It’s amazing to watch the evolution of the Xbox Live Arcade. Starting out as a simple shop for small downloadable casual games, it has now become a mainstream gaming platform in its own right. Battlefield 1943 pushes the concept of the value-priced downloadable title to new heights, packing hours of multiplayer gameplay into one bite-sized package. If this is the future of budget gaming, count me in.

 

The Battlefield franchise has a long and storied history. Debuting in 2002, Battlefield 1942 offered unique capture-point based gameplay and vehicles in a WWII setting while everybody else was stuck in the realm of deathmatch-based sci-fi. The game was a huge hit, spawning two expansions and numerous player-created mods. Battlefield 1942 was followed up with Battlefield: Vietnam two years later, but the next biggest hit was Battlefield 2. Battlefield 2 moved the setting to modern warfare, and also set the stage for the series’ console iterations – most notably the Battlefield: Bad Company series. Digital Illusions also took the series into the future with Battlefield 2142, leaving players three eras of multiplayer mahem to explore.

 

With the phenomenal success of the series, it was somewhat surprising to learn that EA was not content with just popping out big-budget AAA titles every few years. In fact, they have been working to bring Battlefield action to the masses with two scaled-down iterations – the free-to-play PC title Battlefield Heroes, and now the value-priced Battlefield: 1943. While these games don’t offer the amount of content of their big-budget brothers, they keep the fast, frantic, yet strategic gameplay of the Battlefield series intact.

Battlefield: 1943 brings players back to World War II, this time to the Pacific theater. The action takes place on a series of four island maps. The game originally launched with three maps, with a fourth promised by EA once players achieved 43 million kills. The gaming community accomplished this in a mere five days, and “Coral Sea” is now open for business. In addition to Coral Sea, the game features three other well-known locations: Wake Island, Guadalcanal, and Iwo Jima.

For those unfamiliar with the Battlefield series’ traditional “Conquest” game mode, here’s a quick rundown. Each map consists of five capture points and two opposing teams. Each team has a certain number of points (tickets) available, and each casualty reduces the ticket count. In addition, the team holding the most capture points slowly drains the opposing enemy’s ticket count. Capture points also serve as spawn points, so the more points a team holds, the more locations they have available to spawn and the more pressure they apply to the enemy. When one team is reduced to zero tickets or the round timer ends, the team with the most tickets wins.

Battlefield: 1943 keeps the ticket counting in the background; the only thing you’ll really need to focus on are how many capture points your side holds, represented by blue (your team), red (the enemy), or white (neutral) flag symbols in the HUD. Capturing is easy – as long as you are in close proximity to a capture point, you will lower the enemy’s flag and raise your own. The more people at a capture point, the faster they will “cap” it. In the meantime you’ll be squaring off against enemy infantry, tanks, and planes in a constant back-and-forth battle for control of the island. The game features three playable character classes: the infantryman, the rifleman, and the sniper. While that may not seem like many, each class packs quite a punch and is actually a hybrid of some of the traditional Battlefield classes. The infantryman is a close-range combatant equipped with a machine gun, but also acts as the anti-tank unit with his vehicle-busting rocket launcher. The rifleman is a mid-range combatant equipped with a semi-automatic rifle and a deadly grenade launcher attachment. The sniper pulls double duty as sniper and demolitions expert, using a sniper rifle, pistol for close-range combat, and remotely detonated explosives. All classes also get a melee weapon. The infantryman’s unique melee weapon (the wrench) can also repair vehicles, while the rifleman and sniper count on a bayonet attachment or katana. One nice thing about the small number of classes is that though each one plays a specific role, they are all well-rounded enough to provide an entertaining experience.

Vehicles are almost classes unto themselves, as they provide you with even more firepower and versatility. In addition to the main gun, tanks come equipped with a mounted machine gun and room at the top for another player on the turret gun. The main gun is devastating against vehicles and structures, though difficult to kill infantry with due to its inprecision and slow rate of fire. It’s great for bulldozing into checkpoints and securing flags. Planes offer both machine guns for strafing troops or engaging in dogfights, as well as bombs for shelling enemy vehicles and capture points. Commandeering a vehicle is as easy as walking up to an empty one and hopping in. Because there are always a great number of neutral vehicles at spawn points and scattered around the map, you’ll always stand a good chance of grabbing one at some point during a match. If you can’t grab one, however, there are even more options – anti-aircraft guns, mounted guns, transport boats, or even Jeeps. Rarely will you find yourself forced into just one role unless you specifically choose to do so.

Battlefield: 1943, like most of the other games in the series, keeps the focus on fun and simplicity rather than realism. This means that whether you’re running around as a soldier or piloting vehicles, you won’t have to spend hours memorizing control schemes in order to play effectively. For the most part, everything is pretty intuitive and utilizes standard shooter controls. There are a couple of quirks – this time around throwing a grenade with the left shoulder button is one action, not an equip-then-throw-with-right trigger. The sniper also controls a little differently, utilizing the left shoulder as the detonator instead of the grenade. However, these are small issues that you can get used to fairly quickly. As a twice a week Call of Duty 4 (PC) player, it did take a little getting used to a shooter on a console again, but most 360 fans won’t have a problem. Fortunately there are options to adjust sensitivity among other things to tweak the game just to your liking.

 

Battlefield: 1943 sports no single-player features other than the tutorial, so loners need not apply. The game supports up to 24 players, an unusual but welcome feature for an Xbox Live Arcade title. Fortunately the game makes it quick and easy to connect with other players with quick match options, a join friends option, or the ability to create your own private match. Battlefield: 1943 also brings back the concept of squads. Squads are teams of players within the greater population that can issue orders and objectives to each other to stay coordinated. Any time you spawn in you have the option of spawning into an open squad or forming your own squad (be it public or private). Squads are a fantastic way to cooperate with friends or like-minded allies to focus on strategic objectives rather than running around aimlessly shooting anything that moves.

The graphics in Battlefield: 1943 walk the line between cartoon action and realism, and what a beautiful line it is. Forget the muddy browns and olive greens that constitute the color palette of most WWII games. Battlefield: 1943 bursts with color, from the sandy yellow beaches to the lush green vegetation to the sparkling blue of the Pacific. The game’s style is reminiscent of the colors and fonts of the old WWII propaganda posters. This isn’t the overcast gloomy horrors of Hollywood’s recent WWII depictions. This is John Wayne going out to be the hero for a few hours then heading back to the USO for a drink and a dance with a pretty lady.

 

The game utilizes the Frostbite Engine from Battlefield: Bad Company which means one thing – destructible environments! While not every structure is destructible, you’ll be able to bomb or blast shacks, knock down fences and poles, and essentially feel like a destruction-raining badass. Explosions are beautifully rendered, only adding to the feeling that you are in the midst of an important battle.

So far we have a fun, cheap title with good graphics and controls. They had to skimp on something, right? Well if you were thinking the audio got short-changed, I hate to disappoint you. For the game’s title theme EA turned to composer Ian Livingstone, who took the original Battlefield: 1942 theme by Joel Eriksson and re-recorded it using a full orchestra.  The result is an exciting score which will be instantly familiar to Battlefield veterans but with enough Pacific flavor to keep it from being redundant. Sound effects are also well done. When you’re in the thick of the fight with bullets whizzing past and explosions going off all around you, it really gets the adrenaline pumping.

So what’s the catch? Well, if there’s anything negative to say about Battlefield: 1943, it’s that compared to other games in the Battlefield series it can feel a little light. While the three (now four) maps are excellently designed, the island setting still makes them feel a little similar. After playing the same three maps over and over for a few hours, you may start to feel a little stir crazy from the lack of variety. The ability to only play three classes may also turn off some Battlefield veterans who are used to filling more specific and focused roles. Also, while the Conquest game mode is the bread and butter of the Battlefield series, players used to the greater variety of multiplayer modes in other shooters may feel a little constricted. There is another mode available only on the Coral Sea map called “Air Superiority,” but it only allows players to battle it out in planes.

The other negative, while it has largely been addressed, is that there are occasional hiccups in online play. When the game first launched it had severe server capacity shortages, leaving many players unable to even get in the game. Happily the bulk of those troubles seem to have been corrected, but I’ve still seen the occasional inability to connect to a quick match or a minor lag spike. The speed at which EA has responded to the game’s launch woes bodes well for the future, however, and I have every reason to believe the game will continue to improve as time goes on.

So does the game have legs? In addition to the standard Xbox Live achievements, there are many special badges you can earn in-game for accomplishing certain tasks. These include things like killing a certain number of players with a particular weapons, or scoring in the top of the leaderboards for a match. Players who wish to move up through the ranks and unlock everything can stay happily occupied for hours. And while there are a limited number of maps and options available now, it seems likely that if the game stays successful we’ll see more content for download in the future.

 

Battlefield: 1943 is a terrific example of the fact that games don’t have to be expensive or 10 GB in size to be fun and provide hours of entertainment. At 1200 Microsoft points ($15), Battlefield: 1943 is one of the best gaming values going right now on the Xbox Live Arcade. Sure, series veterans may think it’s merely “Battlefield Lite” and decide to hold off for Bad Company 2 or Battlefield 3. But that’s OK. Battlefield: 1943 brings the gameplay and action that has made the series such a perennial favorite to the masses, and winning over new fans only means we get to enjoy the franchise for years to come. Skip a couple of lunches, or wait for that movie to come out on DVD rather than going to see it in the theater. For the price of those small luxuries, this is a battle well worth fighting.

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