When War Was Fun: A Battlefield 1942 Retrospective
It’s 2002, and I’m gazing in rapt attention at my monitor, a friend looking over my shoulder. It’s 1943, and I’m piloting a fully-loaded landing craft towards the Japanese air base on Wake Island. I wince as a Japanese fighter zooms overhead, but he seems more interested in dogfighting than dive-bombing my defenseless bucket o’ troops. As we near the shore, my fear turns to excitement. “64 players – and they’re all real people,” I explain to my friend excitedly. “No bots.” As we storm the beach, I repeat variations of this statement as some sort of mantra. Maybe if I say it enough times, I’ll believe it.
It seems silly now, but at the time it was mind-blowing. Only 2001’s Tribes 2 had been designed for so many players, and while brilliant in its own right it tended to devolve into a chaotic swarm of jetpack-clad warriors engaging in ritualized aerial battles. And while the Tribes series popularized the integration of vehicles into the first-person shooter, they only ever filled a support role. Battlefield 1942 combined the vehicles of Tribes and the class system of Team Fortress to create a combined-arms combat game that encouraged coordinated team play. Its bombastic intro (complete with a surprisingly catchy theme song) perfectly captured the sense of scope the game was going for, the feeling that the player was Part Of Something Bigger.
While teamed-based shooting had been around for a few years, it was still stuck in the Quake model, with each player given the same awesome destructive power and only skill and reflexes dictating the winner. BF 1942 combined an aggressive push towards specialization while allowing the player to constantly switch specializations; while you were stuck within your class until you died, the various vehicles and turrets allowed a player to switch their strengths to suit the situation. The result was a game as much about tactics as twitch-shooting. In clan games this meant an unprecedented level of top-down strategy, but even public servers featured an unusual level of team cohesion, in practice if not in intent. By introducing the Conquest “capture-and-defend-locations” game mode, it focused the armies towards specific goals while allowing freedom of movement, avoiding the “throw the soldiers into the grinder” approach of linear attack-and-defend games like Unreal Tournament’s Assault gametype and creating a natural convergence of forces.
These are the things that made Battlefield 1942 important. But they’re not why I fondly remember the game – and why, nine years later, nothing has really replaced it.
In our current glut of pseudo-realistic, intensely competitive shooters (thanks, Counterstrike!), it can be hard to remember that there was a time when such games were playful. Battlefield 1942 may have ostensibly taken place during a very serious war, but the flavor had more in common with Hogan’s Heroes than Saving Private Ryan. This was a game where people would load up jeeps with satchel charges and drive them into enemy tanks, where skilled pilots would frequently fly upside down just for the hell of it and morons would steer the team’s sole aircraft carrier onto an island. The proliferation of dedicated jeep-race maps and servers was inevitable.
This larger-than-life approach was reflected in the fact that the game rewarded mythic acts of daring even as it encouraged symbiotic teamplay. I can’t count the number of times I was shot down bombing an enemy base, only to parachute in, highjack one of their tanks, and wreak havoc. In my proudest moments, I actually wrote down some battle accounts. I’ve still got one from an insane 20 minute kill streak during the Battle of the Bulge, in which I was the deciding factor in a German victory (go me?). It was the first and last FPS I played that regularly produced engaging stories. There were so many elements, so many possible combinations of strategies, objects, and unanticipated uses of the physics systems, that I could regularly surprise myself with a crazy new escape from death. This was the sort of emergent gameplay that sold Deus Ex embodied in a multiplayer title. Ask any BF1942 veteran about their “Battlefield stories” and they’ll get a distant look in their eyes and recount – in a manner disturbingly like an actual veteran – the time that they defended the last capture point from a squadron of fighters with nothing but a mobile artillery unit and a pistol. Some of these crazy techniques, like the LoopZook linked below, became part of the game’s framework, in the same way that rocket-jumping did with Quake and “skiing” did with Starsiege: Tribes. But while those techniques were incorporated into future incarnations of their respective series, developer DICE and publisher EA did their best to “clean up” Battlefield on its way to becoming a major franchise.
Even before Battlefield headed for consoles, features started being stripped away in the name of streamlining, as when naval combat was removed and aircraft carriers made immobile in 2005’s Battlefield 2. By the time DICE and EA had shifted to consoles as a lead platform, whole swaths of content were left on the cutting room floor. They seemed to be aiming for a “purer” experience with the new games, void of the “extraneous” elements that made the games more difficult for newcomers. When my landing boat finally hit the beach on Wake Island, I manually lowered the landing ramp to let my troops out. In Battlefield 1943, the downloadable game that remade four of Battlefield 1942’s twenty-two maps, troops exiting the landing craft were magically teleported outside of it. The lead designer explained that they removed the feature because it was “confusing” for new Battlefield 1942 players, who didn’t realize you had to lower the door at all. He was right, but by the time all such features were removed, the sequels had become something different.
In many ways, these sequels were better games. They vastly improved on the original’s clunky infantry combat, schizophrenic damage model (jeeps would regularly explode from 2-foot drops) and total lack of squad mechanics. But something was missing. Battlefield 2’s jets had an amazing flight model, but none of the romance of the ‘40s dogfights. Bad Company 2 was the most balanced and focused the series had ever been, but there was little room for experimentation outside of destroying buildings. The more polished the games got, the further they strayed from the sandbox play that characterized the original. It was the difference between playing with model airplanes and having a shell-shocked veteran tell you that war is hell.
I’m not sure why creative play is no longer a focus of FPS games. Maybe it’s the extensive play-testing. Maybe it’s not deemed commercially viable. Maybe it’s simply a symptom of better technology with less exploitable loopholes. But for whatever reason, the torch has been passed. Where once there were Tribes servers dedicated to building and Battlefield servers reserved for stunt flying, this cooperative goofing off has largely moved to Minecraft and its rapidly spawned successors. In the modern online FPS, all you do is shoot things; and while the mechanics of the shooting keep getting better, all I can see is a genre racing towards congruence, forgetting the time when war was nothing but a setup for pure, unadulterated fun.