Oh for Heaven's sakes - Battlefield 3's not even out yet, and already we're previewing Battlefield 1942. There are 1938 more Battlefields to come first! Oh, wait. Yes, that's right. The start of the series. Got it. So: Brendan Caldwell takes us back to where DICE's war began, and reminisces about being a disgusting coward.
There was a time in first-person-shooter history, believe it or not, when World War II was not The Boring War. Oh, admit it. We all remember it well. “Dubya-dubya-two?” we asked excitedly. “Can’t get enough of it! Gimme some. I said give it to me. I want it.” Then the fatigue set in. Pineapple grenades lost their novelty. German uniforms didn’t give us a rude-on anymore. So we discarded World War II, like a soggy Metro full of old nibs.
Oh, but remember the good times. The French hedgerows, the crumbling grey bunkers. The beaches. The endless, endless beaches. Nothing like a trail of unsaved Private Ryans to soak up the salt, the sea and the atmosphere of intense brutality. Catching some rays by the seaside there, Private? Ah! You cannot be. For it is overcast. Also, you are dead.
Good times, indeed.
For all the atmosphere WWII shooters had and for all the dubious range of emotions they evoked there was one thing about war they often failed to communicate. A sense of scale.
Battlefield 1942 got it right. For this, I adore it.
For anyone who hasn’t got their war on, Battlefield 1942 strayed from the usual campaign driven levels and instead focused on multiplayer and large-scale maps. It popularised the domination mode of shooters in which if you stand around a certain capture point long enough, the flag of your nation will eventually go up on a nearby pole. I would try this in real life to see if it works but the only flagpoles near me right now are in West Belfast. I do not want to change any flags down there. Just like in BF 1942, I risk being shot at by wankers.
This radical switch to huge, open maps was one thing that granted BF 1942 its sense of scale. Corridor shooters like Call of Duty merely gave the illusion of scale – cinematic moments when dozens of soldiers would run across the corpses of the previous wave. The game’s mindset towards the player was that of Stalin towards Nazi invaders. Empty our prisons at them. Make them think we have more fighters than we do. Overwhelm them with numbers.
This is not true scale. It’s impressive and in a corridor shooter is entirely commendable. I’m tempted to say it’s not big or clever. But it is clever. It’s just not big.
Battlefield 1942 is big. In the geography beloved by Unrealists and Quakers multiplayer maps are tight, bright, corner-strewn affairs. All corridors and bottomless pits. Frantic firefights are the desired effect. In the multiplayer of early CoDs and other clones, the design of small levels continued for some reason. The philosophy of ‘many players, few rooms’ was taken for granted. The rooms became half-destroyed farmhouses and the corridors became roads with bocage on either side. But that feeling remained. The feeling of fighting in a confined space, with no strategic impetus apart from ‘kill them Nazis, maggot.’ The action was only slightly bigger – it was action out in the open but it wasn’t open action.
When the silly-massive maps of BF 1942 confronted an often under-populated server of players something wonderful and terrifying happened. The snipers came out en masse. You could not raise your helmet without a snipers bullet coming hurtling toward you and having a strop at your head. How dare your head be fully intact? So, the snipers came out. All of a sudden WWII multiplayer changed. It didn’t feel like a povvo’s Counterstrike anymore. It didn’t feel frantic – it felt tense. It didn’t feel like a sport – it felt like war.
Even smaller city maps like Berlin or Stalingrad became polarised. There were the snipers, then, there were the sniped. Or that’s how it often seemed. By changing the philosophy of map design from ‘few rooms, many players’ to ‘open stretches, many dickheads’ BF 1942 was fully prepared to slam its next big contribution to the FPS down – the domination mode.
Kills don’t count for much in any domination mode, unless they’re helping you to capture or defend important points. So multiplayer started to realise, with BF 1942, that war was not about killing your opponent but about killing your opponent if it suits you. (It usually does. But still.) War isn’t a mindless rampage through a few corridors. War is standing back for a second and thinking, “Okay, what the hell do I do now? What’s my objective?”
That’s the question – what’s my objective? The first WWII game to make me stop and think for a second – to think about war seriously – was not the cinematic, trying-to-be-more-meaningful-than-it-was Call of Duty. It was Battlefield 1942. When confronted with a dozen snipers, death and a long respawn at every hilltop (and a voice crying “The enemy has taken our position!”) you will eventually ask yourself that question: what’s my objective?
Turns out mine was to stay alive. Always. Surviving always came before killing. The more likely I was to die by running towards a firefight, the less likely I was to do it. I play as a coward in shooters because that’s how I’d be in war. Everybody else thinks it’s weird. They get combat high. I get evasion high.
To present to you, ladies and gentlemen, the odd thing: it works. I’m not bullshitting, here. Cowardice as an FPS strategy works. In team deathmatch it’s the kill-to-death ratio that counts. The obvious choice is concentrate on killing and worry about dying after that. But the opposite works as well. Minimise your deaths and then pop a few cheeky shots off here and there when necessary. Madness, you say? I’m role-playing this, homes. Get over it. So long as your kill-to-deathio stays high, you’re not letting your team down.
But it’s in the domination mode that Battlefield 1942 is loved for that the Coward’s strategy pays off best in. You see, all the snipers? They played the exact same strategy. Keep your head down, your deaths low and role play as Vasily Zaytsev. So the only way to counter it was to do the same and sneak up around them. Your kill-to-death ratio counts for squits. In the end, it’s whichever coward raises the flag that matters.
That’s what made BF 1942 so good. It didn’t just have scale. It had strategic scale. Okay, it wasn’t as Spartan as Operation Flashpoint or ArmA 2. It didn’t terrorise you with planning and it didn’t demand perfect execution. But that was never its goal and it was never my goal. Despite tiring of every CoDpiece, I still want to play war – not simulate it.
Between hardcore strategic simulators and tight traditional shooters, Battlefield 1942 presented the perfect middle ground. It was a ground wide open, caught within a dozen sniper’s crosshairs. One of which, I am no longer ashamed to say, was mine.