I was playing Borderlands yesterday, and an enemy dived behind some cover. Naturally, I pull out a missile launcher and squeeze off a rocket. As the smoke clears, something strange happens. The cover is still there, untouched by the explosive death I spat at it. It stands, defiant and unmarked. This is what Battlefield: Bad Company 2 does to you. It ruins everything else.
If you look back at pretty much any FPS in recent memory, and make a quick check of all the weapons that should have blown big chunks of masonry around, and didn't, it's a pretty long list. It's enough of a list to make me feel a little reluctant to go to a world pre-Frostbite. It's enough of a thing that it's going to mess with people's preconceptions of future games. Hell, it's done enough to mess with my memories of past games.
The Battlefield games have always done war pretty well. Bad Company 2 exudes war brilliantly. There's so much attention paid to creating the feel of combat here that everything else pales in comparison. Sure, ArmA 2 might get the fidelity and pace of war perfectly, but it's not catering to the Hollywood ideal of deafening explosions, blinding dust and the pure frenetic adrenaline of being inches from death constantly. The Modern Warfare games managed to do a pretty good job of creating the illusion of that feeling, with all it's particle effects and the constant attack from all sides, but it was a thin veneer; you take a closer look at it and the whole thing starts to fall apart.
Bad Company 2 nails everything about it. You dive behind cover, and a grenade turns it into so much detritus and dust. So you run for a building, only to hear the gargantuan moan of it as it finally gives up and comes crashing down, the ceiling and floor creating a sandwich with you as the gooey centre. Bad Company 2 creates the idea of war, the cinematic caricature, just as we want it to be.
Other things support this: the sound work, for example, is masterful, and it sells the experience. There's a moment in the first level where you walk into a submarine bay, and the submachine gun you'd been toting for the earlier parts, which had been vindictively spitting out bullets suddenly becomes a roaring monster of a weapon, each round sounding as if it's fired from a medieval cannon. The acoustics, you see, they actually have an effect.
Hellicopters are deafening. The crack of a tank cannon is enough to pop the eardrums of anyone standing nearby. And that high-pitched ear-ringing aftershock of a grenade that just went off nearby is something you'll have to become very, very used to. It's not that the game is full of people lobbing grenades; it's more that it's full of enough people, lobbing enough grenades to have at least a few land near you each game.
And the dust, oh the dust. There's dust in Bad Company 2. Enough that the one desert map makes seeing anything beyond about ten or twenty feet nearly impossible if anyone or anything has walked past in the last few hours. A grenade goes off and throws up a cloud of dust. A missile hits a building, and the whole place is choked with it. When mortar strikes, well... Not that you really care about seeing when a dozen high impact, high explosive shells are detonating around you.
When I last wrote about Bad Company 2 I focused enough on the destructibility offered by the Frostbite engine. The big difference now that the game has been released is that there are considerably more maps, and there are enough of them that offer far more populated residential areas that the destruction is that much more impressive. Atica Harbour, a map that moves from motorpool to town, to bridge, to industrial district, is perhaps the best example. As soon as you reach the town and the tanks go to, erm, town, the whole place becomes a meat grinder, with each of the classes abilities strained so far that you can only just survive, let alone kill anything.
When I think about how BC2 engenders team play the closest rival that comes to mind is Team Fortress 2. There's a structure and level of thought that places each of the four classes in a specific role that really works. The Assault class has the assault rifles, and is thus a good all rounder for helping whereever. And with his ammo box, he needs to be near everyone else to keep them stocked up. The medic has a light machine gun, meaning he stands a little further back, able to rush forward and revive anyone who drops, and spew out medkits to keep those around him alive.
The Engineer has submachine guns, missile launchers and the repair tool, so obviously he acts in the dual roles of supporting vehicles and taking out the opposition armour. And finally the Recon has the sniper rifle. So people climb up hills and buildings and take potshots at other people. People who can't see them. People who sigh when they get shot, and wait to respawn. Oh, and sometimes they drop mortar strikes on you, as if that wasn't enough. So basically, when they called it 'Recon', they basically meant 'Dick'.
It's okay though, because they're rarely at the top of the leaderboard. Where Team Fortress 2 made you play your class by making it only natural given the tools you have, BC2 does it through scoring/xp. Engineers get points by repairing their vehicles and taking out the enemy equivalent. Medics can wrack up insane numbers of points by resuscitating and healing, and the assault can do rather nicely by restocking their mates with ammo. Even the Recon gets an equivalent enabling tool, in the motion tracking mine, which marks enemy troop positions for your friends to take advantage on. The problem being that if you're a sniper up a hill, you're not close enough to throw one anywhere it would be any use.
So basically, the person at the top of the scoreboard is the person who's played their class the most effectively. They're the guys who healed the most teammates, or blew up the most enemy tanks, or kept the front line supplied with ammo. Basically, they're not the people who are best with their guns, but the people best at helping their friends. And that's an important dynamic.
This is still Battlefield. Just because it's got a different subtitle doesn't mean anything's significantly changed. A lot of the flab of the previous game has been removed, with the bloated six class system replaced with something far more streamlined and versatile. This is still the game that's going to provide you with the best war stories this year. It's still a game that allows you to electrocute someone to death with defibrillators. Or maybe drill them to death with power tools. It's a game that allows you to place tracer darts on infantrymen and then track a missile onto them. It's a game that allows the gunner of a Black Hawk get hit by a tracer dart, realise what's happened, then bail out and save millions of pounds of equipment by sacrificing himself.
And that's the kind of game I want to play.