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Battlefield 1942


Overview

Battlefield 1942 (BF1942) is a game long-awaited by many. I was very intrigued by articles I read during its development, and I think pretty much everyone in the gaming community was blown away by the movies distributed via the Internet. The game has garnered largely positive reviews, and it does offer a lot. At the end of the day, though, I don't think it's all that it's cracked up to be for reasons I'll make clear in the sections that follow.

Analysis

Visuals

Some have ragged on the graphics in BF1942, but I think they're just fine. This is the era of Unreal Tournament 2003 (UT2k3), so most of us are getting pretty jaded when it comes to eye candy. It's true that BF1942 doesn't have the unbelievable effects of UT2k3, but it looks more than good enough to get the job done.

The modeling and animation are particularly noteworthy, in fact, because they lend a great deal to the game. Vehicles are so well done that when an enemy fighter comes at you, for example, it's hard not to stand there and gawk at how good it looks, how realistically it seems to fly around. The textures are good, the level of detail is very good considering the number of players that can join a game, and everything looks very nice.

I have only one complaint about the visuals: I can't run them at 1280 x 1024 x 32 bpp. I don't know why, but that resolution option is simply unavailable to me. Pretty much every other resolution in the book is available from 640 x 480 x 16 bpp to 1600 x 1200 x 32 bpp, but my preferred resolution—naturally, that's just my luck—is not listed. What's the deal, developers?

Audio

The audio is as good as it is frustrating. The staccato crackling of the various weapons is unique enough to tell them apart when coming under fire. I think the frequency filtering with distance is particularly impressive as tank and artillery fire up close sounds far different than from far away. This is something too many games get wrong; i.e., too many games simply attenuate the volume of the sounds whereas BF1942 correctly rolls off the higher frequencies (as happens in the real world).

Another big plus in the audio column is the degree to which the developers took the various languages seriously. It's admittedly somewhat confusing for those of us who don't speak German (e.g., me) to hear our teammates barking out orders in Fritz-speak, but it really lends to the realism of the game. English, German, Japanese, and Russian all sound great to my linguistically untrained ear, and I think that's a lovely touch. There is an option, not surprisingly, to force all such team messages to English, and I may end up using it eventually, but for the moment it's too much fun to listen to the various languages.

The reason I say the audio is frustrating is because it is buggy as all get out. I wasn't even able to play the game prior to the v1.2 patch. Every time I would start the game, I had two choices. I could elect to use the audio hardware acceleration features, in which case the video became a jerky slide show as my framerate headed straight into the toilet (is it just me, or is that not what acceleration is supposed to do?). Or I could elect to eschew the audio hardware acceleration features, in which case the in-game audio suffered from the most horrible waves of white-noise static I've ever heard in any game. Seriously, I was afraid it was damaging my speakers it was so loud and obnoxious.

With the v1.2 patch, the static problem seemed to have been fixed, and enabling audio hardware acceleration no longer brought my system to a crawl in the multi-player game. The single-player game, however, was still absolutely hopeless. No matter how I configured the audio in the single-player game, the framerates hovered between bad and worse, sounds frequently didn't trigger, and the whole thing was just unplayable. I guess I should have been thankful for the v1.2 patch; i.e., it at least let me play the multi-player aspect of the game. Prior to the patch, I couldn't play it at all.

I have been going through audio hell for a while, though, and after getting fed up with Creative Labs not helping to solve any of the issues I had been having with my old SB Live! card, I gave up. As I've written elsewhere, I've upgraded my sound card to an Audigy 2. Since doing so, I can play the single-player portion of the game as well. It does fix the audio problems, but I'm sorry to say that I can now see how the AI is the lamest bunch of idiot bots I have ever seen, about which I'll say more later. The audio works wonderfully with my new Audigy 2 card, but I feel sorry for those folk out there who are stuck with older cards.

NB: Shortly after I updated to an Audigy 2 card, the v1.3 patch came out. Naturally, given my luck, the v1.3 patch screws all Audigy users. It gives rise to a host of other audio problems, about which I've written more elsewhere. Maybe someday the developers will actually fix the game. That would be nice.

Interface

The interface is more of a mixed bag. On the one hand, I really like the menu system that the developers have chosen for configuring the game options. It's functional and easily understood for the most part. I personally dislike being confronted with a choice of profile every single time I start the game, but I guess I can live with it in exchange for the ability to play multiple profiles. Note to developers: such a feature probably makes more sense as an option, not as something always thrust into the player's face at startup.

While I'm on the subject of annoyances at startup, there should be some facility for disabling the opening credits. The annoying EA Games sequence plays, after which the equally annoying Dice sequence plays. The player is allowed to cancel the opening movie, but then a final notice is displayed before the game starts. It's ridiculous, developers, that you're making me sit through so much crap every time I start your game. Make it optional, or at least let me cancel it.

NB: Since making that complaint, I've discovered that a command-line switch exists for skipping the movies. Simply add "+restart 1" to the command line (without quotes, of course), and launching the game will take you directly to the profile menu.

Getting back to the interface, the control scheme is quite good and generally intuitive. I would personally have preferred to be able to move while crouching ala Ghost Recon, but I guess it works well enough as it is. The ability to configure keys separately for the various modes of play (e.g., on foot, driving a ground vehicle, etc.) is a must-have for this kind of game, and I like the way the developers have implemented it.

In fact, the different interfaces for the different vehicles are all very good. Driving and gunnery have been blended seamlessly when operating a tank. Similarly, all the various flight controls and weapons are available easily with the mouse and keyboard when flying planes. I think BF1942 might be the first video game to feature aircraft that can be put to good use without reaching madly for my joystick. That's no small accomplishment.

My primary beef with the interface is that the in-game spawn point selection is really irritating. Maybe I've got some kind of problem with my setup, but the rotten you-must-choose-a-spawn-point interface pops up every time I get killed. I realize that if the enemy captures the control point I had chosen previously, I will need to select some other location, and that's fine with me. It is terribly annoying, however, that I get confronted with the choice every single time I die—even though my spawn point is still under my team's control. Go figure.

A second beef with the interface is that the color scheme is downright confusing. When playing a U.S. vs. German mission, everything makes sense; i.e., the Allies are shown in blue while the Germans are shown in red. When playing as, say, a Germans vs. Russian mission, however, there are too many inconsistencies for my taste. Though the Russian red flag is clearly displayed above, the Russians are in blue. Maybe I'm just an idiot, but I have an awful time just trying to figure out which enemies/vehicles I can shoot sometimes, depending on the nature of the mission. I much prefer the Tribes 2 approach, according to which the enemy is always in red.

Overall, the interface works well enough to get the job done. Pulling up the menu while in a game seems a bit slow, but I'll say more about the game's sluggishness elsewhere. Suffice it to say that gamers shouldn't have much of a problem customizing the controls and using the other features of the interface.

Game Mechanics

This is where the game really shines. The unique conquest game mode is a thing of beauty once you understand how it works. Each side starts with some number of tickets, which are reduced in two ways: (1) by killing enemy players, and (2) holding the requisite number of control points. The latter drains the enemy of tickets far more quickly, but the former can make a non-trivial difference as well.

What I love most about this system is that it rewards both hard-core players, who can blow the head off a running scout at 200+ yards, as well as the more casual players who just want to enjoy a team-oriented game. Too many games focus solely upon the ability to shoot the enemy with various weapons. BF1942 provides a wonderful incentive to capture and hold ground as well, which encourages teamwork. Like I said, the conquest game mode is a thing of beauty.

The various kits are also reasonably well thought out and seem pretty nicely balanced. The scout may be a relative weakling, but his sniper rifle is to be feared at range. Better yet, his ability to mark targets for artillery is a fabulous team element. The medic and engineer are solid contributors, and I particularly like the demolitions abilities of the latter. It's always a blast (pun intended) to see a group of enemy tanks go up in flames because they didn't notice an engineer's mines. The assault fighter is pretty much what you'd expect (i.e., he's a bread-and-butter soldier), and the anti-tank fighter is (not surprisingly) hell on armor. All in all, the kits are as well-differentiated as they are useful.

Another aspect of the game mechanics that clearly deserves praise is the way in which the various vehicles have been handled. Driving a tank or a plane is far more straightforward than in many other games (e.g., Operation Flashpoint), and yet mastering them is no small matter. Driving a fighter aircraft, for example, isn't as complex as a flight simulator, but this is not an arcade game. Each of the vehicles has its own clear niche, and all of them work nicely. Of course, this is rather important insofar as vehicles are a big part of the game; if your team isn't using them, then you will most likely lose.

My only gripe against the game mechanics is that changing kits really ought to be easier. As it stands, the only way to change kits is to pick up a new kit from a vanquished foe. I don't have any problem with this aspect of the system. What I do think is silly is that there's no other way to change kits without dying. Why, after all, if I'm standing at an ammo dump, replenishing my stock of grenades, bullets, etc., should I not be able to switch weapons as well?

For example, I've often found myself playing games in which anti-tank fighters are suddenly and desperately needed. When this happens, I change my class when next I'm killed. Inevitably others do the same, and in pretty short order all the enemy armor is usually gone. The problem is that I'm now stuck carrying a bazooka, and the only way for me to change is to suicide, which costs my team a ticket. I don't think I should have to die just to switch kits. I think it makes much more sense to be able to switch on the fly at any ammo dump, or perhaps at headquarters.

Story

Story? This game has a story? World War II (WWII) provides some of the most powerful drama in human history, and BF1942 is counting on that fact, I think, to help the player overlook the complete lack of in-game story. I suppose it's probably not fair to count this too serious a complaint insofar as the game is designed to be a multi-player shoot-em-up. Still, it would have been nice if more thought had gone into the single-player side of the game at least. Insofar as I've been able to suffer through the awful performance problems long enough to play any of the single-player missions, they feel very discrete and unconnected, evincing no larger and more interesting tale. If you need a good story to find a game enjoyable, then don't buy BF1942. There's just nothing here.

Content

Content too is a mixed bag. On the one hand, this game packs an awful lot onto a couple of CDs. The game ships with a nice selection of maps, lots of useful vehicles, plenty of different classes to play, all kinds of neat weapons, and so forth. There is a lot to BF1942 no matter how you slice it, and this is definitely a good thing.

Yet on the other hand, this game is plagued by some nasty issues. As I mentioned previously, I couldn't even play the single-player missions with my old sound card. I knew it had something to do with the sound configuration, as my framerate rapidly went into slide-show mode after the start of each map, depending in part on how I had the sound configured. Eventually, it bogged down to one or two frames per second, and the game was ridiculously unplayable—even if I had set the video all the way down to 640 x 480 x 16 bpp resolution. Given that my system is packing an ATI Radeon 9700 Pro video card, which is the present king of the graphics hill, that's ridiculous. Once I fixed my audio woes, however, I was in for another rude surprise.

To be more specific, the AI is dumb as dirt. No, wait; that's an insult to dirt everywhere. The AI is dumber than dirt by a long shot. I've complained about the AI in a lot of games, but BF1942 really takes the cake. I have almost completed the single-player campaign, and from what I've seen my "teammates" are completely useless. I regularly see bots mindlessly walking back and forth, clearly trying to get into the tank that's right in front of them. I've seen them get hung up on corners and stand there stupidly "humping" the wall. I've seen them walk readily into streams of machine-gun fire without even the slightest attempt to return fire. They steal vehicles and park them stupidly out in the open, they stand around doing nothing at all, etc. In short, the AI is positively terrible. Frankly, the single-player game would be easier without any AI "teammates". As it is, they simply waste vehicles and tickets and actually make the game harder.

Worse than any of these factors, however, is the degree to which many of the missions are designed horribly. Seriously, I don't know who made some of the maps, but those people need to be flogged. To be sure, some of the maps are very good. I particularly like some of the missions in the South Pacific, for example, as well as some of the land battles in Germany. But many of the missions are nothing more than a spawn-camper's wet dream.

For example, immediately prior to writing this review I was playing one of the in-city German vs. Russian missions. Given that the Russians start off controlling all but one of the control points, they have a clear advantage; i.e., the Germans are losing tickets right from the outset. Worse, within about twenty seconds or so a group of Russian tanks rolled up to the lone German control point that cannot be captured. That was essentially the end of the game.

The Russian tanks were soon supported by a number of foot soldiers, and the spawn killing never stopped. After spawning and dying instantly a dozen or so times, I gave up in disgust and left the game. It was utterly pointless. Every teammate I had was getting gunned down within a second or two of spawning because the enemy soldiers were simply lobbing a seemingly endless supply of grenades, while the tanks kept bombarding the spawn point.

I have to ask: what idiot designed that map? What fool thought it was a good idea to set things up such that the enemy can simply camp the one German spawn point and make sure that not even one soldier can move five feet before dying? Maybe some people think that's fun. I think it's the best example of terrible map design I've ever seen.

This wouldn't be such a bad thing if it happened in just one or two maps, but I'd venture a guess that this is the case with around 20% of the maps that ship with the game. The majority of maps are simply too big to do such a thing; i.e., it simply isn't possible to hold the enemy's main control point like that. But all of the smallish maps suffer from that problem, and I've seen the same thing happen again and again on public servers when playing them. That's as stupid as it is lame in my view, and it makes me wonder what the developers could have been thinking.

Even with the big maps, though, I've played a lot of this game over the last several days, and it's always the same; i.e., it's one ridiculously lop-sided victory after another. And it's got nothing to do with the distribution of skills. The stats are typically about the same on either side. What kills the fun again and again is the simple fact that virtually all the maps are horribly imbalanced toward one side or another. What could they possibly have been thinking?

Take the Omaha Beach map for example. The axis easily beat the allied forces if only he holds the high ground. He starts on the high ground, and he has plenty of armor, all the control points, plenty of machine-gun emplacements, and the huge advantage, of course, that being on the high ground conveys. Not once that I've played the map has victory been separated from defeat by any less than 1,000 tickets. Gee, that seems like a well-balanced map, doesn't it? In my view, the developers were just goofballs for thinking these maps would be fun for both sides.

One final complaint against the game generally is that it's a real pig. I'm running a pretty cutting edge system (Athlon 1700 XP, 512 MB RAM, ATI Radeon 9700 Pro video card, etc.), and the game clearly labors to run smoothly, even at 1024 x 768 x 32 bpp. For sake of comparison, I can crank UT2k3 up to 1280 x 1024 x 32 bpp with all the graphical settings maxed out and it plays smooth as butter. I realize that BF1942 is a pretty neat game, but it seems to me that the engine needs some work to be more efficient. Pressing the escape key while in-game to bring up the menu, for example, takes no less than thirteen seconds on my system. That's patently absurd, and it is clearly much slower than it should be.

Multi-Player

As my comments have already indicated, BF1942 is first and foremost a multiplayer game. In the plus column, there are a lot of servers out there on which to play, and there seems always to be a pretty good diversity of maps. Unfortunately, many of the servers are unoccupied. It seems to be a feast-or-famine kind of thing; i.e., a server is either completely empty or almost full. Still, I haven't had too much trouble finding a game with a decent number of players.

The one thing that kind of stinks about the multi-player aspect is the lag. Even on servers to which I get a great connection, the game sometimes plays like I'm lagging badly. When I was playing earlier today, for example, my ping was staying constant at less than fifty milliseconds to the server, and that's a wonderful connection. In any other game, I would have been playing smooth as butter. But in BF1942, the playing field would jerk frequently when new vehicles/enemies were coming into view, other players' animations were sometimes very jerky, and the results of events were often quite delayed.

In one case, for example, I had a scout kit and was lying across a bridge, sniping enemy soldiers and spotting for friendly artillery. I saw an enemy tank on the other side of the bridge, so I sniped the guy manning the gun and notified artillery of the tank. I saw the tank fire in my direction, and I saw the missile traverse some of the distance between us. About halfway across the bridge, however, the missile disappeared from the sky. It was a good three or four seconds too many, while I was busy drawing a bead on the head of a foot soldier emerging from behind the tank, when the missing tank shell reappeared and detonated right behind me. Those kinds of screwy things happen often in BF1942, and that's just lame compared to other games.

Incidentally, I'm told the lag was even worse prior to the v1.2 patch. From what I've read, the lag issue is far less pressing post-patch. Still, here's hoping that the developers will continue to work on this issue, for it seriously damages gameplay in my view. I can't even imagine how awful BF1942 must be over a modem. Speaking of which, many using modems couldn't even connect to servers prior to the v1.2 patch, so maybe I shouldn't try to imagine how bad it must have been previously.

Conclusion

Overall, I would have to say that BF1942 is a decent game. I don't think it's the revolutionary step that so many reviewers have made it out to be. I don't think it has lived up to its hype. In fact, I think it has great promise, but the execution was botched. If the developers fix all of the nasty problems with the game, then I think it will have achieved a big win on the multi-player side of the fence, save for the balance issues. In fact, if the issues are ever addressed, then BF1942 will be a must-buy multi-player game in my view. Until the lag, sound, and other issues are addressed, however, I just don't see how BF1942 can begin to approach other multi-player games (e.g., Return to Castle Wolfenstein, Ghost Recon, Tribes 2, etc.).

So here's the final question: should you buy it? If you're the kind of gamer that wants a good single-player experience, then you should avoid BF1942 like the plague. If multi-player alone is what you live for, then several of my complaints are mitigated. For those WWII junkies with really big hardware, a fast Internet connection, and nothing but contempt for single-player games, BF1942 is a good buy. For everybody else I suggest thinking carefully about it. If you've got all the latest and greatest hardware, then you're going to have a pretty good experience. But you'd better be prepared for a lot of spawn camping.

Reviewed by Phileosophos
http://www.geocities.com/phileosophos

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