Codename Eagle: Reflections On The Real Battlefield 1

Charlie Brooker and an atrocious Bust-a-Move port was all that stood between Codename: Eagle and dubious distinction in the bumper Christmas 1999 edition of PC Zone. If it hadn’t been for Puzzle Bobble 2 and Mr Brooker’s merciless demolition of it (“Pay money for this abysmal conversion and you may as well phone up the publishers and ask them to come round and piss in your eyes.”) the game that inadvertently spawned the Battlefield franchise would have received the issue’s lowest rating – 45%. Spooked by that score, it’s taken me sixteen years to get around to trying Refraction’s conveyance-crammed FPS. After a weekend of biplane trashing, airship hijacking, and wolf stabbing I now understand why Zone described CE as “a game of missed opportunities”. I also understand why the blood-spattered Battlefield 1 trailer isn’t aquiline enough for some.

Codename: Eagle dodged insensitivity accusations by treating WWI as a flea market rather than a theme park. Just about the only useful thing potential purchasers could learn from the staggeringly unhelpful print ads that accompanied the low-key release was that the game was set in a parallel universe where European peace was threatened by a warmongering Russian Tsar rather than a warmongering German Kaiser.

The smudged setting left the Swedish devs free to fool about with interesting early 20th Century tech such as airships, biplanes, machine guns, and tanks, confident that thoughtful commentators wouldn’t spend half their previews or reviews pillorying them for trivialising tragedy or distorting popular perceptions. Those discordant Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen load-screen quotes – that dutiful All Quiet on the Western Front-referencing cutscene with the barbed wire and the butterfly – all unnecessary thanks to a tasteful sidestep into alternate history.

I like the fact that I can play CE without wondering whether my great-grandfather – one of the hundreds of thousands lost without trace on the Western Front – would think less of me for playing it. At no point does the game award me bonus points or new toys for gleefully bludgeoning an enemy to death with an entrenching tool or a nail-studded club. In fact trench warfare is entirely absent from the twelve story missions.

The closest Refraction’s artificers and level designers come to courting controversy is dotting levels with knapsack flamethrowers and poison gas grenade launchers. Even then, dark historical associations are kept at bay by the accompanying environments (checkpoints, factories, airfields, moving trains…) and the absurd Biggles-with-bells-on feel of most of the missions.

If a dam’s got to be breached, a defector rescued, a document pinched or a zeppelin deflated, you’re the chap with the capacious pockets, talent for commandeering enemy vehicles, and aggravating inability to crouch or lean that ‘Shadow Command’ invariably send for. There are times when maps and objectives bring to mind Hidden & Dangerous and No One Lives Forever, but CE can’t do ambience, audio or AI nearly as well as either of those millennium marvels. Rural environments feel too bare, too angular, enemies too bewildered and self-destructive.

You persevere with the so-so solo gunplay because the sentry-topping is interspersed with entertaining puzzles (Work out a way to deactivate the electric fence. Find vodka to bribe the truck driver. Obtain the key to the compound gate….) and because, at least once every op, there’s the opportunity to joyride something wheeled or winged.

Without its stealable AFVs, aerodynes, boats, bikes and trucks Codename: Eagle would have been forgotten faster than the Supermarine’s Spitfire’s ponderous predecessor or Britain’s strangest steam loco. The worst moments in single-player are dismounted encounters with zigzagging wolves and guard dogs; the best, frantic armoured car dashes, bruising tank duels, and hairy biplane escapes. The physics and damage models are just about sophisticated enough to make speeding across undulating terrain interesting and using heavily damaged rides as impromptu guided missiles possible. The joy of the perfectly-timed ejection or miraculous moving vehicle switch was experienced by CE players long before it was known to the Battlefield fraternity.

Until the first patch reined in some of their churlish tendencies, CE aircraft could be uncooperative swines especially when controlled with a mouse. As there are non-negotiable story episodes involving dogfights, bridge attacks, take-offs from cramped airfields, and carrier landings, it’s easy to understand why some reviewers lost patience. Scripting bugs and relatively short view ranges didn’t help CE make a good first impression either.

In one of the story’s most demanding sections, a plane carrying Nicholas II’s daughter to safety must be protected from marauding interceptors while flying along a snaking valley. A kinder dev would have given duffers the option of playing the mission from the flak car of an armoured train or the air-gunner’s seat of an AI controlled biplane. Refraction insist you go aloft in a light-as-a-feather S.E.5a lookalike with limited ammo and a flea-tiny first-person crosshair.

Sampling CE’s massively influential deathmatch, team contests, and capture the flag hasn’t been easy since the demise of GameSpy. As with the bug fixes and flight handling improvements, the game’s multiplayer renaissance arrived a little too late to influence many of the early review scores. By the time a couple of patches had increased server stability, raised headcounts, and introduced multi-crewing and new vehicles like the zeppelin, destroyer and autogyro, CE’s obscurity was all but guaranteed. It would take new investment (Refraction were bought by DICE early in 2000) a more marketable theme, and a snappier title to turn a cult success into a mainstream multi-million pound franchise…

While I’m not surprised that DICE have decided to tackle the Great War head-on in their next undertaking, I am a tad disappointed. Codename: Eagle’s alternate history approach wouldn’t have impacted the unusual vehicle and weapon chemistry the devs are clearly eager to explore, yet might have prevented the words ‘WWI’ and ‘fun’ becoming inextricably linked in the minds of countless impressionable youngsters.

For complicated and not wholly logical reasons the 1914-18 conflict enjoys a special reputation in countries like Britain. It functions as a totem – a constant reminder of the horrendous cost and reality of war. The entertainers and artists that plunder the Great War for plots and characters tend to do so respectfully… sympathetically. I suspect the my adverse reaction to the Battlefield 1 trailer is rooted in fear, fear that one of the very few truly potent anti-war counterweights at work in British society today is under attack from a company happy to put profit generation and punter gratification before social responsibility and respect for the dead. I hope DICE prove me wrong and do something empathetic and genuinely educational with Battlefield 1 but from the way that trailer lingers lovingly on bloody trench-club attacks and swirling mustard gas clouds you’ll have to forgive me if I remain sceptical for the time being.

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  1. Haplo says:

    Many things that are understandable via cultural context can look silly and arbitrary when looked at from an unknowing, outside perspective.

    I'm Australian, and we share our attitude of the Great War with the British. Possibly even moreso, because the Great War is seen as the moment when Australia became a 'mature' nation, but only through what's perceived as the senseless sacrifice of 50,000 young men fighting a war on the other side of the world for a war that doesn't even seem to make the category of 'necessary evil'.

    If you want to put it into numbers, then the British as a whole lost 700,000 fighting men in the Great War with another 1.6 million wounded; the French lost 1.1 million fighting men with 4.2 million more wounded. For Britain that's 5% of the population directly affected; for France it's 13%.

    By comparison, Britain's casualties in WW2 were 383,700 killed; for France it was 210,000 fighting men killed with 390,000 civilian deaths. The French have pretty dim views of WW2 for pretty obvious reasons, and the Germans moreso, not least of which because German casualties in WW2 numbered over 10% of the entire population between military and civilian losses. There's going to be plenty of people in Germany who view using WW2 as a source for a video game to be distasteful. It's the same reason why Hearts of Iron acts as a WW2 military simulator but doesn't touch, for example, ethnic cleansing, the genocide and the Holocaust.

    But back to WW1. Look back at those losses; with so many dead and wounded in Britain and France, there was practically no one in those respective countries who wasn't adversely affected by the war, either going to it themselves or having a friend or family member go to the war. It was especially traumatic in some parts of Britain, for example, which operated using the 'pals battalion' programme, where men who volunteered together were grouped together under the same battalion, so they'd go into battle with schoolmates and friends. When these battalions suffered heavy losses- as many did- then the impact at home was for a town or village or suburb to suddenly lose not just one or two people, but what felt like the entire new generation in one fell swoop. Pals battalion recruitment ended after the Somme and many of them were dispersed.

    Plenty of it's a hindsight perspective too. It's natural to want to hope that so many lost and ruined lives were at least lost for a good reason, but generally looking at WW1 one the perception is that it was several brutal years of war that ended in the collapse of effective government between the Danube and the Volga, humiliated nations for no good purpose, worsened the spread of the Spanish Flu, arbitrarily carved up the Middle East, was followed in ten years by the Great Depression and in twenty by another vicious world war.

    Just about every culture is going to feel sensitive and upset at the appropriation of a war for a video game, depending on the war. There's probably not much chance of your 'modern war' games with Westerners on campaign in the Middle East being hugely popular in the Middle East, the same way Russians often become aggravated at the portrayal of the Great Patriotic War in games and media.

    WW1 is that war for Britain, France and the Commonwealth realms. You're entirely welcome to challenge it and list reasons as to why it's myopic and rigid. But it's still a moment of intense cultural trauma that makes entire sense within that (and my own) culture, and calling it silly and arbitrary does no one any favours.
  1. Rogerio Martins says:

    I remember this game, it was so incredibly bad, even at the time.

  2. MrUnimport says:

    I’m not unsympathetic to the loss of an anti-war cultural touchstone, but shouldn’t we be trying to educate the public instead that there is no such thing as a good war, only a necessary one?

    • Rogerio Martins says:

      No, war is awesome.

    • Antongranis says:

      Every sane person already knows that. In regards to the piecie, i think it is very silly to equate making popcorn-entertainment out of ww1, with disrespecting The dead. Its not going to affect The public wiew of war one little bit.

      People are mature enough to see The diffrence betwen entertainment from real-world horor.

      Untill VR gets to a point where it is exactly like reality, star-trek style, i dont think The argument holds any Water.

      • Dilapinated says:

        That’s the thing, though; People aren’t, and it’s not really a matter of maturity so much as one of acknowledging the impact of media upon a culture (and visa versa).

        For a direct counterpoint, you need only look at the videogame tie-ins the US Army has used as recruitment tools, the use of game technology in combat, and the use of games to recruit in person (“Shoot these digital Middle Eastern Baddies from the back of a military vehicle. Fun? Come join us for the real thing!” has been an actual recruitment method the US Army has peddled in the past)

        The linking of games, movies & TV with the cultural perspective on modern conflicts is a lot more widespread than direct recruitment, though. You need only look at the wash of post-Iraq media that poured out of America in the 2000’s/2010’s to see a culture struggling to justify itself to itself.

    • Gap Gen says:

      On tyrants only we’ll make war

  3. BlueRaja says:

    The singleplayer sucked, but the multiplayer was epic. The best part was the amazing custom maps, a feature even current-day Battlefield is missing.

  4. A Gentleman and a Taffer says:

    AH. never heard of this, but the Battlefield 1 announcement also reminded me of an alternate history WW1 game: .

    I remember enjoying the demo but never played the full game. It’s a bit of a cliche but yeah, the alternate history approach would give you all the toys without the historical baggage.

    • A Gentleman and a Taffer says:

      Oops, html coding fail! The game was Iron Storm. Link above!

      • unacom says:

        Iron Storm warrants it´s own “have you played…?”
        It was good…and atrocious at the same time. But this should be dicsussed then and there, i think.

  5. treat says:

    The single player really was atrocious, not that I’d know since I’ve never made it through the 3rd level without crashing. The multiplayer was/is incredible fun despite the jankiness. CE has been a staple of every LAN party I’ve attended in the last 15 years. It’s the only game guaranteed to be played at a LAN throughout my circle of friends and has always blown Battlefield away in the metrics of sheer fun, hijinks and hilarious stunts.
    To anyone just now giving CE a try, be sure to open the console and plug in ‘viewdist_2000’ and ‘mousesens_15’

    • Gus the Crocodile says:

      Yeah, this game was always a star back in my LAN-going days. Loading bikes into the zeppelin for dramatic airborne dives, only to be killed by someone parachuting in on top, it was fantastic.

      Until someone flew that same zeppelin into the level geometry and the whole server ground to a halt.

  6. Jimbo says:

    The strafe-swimming in this game never stopped being funny to me.

  7. Flatley says:

    Perhaps it’s because I’m not British, but I don’t buy this idea that “pillaging” WWI is somehow worse than pillaging WWII, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Operation(s) Always in Afghanistan/Iraq, the American Civil War, the American Revolutionary War, the Napoleonic Wars, anything from the Medieval era, the Roman Era, or any potential future wars that might occur. It’s just a bit silly and arbitrary.

    If I was someone who was genuinely Worried About This Sort of Thing, I’d say that the most troublesome aspect of modern military gaming is the recent fascination with “modern day” conflicts (as others have noted, this generally amounts to “highly equipped Western forces shooting up hordes of Iraqis/Afghans/non-descript fictionalized Arabs”), and the trend of adolescent kids going to school with “Modern Warfare 3” shirts on, getting this idea that they were just a step removed from bona fide Seal Team 6 or Special Air Service operators owing to their ability to pull a left trigger followed by a right trigger.

    Maybe Battlefield 3 or Battlefield 4 would have been the place to spill all this ink, instead of a century-old conflict that exists in the living memory of only a very few. I just don’t see it.

    • Haplo says:

      Many things that are understandable via cultural context can look silly and arbitrary when looked at from an unknowing, outside perspective.

      I’m Australian, and we share our attitude of the Great War with the British. Possibly even moreso, because the Great War is seen as the moment when Australia became a ‘mature’ nation, but only through what’s perceived as the senseless sacrifice of 50,000 young men fighting a war on the other side of the world for a war that doesn’t even seem to make the category of ‘necessary evil’.

      If you want to put it into numbers, then the British as a whole lost 700,000 fighting men in the Great War with another 1.6 million wounded; the French lost 1.1 million fighting men with 4.2 million more wounded. For Britain that’s 5% of the population directly affected; for France it’s 13%.

      By comparison, Britain’s casualties in WW2 were 383,700 killed; for France it was 210,000 fighting men killed with 390,000 civilian deaths. The French have pretty dim views of WW2 for pretty obvious reasons, and the Germans moreso, not least of which because German casualties in WW2 numbered over 10% of the entire population between military and civilian losses. There’s going to be plenty of people in Germany who view using WW2 as a source for a video game to be distasteful. It’s the same reason why Hearts of Iron acts as a WW2 military simulator but doesn’t touch, for example, ethnic cleansing, the genocide and the Holocaust.

      But back to WW1. Look back at those losses; with so many dead and wounded in Britain and France, there was practically no one in those respective countries who wasn’t adversely affected by the war, either going to it themselves or having a friend or family member go to the war. It was especially traumatic in some parts of Britain, for example, which operated using the ‘pals battalion’ programme, where men who volunteered together were grouped together under the same battalion, so they’d go into battle with schoolmates and friends. When these battalions suffered heavy losses- as many did- then the impact at home was for a town or village or suburb to suddenly lose not just one or two people, but what felt like the entire new generation in one fell swoop. Pals battalion recruitment ended after the Somme and many of them were dispersed.

      Plenty of it’s a hindsight perspective too. It’s natural to want to hope that so many lost and ruined lives were at least lost for a good reason, but generally looking at WW1 one the perception is that it was several brutal years of war that ended in the collapse of effective government between the Danube and the Volga, humiliated nations for no good purpose, worsened the spread of the Spanish Flu, arbitrarily carved up the Middle East, was followed in ten years by the Great Depression and in twenty by another vicious world war.

      Just about every culture is going to feel sensitive and upset at the appropriation of a war for a video game, depending on the war. There’s probably not much chance of your ‘modern war’ games with Westerners on campaign in the Middle East being hugely popular in the Middle East, the same way Russians often become aggravated at the portrayal of the Great Patriotic War in games and media.

      WW1 is that war for Britain, France and the Commonwealth realms. You’re entirely welcome to challenge it and list reasons as to why it’s myopic and rigid. But it’s still a moment of intense cultural trauma that makes entire sense within that (and my own) culture, and calling it silly and arbitrary does no one any favours.

      • popej says:

        Sterling words matey.

      • Zephro says:

        Excellent point! PS Grizzly linked it on the forum.

        You can point to a whole load of social/cultural things post WW1 about how the Belle Epoque and the order that went with it was destroyed even in the “winning” countries. The decline in domestic service, the changes in literature, the enfranchisement of women and the working classes, changes in unemployment, the first socialist governments etc. In addition.

      • SteelCowboy says:

        Outstanding post.

        I would add that, as mentioned in another article on RPS, our perception of WW1 is colored by the literature surrounding it. Nearly all of the poetry and prose about the war, written from any perspective, is about loss, grief, and the grinding tragedy of modern war.

        Video games are this generation’s poetry. Poetry boils down complex subjects into emotionally evocative bits of writing. Similarly, games evoke emotional response by placing the player in the situation.

        With that in mind, one of the best things a war game can do is try to encompass more than a simple antiwar message. We all know war is bad. For those of us who were over there, “bad” is only part of a spectrum of complex emotions though.

        War is also exhilarating, in a guilty sort of way. It’s a series of dichotomies. Youre proud of your accomplishments one moment, and remembering the violence of those accomplishments the next. Experiencing war is unsettling because we, as human beings, really do like parts of it. It’s why we celebrate the ace pilots and special operators.

        While I don’t hold any hope that Battlefield 1 will do this, it would be nice if it could evoke those concepts more eloquently than I have. Hit a man with an entrenching tool, to save yourself and your buddies, but then have to watch that man die in 1080p. Feel the exhilaration but also the loss. We have the technology to truly teach people a little of what it feels like to be over there, wherever the next “there” is.

      • PancakeWizard says:

        You’re Australian, so you may not have seen it but try to source the BBC series The Village. Should be of interest to you.

      • Flatley says:

        Good stuff, and I’m certainly aware of the import of WWI in Commonwealth nations, but I’m also always going to side against any notion that a content creator (I don’t want to go so far as to say “artist” in the case of DICE and Battlefield 1) should treat a particular subject in a certain way, other than the way in which they see fit.

        Battlefield 1 will almost certainly not be a game to have anything important to say about the war, but it might be a game that can introduce people to the war in a way that only a game can. (As Mr. Whitaker noted, of course.) An alternate history type of setting would really ruin that opportunity.

        I’ll give you an example that still pisses me off: Six Days in Fallujah. A group of US Marines (I was a US Marine between 2006 and 2010) asked the developers at Atomic Games to make a game based in their experiences during the Battle of Fallujah. It was developed based on interviews with not only the Marines, but with Iraqi civilians and insurgents from that battle. It was supposed to be more of a “survival horror” game than a shooter, which is really a more accurate description of life as a combat infantryman anyway.

        As we know, it was cancelled due to the public outcry. (Much of it British, by the way, rather than from the US.) It might be released someday, but I’m not holding out hope. Now, was it “too soon” to be releasing a game about the 2004 Battle of Fallujah in 2009? Of course it was. But guess what: It was actual veterans of that battle who wanted their story told. It’s always easier for everyone to give a cheap “thank you for your service” rather than actually be confronted with what happened over there, as told by the people who were over there.

        As another poster said, video games are this generation’s poetry; the obvious difference being that poems are written alone and presented as finished work, while video games are developed over the course of years in full view of the public. BF1 will probably be a very bad “poem,” as far as artistic merit goes, but I’m still going to bristle at suggestions that it somehow obfuscate its subject matter just to appeal to sensibilities of a certain culture.

      • Ancient Evil says:

        What an utterly fantastic post. You did a really good job explaining why the British and Commonwealth perspectives on WWI could seem befuddling to Americans like me.

        From an American perspective, the numbers could look like this:
        US total military deaths, WW1: 116,708
        US total military deaths, WW2: 407,300
        WW1 global deaths (military and civilian): 15,436,261 to 18,407,800
        WW2 global deaths (military and civilian): 70,000,000 to 85,000,000

        Unless they were specifically considering things from a British / Commonwealth perspective, you can see why Americans could think it makes no sense that WW1 would be more taboo to mine for entertainment than WW2.

  8. BootLace says:

    Had some great CE MP moments. My BF: Vietnam hobbyist review was essentially me wishing they’d do a modernised CE.
    link to web.archive.org
    “This game featured a decent single player story based campaign” definitely a lie though, I think I spent 10min in SP :)

  9. Phasma Felis says:

    I love that fourth image. It’s like one of those “Two Monks” bits from The Toast.

    MONK #1: What do medieval castle-folk sit on?
    MONK #2: Giant wooden benches, held together with foot-wide iron bands every three feet
    MONK #1: But how do they bands stay on?
    MONK #2: With big-ass bolts, duh
    MONK #1: Oh, right, right, that makes sense
    MONK #2: Also the iron is super rusty
    MONK #1: Oh, of course, naturally

  10. AbyssUK says:

    Codename Eagle!
    I played a lot of the multiplayer as yes the single player was awful. Battlefield 1, will take itself far to seriously to be any were near as fun and fluid as CE, for instance the tanks in CE the turruts turned as fast as your mouse could make therm move, I highly doubt the battlefield realism police would allow such nonsense :)
    (Hey if any of the old CE crew are reading this, Yeah it’s me that AbyssUK :) )

    I think WW1 is also the first real war in the modern world which “big media” had a go at, news papers were in decent circulation in europe so more people got to actual hear at least something about the war and ever saw pictures of its horrors. So it became almost the first public modern war.

    • Jackablade says:

      Battlefield 1942 had the same rapid turret movement. It’s particularly fun if you have a graphic tablet plugged in as you can spin the turret at full speed indefinitely and try to whack people with it.

  11. GAmbrose says:

    Speaking of PC Zone, if anyone can find me their amazing review of Star Trek: Final Unity I will love you forever.

  12. denizsi says:

    I have far more ethical problems with games using contemporary (or future) conflicts as a background for mass-consumption. Homefront series where NORTH KOREANS! invade USA or countless games where the GOOD GUYS FROM THE WESTERN WORLD go to extraordinary lengths to blow shit up and murder unnamed nobodies in the NON-WEST BACKWARDS COUNTRY. If the concern is that the use of The Great War (or WW2) can lead to an unempathetic consumption of past events and lessen their memory, their impact in collective conscious, the lessons to be gleamed from them, then the kinds of games I reference already lessen far-away people (from a western perspective) into disposable nobodies, trivializing or completely omitting the decisions that the western world makes over the rest of the world and their impacts, helping to ingrain and maintain a comfortable xenophobia and political indifference and rendering any event -even if on the other side of the world- to solely about how it affected themselves, repercussions for the rest be damned? How many times do we get to experience that kind of experience, or portrayal, from the opposite end of the spectrum -and take it seriously the way western works expect to be taken seriously?

    Not to be meant as an attack on what you find touchy, obviously.