It's a testament to DICE's original multiplayer war game that even though there's been a spin-off or expansion every year since 2002, many people have been holding out for a proper World War 2 sequel for seven years. That this sequel arrives on consoles first, rather than PC, and as a bargain-priced digital download no less, reveals much about how gaming has changed since we first planted our boots in Battlefield's bloody, muddy soil.
This is undeniably Battlefield stripped down and pared back for a new generation of gamers. Those familiar with the PC original would be forgiven for being taken aback at just how slender the available options are, in almost every area. This ruthless focus is actually one of the game's strengths, at least in the short term, but it remains to be seen how such a skeletal starting point will sustain itself over the coming months.
It's war as Groundhog Day, a neverending series of skirmishes set in the Pacific theatre, but for many players it's getting started that has been the problem. Plagued by server problems and lag in its first 48 hours of public play, such technical sluggishness casts a pall over those all-important first impressions. Spending upwards of 30 minutes hitting the Quick Match button over and over really isn't something we should have to do for an online-only title with this sort of pedigree. Assuming these issues are resolved quickly, however, there's no reason to hold the teething troubles against the game itself. Once you do manage to get past the obstinate "No games found" message, you'll find a marvellously intuitive multiplayer shooter with a commendably balanced design.
It's the US versus Japan, and each nation boasts just three classes of soldier: Rifleman, Infantry and Scout. These come with a standard load-out of weaponry. A primary weapon, from the Infantry's close-quarters machine gun to the Scout's long-distance sniper rifle; a secondary weapon, usually something explosive; and grenades or remote charges. There's also a variety of mounted machineguns and AA cannons to choose from, and an air raid accessible from radar stations that allows you to steer a trio of bombers over the map, pounding a target with clusters of bombs.
That's your lot, so anyone hoping to tweak and customise their kit in detail will be sorely disappointed. The same holds true of vehicles. Both sides have tanks, jeeps, gunboats and fighter planes. They look slightly different, but all have the same weaponry in the same positions. Neither side has the advantage in any area simply because of their default arsenal, but anyone finding themselves pummelled in one area can always earn some points by trying something else. Manning an anti-air battery and shooting down enemy fighters is always good for a few ranks, as is taking a cunning approach and sneaking around to claim undefended bases for an instant 30-point bonus.
There's only one game mode though, a simple and mostly idiot-proof base-capture which keeps teams moving between five strategic points on the maps. Wresting control of these locations from the opposition is key to victory. The match doesn't simply end when you capture all of them, but instead your enemy's respawn tickets are depleted faster the more bases you hold. There's no health bar and ammo is infinite, with a small recharge time the only penalty for running dry, so the omnipresent respawn gauge is the only HUD detail you need to worry about.
There are also just three island maps on which to wreak havoc. Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima are fairly similar, offering a range of elevated hills, winding paths and trenches to scurry around. Wake Island is notable for its horseshoe shape, which has a distinct impact on the gameplay. There's also a fourth map-cum-mode, the mysterious dogfight-heavy Coral Sea, which will only be unlocked after a community event in which players have to rack up a cumulative 43 million kills (that's 43m each for PS3 and Xbox 360). All, however, are cleverly designed to keep the action moving around the map - the current conflict hotspot is always shown on-screen with a crossed-swords icon - without ever feeling like you're being herded for the sake of a cheap chokepoint. You instinctively learn the tricks and tactics that work best for each location, an evolving mental checklist that treats the terrain as a tangible place with consistent rules - always a good indication that the design is working.
So, two identical factions, three classes, three main maps and one game mode. For a download title it's an adequate start, but it does leave you in little doubt that the future of Battlefield 1943 lies in micropayments and DLC. Again, those reared on the mod community of the original game will no doubt bristle at having to pay for map packs and the like, and it's true that the prospect of paying to keep the game interesting rather negates the current bargain price.
As an initial investment, the game certainly impresses. It's an incredibly immersive dip into familiar waters, with the Bad Company's Frostbite engine offering up a satisfying destructible world, where buildings can crumble and walls collapse under the treads of a rampaging tank. Character models are a little basic, and the maps show their limitations when you take a plane high into the sky, but there's not much to complain about where production values are concerned. If anything dampens things on that front, it's the lag, which is most notable if you're trying to shoot down planes which teleport across the sky in distracting lurches. Hopefully the server fix will eradicate this problem.
Despite being pitched at console gamers, there are few concessions to the n00bs here. Anyone used to the subtle auto-aiming that makes most console shooters playable online will be flummoxed by the unforgiving accuracy demanded here, while the pace of the gameplay leaves little room for those trying to find their feet. There's a tutorial, but with no live foes it doesn't do much to prepare you for the mayhem ahead.
It comes with the territory, but it's no surprise to see the leaderboards for each match dominated by a handful of elite players who walk away from the round with over 500 points, while newcomers struggle to double figures. There's thankfully no friendly fire, but many of the other frustrations from Battlefields of old are still here, especially the prevalence of camping snipers. The sniper rifle in BF1943 is a ludicrously overpowered beast, capable of killing players in one shot from the other side of the map, so all it takes is for one team to have a proficient long-distance shooter and the precious balance so beautifully created by the weaponry and vehicles starts to fall apart.
Movement on foot is sometimes snagged by rogue scenery or a wayward incline, and vehicle control isn't all it could be. The planes are slippery customers, but mastering their peculiarities is one of the few ways to guarantee massive scores. You can also be sure to find queues of annoying players loitering around the plane respawn points, practically begging to be sniped. The land vehicles aren't quite as successful - with no reverse gear they're easy to jam into impossible spaces, and tanks are often more trouble than they're worth.
The slimline features also means that there's not much benefit in ranking up. Although there are awards for specific feats, these are just collectable stamps. There are no perks, no bonuses, no loftier purpose behind climbing the ranks than old-fashioned bragging rights. Nor are the lobby options much to get excited about. The front-end is functional but inflexible, clearly favouring those who just want to dive into the first available match. You can join up with friends as a squad, and carry your own private chat channel from one round to the next, but in terms of setting up custom games you're limited to basic options.
These minor irritations come and go as you battle through lengthy sessions, and while the gameplay benefits from the no-frills approach, rendering the action accessible to all in concept if not always in practice, there is a lingering danger that the game's undeniable appeal will dim pretty quickly with so few variables to play with. In the first flushes of infatuation it's an easy game to love, and one that will easily provide hours of ferocious enjoyment. In a few months' time the spell may well have worn off, but for this price that's really not something to worry about right now.
8 / 10