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.

16 Comments

  1. I’ve said it before: Battlefield 1942 was a Wild West playground full of possibilities, while later games became more streamlined shootfests. They weren’t necessarily a step backward, but more like a step sideways. And anyone who doesn’t like the theme song has no soul; I still hum it around the house. Drives the wife batty.

    Duh-duh-duh duh DA DA Duh-duh-duh duh DUM DUM da DUUUUUUM da da da DUUUUUUUM

    • I would actually walk through the halls humming it in high school. I’m pretty sure everyone thought I was crazy.

      One of the best moments in my life was when there was some guy talking about all the songs he knew on his trombone, and I went “Oh yeah? Can you do the Battlefield 1942 theme?” And HE DID.

      • nkupton

        HAH great story. And a fun write-up, sure is nostalgic for me as well. I have so many memories of playing on maps like Invasion of the Philippines, where there was water combat, tanks, planes… it felt so vast, and you really could get stranded, swim to the nearest base as a sniper, sneak in and kill a few guys and actually capture the base.
         
        While I think BF3 is a fantastic game, mechanically and with a huge breadth of weapons, it does miss some of the epicness of Battlefield. You don’t find any maps that are all about air combat, like Coral Sea, or all about tanks like Battleaxe, or all about naval combat like  Midship. It was amazing, I really think the fact that you can be infantry, drive a jeep, a tank, or a friggin battleship, or the huge artillery, or a fighter plane, or a submarine… all that made Battlefield what it was, and that’s how I described it to friends: “You can do anything!” You could drive the carrier into the bay like a dork on Wake Island if you wanted. There was just something so unpredictable about 1942 that made it great. Whenever I think “how could Dice do it better with a game like BF3?” I usually always end up with “they should make an updated WWII game!” How amazing would it be to use the old-style rifles, prop planes and slow Sherman tanks with beautiful graphics?
         
        Well, now I’ve rehashed your old article, but good times man. Not much going on in that Air Maps server tonight on BF3, but hit me up if you want to play later.

    • And I just stumbled across your history of Battlefield! Good stuff!

      • Why thank you. Certainly was an enlightening albeit grueling writeup. Enjoyed your article very much as well.

  2. Richard

    Halo popularised the integration of vehciles into FPS’s not Tribes

    Trbies did it first but not as well as Halo and it certinaly didnt popularise it when you thinjk of Halo sales over tribes sales

    • You’re right that Halo played a big part, but it was really the second wave. Battlefield 1942, for instance, had its vehicles well integrated into its design before Halo ever came out (as did its predecessor, Codename Eagle). Sales are a good measure of how much a design influences players, but not so much with developers; if a game doesn’t sell very well and yet tons of game developers play it, it can have a huge influence anyway (this was the case with Ultima Underworld leading iD to make Doom, for instance). It really gets down into how you want to define the world “popularize” – there are games that did it before Tribes that are considerably more obscure than that series, and games that did it after that are more popular. But I’ll stick with my statement, because by the time Halo came out that ball was already rolling.

    • Halo 1’s vehicles were hardly integral to the design. Sure, Warthogs in Blood Gulch were neato. But the Banshees weren’t even in the first game’s multiplayer IIRC (PC version excepted), and many of the most popular maps were on-foot deathmatch. The same can’t be said of BF1942 or Tribes, whose jetpacks and vehicles were essential elements of most all maps.

  3. Rezorrand

    Your post raised a sense of nostalgia that I’ve searched for quite some while now. I have been trying to figure out why the new games are becoming increasingly dull, mostly playing around a simple gameplay gimmick and fancier graphics than the prequel. Although there are a few jewels that shine quite prettily, the influx of soil is terrible. What happened to developers? Are they just giving up on their dream games? Or is it the publishers fault for trying to be more and more politically correct to attract the acceptation of the public or what? Even Molyneux has been doing mostly Fable series.

    Some developers try to shock you or just give in to the glorification of military porn (CoD, MoH etc.) being too serious with their franchise. Square-Enix and Bethesda are two parties with quirky humor and quite different take on things, but they’re just a few specks of light in a universe of black holes.

    When everything the new games have to offer in terms of out of ordinary gameplay are laid bare on the ground, they just simply pale in comparison with the old classics. How come, in this time of indie games awakening, such mechanics are completely forgotten? Or have I been playing the wrong games? Minecraft is fun to play with, but it’s intentionally fun and it’s free mechanics shape much of the fun that comes out of it, but I don’t know almost any games now that didn’t try to restrict the way you can play them. They’re all just tunnel shooters with flimsy plots these days. The consolification of games brands has mostly just zombified many good series into the point of cold dullness. 🙁

    You spoke about the trending “purifying” of games, in my terms that’s very much the same as “blanding”. I dislike the polished games that have been overdone, it’s a bit like your favourite band’s new album that has been tuned and tuned until they pass the line where it’s just too refined that it loses it’s soul. “Mainstream games” are losing theirs.

    Indie games are working hard on countering that, but some are just built around super-simple and straightforward gameplay and some particular graphical style which isn’t really enticing either. On the other end of the spectrum the definition for indie games seems to be “insanely difficult”. They have loads of graphics assets and might be addictive, but they too lack the surprising factor that old games had. Super Meat Boy, Bit.Trip games, VVVVV to mention few. VVVVV is about exploration, but you get to know all of its features with half an hour gameplay. Meat Boy I’ve only played in the original flash version, haven’t bought it because I know I won’t like the grinding aspect of it. Bit.trip games are simple and have nice style, but there’s just nothing there that would make me want to play them. Take Commander Keen for example, secret messages, hidden areas that are not hinted in any way, fancy styles, colorful graphics (like the technicolor movies vs. contemporary sand/dark filters).

    Man.. I don’t usually write in this style. Haven’t written in like 10 years.. Thanks for the good trip to the past. Waiting for Thief 4.

    • I feel ya. Something that made me really depressed when doing some memory-refreshing for this piece: EA released 6 free maps in the years following the release of this game, all of them good. They’d never do that today – the game would ship with less maps to start with and they’d charge you for the rest.

      That said, there are still games being released every year that push the boundaries – there are definitely indie games that are overly simplistic in their mechanics or old-school-for-the-sake-of-being-old-school, but there are others that have really surprised me. Atom Zombie Smasher, for instance, isn’t really like anything I’ve ever played, and it uses its mechanics to make the atmosphere. But there is definitely a feeling that games are narrower, even when they’re grandiose and innovative – Heavy Rain comes to mind. Very different, I love that it’s there, but there isn’t a huge amount of freedom to it, though I suppose that’s the nature of adventure games.

      • Rezorrand

        Good points. I’ve been meaning to get the Heavy Rain, but just haven’t. I should probably get it, but currently I have 700 other games to worry about too, one of them which is Atom Zombie Smasher (got it through Humble Bundle), haven’t even installed it just yet, but will have to try it out now that you mentioned it.

        I’ve been reading the interviews that have been popping up in gog.com. One in particular was the Crusader: No Remorse (and No Regret) developer Tony Zurovec. I could pretty much understand him. His games were good, because he made games that he’d want to play himself. In retrospect that’s been source of many good games like Looking Glass Games, Ultima Series etc. When devs feel they’re making a game for themselves instead of certain target groups, it results in games that others will certainly feel like playing as well. Too much business, too little else.

        Take Zynga for example, they’ve made careful research in every aspect of their games and that gets many casual gamers playing their games, but the “games” are just these addiction machines that are designed to waste time (which sure is common knowledge by now) and milk people from their money with the in-app purchases that only allow you to make things more quick. It’s just rotten.. we had one Facebook games developer (for Disco Empire I think) come to our university to keep a lecture about FB games and once he had finished with his talk, I looked around and saw many gamers looking appaled about the raw money-making machine that the FB games platform has turned into. Not really making games to have fun with, but to make games that addicts their players. According to some researches, people playing those games don’t really enjoy themselves, but feel compelled to do those menial tasks of clicking everything through. Same thing with Tiny Tower, Smurf Village etc. all revolve around the same click & wait or click, pay money & don’t wait concept. It really just makes me feel sick.

        This sums it up pretty well:

  4. Tyler Clark

    I remember one match on Wake Island. It was when I made my first online friend.

    I joined in the middle of the match, was on the Axis side. Our team was pushing up the North side of the island. I spawned on the ship, which a player moved north and closer to shore so we could get there faster. Well, one of our team-mates got stuck in the south-western portion of the map. He was dog-fighting, and charged the enemy plane and ejected right before they crashed.

    Anyway, he landed WAAAY out into the ocean, and called for help. Well, I took a landing craft, and starting heading for him. I circled around the right side of the island, somehow sneaking by all of the enemy team in a damn landing craft. I got to the team-mate. Well, he was grateful, and I asked where he wanted to go. He didn’t mind, so I decided we should take the southern strip of the island while the main forces were occupied on the north strip.

    We landed at the far south end, and ran to the nearest point. Capped it without any resistance. We then took a jeep, and sped on over to the next one. The enemy did notice, but it was only like two people, who we dispatched easily. We then took the second point on the southern island.

    It was at this point that the enemy finally noticed us fully and quite a few people and a tank were coming our way. Out-manned, out-gunned, and pinned down, we were stuck. It was at that point we looked at each other, both nodded, and then charged the enemy.

    We failed, spectacularly. But we managed to get the enemy to split their forces, which let our main force in the north move into the airfield and take it.

    Made my first online friend that day. We still talk occasionally.

    Good times man, good times…

    The newer battlefield games are a much more “controlled” experience. Which may not be bad in and of itself, but it caused the franchise to lose the sense of wonder and fun it once had.

    • nkupton

      Awesome story!

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  6. Old School just more fun!

    1942 yeah baby! I keep coming back to this game. Dylan is right. FUN is the key word. Somewhere along the way game designers lost their way. It is a shame too. They began to put too much emphasis on graphics and not enough on game play. So many games are just repackaged games with graphics overhauls. BORING! 1942 was such a breath of fresh air when released. I had it the month it came out and it was such a dark horse. The game didn’t take off for a few months after release if I remember correctly. I have so many good memories of cruising my tank around and machine gunning unsuspecting players. Some of my favorite times are playing the game in single player mode with all bots and just laying waste RAMBO style. I wish more games would offer this option. Oh well…I will have BF3 in a few days and I dont think they are offering single player bot support. That is such a missed opportunity for replay value. Which reminds me of why I love 1942. Its replay value is awesome.

    Regarding the newer crop of games… Graphics are nice. I love fantastic graphics, but so many games these days seem like polished “turds”. Great looking but… boring, linear, predicable, with NO replay value built in… and they are simply NOT FUN. I play games for the FUN factor! I have played so many games since 1942 and rarely have I had as much fun. The latest greatest batch of games with direct X 11 support and all the bells and whistles that I have played lately seem to be missing something that the old games had. Maybe it’s the designers emphasis on one shot kills, insanely varied load out options, or the dreaded…(cue ominous music), Dumbing down for the consoles factor, (although battlefield 1943 sure was fun on my xbox 360, (why did they not release it for pc???.

    Any way I tip my glass to this article an to Dylan for bringing back some great gaming memories. I actually ordered the 1942 Complete Collection as a result of reading the article.
    Cheers,

    Old School Gamer

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