After watching and reading about Volition's Red Faction: Guerrilla earlier this month, you could be forgiven for turning your nose up at Battlefield: Bad Company 2's "Destruction 2.0". It goes further than the first game's technology, allowing you to flatten whole buildings, but it rather pales next to the insane calculations going on in Guerrilla, where legend has it that designers had to be given structural training because their unrealistic buildings kept falling down under the weight of real physics.
For example, I'm watching producer Patrick Bach play through a seemingly complete single-player mission in Bad Company 2 when he's given a laser designator and instructed to paint a meddlesome tank for air support. Incoming jets immediately take it out and flatten a pair of two-storey buildings adjacent to it, which fall down behind a convenient veil of flying debris and smoke. It looks great, leaving nothing behind (the main criticism of Bad Company's tech was that you couldn't knock everything to the ground), and DICE's Frostbite engine handles it comfortably on the 360 devkit. But you can't, for instance, ram a few RPGs into one of the walls so that the masonry tumbles onto the tank, just to see if it works. It's not as emergent as Red Faction claims it's going to be. Why not?
DICE creative director Lars Gustavsson says it's because the team has sacrificed advanced destruction in favour of other things. "I think we've found a really good level," he says. "It is really worth having the perfect destruction model, if it means that we can have fewer vehicles and players, we can't replicate it over network, and so on?" The goal is to achieve the perception of destruction, rather than the reality of it, and Gustavsson's happy with that. "[It's] to the point where you don't really question it when you play - that's the key thing. If we manage to reach that threshold, then it's definitely good enough. To go beyond that would almost be irresponsible; then it's a tech demo, and it will come at the price of something else."
That's fighting talk if you ask me, but then again, Volition wasn't exactly bashful when it said it was "ahead of everybody by five to ten years in terms of destruction". Battlefield series executive producer Karl-Magnus Troedsson makes a slightly different point with help from an unlikely source. "Our vegetation destruction might not be as advanced as some of the other competitors might do it," he admits, "but on the other hand we can have 10,000 trees in the level, which we did in Bad Company 1. In this case, quantity is a quality in itself." He pauses. "I think Stalin said that actually, so maybe it was a bad thing to say! Yes, he talked about the amount of tanks they had."
Bad Company 2 has lots of tanks as well, but before we get to that, let's set it up a bit. The sequel to DICE's first ever single-player game, Bad Company 2 puts you back in control of Preston, one of four self-involved US soldiers who adopt an idiosyncratic approach to warfare. The first game saw them on the hunt for gold in a warzone, Three Kings-style, and while DICE is curiously reluctant to talk about the story in Bad Company 2, Gustavsson and Troedsson agree that it's a bit less tongue-in-cheek. "I would say that the guys have had their honeymoon," Gustavsson offers. "They were out there in the middle of a war, everything going on, not so much focused on the war, didn't have to worry about it; more worrying about court martial and missing out on the gold. But those times are gone and now life is turning more serious and they have to face what they're up to."
But that's not to say Preston and friends are toeing the line completely. "It's almost like you take the guys from Three Kings and you throw them into a Tom Clancy scenario," Troedsson says. "It's still going to be the guys driving around the desert throwing baseballs with C4 on them and shooting at them or whatever it was that they did." It was American footballs - I secretly love George Clooney. "But they're going to be in a scenario that forces them, at times, to be more serious."
Until we're told more about that, there's the contents of the single level we're shown to consider. Set in the village of Abkhazi, surrounded by snow-covered mountains, it starts with a simple recon job, and quickly escalates once the Bad Company boys start across a frozen lake and spy Russians loading something into a truck. Instructions come down the wire to take them out, and after Sarge slices a patrolman's throat things quickly escalate into a classic iron-sights engagement in a crate-filled street, ducking out of the way of RPGs fired from windows as enemy flares go up to signal for reinforcements.
It hits all the usual buttons at this end of the FPS spectrum - darting between helpful cover (which now gradually disintegrates in accordance with Destruction 2.0), past burnt-out vehicle husks and into burnt-out buildings, trading fire with the Russians and occasionally segueing into an in-line set-piece - using a grenade launcher on a 50-cal emplacement, for example, or the aforementioned use of air support.
The differences, it turns out, are subtler. One of our criticisms of the first game was that your adversaries weren't so much intelligent as accurate, and both Troedsson and Gustavsson talk about DICE's attempts to improve on that. "A big part of the AI now is we want to change how they move around you," says Troedsson. "Movement is a big part of how you appreciate AI. We want to have the [friendly] squad move more closely together to you, so you're still the guy who runs around and they follow you around. We want them to run to cover, into cover positions, look up, this kind of thing; we want them to do this kind of thing, and similar things for the enemy AI."
Speaking of whom, Troedsson says that your enemies will be able to identify changes to the environment - like holes blown in walls - and use them to navigate through the world in search of you. Other updates include more realistic lines of sight and sound. "Before they were a bit - how should I say? - telepathic," Troedsson admits.
Gustavsson, who takes a top-down view of the development side of the game, says this also feeds into one of his "pet projects", data-driven development. "We've been working on it; not just making the AI more alive, but also how we track difficulty - telemetry while developing the game so we can see where do people die, and why do they die, to get a better difficulty curve, to make the game more accessible while still deep," he says. If that sounds familiar, it's a similar process to the one adopted by Bungie for Halo 3 (outlined rather splendidly in Wired). DICE has also reacted to feedback on the single-player respawn and health systems. Neither developer will tell me what's changed exactly, but Troedsson says "people who didn't like it are going to be happy".
But when it comes back to those tanks, and vehicles in general, it didn't take outside intervention to encourage change. "How the vehicles handle is something we weren't happy with in BC1," says Troedsson. "It didn't feel authentic the way they drove." Again, it's hard to prise out any specifics.
One thing DICE is happy to discuss, however, is the multiplayer side of the game. Troedsson calls it "the main focus", even though today's reveal is single-player. "I want to point that out - that multiplayer is really key to what we're doing here, almost to the point that I would say the multiplayer in BC2 is more important than the single-player. This is where we get the longevity of our products, where we see the most dedicated fans, and this is also where we're spending most of our focus in the actual development," he says. He confirms that Bad Company's Gold Rush mode will return, and, although he doesn't explicitly say so, Conquest surely will as well, after fan feedback saw it added to the first game in a patch after release. Any co-operative modes? "We'll see." What I see is a big smile. Busted!
Troedsson and Gustavsson are also keen to get behind player incentives in multiplayer. "What we have done in Battlefield products before has been about giving you all the tools directly the second you jump into the game," says Troedsson. "What we're looking at now is we want to create a system that is much more sticky and can keep the interest of people playing longer, by seeing how we can meddle with denying you some of the things at the beginning and seeing how we can pace it out - actually challenging the player to go out and do something specific in order to get something."
"When we are out playing, we are selfish," adds Gustavsson. "I want to be on top of the list. And you need to recognise that fact. As soon as we started giving people score for healing people [in Battlefield 2], everyone became frickin' Mother Teresa... We're looking at that in Bad Company 2 as well, without going too much into detail. We're looking at how we can re-emphasise some of the team play with scoring incentives." One thing they won't be doing, though, is enforcing it. Squad play will be optional this time, and DICE is also looking at ways to make it easier to hook up with your friends.
Back to single-player, and the demo level being shown in Stockholm concludes explosively as the Bad Company team gives chase to the Russian truck, firing on ATVs and armoured vehicles in an on-rails segment that concludes as a massive helicopter pursues them into a tunnel, to its complete annihilation. There's constant banter as RPG-toting ATV duos are thrown off cliffs ("Hey, how's my driving, asshole?"), and the spectacle's definitely there already.
All that remains is to fill in the details, which will probably happen at E3, if not later, in time for the game to release at the back end of 2009, or in early 2010. With a renewed emphasis on the studio's multiplayer strengths, and as the Swedish developer's third single-player release, Bad Company 2 stands a better chance than most of escaping the fate that befell its last game, Mirror's Edge, which was crushed under the weight of Q4 rivals despite strong reviews. But it will be a while before we can tell whether compromises like Destruction 2.0 are sufficient to exceed the first game's promising achievements. Troedsson and Gustavsson are adamant though: it's not just Bad Company in the snow.
Battlefield: Bad Company 2 is due out for PS3, Xbox 360 and PC.