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Game Name:  Battlefield 1942
Developer:  EA DICE
Publisher:  Electronic Arts
PC Release Year:  2002
Review Date:  September 19, 2015

For as much as I love this hobby of mine, I am not very good at video games.  Competitive multiplayer is the arena where skill level is gauged, and my track record there is spotty at best.  MechWarrior Online, Company of Heroes, and Hearthstone stand out as a few of the titles that, at one point or another, captivated me with their online mayhem.  No matter how much time or effort was expended in these virtual worlds, I quickly plateaued and never became more than a mediocre player.  Every rule has an exception, though, and mine was Battlefield 1942.  Long before the series was coopted by frat dudes who wanted to experience modern combat from the safety of their couches, I was holding down beachheads and bunkers in far-flung corners of the Pacific, North Africa, and Europe.  In those initial days of broadband internet, DICE showed how awesome an objective-based shooter could be, and computer nerds the world over were hooked.  Despite the title’s mammoth popularity in the early aughts, few gamers tried its critically-maligned single player.  One year after GameSpy shut down its servers for good, though, this is the only way to play it without resorting to third-party multiplayer services.  Oddly enough, and thanks in large part to an industry that seems to be moving continually away from freeform gameplay, this campaign mode has only gotten better with age.

Upon loading into a game, new players will immediately be struck by Battlefield 1942’s gigantic scale.  Spawning on the deck of an aircraft carrier, or alongside a huge Dutch windmill will afford an unbroken view of the distant conflict between the Allied and Axis forces, and it is exhilarating.  More recent franchise releases have acclimated gamers to map design that is open, in the sense that it is not cordoned off by the type of ugly environmental walls seen in earlier Medal of Honor and Call of Duty titles, but it would be a lie to call it expansive.  In a nod to today’s numerous console fanboys, who use controllers in lieu of a mouse, the horizon in modern shooters is broken up by all manner of dense foliage, half-destroyed buildings, and busted tanks; providing ample space to hide with a submachine gun for close-quarters combat.  Returning to this comparatively empty world takes a bit of adjustment, since a dance of zigzagged running, jumping, and crouching is needed to avoid enemy fire on those long dashes across fields and deserts.  While it may seem strange at first, liberation is ultimately found in this absurd and manic movement, which only works to prove that this is not the kind of overly serious military simulator that seems to be so popular today.

If anything, Battlefield 1942 can best be described as a kind of comic World War II sandbox.  Practically inventing the territorial domination game mode, wherein teams fight to claim a range of strategic points by raising their national flag on the spot, DICE essentially handed the keys of the car over to a bunch of unsuspecting teenagers.  Suddenly, war could be waged on gamers’ terms, and they got to choose how and where to attack or defend instead of simply being dumped into a series of connected rooms and being asked to fight to the death, like the Quake battles of old.  A multitude of drivable vehicles and an extremely loose physics engine only helped to facilitate the crazy, freeform gameplay that ensued.  All of those vast, open spaces were suddenly just stages for tanks, planes, and boats to do their dance of death.  Even in the single player game, it is not uncommon to find yourself shooting down a Messerschmitt Bf 109 with an anti-aircraft gun, running down an enemy soldier with a jeep, and stealing a Tiger tank from the opposing team’s base, all within the span of a few minutes.  Many modern titles, including Battlefield’s official successors, allow for controllable vehicles and gun emplacements, but few are willing to make them more than a support system for infantry combat, which is typically seen as the core gameplay experience. 

Despite this focus on the machines of war, it would be wrong to call Battlefield 1942’s personnel battles shallow.  In a move that that has been replicated by most competitive shooters since the original Team Fortress popularized the concept, a range of weapon kits segment the player base to keep the combat varied and fun.  Medics patch up teammates and attack nearby opponents with submachine guns, engineers repair vehicles and engage enemies at range with their rifles, and the other classes fill some role around them.  There is a pure simplicity to it all, since unlike newer first-person shooters, there is not an experience system tacked on to gate off the gunplay.  Players who want to change their primary weapon need only select a new class before respawning, or pick up the pack from one of the many bodies littering the landscape.  On that note, it is important to point out just how quickly death can come in the ruins of Berlin or on the sands of Tobruk.  All of that open terrain, which is essential for massive mechanized engagements, ends up bringing the snipers out to play.  This is not Counter-Strike, though, where ranged weapons are used exclusively to guard corridors and alleys.  Here they are a major component of ground combat, and as such, require a satisfying combination of skill and luck to find success.  Few games ask players to lead moving targets while compensating for factors like breathing and gravity; it is refreshing to have long-distance battles where the quicker trigger finger does not always win.

While these various elements all tie together to make an amazing multiplayer environment, the sheer number of gameplay choices in Battlefield 1942 is enough to challenge even today’s artificial intelligence programmers.  This is the reason its sequels forego bot battles for easily guidable story modes.  In retrospect, this may seem like a smarter decision than building Axis and Allied single player campaigns from the exact same maps that are used in the versus mode.  After all, seeing some of your computer-controlled compatriots shooting their weapons mindlessly at the clouds, or vapidly sitting in the driver seat of a stationary jeep is a little frustrating.  For each of these impossibly stupid NPCs, there are also the superstar soldiers that can seemingly snipe an enemy at any distance, or successfully dive bomb any moving tank.  In a perfect world, there would be a consistent AI skill level somewhere between these poles, and a system that pushes these virtual armies to move as a unified force towards dynamic tactical objectives.  Thirteen years on, no game developer has managed this feat yet, so it is hard to knock DICE for at least trying.  Step beyond this acknowledgement, though, and there is the practical reality that scripted shooters are a dime a dozen today, and frankly a bit boring, so maybe more challenging opponents are not necessarily worth the tradeoff to a player’s freedom.

It would be a lie to say that this retrospective does not engender the smallest twinge of guilt.  Scanning through prior posts, I have been quick to cry foul when modern gamers call a title timeless, based solely on the fact that they happened to play it as a kid.  Most people love the classics because they conjure up all those fun memories of younger days, and not necessarily because they have solid enough mechanics to keep them relevant today.  If I were to recommend this game, would I be traversing this same slippery slope?  Were there perhaps a few too many frantic dogfights and desperate sniper duels in my own past to remain objective?  As I pondered these questions, I decided to install Red Orchestra 2 and Battlefield 3 to provide a little perspective.  Where the former adheres closely to the classic 1942 formula, it tends to take itself too seriously on the simulation end of the gaming spectrum.  While nobody can levy that charge at the latter, the more recent series releases are more about adrenaline-pumping action than creative and fun gameplay.  Battlefield 1942, however, occupies a midpoint between the two; where the tense back-and-forth between evenly matched teams is broken up by the comical sight of a soldier swimming through the air after being hit with a tank shell.  This is warfare lite, and it is something I did not realize I missed until I reinstalled the game.  Using a service like GameRanger to duke it out with fellow humans is still the preferred way to play, but gamers can do a lot worse than giving the single player a try.

Verdict:  Recommended