Battlefield 1942 Review

  • First Released Sep 10, 2002
  • PC

This is a pick-up-and-play action extravaganza, a comic book version of WWII.

It started as a buzz and grew to a roar. When Digital Illusions' Battlefield 1942 was first announced, it looked pretty much like just another in a seemingly endless supply of World War II-based games. But thanks to leaked and official demos, Battlefield 1942 soon became one of the most highly anticipated games of the year. That's hardly surprising, given its ambitious design. Here's a game where dozens of players can fight online together on expansive World War II-inspired battlefields while controlling planes, tanks, and even aircraft carriers with ease. Other than some frustrating technical problems and bugs that should have been fixed before the game shipped, Battlefield 1942 is one of those games that actually lives up to most of the hype surrounding it.

Germans storm across a bridge before the Americans can strike back.
Germans storm across a bridge before the Americans can strike back.

Battlefield 1942 can be a lot of fun things to a lot of people, but first it's important to tell you what it's not: The game definitely isn't a realistic WWII combat simulator. This is a pick-up-and-play action extravaganza, a comic book version of WWII. The fact that any player can casually hop into a tank, drive around, hop out and pick off an enemy soldier with a sniper rifle, hop into a plane, parachute out, and then call in artillery fire (within the span of a few minutes) should tell you a lot about the game--and a lot about what makes it so much fun.

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In Battlefield 1942, you can fight offline with decent but unspectacular computer-controlled bots. Online, you can play in four different game modes against up to 64 players at a time. Realistically, you'll usually find servers capable of handling only 32 players, at most. Even with that reduced number, and even if you have the game's first patch installed, have a cable Internet connection, and get a ping in the 50s or 60s, there's a good chance you'll experience some lag or choppiness. Trying to shoot bazookas at tanks, which will suddenly appear elsewhere because of lag, isn't exactly enjoyable.

But when you manage to make a good connection to a powerful server, Battlefield 1942 has lots to offer. For instance, the game's popular conquest mode, where each team tries to capture and hold various control points on the map, can be great fun. The control points are set at strategic locations, like ruined villages or outposts with bunkers or heavy machine-gun positions, making them a challenge to occupy.

Bodies will quickly start filling the fields and streets, which leads to one of Battlefield 1942's more interesting features. Each team is allotted a certain number of tickets at the beginning of the match. You can respawn within a few seconds of dying (the exact time varies) to reinforce your team, but for every death, your team loses tickets. When the enemy holds a certain number of control points at once, your team will also start losing tickets. When your team runs out of tickets, you lose the battle. This system is a welcome compromise between some of the other death-and-respawn systems found in other shooters. In Battlefield 1942, you don't have to sit out around and twiddle your thumbs when you're "dead," yet you're still usually penalized by a brief wait, and because of the ticket system, every death ultimately affects the outcome of the battle.

Every time you enter the battlefield, you get to pick your respawn location. At the minimum, you'll usually get a main base that always remains under your team's control, but you can also respawn at control points that currently belong to your team. Each time you respawn, you also get to choose from five character classes, each with a number of distinctive weapons and abilities. The scout gets a sniper rifle and can help direct long-range fire from the big guns with his binoculars. The assault class gets a powerful light machine gun or assault rifle. The antitank class gets a Panzerschreck or a bazooka. The medic wields a submachine gun and can heal himself and his comrades. The engineer can lay mines and explosives and repair vehicles and stationary weapons.

Preparing to blast bridge traffic sky high.
Preparing to blast bridge traffic sky high.

Overall, these classes complement each other well and provide just enough diversity without bogging you down with too many choices. And while the engineer and antitank classes sometimes tend to be unduly favored because of their relation to the vehicles, don't underestimate the power of a few good assault and medic troops working together, particularly in dense terrain where tanks are at a disadvantage.

But one thing you'll quickly notice is that Battlefield 1942's small arms seem pretty inaccurate, lag or not, which can be frustrating. The fact that some maps offer little cover other than some slight slopes can take even more of the fun out of fighting on foot. Overall, infantry combat in the game is rather weak compared to many online shooters. Hopefully a future patch will tweak the weapons to put more life into them.

As it stands, the real focus and the major appeal of Battlefield 1942 is its vehicles. The game puts a full 35 of them at your disposal, which respectively belong to each of the game's five nationalities (US, UK, Germany, Japan, and the Soviet Union). You'll get to control Tigers, Shermans, and T-34s; Stukas, Zeros, and Spitfires; aircraft carriers, destroyers, landing craft; and a lot more, though for some reason, the Japanese are largely outfitted with German vehicles, like the Kübelwagen jeep, Sd Kfz 251/1 half-track, and Wespe self-propelled howitzer.

A view of Stalingrad from inside a T-34 tank.
A view of Stalingrad from inside a T-34 tank.

Nevertheless, Digital Illusions has done an excellent job of implementing vehicles into the game. Hopping into one and switching among its unoccupied positions is a breeze. The number of positions you can occupy in most vehicles is actually quite limited, and even if a vehicle offers multiple positions, usually just one player is needed to operate the core functions of the vehicle. This means you alone can drive a tank and fire its main gun and coaxial machine gun, even though the real-world equivalent of the tank might have been operated by a team of five men. That may sound unrealistic, or even silly, but anyone who's played last year's Tribes 2 and waited in vain to assemble a skilled tank or bomber crew before setting off knows how frustrating it can get when you're forced into total dependence on your teammates. And in Battlefield 1942, you won't always lose a whole vehicle full of teammates at once because of one unskilled driver or pilot.

Still, the limited seating can sometimes mean waiting around for a tank or plane to respawn so you can use it, and running on foot across the huge maps isn't exactly a fun alternative. Also, the secondary position found in many tanks isn't one you'll be standing in line for. Instead of letting you sit in the hull gunner/radio operator position where you'd be protected by armor and could still fire a machine gun, the secondary position puts you in the tank commander's cupola. You do get to use a mounted machine gun that can be fired in any direction, which is useful for covering the main gunner's blind spots. However, you can't button up the hatch, so you'll be a real bullet magnet, easily picked off by infantry.

One of the best aspects of the game's vehicles is that you work them with a set of largely universal controls. To operate a tank, just hop in and use essentially the same movement and firing keys you would as a foot soldier. This keeps the game accessible and keeps the emphasis on the action, not on trying to remember how to get your Panzer out of first gear. The only vehicles likely to give you trouble are the twitchy planes, which are rather hard to control smoothly with the keyboard and mouse.

Like the controls, the vehicle physics are simplified. They work well in practice, and the handling does vary noticeably from vehicle to vehicle. You can zip around in a jeep like you'd expect, while the formidable German Tiger tank handles like...a tank, with slow acceleration and turning. All that firepower rightly comes at a cost.

For that matter, the firepower is also simplified: Main guns on AFVs fire just one type of shell that combines the functions of both high-explosive and armor-piercing rounds. You'll find aiming to be a bit odd, too: For all the big guns, you get just a tiny crosshair instead of the more sophisticated reticles of the real tanks that helped gunners estimate lead and range. To hit distant targets, you'll have to rely on practice and feel to know how high to elevate the gun to get the right trajectory, though it doesn't take long to get the hang of it.

Preparing to hop in a Panzer IV.
Preparing to hop in a Panzer IV.

Whether battling on foot or flying a plane, you'll get to fight across 16 huge battlefields inspired by real ones, like Iwo Jima, Midway, El Alamein, Omaha Beach, Kursk, Stalingrad, and Berlin. Each map features its own unique tactical challenges, thanks to the terrain, base and control-point locations, vehicles allotted to each team, and positioning of stations where you can heal yourself or grab more ammo for small arms or vehicles. Battlefield 1942's maps are surprisingly varied. In fact, playing different maps can almost seem like you're playing different games.

It's easy to quibble about issues of balance on certain maps, but overall, the maps tend to be laid out well and are a joy to play, with impressive tactical diversity. You'll take part in ship-to-shore combat on the Pacific maps, with massive coastal batteries thundering while landing craft race to the beaches. You'll engage in tank duels in the wide-open sands of North Africa, with Tigers and Shermans trading shots at long range. You'll struggle for the bridges at Arnhem, while planes roar overhead and AA batteries furiously pump rounds high into the sky. In the ruins of Berlin and Stalingrad, you'll crawl through the rubble to get the perfect sniper shot or sneak up behind a T-34 tank and blow it to bits with a demo charge. Perhaps the only thing missing from these maps is some significant indoor combat. A massive factory complex in the heart of the Stalingrad map, for example, would have been an appropriate and welcome change from all the outdoor combat.

One of the drawbacks of Battlefield 1942, other than the somewhat unreliable network code and some extremely long load times on anything other than a fast computer, is that if you want to enjoy these battles, you'll need to find skilled, team-oriented players. The game's high accessibility actually works against it in that regard, since there are currently many players who just goof around and interfere with or outright kill their teammates. Real teamwork is a rare commodity on many servers at this early stage, though that will hopefully improve as people learn the maps and tactics, and the goof-offs get bored and move on to other games.

Tanks working in concert can ruin the enemy's day.
Tanks working in concert can ruin the enemy's day.

Ironically, even if you do have good teammates, you sometimes won't get to appreciate their good work since the maps are so big. You'll often have little clue what half your team is doing a mile away. The game doesn't as easily create the temporary bonds of comradeship that some online shooters do. Still, when you do get to work side by side with your buddies and pull off a particularly daring assault or valiant defense, you can get a real gaming high.

You should also get a real kick out of Battlefield 1942's visuals. It's true the maps and overall ambience tend to feel rather generic at times, and the game doesn't have the same sort of intense, highly detailed WWII atmosphere you find in Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, for example. Still, the first time you get a view of some of the maps, you'd be hard pressed not to be impressed. The Guadalcanal map alone, with its palm-lined, postcard-perfect beaches, offers more eye candy than some entire games do.

Along with the panoramic vistas, the game features convincing character animations and gorgeous-looking vehicles. Lots of colorful effects, like plumes of water spraying from the bows of speeding landing craft and vivid explosions replete with clattering debris, help add to the intensity of the combat. The developer, presumably in a successful attempt to secure a "T" rating from the ESRB, decided not to show any blood or body parts flying around.

The huge expanse of Guadalcanal.
The huge expanse of Guadalcanal.

Battlefield 1942's audio isn't up to the same standard as the visuals, but it's still pretty good--when it works properly. Sometimes sounds can drop out even when you have the latest drivers for your sound card installed. One second, your heavy machine gun will be roaring away as it sprays enemy troops with lead. The next second, it's like you're watching a silent movie. But when all is working properly, troops issue radio commands in their native languages (though the communication system itself is clunky), barbed wire rattles around if you're unlucky enough to get caught up in it, and turrets whir as they rotate. The rattling of machine-gun fire, the buzzing of planes overhead, and the thump of tank cannons all help immerse you in the combat.

Assuming Battlefield 1942's technical kinks get worked out, the game could easily take its rightful place among the very best online shooters. Currently, playing it can range from exceptionally fun to exceptionally frustrating. EA's release of a patch the very day the game hit store shelves emphasizes how Battlefield 1942 was rushed out too early, but it also bodes well for continued support. For now, as long as you can find skilled teammates and aren't getting pestered by the game's technical problems, Battlefield 1942 can be, quite appropriately, a real blast.

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