To this day a favourite book of mine is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Not so much for its prose, although I don’t think it’s as convoluted as some people do. No, to me it just seems to be a much more accurate representation of how the world operates than those stories that proclaim “the triumph of the human spirit.” People want to hear that humans are inherently good, and that an individual can overcome anything if he has faith in himself. As much of a fanbase as Conrad has, people generally don’t like to be reminded that things tend to fall apart when humans are left to their own devices.
Battlefield 2 is a great social experiment, in this regard. The major new feature, a rank and command system, works only insofar as your team has players who believe in cooperation. Unlike a real military, you can’t force subordinates to follow orders. So BF2 can be multiplayer at its finest on private servers, populated with friends and colleagues, while the quality of a public server can vary and the single-player isn’t worth your time.
Many changes in this sequel to Battlefield 1942 (I guess Battlefield Vietnam wasn’t evolved enough to be “2") seem to stem from the shift in setting from World War II to near-future conflicts in the Middle East and China. There’s an expectation that modern troops are going to have access to things like GPS maps and digital communications; hence, the command system.
Groups of up to six players can form a squad, which has a Squad Leader. The Leader functions as a unique spawn point for Squad Members and can issue limited orders to them such as “attack” or “repair,” by right-clicking on a map screen. Real power lies with the Commander though, who can issue orders to any squad, and is the only player allowed to use the new voice feature (text remains open) to speak to any Squad Leader. The Leaders themselves must speak either to the Commander or their squad. And if you’re just a Squad Member, you’re restricted to talking with your squadmates. This does provide modest reinforcement to the command structure, but mainly prevents BF2 servers from turning into floodfests where 12-year-olds decide to expose everyone to their newfound love of Good Charlotte.
The heart of the Commander’s power is in his special tools: satellite scans, artillery strikes, UAV recons, and supply drops. Behind a winning team there’s often a Commander constantly feeding ammo and information to his troops. The top Commanders are able to shell positions with expert timing, killing several enemies at once. It’s spectacular to watch, moreso because the graphics and sound make it feel apocalyptic.
Ranking is used to ensure that in situations where multiple players have applied to be Commander, the most experienced one will take the post. “Experience” is determined by overall kill, capture, command, and assist points. Server operators willing to pay (of which there’s a surprising amount) can use EA’s network to carry this ranking over to other servers. It’s a very nice touch, because it does more than keep the idiots at bay. It’s a reward for the gamers who’ve been forever underappreciated in shooters like Battlefield: the ones concentrating on team victory instead of racking up kills. Now they finally have some recognition and may actually earn the bulk of points, if their team succeeds. Climbing ranks likewise unlocks weapons that are superior, without unbalancing a server.
But let’s return to Conrad here. Imagine you’re the Commander, and through a sat-scan you’ve discovered that a friendly capture point is being swarmed by enemies. You order artillery to soften it up, and squad 4 to defend. If 4 hits the point now it can be saved.
On a private server such as the one I have access to, the squad would probably respond. Even though the point might look friendly on the map, the pre-existing trust would imply you’re not bossing your team around for the hell of it. At worst you might have to explain yourself.
Playing on public servers however I’ve discovered that many people would rather go by impulses than orders, in spite of the extra intel a Commander has. It’s likely that some players aren’t familiar with the command system at all. In the example I gave you’d be lucky if the Squad Leader hit “no” to take his squad somewhere else. Half the time, the squad itself would be spread over the map. There can be little reason to have a Commander or form squads in these cases.
Additionally, judging from personal encounters and what I’ve read, a minority of players are exploiting quirks of BF2 for harassment purposes. Recently a player from an enemy team called a failed kick vote on me after I blew up his helicopter. Which is strange, since a BF42 patch limited these votes to players of the same team. A new form of griefing involves players positioning themselves on or next to a vehicle, so that a teammate must either hand it over or be punished for teamkilling - which can now get you kicked automatically if it happens more than once and it’s unforgiven. I’m sure veteran gamers will put up with it, but this is bound to discourage first-time audiences.
BF2's other problems are comparatively small. I wouldn’t buy the game without a high-speed Internet connection handy, as single-player lacks reward or structure, and the AI is weak. It’s training for online play effectively, but I think no one was expecting Operation Flashpoint. Load times, meanwhile, are universally slow. The server browser is marginally faster. Bugs can intrude on gameplay occasionally through problems like server performance degradation, or allies being misidentified as enemies on the HUD (yes, I checked team rosters during the kick vote incident!).
Glance at the game’s score though, and it should be obvious I believe BF2 does more than provide an interesting sandbox to share with friends. The core action of BF42 and Vietnam has transferred perfectly over to BF2, and been improved at least by the setting. New vehicle types include buggies, armoured cars, mobile AA platforms, and rigid-hulled inflatable boats (RIB’s). Older types have had suitable upgrades: targeting, TV-guided missiles, switching between AA missiles and bombs, and things as simple as the ability to duck in an open turret.
As opposed to Vietnam and its unstoppable M60/LAW combo, every player kit is desirable in BF2. Even the Medic has appealing features. His defibrillator pads can revive teammates a la Return to Castle Wolfenstein, and for hilarity’s sake you can kill an enemy with them in close combat. Both the Medic and the Support classes can distribute supplies for extra points. They also imbue an area effect on any vehicle they enter, although I’ve never seen a team take advantage of this to have medivacs or logistical units.
A full list of the positive changes could continue for a few more paragraphs, but I’ll try to cut to the chase. I was glad to find that for flight dynamics, Dice moved closer to those of the Desert Combat mod for BF42 than the ones in Vietnam. Deliberate simplifications aside, it brings BF2's jets and choppers into better sync with flight sims. The gist is that you shouldn’t have to learn to fly all over again, something many action games are guilty of.
Lastly, server admins can scale a map based on player loads: there are 16, 32, and 64-player sizes of each. It makes an incredible difference to the pace of Battlefield that early joiners don’t have to run around a wasteland. In fact 16-player games, having fewer vehicles present, can take on the intense atmosphere of a Counter-Strike match. Were only most online games able to switch gears like that!
I picture two kinds of people enjoying BF2. Naturally the first will get to hop into private servers, profiting from built-in organization that helps a group of buddies play as well as the best clans. The second will face the (gasp) ugly realities of multiplayer gaming that are exposed by trying to impose order on chaos. But they won’t complain. Instead they’ll find fun in competing as they would in any other first-person shooter. The game is excellent, merely sabotaged by lack of polish and in some circumstances, by human behaviour. I wouldn’t punish Dice for being adventurous.