There will be doubters and naysayers who will claim that Battlefield 2 is just an incremental upgrade from its famous predecessors, or that it only offers a marginal improvement over the popular Desert Combat mod for Battlefield 1942. Ignore them, because they couldn't be more wrong. EA and Digital Illusions' cutting-edge and highly awaited sequel is everything that it's supposed to be and more. Battlefield 2 is a thrilling testament to how great PC gaming can be. It packs unmatched gameplay, impressive visuals, and endless replayability in one exquisite package. And it's, by far, the most fun that we've had with a PC game this year.
Contrary to its name, Battlefield 2 is actually the third game in the Battlefield series, and, on the surface, it sticks closely to the formula established in the previous two games. In it, two teams of up to 32 players each battle it out for supremacy on huge virtual battlefields, taking the fight to one another on foot, in a vehicle, on sea, and in the air. This time around, though, you'll have the opportunity to take modern weapons and equipment into the fray, as the game is based in a near-future, hypothetical conflict that pits the forces of the United States, China, and the fictional Middle Eastern Coalition in mortal combat with one another.
Strangely enough, Battlefield 2 ships with just one gameplay mode, but the conquest mode is what made Battlefield what is today. Conquest is essentially a sprawling, king-of-the-hill-style game with multiple control points (doubling as spawn points) scattered on the map. Each team gets a limited number of tickets, or spawns, to draw upon in the battle for control of these points. The winner is the side that can either capture all the control points and eliminate the opposing team entirely, or whittle down the opposing team's tickets to zero. It's a fairly simple formula, but it sets the stage for the wild and memorable virtual battles that take place.
The beauty of Battlefield 2 is the fact that, like its predecessors, it has a totally unpredictable nature to it. It's completely unscripted and chaotic, but in an awesome way. There are simply so many insane, over-the-top moments that can happen in a single game that you quickly lose track. In any given match, you can have a dozen desperate firefights, countless moments when a rocket or bullet whizzes by your head, and the proud sense of accomplishment when you and your squad overcome the odds and achieve your objective. You'll see feats of audacious daring as someone flies a helicopter through a city's streets or runs up to plant explosives on an enemy tank that's mowing down your colleagues. You'll experience the hellish shelling of artillery, see the desperate revival of wounded colleagues, and be killed a dozen grisly ways. And yet, through it all, you'll find yourself coming back for more.
What makes Battlefield 2 better than its predecessors, though, is that there's much more of an attempt to instill some method to this madness. Battlefield 2 is full of excellent new features designed to make coordinating your efforts a lot easier. First up is the new voice-over IP system, which means that real-time voice capability is built into every single copy of the game. There simply is no excuse not to get a headset and start talking with your buddies, because even though Battlefield 2 does offer an improved keyboard-based communications system, nothing beats the power of being able to instantly and effortlessly communicate with your teammates. The voice system in Battlefield 2 is simple to set up and use, and you no longer have to fiddle around with conflicting third-party solutions.
More critically, it's the voice-chat system in Battlefield 2 that's important. Rather than have 64 players swamp a single channel with nonstop chatter and taunts, the voice system is instead integrated heavily into the concept of a commander and squads, which are both new features in the game. In earlier Battlefield games, you simply ran around as part of an unorganized mob, with little coordination between players. Battlefield 2 solves this by letting you organize into squads that come under the leadership of a single commander. In other words, a team of 32 players could split up to potentially form five or six squads consisting of five to six players each, with one player coordinating all the efforts as a commander. This fundamentally changes the nature of the game from having a bunch of lone wolves running around to having coordinated combat teams working together to get the job done.
Here's how it works. Armed with a real-time, top-down view of the battlefield, along with a number of powerful abilities, the commander can keep an eye on the big picture. The commander can scan the battlefield for enemy forces, deploy spy drones on the map that transmit data to all the members of the team, air-drop supply crates that rearm and heal adjacent units, and drop powerful artillery barrages onto enemy positions. The commander also issues orders to squad leaders, who have the job of carrying the orders out. The squad is much more than a handful of players, thanks to the potent squad abilities. Since you can spawn on your squad leader (so long as he is alive), the ability to create a sort of roving, self-supporting combat team is possible, especially if a team has a medic or two to keep the squad on its feet. The voice-chat system automatically filters all communication, so if you're in a squad, you can only talk with your fellow squad members. Squad leaders can talk to their squad on one channel and use another channel to communicate with the commander. And the commander can only talk to squad leaders. Thus, orders have a way of trickling down the chain of command, while requests go up the chain from the squad leader to the commander (like they do in real-life militaries).
When this system is clicking, it makes Battlefield 2 simply a transcendent experience unlike anything we've experienced before. While other games have incorporated concepts such as squads and commanders, none have combined them in such a brilliantly designed and executed way. The ability to only chat with your squadmates can create a sort of instant personal camaraderie, even when the sound of bullets, explosions, and artillery surrounds you. At times, you'll find yourself yelling for a medic, telling a buddy to cover you while you sprint across an open patch, or quickly organizing an impromptu assault on an enemy. It's so easy and tempting to fall into role-playing mode when playing this game. We found moments when, as squad leader, we requested permission from the commander to go after an enemy target. Or, when we were attacking an enemy control point, we screamed, "Go, go, go," and the squad rushed in just moments after an artillery barrage softened the objective, the dust from the explosions still thick in the air. The sensation that you're actually fighting as a unit is simply immersive and gripping. In fact, the only thing missing is the ability to keep some kind of friends or buddies list. This is something that you'll desperately want once you've played with a great squad and want to play alongside them in future battles.
It's fair to note, however, that your online experience with Battlefield 2 is completely dependent on the nature of your fellow players. And yes, it can be frustrating if you find yourself on a team that doesn't organize into squads or doesn't work together. This frustration is doubled if you find yourself facing a team that is organized and coordinated. With the powerful team tools in the game, it's quite easy for a completely outnumbered but coordinated team to defeat a far larger and unorganized force. The game does come with tools designed to get you familiar with the controls, but you still rely on the willingness of your teammates to work together. If anything, we wish for some kind of option that requires you to join a squad when you enter a game, and if you fail to do this you'll be kicked off, since players who play outside the command and squad system remain outside the loop. (The game could use a better auto-balancing system, as well, as far too many matches become lopsided affairs because one team has twice as many players as the other.)
Of course, all it takes are a handful of anarchic team killers to throw a wrench into your experience, as well. In that case, you can try to vote someone off a server if he or she proves annoying enough, or the server can boot players who team-kill too often. In addition, Battlefield 2 introduces the concept of persistent identity. When you log onto Battlefield 2 for the first time, you'll create a unique account that will follow you throughout your online adventures, keeping track of your rank, your statistics, and much more. The better you play, the higher in rank you will rise, and you can eventually unlock alternate weapons. A higher rank also means that you will be given higher priority to assume the commander role in a match, so hopefully this will let the serious players gain control of such a potent position.
We should note that Battlefield 2 keeps track of an astonishing number of statistics, such as the number of kills you make with each weapon, your favorite kit, the map you play the most on, and more. You can also collect dozens of different types of medals by doing certain tasks. Medics are rewarded for reviving fallen soldiers, engineers are rewarded for repairing vehicles, and so on. Collecting these medals proves to be a reward in and of itself. However, as much as we like this system, we must admit that the game's main menu/server browser, where you access your personal statistics, feels needlessly confusing at times. The server browser itself is slow and clunky, which makes it annoying at times when you're trying to find a game. Since this is the third Battlefield game, you'd expect that the designers would have figured out how to create a decent server browser by now. Meanwhile, trying to rebind the many different keyboard settings can be like pulling teeth at times, as you have to sort through different pages to unbind a key before you can bind it to another command.
If you're not feeling like playing with fellow humans, the good news is that the much-maligned bots from Battlefields 1942 and Vietnam are history. In those games, the computer-controlled bots were just a hair better than brain-dead, but not by much (they literally ran in circles most of the time). The new bots in Battlefield 2 are relative Einsteins compared to the old ones, and while they still make a few stupid errors every now and then, they can be downright ruthless and cunning. We've seen bots do things that we wish human players would do. In one case, a bot in a tank actually waited for infantry support before entering the crowded confines of an enemy village. In another, the bots threw grenades onto the rooftop we were sniping from to flush us out. These bots will also go after objectives with a vengeance. It's ironic that DICE nixed the cooperative gameplay mode featured in earlier Battlefield games just when it finally developed decent bots. To be fair, the bots can get confused, and we suspect that some maps may be too complex for their pathfinding, as they tend to do better on maps with fewer natural choke points, such as bridges and rivers.
Battlefield 2 ships with 12 levels, and while that seems like a small number, the fact that each level comes in three different sizes adds some variety. The nature of the game can change dramatically depending on the size of the map and the number of players involved. Small, 16-player games on the smallest map offer a Counter-Strike-like atmosphere, with a limited number of control points and a few vehicles. The 32- and 64-player maps are downright huge in comparison, and they offer plenty of room to maneuver around. The level design itself has evolved quite a bit from earlier games, as the designers have eliminated the huge distances that separated control points. These new levels are an interesting mix of different settings, including cities, mountains, valleys, and swamps. They're also packed with all sorts of specific, distinct areas, such as villages, hotels, construction areas, oil refineries, and more.
There are seven different kits, or basically character class types, to play as in Battlefield 2, and these kits are essentially identical across all three nations. There aren't the weird variations that occurred in Battlefield Vietnam, where the US engineer kit would get completely different weapon types from the North Vietnamese engineer kit. And for the most part, the kits are fairly well balanced. There's no superkit (like the M-60/LAW combination in Vietnam) this time around. And while there will be advocates for and against certain kits, the balance on a whole is excellent right out of the gate for Battlefield 2. For example, the support kit seems a bit overpowering at first, since it gets a light machine gun capable of firing long bursts from huge magazines, but it is tempered by the fact that it's only suitable at short and medium ranges. Try to engage anyone from a long distance, and they'll simply drop down and snipe you with carefully aimed shots. The sniper kit, usually the most overpowering weapon in these kinds of games, no longer features a one-shot, one-kill capability. However, this relegates snipers to their proper (and accurate) role of supporting the infantry and reporting the location of enemy units and vehicles.
There's a definite rock-paper-scissors nature to the different kits. The special forces kit is ideal for planting plastic explosive charges and destroying enemy infrastructure, from bridge crossings to radar stations that allow enemy commanders to conduct satellite scans of the battlefield. In fact, for balancing purposes, it's the only kit able to really do so effectively. Blow up enemy artillery, and the enemy commander can't drop artillery barrages on your team's head until the guns are repaired. The engineer kit can repair such damage and patch up vehicles, and so engineers are worth their weight in gold. Meanwhile, the engineer and medic kits are even more powerful than ever by being able to project an area-of-affect radius around them if they're riding in a vehicle, which is a big incentive for players to take up support roles in a game.
That same sort of rock-paper-scissors balancing is also evident in the vehicles. The general rule in Battlefield 2 is that every weapon has a counter weapon, and the balance, once again, feels about right. However, it can be argued that some vehicles may be more powerful than others, so therefore much is dependent on the skill of the players involved. Sure, a skilled player in an attack helicopter can take over a game, but there are answers for that situation if you know how to take advantage of them. For example, as potent as tanks and other vehicles are, they can be slaughtered by other vehicles, helicopters, planes, and infantry antitank missiles. Helicopters can fall prey to jets or antiaircraft weapons, while jets themselves can fall prey to other jets or missiles.
Many of the vehicles are modern-day versions of those found in Battlefields 1942 and Vietnam, so they will undoubtedly feel familiar to veterans of those games. There are a few neat features to play with, though. Tanks can now pop smoke grenades, which can throw off the aim of an incoming missile. Helicopters and jets can fire guided missiles, allowing them to kill multiple targets on a single pass. Once again, you'll probably want to get a joystick for optimal control of aircraft, but it's definitely worth it. Helicopters are a bit easier to fly than those in Vietnam, it seems, but it's always interesting to note that for all the arcadelike action in the game, the helicopter controls are still fairly realistic. Once you get the hang of the controls, there's no rush quite like the one you experience when you fly a chopper through trees, or pop up over a ridge and unleash a fiery barrage on a passing convoy.
Battlefield 2 is a step up from its predecessors graphically, as well. The new graphics engine is a wonder to behold, and it plays a lot smoother than earlier versions, especially when it comes to infantry combat, which was always jerky and awkward in the first two games. This is just a beautiful game overall, especially when everything around you is in motion. Tanks and vehicles are rendered with astonishing detail, such as swaying antennas, while the environments themselves--save for the somewhat crudely rendered grass--are simply beautiful. There are so many tiny details at work, from the concussive effects of nearby blasts blurring your vision to the clouds of dust that appear when tank cannons fire to the tiny fountains of dirt that kick up when rounds land next to you. It's so pretty that it almost becomes counterproductive, in a way. For example, except for a few road signs that you can knock over and bridges that you can destroy, the environment itself is barely destructible, and you feel that buildings should collapse into heaps of rubble after artillery smashes into them. Also, the instantaneous teleporting in and out of vehicles, a staple from the first game, feels more and more out of place as the series becomes more graphically immersive. You almost wish for some kind of transition animation to show your character climbing in and out of the driver's seat (it would also be more realistic, as well). Though our biggest concern with the graphics comes with the close draw in that occurs when you're flying a fast-moving jet, as it only gives you a second or two to identify and line up your target before you overshoot it.
Battlefield 2 is an excellent audio experience also, as there's nothing quite like hearing the scream of artillery overhead, the crack of various rifles, the squeal of tank treads and the sound of their engines roaring in the distance, the thump of whirling helicopter blades, and more. The only thing missing really is the memorable music of the first two games, especially the iconic soundtrack that shipped with Battlefield Vietnam. To be fair, it's asking a bit much of EA to identify the signature songs of the near future, but even then, the only music in the game is the bland Asian and Middle Eastern themes that you listen to during the very long load times. And yes, the load times are one of the biggest gripes that we have, as you'll spend quite a bit of time waiting for a game to start up, even on high-end machines. Battlefield 2 is also a bit demanding in the hardware department, since you'll need a modern 3D card to run it (anything older than two years is iffy), as well as a fair bit of memory and a somewhat powerful CPU. The good news is that the game scales well within that hardware, and it can play at high detail on even relatively midrange machines. But this is definitely a game worth upgrading for, because it easily holds countless hours of gameplay, especially once players get over the learning curve and start to work together. It shouldn't be long before the quality of Battlefield matches is raised to a whole new level. It will also help that you evaluate your performance using Battlefield TV, a built-in recording system that keeps track of all the events during a match. With Battlefield TV, you can go back and see what tactics the best players used, where the best sniping positions are, and more.
The best thing that we can say about Battlefield 2 is that even when it's at its worst, it can still be as much fun as its illustrious predecessors. However, when you experience Battlefield 2 like it's meant to be played, with everyone working together and using real-time voice chat, the game quickly becomes unlike anything else that you've played before. When it's at its best, Battlefield 2 elevates online gaming to whole new heights. Put simply, this is a thrilling and revolutionary game that just has to be played to be believed.