For those of you who are ‘console only’ folks, a quick history lesson.  Battlefield 1942 debuted on the PC on September 20th, 2002.  Sporting cooperative team-based play, the game used a capture and hold system to allow players to square off in massive multiplayer matches of up to 64 players.  Players can play as either Axis or Allies, as well as the option to pick from several different roles including scout, assault, medic, anti-tank, or engineer.  Each class could use different weapons on the battlefield to reduce the ‘tickets’ from the other team, piloting any vehicle you can lay your hands on including an aircraft carrier!  The game was a smash hit and spawned an expansion pack called Battlefield 1942: Secret Weapons of WWII.  Eventually we saw Battlefield Vietnam, Battlefield 2, Battlefield 2142, and eventually Battlefield 2: Modern Combat which spelled the debut of the series on the console platform.  Reception was fairly positive, spawning the subject of this review – Battlefield: Bad Company. 

Battlefield: Bad Company is the story of Preston Marlowe – a new recruit that was just transferred to the 222nd Army battalion, B-Company.  Unfortunately Preston has just found out that B-Company has been nicknamed Bad Company – a squad that serves as a dumping ground for the insubordinate troublemakers that aren’t quite bad enough to toss out of the military completely.  As the game opens, Preston joins “Sarge” (the sergeant of the group, obviously), Sweetwater (the tech-geek of the group), and Haggard (he likes to blow things up) as they embark on what should be a simple recon mission for the Army.  As always, things don’t go according to plan.  The team stumble across a mercenary group called Acta Non Verba that are operating in the region, and soon they discover why – they are transporting big shiny bars of gold.  When their mission goes ‘pear shaped’ the four decide to go completely AWOL, invade a small country, and otherwise break the rules in pursuit of the copious amounts of gold in the possession of the enemy. 

A little housekeeping before we begin.  This title was marred by EA’s initial plans to release the game and then ask players to unlock new weapons through microtransactions.  The public spoke against this idea and EA DICE decided to simply make them standard unlockables, in case this was deterring you from this purchase. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s find out if Bad Company was worth that effort.

Obviously there isn’t a PC game to port across, so EA DICE went to work on a new engine codenamed “Frostbite” specifically for the Battlefield series.  Designed from the ground up, this engine would enable players to destroy over 90% of the environment, including trees, buildings, vehicles, ground, and more through the use of the heavier weapons in the game.  In addition, this engine was supposed to allow a 32 square kilometer viewing distance, with a 4 square kilometer playable area. 

Almost immediately you’ll notice that the game sports some fantastic visual details up close with very natural and fluid motions all around.  The game has a bit of a grained look to it, taking away the ‘clean’ look that often comes off as just a bit too shiny.  I imagine that this was done on purpose to emphasize the ‘dirty’ path that the game protagonists end up taking.  While it isn’t as detailed as some of the titles released recently, there is no game out there that has view distance like this with a stable framerate.  Just like the other Battlefield titles, the engine does a great job as a delivery system for the incredible multiplayer experience, as well as a fairly decent singleplayer run. 

While playing through the game I did encounter a few moments that were laugh out loud funny, courtesy of the physics engine.  Occasionally I’d see pieces of debris levitating above the ground, or dead soldiers who continued to ‘wave’ at me from the ground.  Also, enemies have very little in the way of reactions to being shot – they are either alive and shooting at you (they don’t focus on your indestructible teammates much) or they are ragdolling and dead.  Honestly though, there just isn’t much to complain about here – my hat’s off to the team at EA DICE.

Battlefield: Bad Company takes on the somewhat politically charged cold war-esque accidental invasion of the small fictional European country.  What is surprising is that on top of that invasion platform is a genuinely funny storyline.  Sarge plays the straight to funny men Haggard and Sweetwater, with particular emphasis on the ‘short-timing’ Sarge working through the last few days of his stint in Bad Company.  While the voice work is completely cheeseball, it works perfectly.  It certainly reminds me of the juxtaposition of my own time in the military – even in the face of the most horrifying things that man has to offer, the military still finds time to throw up the “morale” tent (read: beer) and laugh it up.

Even better than the cheeseball dialog is the way that it blends in perfectly with the soundtrack.  From lounge style piano music to crazy and intense rocking battle music, the team at EA DICE did a fantastic job with the audio work in this title.  Each track blends in perfectly with the background, never overpowering what is going on with the team.  To make sure that you are able to truly enjoy that incredible work, EA DICE has three audio settings to offer – Home Cinema with full HDR for use with a full surround sound setup, Hi-Fi with normal range audio for smaller speaker setups, and even a TV setup for small speakers or quieter playback.  The only thing I could honestly find that was missing was the option for subtitles.  As someone who is partially deaf, it is always great to see companies include options for gamers like myself to fully enjoy the dialog experience.

First person shooters have been a staple of every generation of consoles since the early generations.  Additionally they’ve been a major part of PC development since their inception.  Needless to say, there are certain expectations of behaviors that have to be translated to the console space for any first person shooter to be effective on the home platform.  While some titles truly nail it (e.g. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare), some titles feel the need to change it, and not always for the better.  Unfortunately, Bad Company falls in the latter category.  While controls are essentially the same as other titles, some are simply different than what you’d expect or are used to using.  For instance, crouching with the L3 button is natural, so of course EA DICE put it on the R3.  Switching to my knife for a quick slash feels best on R3, so naturally they mapped it to the Y button.  Similar challenges plague the flight controls of the helicopters, but most people will find something usable between the two control schemes and X/Y inversion toggles.  All in all, it makes for a somewhat cumbersome control scheme that didn’t need to be that way.  It wasn’t broke, so no need to fix it folks.  The changes aren’t insurmountable, but they are unnecessary.

The single player game is essentially as simple as hitting a waypoint, listening to Sarge complain about not being out fishing, and then moving onto your next objective to kill some folks.  How you get there will be somewhat pre-planned in the beginning, with latter missions being a little more free-form.  While it never really feels like the open ‘do anything in any order’ world of Battlefield in the single player game, the structure does keep the whole thing moving in the right direction.  Essentially, this is almost comedy punctuated by explosions and violence.  It never takes itself too seriously, and you shouldn’t either. 

The single player spans 7 total missions, each one taking about an hour to complete.   They are split up through the use of in-game cutscenes to somewhat justify your next objective.  The storyline is essentially the movie Three Kings, allowing the player the chance to get a bit of cash in their pocket beyond Uncle Sam’s check, getting themselves into and out of trouble in the course of the adventure.  It isn’t what I’d call a new concept (I knew guys that smuggled weapons back from the desert behind Comm. Equipment), but it is the first time I’ve seen it in a game.

Much like the single player in a lot of shooters, Bad Company’s single player game really exposes you nicely to the weapons, vehicles, munitions, and controls utilized in the more frantic multiplayer.  Just like in multiplayer, when you die in the single player game you’ll simply respawn.  This takes a bit of the sting out of death, making dying merely an inconvenience of getting back to the front line.  Similarly, there are balance issues with some of the special weapons that really unbalance the single player game, making it far too easy.  For instance, if you have the Russian mortar launcher and a bit of patience, you can level almost everything in the game with its unlimited ammo and long range.  When coupled with any of the sniper rifles, you can essentially rule the game with long range strikes.  My suggestion is to simply enjoy the simple gameplay and goofy storyline for the relatively short run and not worry too much about getting your challenge here – it’s the online competition that will bring you that level of glory.

Battlefield: Bad Company is an Xbox 360 and PS3 game with a heavy online component.  Obviously this means that it’ll require either peer-to-peer technology with one person acting as a host machine (e.g. Halo 3, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare), or it’ll require dedicated servers.  Thankfully, Bad Company utilizes the latter over the former, meaning that there will be dedicated servers hosted by EA that can handle the hardware load and circuit latency of a 24 person multiplayer match without bogging down into an unplayable mess. 

What surprised me most when I played a bit of multiplayer in Bad Company is that there is no Conquest mode.  Conquest mode is the staple of the Battlefield series, allowing each side to compete over choke points to reduce enemy tickets for victory.  Instead the game extends the concept of the single player game into the multiplayer experience, asking players to fight over gold bars in a mode called Gold Rush.  In Gold Rush players are split into attackers and defenders.  The defenders must hold onto two crates filled with gold bars, and the attackers must attempt to destroy these crates. (I’d steal them, but what do I know?)  When the attackers run out of respawns, the sides reverse and you play against the clock for victory.  To aid in your assault, as you play you’ll gradually unlock various weapons and modifications including better rifles, pistols, shotguns, grenade launchers, and more.  All in all, it looks like a solid distraction from the long-running King of multiplayer, Call of Duty 4.  There is one major hitch however – the players.

During my playtime of Battlefield: Bad Company I coordinated with several members of the press to earn victory.  We had a great time and everyone did their job correctly.  Nobody spawn camped, and nobody waited around for vehicle respawns, ignoring objectives.  I can tell you that, as a long time veteran of the Battlefield series, the reverse is usually true in practice.  The smacktard potential for this title is very high and will determine the viability of the multiplayer experience beyond your immediate friends.  Unfortunately it is impossible to judge that at this point – we’ll have to wait a few weeks to really know how it’ll all pan out.

I am informed by EA DICE that the Conquest mode I mentioned before (capture and hold for tickets) will be patched in as a free expansion, but no date is currently set.  I can tell you that 8 maps will ship with the game varying from dense jungle to the tight corridors of a Russian industrial area.  The maps are varied and fairly well balanced as far as I can tell, with each side starting with more than enough vehicles and weapons to really wage an all-out war. 

All of this said, it is hard to ignore the potential of the title.  If a good group of players could get together and communicate, they’d dominate this game.  When my team was acting as a cohesive unit, we crushed the disorganized masses on the other side and easily achieved our objective of total victory.  When players ran off and did their own thing, they were isolated and more likely to be killed.  Before you pick up this game, figure out if you have friends that’ll have your back in the online space.  Once you blow through the 6-7 hour single player game, it’ll be all that is left. 

It’s hard to sum up a game like this as you never know what the next few months will bring.  The single player and multiplayer are built on an incredible engine, and there is no doubt that the game is a good bag of popcorn fun.  The writing is corny, but the action is furious.  While the controls often seem a bit constrained or flat out wrong, the learning curve is so gradual that you likely won’t even know you are on it.  This is a blessing and a curse as the difficulty level is a bit too forgiving as a result.  When playing online, gamers are treated to a lag-free affair, but the thought of EA shutting down the dedicated servers at some point in the future could leave you with a drink coaster.  The single player delivers, but is a fairly one-trick pony that provides roughly 7 hours of mindless fun punctuated with genuinely funny dialog.  The multiplayer relies heavily on cooperation and teamwork for it to realize its true potential.  Time will tell whether this game has what it takes to keep players interested, or if it’ll go in my shelf right next to Shadowrun.