Battlefield: Bad Company 2
Firstly, how come the guy on the front cover of Battlefield: Bad Company 2 hasn't noticed he's on fire? He must've had the finest military training on the planet. Plus, it's got to be false advertising: are they really going to make Immolated Marine a class? Nobody at DICE would confirm or deny.
I'm reminded that the soldier on the front cover is not the reason for my visit. No, I'm in a darkened London room (more of a big shed, actually) to experience Bad Company 2's multiplayer component, which DICE are quick to label as the main developmental focus of the game. That comes as no surprise - an interested multiplayer fan base is a developer's dream come true, and you only have to look at the money Activision raked in over the Call of Duty: World at War Map Packs to see why. Let's not forget that DICE started, and have spent most of their time, as a multiplayer studio (this is only their third game with a singleplayer experience), and listening to their members of staff talk about the game makes it abundantly clear there's a lot of passion in the Swedish team for the online side of gaming.
What's new, then? The tone, for a start, fancies itself as something a bit more serious than the Three-Kings-inspired outlandish camaraderie of the first game. This carries over to the multiplayer, with a new washed-out aesthetic adding a striking visual touch, portraying a disparate overcast white sky with tired sandy terrain. The map - the one also included with the upcoming beta - is Arica Harbour, and it's peppered with nice little touches, such as the road signs all being clearly written in Spanish. It's a surprisingly vast map, smaller in scope than Battlefield's ubiquitous Wake Island but heftier than what's generally seen in online multiplayer on consoles. And it has tanks.
It has all sorts of vehicles, actually. The skies are filled with planes and helicopters, jeeps and hummers zoom about to ferry troops and pester enemy infantry, and the new UAV nips ahead to scout the other team but (expectedly) lacks the offensive capabilities to get by in a pinch. They've all been tweaked slightly from their last outing, with the smaller vehicles tending to go a little faster and the bigger ones packing a bit more wallop. It's better for the gameplay, the man at DICE reminds me.
It all looks impressive. DICE's Frostbite engine speeds along at a steady 30fps whilst providing gargantuan amounts of visual and aural feedback. The weapon sounds are still unbeaten, so they sound phenomenal, and the environment around you crumbles over and underneath players with alarming, but impressive, regularity. The traditional Battlefield style of gameplay, of having the constant bustle of player-controlled tanks and aircraft passing by, feels more alive in Bad Company 2 than in the original. It's all about cramming more Battlefield into the new Battlefield game. I tell the man from DICE he can have that one for free.
Terrain annihilation - the game sports the new Destruction 2.0 engine - is still a big element, and remains an intriguing feature. It allows for plenty of crafty moments: one fantastic example during my time with the beta was when I realised an enemy soldier had got the drop on me from inside a house, but before he could take me out an allied tank burst straight through the wall of the building and mashed him up under its treads. Glorious, and still rarely seen in games - with the exception of Red Faction.
It had been a while since I'd braved a Battlefield game, so I spend most of my time with the recognisably bread-and-butter Assault class, who comes equipped (by default) with an XM8, M9 and a - how on Earth does he carry it all? - Grenade Launcher. Medics and Engineers also prove vital for necessary infantry and vehicle healing duties, respectively, and the Recon class is all about the sniping, a role undoubtedly taken up in most public games by 'that guy who hates playing in a team.' The mode on display was called Rush, which involved an attacking American force pushing through the Chilean desert capturing points and progressing towards an industrial Russian base. They're trying to stop that from happening, as you might have already guessed.
The huge maps give snipers good opportunities in most outdoor situations, but if all of Bad Company 2's maps are designed in a similar fashion to Arica Harbour then the most valuable classes will differ depending on how far into a match players are: vehicles and snipers prove invaluable in the map's early stages, but as the offensive team push further into defended territory then a stronger infantry bias seems to be preferred. It keeps everyone on their toes, and astute players will undoubtedly learn to swap around load-outs and classes to take advantage of any given situation, which should give them something to be happy about whilst they pull down the big numbers to grind up some fancy stats.
Stats are a big deal these days, of course, along with levels, fancy pins, shiny insignias and all that jazz. Wanting to keep up with the crowd - although it could easily be argued they kicked off the trend years ago with Battlefield 2 - DICE have ensured that persistent online levels are in, and levelling up brings new bits and bobs to use in your ever-expanding arsenal. It's Battlefield by way of Call of Duty, although that's hardly a bad thing.
But how does it all play? It's hectic, with the ability to spawn on the frontlines guaranteeing no break in the action for both sides. Vehicles, as is the Correct Battlefield Way, are able to chew through infantry with no problems, are susceptible to rockets but not grenades, and a single tank placed in an advantageous position can mow down an unprepared group in a couple of seconds. Infantry, specifically the engineers, can fight back - but it's very much a case of co-ordinating a team to work effectively together. Depending on how you see it, that could either a blessing or a curse.
Bad Company 2 certainly talks the talk, and my time with the game was definitely satisfying, but DICE are keen to stress it's still very much in beta. One thing that's hard to gauge at the moment is just how well the netcode will work. It's likely to be entirely satisfactory - the first Bad Company set an excellent, underrated precedent - but, of course, even DICE aren't entirely satisfied yet. Amusingly it crashed in spectacular fashion on us once, leaving the poor DICE representative looking all sheepish as he had to call his pals in Sweden to sort it out. Hence the beta, presumably - which is being offered to PS3 users now, and to PC owners in December and, last but not least, 360 owners in January 2010. You'll have to snag a key from somewhere to get in, but it'll be well worth your time.
Battlefield: Bad Company 2 is released for PS3, 360 and PC on 5rd March 2010.