Holland, September 1944. As your parachute opens and you gently descend behind enemy lines, your altitude offers a good view of the situation at hand. Below, in the town of Arnhem, fellow Allied paratroopers detach from their jump gear and prepare to advance. Far in the distance, a menacing column of German Panzers lumbers toward you. Between these two forces lies the objective: Arnhem bridge. Your mission, capture and hold this vital passage across the Rhine River at all costs. Failure will only prolong an already bloody European campaign. Your forces seize the bridge, but the German armor pounds through before your engineers can properly set up mines. Your rifles are no match against the steel beasts, which shield the German infantry advancing behind them. A call for air support brings acknowledgement, but it may not arrive in time. Do your forces fall back to the town, or do you make a stand at the bridge to the last man? Welcome to Operation Market Garden, one of 16 historical battles offered in EA's multiplayer game, Battlefield 1942.
BF1942 is the latest point of evolution for action games, but to simply call it that would be unfair. Like many first person shooters released over the last few years, the emphasis has been moved from single player heroics to team tactics. While that may adequately describe BF1942, it still would not be fair to stop there. What developer DICE has produced is a role-based, multiplayer, tactical online shooter that you can play with 63 of your closest friends, all of which are packaged beautifully on top of a historical backdrop that offers a wealth of interesting tactical situations. The result is a gaming experience so deep and entertaining, it should appeal to all action gamers, from deathmatchers to the most cunning tacticians. While technical issues, historical inaccuracies, and unit balance problems do exist, they do not stand in the game's way of becoming a landmark title.
While the aforementioned Arnhem bridge situation seems like it may have been scripted or pulled from an airborne soldier's journal, it is only one of many ways in which maps can play out in the game. The Operation Market Garden map is not only designed to mimic geographical considerations that affected the mission, but the map-specific, default units for the Axis and Allied forces also loosely reflect those which were available in that battle. Instead of having game designers concoct maps from the ground up, they have taken historical battles from the Second World War (some famous, others less well known) from four different theaters of the war, and turned them into the 16 included maps. Depending on the theater and map, players can take the side of the American, British, Germans, Japanese, or Russian forces. The variety of climates, terrain, and available units on each map is sure to please everyone:
All maps contain spawn points, which are typically located in areas of strategic value (e.g., hilltop bunkers or bridges), as well as a set number of tickets for each side (each ticket representing one player life). One of three different game types can be played: Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, and Conquest. Deathmatch will no doubt appeal to run-and-gun Quake-heads who are tired of rocket launcher orgies, and would much rather fight gladiator style with a 1940s Thompson submachine gun. Capture the Flag offers a tried and tested game format that involves some tactics, and a lot of head-on collisions. However, the game's strengths are truly revealed when it is played in Conquest mode. When skirmishes take place on Conquest maps, spawn points, initial ticket numbers, and ticket behavior all work together to recreate the conditions that existed for each historical battle. The acquisition of a spawn point not only results in a tactical advantage within the game itself (e.g., you really want to be behind that pillbox machine gun, not in front of it), but holding more of these points than the enemy results in the gradual decline of their tickets. In other words, you don't have to decimate the enemy forces to achieve victory. While today's technology limits the total number of participants to 64 (which is still quite impressive), the possession of strategic points, and the resulting drop in opposing force numbers over time is a clever way of simulating a grand battle that involved many thousands of soldiers.
For each map, the geography, available units, and placement of forces via spawn points have a direct influence on how battles will typically take place. For example, Omaha beach is remembered as one of the bloodiest beach landings in history, and serves as one of the harsher maps on which you can play (particularly for the Allies). The small number and location of spawn points indicates the reality of beach landings: take the beach, overcome the beach defences, then move inland. Flanking maneuvers and air support for such a densely packed area are not options. What was required in reality was an immense about of bravery, combined with a never ending rush of men in the hopes that sheer numbers would eventually overcome the German positions. In the game, the same rules apply. As such, the Allies possess almost no armor, start with a much larger number of tickets (invasion of Europe, anyone?), but hold none of the critical flags. Adhering to the idea that no beach landing can be successful until the beach has actually been taken, the Allied forces begin the map already losing tickets. If they do not take the beach and bunker flags in a timely manner, they may not have enough tickets available to successfully take the final flag, found deep in the neighboring beach town.
Other maps are not so lopsided. On the hilly Kharkov, symmetrical flag placement and terrain, as well as relatively evenly allotted numbers of armor and planes make victory an equally attainable outcome for either the Germans or Russians. Whichever force is better at assaulting bridge or hill positions, and actually holding them, will win in the end.
But enough about the design. How do you get to join the battle? Each theater of war offers players relevant sets of vehicles in which they can fight, and the game designers have tried their best to throw in a proper balance and variety that best represents what the Allies or Axis forces had at their disposal when each battle took place. For example, African maps emphasize tanks, while in Pacific theater maps, armor plays a secondary role to airplanes, infantry, and naval craft. Many of the Western European maps give teams a healthy mix of aircraft and armor, while some of the Eastern European maps, particularly the bloodbath in Berlin, provide very few vehicles, forcing players to take or defend the city on foot.
Mastery of some vehicles, particularly planes, takes practice (perhaps the only good reason to try the single player version of the game), but in general the controls for each vehicle type are very straightforward. Driving a tank or flying a plane in BF1942 is not meant to be comparable to a dedicated tank or airplane simulation. Despite this, each vehicle has its own personality and characteristics that resembles what we know about them (theoretically speaking). Panzer and Sherman tanks motor along at decent speeds, but have guns that are on the smaller side, requiring a couple of direct hits on enemy vehicles to take them out. Tiger tanks on the other hand, are unruly monsters, and are as difficult to destroy as they are to handle. Similar relationships exist with the different aircraft, from the awkward Stuka dive bomber, to the graceful and fast P-51 Mustang. In addition to the vehicles, there are also stationary weapons that players can use, including coastal defense guns, heavy machine guns, and anti-aircraft cannons.
Despite the wealth of available vehicles, and the fact that many players will want to fly planes or drive tanks, infantry roles are just as important and exciting to play. Infantry classes determine your capabilities on the battlefield, and the deficiencies and strengths of each class not only provide a rock-paper-scissors effect in battlefield confrontations, but each class perfectly complements others when used together. It doesn't take long to realize that your ground forces are at their best when it consists of soldiers from every class. Players can choose from one of five classes throughout the game:
Given this diverse set of player classes, vehicles and map variables, it sounds like it could be a recipe for complete chaos. Add to that the fact that these maps are meant to (generally) conform to constraints provided by historical fact (e.g., no, you cannot harvest a whole load of Vespene gas and make a new division of Tiger tanks), you'd be worried that things won't work. However, even on public servers full of strangers, the game still often manages to come together and transform a map into a brilliant struggle.
All it takes is a little collective thought on the part of a team to understand what is required to win. For example, imagine on Battle of the Bulge (my personal favorite map) a couple of German soldiers try to cross one of the bridges, but are gunned down by American soldiers on the other side. The Germans rally, and counter by sending two Panzers across the bridge. The American soldiers can do little with their assault rifles, and the German infantry follow the tanks, using them as shields. The tanks suddenly stop, clogging the entire bridge, as their drivers see land mines scattered at the base of the American side (whose parent engineer is close by, hiding in the woods, watching intently). A German engineer squeezes between the tanks and begins disarming the mines (using that magical wrench), but then is picked off from a distance by an American scout's sniper rifle. Another German engineer pushes through and continues disarming mines, while assault class troops bravely storm forward supported by machine gun fire from the tanks to distract and shield him. The mines are disarmed, the tanks and infantry push through, and a tag-along medic heals the brave engineer, moments before he is killed by the American sniper. This kind of teamwork actually does happen, and demonstrates how well implemented the game roles are.
Each of the infantry classes and vehicle types allow different players with different inclinations to mix things up, and do what they do best. Players who prefer to play on the periphery can choose to be medics, keep an eye on the game map, call in radio commands, and heal their mates. Reckless players will no doubt enjoy the firepower that assault soldiers have at their disposal. Players who enjoy commandeering tanks can choose the engineer class, hopping out to disable enemy mines that block their way, or during lulls, make some repairs with that magical wrench. In essence, the possibilities for cooperative play are abundant. If friendly players are very interested in teamwork through the coordination of flag assaults, use of radio commands, and selection of different classes to match the given situation, the notion of a military force as a cohesive tactical group really shines though.
Granted, there are times when incompetent, inexperienced or grief-inducing players take crucial vehicles and wreak havoc (on Pacific maps, I can't count the number of times I've seen players who "wanna drive the big boat" actually beach a monstrous aircraft carrier or battleship, or accidentally collide with friendly ships, depriving the friendly side of key vehicles). There are also times when players obviously aren't thinking of what is best for their entire team and are motivated by the desire for carnage. I have played on teams where my side would manage to control all the flag points save the main enemy spawn point (which, on some maps cannot be taken), only to have all my team mates flock to it in search of kills. What eventually happens is that opposing forces find rear routes to our captured flags, and retake all of them. Frustrating, indeed.
Despite bloodlust tendencies, and the resulting flanking that can occur, flags do not change hands immediately. Players need to take and hold one for a short period of time before it switches, and players quickly learn that it is wise to either keep a careful watch on all approaches to that flag, or even better, stay behind and remain at that flag to defend it. In addition to this, the player scoreboard is ranked by objective points (mainly awarded for taking flags), not kills, which often emphasizes your role in the team's victory. Players who consistently take and retake flags will be rewarded with a higher ranking than a deathmatcher who has racked up 40 kills, 2 deaths, and no flags. Based on this, it doesn't take long for a team of strangers to realize that they lost because everyone wanted to be a sniper and hide in the woods. The framework for a balanced, strategic game with plenty of action elements definitely exists.
In addition to the enjoyment of the game being dependent on the participants, there are a few problems found in the game, some of which may be worth mentioning, depending on how much of a stickler you are for historical and technical accuracy. First and foremost, despite the fact that you can choose to represent one of five nations, you may not always find yourself in the right place. Weapons are, for the most part, standard across a side. For example, whether you are Japanese or German, your assault soldier will use an STG-45 (a German gun). Or, in the Pacific theater, the American battleship is named HMS Prince of Wales. At the map level, the area in question on Operation Market Garden was actually assaulted by British airborne soldiers, not Americans. Regardless, these issues don't get in the way of gameplay, although it would have been nice if the developers tried a little harder to get their facts straight.
Beyond these superficial problems exist others that do affect game play. First of all, there are the mighty grenades. It seems that, although a tank is and should be a fearsome weapon in the game, a small number of infantry can surround and destroy it by throwing all of their grenades. While I understand that grenades are deadly, it seems unreasonable that two or three bazooka-less infantrymen can consistently take out a tank if they manage to surround it. Another problem centers around the developer's implementation of game physics. The farther away a target is, the higher above them you need to aim. While this particularly applies to snipers, who may be aiming at targets that are very far away, all weapons require that you lead your fire. Although I approve of this idea, it is unfortunately too prevalent at close range. If you charge into a small bunker to find an enemy soldier waiting for you, you should not have to lead your fire at all. Point blank means point blank, no matter where or how fast your target is running. Similarly, the pistol is difficult to use even at close range with a stationary target, even if you crouch or fire prone (both of which allegedly increase accuracy). I'm sure other issues exist that I personally have not experienced, which shows that these "problems" happen in specific cases, which means they do not come close to ruining the game play. Each can be addressed in subsequent bug fixes, so long as the developers pay close attention to the BG1942 community's requests.
As a concept, BF1942 is all that. But how well does it run on typical machines? In theory, EA recommends an 800 MHz processor, 256MB RAM, and a 64 MB video card. Running the game on a 1.2 GHz Athlon, with GeForce 3 Ti200 and 256MB RAM, I found the game felt a bit flaky at times. This wasn't really the case with actual game play (you will need to spend some time experimenting and lowering sound and video quality, and resolutions to find the right balance between aesthetic pleasure and game performance), but map loading and server connect times were painfully slow. Increasing my RAM to 512 MB really cut down these times, but it makes you wonder how the game performs if your system conforms to EA's stated minimum requirements. No thanks.
As far as connection speeds go, my experience with my DSL modem (which inexplicably does not play the game reliably through my Linksys router), and the fact that I simultaneously play with cable modem users who connect to servers a lot faster than I do, I get the impression that playing on anything less than broadband will not give players the experience they need to truly appreciate the game. Considering BF1942 is truly meant to be played online, it seems that a broadband connection will soon be a requirement for similar future games.
Even with medium graphical detail settings, I was thoroughly impressed with the models, textures and lighting of the vehicles, buildings and terrain. The player models look decent (minus the hideously ugly faces), but movement is a bit awkward, especially when you are used to viewing the more refined player model animations in other games. Although I place all emphasis on the game play itself, it certainly helps to be treated to realistic tank models that jostle over hillcrests, slamming back down as you would expect 20 ton beasts would, or authentic looking plane silhouettes soaring overhead. The weather and mood lighting are also decent, although atmospheric effects are not as detailed as other tactical shooters.
The sound, much like the visuals, is quite good, not so much because of each sound effects' quality or authenticity (really, do I really know what an STG-45 sounds like?), but the overall atmosphere created within the game. You can hear the crackling of flames in your damaged vehicle's engine (which is a sign to get the hell out of there), or the distant gunshot echo after you let off a round from your sniper rifle. Perhaps the nicest touch with the game audio are the multilingual radio commands. The game comes with standard radio commands (e.g. "Requesting reinforcements!" or "Defend our position!") in English, German, Russian and Japanese. Accompanying text is still in English for those of us who don't work for the U.N., and for the xenophobic, you can enable all-English sounds so that the Nazis can speak English, just like in the movies.
Despite some of the bugs, balance issues, and heavy system requirements, DICE and EA have created a rich game that takes two themes that are currently quite popular in games today (WWII games, and multiplayer tactical shooters). Despite the glut, it has been packaged in such a way that it feels original and groundbreaking. I would recommend BF1942 to anyone who likes to shoot things when they play games, and strongly recommend it to those who like to shoot and think. They have created a framework in which new maps, vehicles, and weapons can easily be added or refined without disrupting the flow of the game, and with even minimal effort on the part of its participants, the resulting experience is a fine mix of tactics, teamwork, action, and most important, pure fun.
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