Version tested: Xbox 360
Everyone loves a fat, juicy rivalry. Pepsi or Coke? Beatles or Stones? SEGA or Nintendo? These simple, binary pop-culture choices prompt endless arguments about which is best, but also help us define who we are and who we stand with. Now here comes EA's Swedish studio, DICE, making no secret of the fact that it wants to add another choice to that list: Bad Company 2 or Modern Warfare 2?
The first Battlefield: Bad Company game was an entertaining blast, with its crudely destructible environments and snot-nosed cast of irascible characters blagging dodgy gold in the middle of a war-zone. Boisterous and exciting, like an affectionate pit-bull, it still felt tentative, timid even at times. This was DICE feeling its way back into a console shooter market that had changed beyond all recognition since they last ventured into the land of the joypad with 2005's Battlefield: Modern Combat.
Bad Company 2, however, is an open challenge to the market leader, Activision's blockbuster behemoth. So let me pin my flag to the mast right from the start. This is the superior game.
It's not just the occasional overt jibe at the competition's expense - though one cut-scene pokes fun at elite special forces who use "pussy-ass heartbeat detectors", while another vocal aside insists "snowmobiles are for sissies" as quad bikes roar along a narrow jungle path. The overall structure of the game echoes that of Infinity Ward's cash-cow while being smarter and deeper in almost every aspect. This is a game that nicks Call of Duty's party dress, and looks better in it.
This is evident from the start of the single-player campaign, which opens proceedings with a tense and lengthy prologue mission set in 1944. This establishes the over-arching threat of the game - a secret and devastating Japanese weapon - and also acts as a nice bridge between the original Battlefield games and this brasher, hi-tech version. The pace is immediate and intense, packing in short bursts of exposition and in-game cut-scene material with frantic running gun battles. It ends ominously, and establishes the saurian foghorn sound of the scalar weapon as something to make your blood run cold. As an opening salvo, it's memorable and effective.
We then cut to Bravo Company in the present day, and the game hits the ground running. While on a routine mission, our quartet of salty, cynical soldiers stumble across something connected to the doomsday device. Clearly, it's about to fall into the wrong hands and Bad Company is swiftly drafted into the world of black ops to track down and retrieve the device before it can be used to aid Russia in invading US soil.
The improvements over the previous game are immediately evident. For one, the story and dialogue are nigh-on perfect. Not only does writer David Goldfarb manage to spin a yarn that hops all over the planet while remaining coherent, he also peppers every dialogue scene with the sort of quotable banter that will thrill any fan of vintage action movies. Unlike Modern Warfare 2's disjointed compilation of set-pieces, Bad Company 2 plays like a whip-smart Shane Black script from the late eighties. The razor-sharp quips are delivered with some superb voice acting and subtle deadpan animation, and the result is a game that will have you laughing out loud even as you're gripping the joypad for dear life.
The 13 levels (if you include the prologue) are nicely varied, dropping you into situations that tweak the expected shooter framework in refreshing ways. One particularly memorable section finds you in the Andes, forced to make your way down a mountain in a blizzard. As well as contending with enemy guards, you have to keep finding cover or creating fires with explosives to keep from freezing to death, ice crystals encroaching on your view, your gun rattling in frost-bitten fingers.
There's also an epic mission that sends you to a South American desert on a multi-pronged quest to triangulate the position of a beached freighter containing vital info. The game goes a little bit open-world for this section, offering up three objectives that can be reached by Jeep or quad-bike. You'll battle through canyons in a sandstorm, storm a castle and pick your way through a derelict town populated by snipers before engaging in a tastefully small amount of Gordon Freeman-style first-person platforming to navigate the rusted hulk of the freighter. There are numerous vehicle sections, some of which feel superfluous and little more than excuse for some turret-based catharsis, but they do break up the on-foot action.