Monday, September 13, 2010

Love is a Battlefield – Battlefield: Bad Company 2

As I've mentioned in previous entries, the original Battlefield: Bad Company is one of my favorite games. It combined solid shooting mechanics and a unique multiplayer mode with a strong feeling of levity; the explosions were enormous, the characters quipped and cracked-wise, and the experience was leisurely and pleasantly unforced. The game's quirks and unusual gameplay mechanics (the Vita-Chamber-style respawn system, the team-focused online modes, the large amount of ammo each gun could hold) gave Bad Company a unique flavor, no small order for a modern military shooter in an increasingly crowded market.

Unfortunately for me, many gamers did not share my sentiment about the game's atypical designs (yeah, it sounds up my own ass, but it's true). Bad Company was released a scant eight months after the genre powerhouse and sales behemoth Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, and many gamers who purchased it expecting a similar experience received a rude awakening. For many who craved the corridor-driven, fast-paced action of Modern Warfare, this was the Wrong Way To Do It.

I preface this entry with those last two paragraphs on Bad Company only to help set up my disappointment with the direction taken by its sequel, Battlefield: Bad Company 2. This is a game that, by all means, should have been unarguably better than the first game, rather than fitfully so. Granted, many of the complaints that I have are pretty specific to me, so I don't expect many people to necessarily agree with me. I'm just explaining why, when you talk to me about Bad Company 2, I often give an exasperated sigh.

This is the box art from the first game. Notice how less-angry it looks from the box at the top. This should give you a good idea of the tonal differences in both games.

But onto business. Bad Company 2 promises more of the explosive action that helped make the first one a reasonable hit, and boy does it ever deliver. The destruction has been given steroids (the kind that help our Olympic athletes reach new peaks of excellence), and now buildings can be fully razed to the ground. The single player mode also receives a fair amount of explosive set piece moments, and the sound design continues to make sweet, sweet whoopey to the eardrums.

Multiplayer has also been expanded upon. Before there was merely one mode with eight maps (Gold Rush, a game where players take turns attacking and defending crates of gold), and DICE added in the classic Conquest mode and eight Conquest-specific maps through a patch later on. Now, there are four modes of play: Conquest (teams compete to capture bases on the map), Gold Rush (renamed Rush; we'll discuss this in a bit), Squad Deathmatch (a team-based take on deathmatch-style games, with four teams of four competing to get to 50 kills first), and Squad Rush (two teams of four play a smaller game of Rush).

The game benefits from more varied (and much more beautiful) environments than the previous one; lush jungles, harsh deserts, and the freezing heights of the Andes await.

All of this looks to make a game that is, on paper, unequivocally superior to the first one, but it doesn't take too long for a few ointment-flies to rear their ugly heads (and, by metaphor extension, wings). The trouble, for me, started when I first booted up the single player mode. After playing through the first game's campaign several times and loving it, I fully expected to be thrust back into the mix with Sarge, Sweetwater, and Haggard, wrecking things and chatting about Truckasaurus Rex. Imagine my surprise when the game starts in 1944 on some Japanese-controlled island, where you have apparently been tasked with some gritty, espionage-y mission to find a scientist (though my cynical side says that they just wanted to reuse assets from 2009's Battlefield 1943).

The gritty, espionage-y stuff doesn't stop once you leave Japan and arrive in the present day. Oh no. Because many players were put-off by the corny jokes and antics of the first game (including, notably, Morgan Webb in her 2008 review), DICE decided to change its tack and go for a more serious, dramatic story. We rejoin Preston Marlowe and crew (with no attempted explanation of what happened after they supposedly left the army with a truckload of gold at the end of the first game) as they attempt to track down a missing super weapon that is being sought after by Russia (who, according to the loading screen for the mission, have managed to simultaneously invade Europe, South America, and East Asia; you'd think this would be a point of discussion). We're treated to a Clancy-esque tale of drama! suspense! betrayal! sacrifice! The results couldn't be more generic.

Grim, military faces. Get used to them, they're not going anywhere.

Some gameplay tweaks also detract from the first game's light, sandbox-y fun. The Vita-Chamber respawn system has been replaced by the industry-standard Reload From The Last Checkpoint system, which is fine in theory, but gets fairly aggravating. Unlike Modern Warfare, it's generally pretty hard to get an idea of how many bullets you can take until you croak, which lead to a couple moments of experimentation that had me waiting (and waiting!) for my game to reload; I eventually stopped wanting to take chances, and instead chose to grind through the corridors in a slow, safe, partially-dull manner. The under-barrel grenades that made the first game such an explosive playground are back in much shorter supply as well (the control scheme has also been reworked to make them more of a Strategic Option instead of an Oh Hell, Why Not). The upshot is that the single player is significantly less fun to play than the original.

Thankfully, the multiplayer picks up the slack significantly, though not enough to truly be declared the winner in my eyes. The small tweaks are enormous: players can now spawn on individual squad mates instead of a generic "Spawn On Squad" system, the classes have been rebalanced and play nicer together (particularly the Medic, transforming the game into one my roommate calls a First Person Healer), and the destruction makes for different crate-defending tactics. Bad Company 2 cleans up a number of flaws that its predecessor had, and makes it a fairly streamlines experience.

Multiplayer is back and still fun, but there are a few elements that keep it from being all it can be.

But then it also introduces a few flaws as well, most notably the presence of lag EVERYWHERE. Even with some recent patches, it always feels like there's a disconnect between the controller and my character. I thought that the difference was all in my head until I fired up the original Bad Company and found the game to be much more responsive (and even that's pokey compared to Modern Warfare and Halo). Map repetition is also a drawback; Bad Company 2 launched with only five maps in the main multiplayer modes. As someone who likes to play this game nightly, this is WAY too few to prevent a certain feeling of redundancy from setting in; by the time EA rolled out some DLC that increased the number to eight (which is how many the first game came with out of the box), I was so sick of the initial five that I played ad nauseum since launch day that it was too little, too late.

I'm being harder on this game than it deserves. It's ultimately a good product, with a robust multiplayer component, an ambitious single player game, and DICE obviously gave their all to create the best game possible. I'm also willing to acknowledge that many people who buy a Battlefield game will do so for the multiplayer, and won't event give the single player a second (or ever first) look. That said, this is a game that I find difficult to enjoy on the same level as the first. Perhaps I set myself up for this one, but is it too much to expect for a sequel to build on the strengths of its predecessor? This is one of those games where I can't wait for the next one to come out; not because I want to play more (although I do), but because I can't wait for the developers to get it right this time.

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