Battlefield 2 Updated Hands-On

We hit the dirt in a new build of EA and DICE's upcoming online modern warfare game, due out in just a couple of months.

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LAS VEGAS--Microsoft surprised us by displaying a work-in-progress version of EA and DICE's Battlefield 2, the upcoming modern-day online warfare sequel, at its booth at the Consumer Electronics Show. But we weren't so surprised that we didn't immediately belly up and jump into the game to see how it will maintain the reputation of its vaunted namesake. Though there weren't a whole lot of people in the game, we did get to play around with the included player classes and several vehicles, and we can say with confidence, based on our playtime, that the spirit of the Battlefield series is certainly alive and well here.

The map on display at CES was set in a wetlands area in Yemen, and it featured a massive aboveground oil pipeline, lots of shallow water that stymied the progress of our tanks (but let us try out the new amphibious vehicles--more on that later), and ground foliage that we could hide in to take potshots at unsuspecting enemy troops. It's obvious as soon as you get into the game that this is the best-looking game in the series, with terrain, buildings, vehicles, and character models using considerably more geometry than previous games, as well as the striking water and bump-mapping effects, among others. We even saw a flock of birds fluttering overhead a couple of times. The Yemen map allowed us to play as both American and MEC (or Middle-Eastern Coalition) forces, which have basically identical soldiers but differing assortments of vehicles.

We had a chance to play around with some of the secondary abilities of the classes in the game, of which there are seven (which is considerably larger than previous Battlefield games). The support class, for instance, can drop ammo packs around the field to make up for the relative lack of stationary ammo depots in the new game. The medic will now be equipped with a defibrillator that can presumably be used to resuscitate downed allies, though we heard that you'll be able to use it to take out hapless enemies with it as well. The antitank class even has a rocket that can be guided for a short time after it's fired (much like the rocket launcher in Half-Life). Though there are more classes in this game than ever before in the series, it looks like the designers have done a good job of making them all distinct enough so that each one will play a valuable role in the team effort.

The developers of Battlefield 2 have made some thoughtful changes to the design of the previous games to help streamline the experience. For instance, in previous games, you had to hit multiple function keys and pay attention to a pop-up menu at the top of the screen to issue commands and other voice messages to your teammates. In Battlefield 2, this somewhat clumsy system has been replaced by a radial menu that you can bring up with a single key and then quickly navigate with your mouse to snap off voice commands in a more efficient manner. This new communication system is even context-sensitive, so if you point your target reticle at a particular vehicle, such as a tank, and hit the "spotted" command, your character will send a "Tank spotted!" message to the team.

Speaking of vehicles, we got to see several in the map on offer at CES. The Americans had access to a dune buggy of sorts with a machine gun mounted on top, along with a couple of different tanks and a transport helicopter. Most interesting was a light-armored amphibious vehicle that struck a balance between speed and offensive capabilities. This one let us drive swiftly through shallow water, which stopped regular tanks cold. The vehicles will have subtle differences between them that'll have substantial bearing on the way you play. The American tanks have a digital range finder, for instance, which shows you the distance to whatever you have in your sights. The MEC tank we tried, however, had a simple mechanical range finder that requires you to aim in a different manner. We also saw a helicopter dropping flares at one point in an attempt to thwart a ground-based attack. The vehicles seem pretty similar in their basic control, so it's nice to see that the designers will be adding some minor new features to them.

It's not too surprising to see that Battlefield 2 plays fundamentally just like Battlefields 1942 and Vietnam before it, but the developers have added so many new features and made so many refinements to the gameplay that fans of the entrenched multiplayer series ought to find a ton of stuff to like about the most recent game. We were impressed by what we saw on the show floor, and that doesn't even include the new RTS-style commander interface or the elaborate Battlefield TV replay system, both of which will add considerable value to the experience. Battlefield 2 is nearing completion with a ship date that's not much more than two months away. We'll bring you more on the game soon.

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