Battlefield: Bad Company

Hands-on with the multiplayer beta.

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.

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Tom called his character "Enron".

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.

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