'll probably be surprised by the game's fast pace. It's not Quake, but everything in Battlefield 1942 is set up in a manner that facilitates the game's quick tempo. The medic, for example, will heal any teammate within a certain radius automatically--there'll be no need to walk up to players and actively heal each character individually. What's more, you'll be able to switch classes almost on the fly simply by walking up to one of several stations (they'll usually be APCs) strewn about each level and pressing the required keys. This will come in handy in when an engineer is desperately needed to fix a broken jeep, or in situations that call for a group of anti-tank soldiers to stop a group of incoming tanks. Even the simple act of jumping into a vehicle isn't accompanied by any extraneous animation or downtime--simply hit the use key, and you're instantly in an APC or aboard a ship. This works on moving vehicles as well, which makes it a snap to jump into friendly fighters that swoop down low enough or onto any passing tank.

Like similar games, Battlefield 1942 will have its fair share of multiplayer modes, including classics like capture the flag, though its most intriguing mode is one called conquest. Here, players on two teams start out in their respective bases on opposite sides of a map. Within these bases are health stations (the APCs we mentioned earlier) and a handful of vehicles, though this varies from level to level. In the middle of the map, there are a number of neutral bases. Each side starts with an equal number of "tickets," and the objective is to conquer and hold as many of these neutral bases on the map as possible, because the team that has captured fewer bases will lose tickets while the discrepancy exists. The greater the discrepancy, the faster the losing side's tickets will count down, and the first team to reach zero tickets is the rotten loser. Conquering a base doesn't involve anything other than touching its flag pole for a few seconds--though no enemies can be nearby--and if you die, you can respawn in any of your conquered bases, which makes getting to the battle a lot easier than hoofing it all the way from your original base. Again, this helps keep Battlefield's gameplay fast and furious.

France, as seen by a tank turret.
France, as seen by a tank turret.

Despite its heavy emphasis on multiplayer, Battlefield 1942 does have a single-player component. You'll choose to play as a nameless soldier for the Allies or the Axis, and you'll progress through the game's 16 maps slightly differently depending on your choice. The campaign isn't anything like Medal of Honor, though. In fact, the other characters that you'll run into throughout the levels aren't so much characters as they are bots. And when you die, you simply respawn and continue on with your assigned tasks wherever you left off. The entire single-player campaign has a distinct multiplayer feel to it, but as we mentioned earlier, the game still has a few months of development ahead of it, and the single-player component is certainly subject to change.

While it's too early to make any broad claims about how Battlefield 1942 will be the next so and so, we can say that what we saw impressed us. Barring any catastrophic development problems, this should be a game that every shooter fan will enjoy. Electronic Arts hopes to have it ready before this summer, so we'll keep you updated on its progress.

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