It's hard to get into. That's been a problem with online PC games for a while now, because there's really nothing casual about them. You have to get inside their communities to really enjoy the game, and these hardened fraternities of gamers can be obscure nuts to crack. All too often the newbie sidles into a game and looks around, is embarrassed by having to ask so many questions, and gives up to go back to something a little less forbidding. Quite a few of my games journalist colleagues cite this problem as one of the major reasons why online PC games are flawed: they're just too awkward to be mainstream. It's geek terrain. Developers, meanwhile, work to make them ever more accessible to the general gamer - see Battlefield 2. See World of Warcraft.
But then there are games which simply don't want to bend in this way. Their kick is in their complexity and their demands on the player. They remain resolutely out on the periphery of what it's possible to be interested in. They're tough to get into, overly complex, reliant on lots of acquired knowledge. They rely on communities of committed and enthusiastic players to keep running. And yes, Battleground Europe is exactly that kind of game.
Battleground Europe is the relaunch (or the latest iteration) of the World War II Online project, which has been going on for about five years. The idea behind it all is to recreate the entire Western front online, complete with everything except civilians. WW2 online delivers ships, towns, Messerschmits, Spitfires, tanks, infantry, rickety old Bedford trucks, and a lot of hedges to hide in. The scope is vast, and it's a bit of shame that there aren't enough people in the game to truly demonstrate what it could be capable of. With some organisation it begins to shine because, unlike the perpetual battles of closest cousin Planetside, World War II is a war that can genuinely be won or lost in weeks or months. The frontline is a real one and the territory almost as vast as the embattled tract of Europe itself. The Axis and Allies are slugging it out to win the war right now, and the historically accurate technologies develop as that conflict unfolds. Since there is a single server to log into, everyone who plays Battleground Europe is fighting the same war. The late night American contingent put on some impressive displays of firepower.
Nevertheless, I knew Battleground Europe was going to be immediately unappealing because I've looked at World War II Online a few times over the years. During that time the player numbers stayed low and that the game has stayed ugly. There was only one logical way to conduct this review, and that was to get one of the major teams to show me what was really going on. I arrived back in virtual 1940s Belgium with a friend of a friend and guiding hand, which made all the difference. Of course this seemingly small step is a fair hurdle to get past for the average gamer, and I'm acutely aware that I knew to do it. If this game was picked off the shelf, and our imaginary gamer went in cold, with little more in his head than hoping it might be like those other World War 2 games he'd played, only with more people, then he could end up being be perplexed, even appalled.
I'd like to think he'd detect something else there, some potential, but it's nevertheless likely that he'd log off anyway, because the time required to get rolling really just seemed like too much. And he'd be right. This is playing war at its most serious: one for the armchair generals and the tank-fanciers. Like the PC's numbing simulations and the tougher strategy titles, Battleground Europe is detailed and functional. And that means ugly. Ugly like a block of flats. Ugly like concrete slabs. Despite having more toys than Battlefield, this is a vehicular FPS that defies our expectations of visual loveliness. It's nothing that will appeal to your immediate gaming intuitions, and if the Biblical-length key lists are anything to go by then there's a whole lot more than ugly visuals to digest. Nevertheless it does work. It works because it does everything it wants to, and it wants to do a lot. On the micro-scale of jumping in and looking around it sets you traversing a vast terrain, and when you look at the wider picture, you begin to realise just how much the small, poorly-funded development team has had to contend with. The game is vast.
In fact, once you're caught up in the moment, there are some beautiful experiences to be had. Sure, the inside of a shed is pretty ugly even by the standards of five years ago, but taking off in a bomber and seeing the whole player-driven formation rise up around you, fading in and out as you ascend through the clouds, is breath-taking. Seeing tanks open up against each other as tiny people run for their lives between trees and hedgerows is unlike anything else you can play (except perhaps Flashpoint), and so it's these moments that really begin to decide what Battleground Europe is all about. When you get up into the sky and begin to see the sheer scale of what is going on here, or when you make a night raid on one of the front line 'forward bases' that spring up from enemy territory, you realise what a majestic and impressive game Battleground Europe can be.
So as I crawled along on my belly and watched the fighters whirling overhead, I begin to take satisfaction from being a cog in a larger machine. While Battlefield's World War is really just a 20-minute burst of skill and personal glory, Battleground Europe is about simply enjoying your achievements for the greater good. Manning an anti-aircraft gun to keep your tanks from being strafed, or giving some stranded infantry a lift in your truck, these are moments that integrate into a larger picture, one of your battalion, and then a larger one: that of the war as a whole. Sure, a game based around driving a bunch of squaddies down a country lane might not be all that thrilling, but as part of a huge theatre of conflict it suddenly becomes compulsive.
And compulsive is what Battleground Europe has the potential to be, if you give it a chance. But also if you fall in with the right players, in the right place, at the right time. It's too big for its population, and kills are hard to come by, so crawling through some mud and managing to place that killing shot is peculiarly satisfying. Whether you'll want to pay a monthly subscription for the pleasure is another matter. You'll need to consider just how much you want to fight World War 2. I think the answer for most people will be 'not enough'.