The gap between consoles and PCs, once a yawning chasm, is now but a tiny crack. This has made dedicated PC owners wail and gnash their teeth and use phrases like "dumbing down" more often than they really should. For all their protests, many of the things that were once lynchpins of the PC scene are now just as common on the consoles. Online play is taken for granted, and people grumble if it's not there. Sadly, so is the habit of patching games after release. And now it seems that even the sacred ritual of the public beta test has become a console event. Thousands piled online to give Halo 3's multiplayer offering a trial run before release, and now EA has created another big ruckus by dishing out keys for Battlefield: Bad Company, the console-exclusive shooter based on the popular PC online title.
The game itself will focus on the single-player mode, with the story and mission structure you'd expect. But whenever Battlefield developer DICE does anything involving multiplayer action, you can bet there'll be huge interest.
The current beta provides a glimpse at Gold Rush, one of Bad Company's online modes. It's a variation on Capture The Flag, with players split into Defenders and Attackers. Two chests full of gold are at stake, with the Attackers doing their utmost to blow them open to swipe the contents while the Defenders...well, have a wild guess. The attacking force has a limited number of respawn tickets, shown by a long bar at the top of the screen, so the Defenders' goal is to keep killing the attackers until they run out respawn options. For the Attackers, for each pair of gold chests claimed the action falls back to another area, with another two chests. Clear four areas, pushing the Defenders all the way to the back of their territory, and the Attackers win. It's a nice neat set-up, simple enough so that even the most trigger-happy n00b can grasp it, while offering plenty of room for experienced players to formulate satisfying tactical solutions.
For the purposes of this beta, two maps are available. Each demonstrates a different aspect of the game. Ascension is a rural map, centred around a village with a castle stronghold as the final fallback position. Buildings are grouped close together, and there are lots of hills to fortify and trees to hide behind. Oasis is a larger, less densely populated desert map, with lots of vehicles and low buildings. Cover is scarce, making it a sniper's paradise.
Five soldier classes are available, encompassing Assault, Demolition, Specialist, Recon and Support. All are surprisingly useful, right from the start, although the numerous upgrade options and unlockable items can make all the difference. Yep, even though this is a beta there's a fairly solid promotion system in place, with points scored in-game raising you through the ranks, and each rank allows you to choose another item from the store. The Support class, for instance, is capable of much more than simply slinging medpacks at wounded team-mates. Purchase the mortar attack, and you can bunker down in a safe spot and call for artillery thunder. Even though the aim is mainly to test the servers and run around shooting people, there's plenty of incentive to take this beta seriously.
So, how does it play? Extremely well is the answer, especially considering the amount of people playing. I've hopped online at all hours, and there's always been a full complement of matches to join straight away. Despite the crowds, the game has been silky smooth with almost no lag. Players dropping in and out causes nary a flicker, as there's always someone else to take their place. The maps are well designed, offering something for every style of play, and the overall impression is of a technically accomplished game that's been intelligently streamlined for console play. Vehicles, in particular, are a definite highlight. One button to accelerate, another to reverse, and you can hop into a tank, jeep or boat with no worries about how it will handle. There are no jets, but helicopters are a feature of the Oasis map. Control of these is considerably trickier, as you'd expect. They're deadly when mastered, but it's hilariously common to find some giddy newcomer rushing to take off in a chopper, only to spiral backwards and smash into the ground.
Visually, it's a treat. There's some v-sync tearing, but the frame-rate remains high even when the scenery is being blown to smithereens around you. Mostly, these maps just feel like real places - especially when you shred a tree trunk with a machine-gun and watch it topple over. The game's destructible environments mean that a well-placed rocket or grenade can blow out the walls of a building. Structures can't be completely flattened, so damage tends to occur in rather obvious square tiles, but there's still something immensely satisfying about avenging yourself by demolishing your enemies' hiding places.
That's not to say there aren't some irritating elements though. For one, this still seems to be very much a game for the hardened online soldier. Those weaned on Halo 3's less frantic team play may find themselves lost amid the savage fury of Battlefield's, er, battlefield. Noisy, terrifying and with death around every corner, you'll need to be a pretty accomplished shooter to really get the most out of the experience. While such atmospherics can be absolutely thrilling, they can also frustrate and the chaotic carnage can certainly feel overwhelming at first. "Hurray" shout some of you. "Er...no thanks" mutter others.
This isn't helped by a stripped-down respawn system that gives you only two choices - spawn back at the current base, or spawn with your squad. The former gives you breathing space, and the chance to grab a vehicle, but means you then have to trek all the way back to where the action is. The latter drops you alongside a team-mate, sometimes even in a tank, but often means you can die within seconds of respawning since there's no guarantee you haven't just appeared in the path of a bullet or an artillery strike. If you're an Attacker, losing respawns in this way becomes a real problem. You can see the logic in the system, but its binary all-or-nothing approach means that it can be hard to find the flow of a game, with all hope of coherent strategy blown sky high in a series of unavoidable deaths. Newcomers, especially, will probably find this makes or breaks the online play.
The chaos isn't helped by some fussy identification. Regardless of which side you end up on, allies are always marked blue on the map, support classes green, while enemies are red. Coloured floating Gamertags show you who's who on-screen, but this info doesn't always kick in. I often found myself facing a soldier, unsure as to which side he was on because of the lack of identifying info. Uniforms are too similar to be of any use - dark grey or dark green, basically - so if the game isn't helping, you need to get them in your sights and see what colour the reticule shows. You don't want to risk killing a team-mate, since that comes with a harsh 25-point penalty but during this momentary hesitation, of course, they've often killed you. It doesn't take many hits to go down, either, especially since the beta is filled with headshot experts. Those hoping to ease themselves in and find some breathing space to really get a feel for the game will be out of luck.
The only other major gripe is one familiar from most multiplayer games - a good sniper can pretty much dominate the map, and camping is fairly common. We already know that there will be weapons in the game that are exclusive to the Gold Edition, or must be purchased separately. EA has promised that this won't unbalance the gameplay, but it's easy to see how a dedicated player with the best equipment can make life hell for other players. Avoiding spawn-campers is one reason why switching to mobile squad-based respawns can be a good thing, but as the maps are designed to funnel the action there's still a tendency to find yourself picked off over and over by the same Gamertag, with little chance of figuring out where the shots are coming from. There's no prone position, while the crouch is fairly useless, so unless there's a nearby building to duck into, if there's a sniper about you're pretty much dead.
Thankfully, if you do spot the sniper, you don't need to be a sharpshooter to take them down, and blowing the hell out of their hiding place is so much more satisfying. Splashback damage, oddly, isn't that bad, so it's actually safer to be buried under an exploding wall rather than risk a bullet in the open. At the very least, it's hilarious to see the offending sniper running for cover like a cockroach as their sanctuary crumbles around them.
None of these grumbles should be allowed to overshadow just how much fun Gold Rush is, though. While the frequent death and dominant alpha geeks can try the patience, the map design and weapon-set means that there's always fun to be had. Is it a dumbed-down version of a PC favourite? Not really. On the basis of this small glimpse, it's merely stripped-down, with emphasis on getting players into the action as quickly as possible, and offering clear objectives to keep everyone moving the same direction. There are certainly tweaks that can be made - mostly in terms of spawning options and more consistent ID markers - but it already plays like a polished and stable romp. Considering that this tiny sliver of the game has kept me coming back for hour after hour, the prospect of a full suite of multiplayer modes in a similar vein is very exciting. Bad Company may not reinvent online combat, but it certainly seems explosive enough to make a convincing challenge to Call of Duty 4's crown.