Retrospective: Battlefield 1942
Wake Island. That was the map DICE put in the demo. A crescent shaped rock in the Pacific Ocean, it was home to a dusty airfield and no more than a dozen threadbare shacks housing some rusty tanks. The dangerous waters surrounding this lonely lump of sand included a submarine, battleship and, most spectacularly, a fully driveable aircraft carrier.
In what has to be one of the least subtle battle tactics ever hatched, an optimistic player on the attacking Japanese side could try and drive this gigantic steel behemoth away from its anchored position, with the vain hope that the defending Americans wouldn't notice. Though this would inevitably result in the feared American war cry: "You bastard! That's cheating! I thought we agreed no ships! Come on, I have to have my dinner soon!"
Battlefield 1942 came out in 2002. I was a typical scruffy teenager with a silly haircut, and my best friend Rushi was the same, only his was even sillier. Hoovering up demo discs on the covers of gaming magazines, we'd play anything and everything. That is, until we installed the Wake Island Multiplayer demo for the first time, and anything else instantly became irrelevant.
Neither of us had played anything like it. Driving and shooting? Flying? And aircraft carriers? What madness was this? We began playing it every spare hour we had a chance, joining pitched battles already in progress, lending our combined skills to either side, a couple of kids eager to prove their worth. Thundering across the bay in a leaky boat and chasing down errant grey flags of contested control points became a regular after school activity. However, playing these matches was only a part time interest. Most of the time, we didn't have such important concerns.
Most of the time, we'd play.
We'd start up a private server, just the two of us, and experiment with the wonky physics engine for the noble purpose of fun. Together we found out that if you stand atop a half-track tank and blew it with dynamite, the resulting explosion would propel you high enough into the air to give you just enough time to activate your parachute before you hit the ground with a heavy thud.
It would hurt, but it was survivable. It therefore served as an excellent launch pad as one of us would drive the ill-fated half track towards a cliff top ridge mined with TNT, the other clasping the detonator in his hand while trying to keep balance on top of the fast moving armour. Reaching the summit at top speed, the driver would bail out and the rider detonate, blowing the transport to pieces and sending the rider into a giggling miniature base jump, following the tumbling blackened remains of the tank.
With vehicles came races. Lining up two Willy jeeps on one end of the island, one of us would throw a grenade into the distance, the explosion signalling the start of a point-to-point speed race. These usually barely lasted longer than the first narrow bridge. Of course, there was that one time I planted land mines before the race started and allowed Rushi to take the lead. Actually, that happened several times. Sorry.
I remember the afternoon we finally, finally managed to get torpedoes to work, triumphantly sinking the battleship. I remember the day I was flying overhead in a bomber, trying to reduce his tank to scrap metal and he nailed a cannon shot straight into my propeller, scattering me over the beach.
It was that joyful blend of real world equipment and sandbox fun videogames allow us to play with. It was a war game many players took very seriously, as I saw whenever I joined a legitimate server. But for myself and Rushi, we were forever just a couple of boys playing soldier.
Loading it up now reveals a much slower pace than what I've grown accustomed to. This was a game, after all, that gave the rocket launcher-wielding anti-tank class a single solitary pistol to defend himself with. The pared down loadouts seem oddly barren compared to today's never-ending cascade of weapon unlocks and bonus XP. Still, that same spartan feel results in a lean, stripped down team, the roles of each class cemented in their function. That anti-tank trooper isn't going to win many infantry fights, but any roaming Tigers should better watch out.
Airplanes also had a more refined attitude. The dignified propeller driven skies above Wake Island are a far cry from the afterburner-fuelled rampages that take place above the Caspian Boarder. The fighter planes and dive bombers of 1942 swooped above the battlefields, delicate birds, and could even stall if pushed too high too sternly. Rushi and I spent entire evenings just wheeling through the skies of Wake Island, learning to fly. Dogfights were common, but more often we'd try to nail that upside down loop the loop under the bridge, inevitably giggling at yet another sudden hard water landing.
Further hours were spent seeing just how high we could fly, circling ever upwards into the bright blue skybox, leaving the ocean behind, vanishing far below us. Dogfights up there above the clouds took on a strange, ethereal quality, as I'd soon forget which direction gravity was in. Not that it was hard to rediscover - on many occasions, we'd simply bail out of the planes and freefall back to earth, the discarded aircraft careening around us like paper planes in the wind. Apt, since if you'd freefall far enough, the American pilot would scream "Geronimo!" followed by a very long and messy sounding fart.
This all fed back into the sense of play the game had waiting for us after school was done for the day. We would only ever capture points in order to spawn the Japanese vehicles, pitting Eastern wisdom against American muscle in contests of speed and strength. Maybe if we put enough landmines here, we can launch the jeep over the tank? Can we try to surf on the airplane wings again? Go on, I'll drive, you stand on the wings. No, try going prone, that seemed to work better last time. Come on, it'll work this time. Yes, I promise not to drop you.
God damn it, Rushi.
I did buy the full game, eventually. I played it obsessively, for months, and I bought the two expansion packs with my pocket money and played them obsessively too. First Road to Rome and then the much more entertaining Secret Weapons of WW2, which had me watching its glorious intro over and over again, the perfect sequel to the perfect original. Once more, the demo for this new adventure was to become our playground, featuring a snowy forest level with a central control point that afforded the owning team the use of jetpacks.
We used to play it as a Capture the Flag match, in keeping with the series' origins as Codename Eagle, DICE's first efforts depicting multiplayer vehicular mayhem. There was nothing more exhilarating than managing to push the wheezing motorbike up that one particular rocky mountain into the game-breaking out of bounds territory, to then circle around the entire map, skating the death zone, and come rocketing down through the enemy base to grab their flag and make a daring getaway lanced by outraged enemy gunfire.
Hit detection and world interaction was always fuzzy, but players found ways to take advantage of the loopholes in the maths. Tapping Z while running forwards wouldn't just make your soldier go prone, it would hurl your soldier onto his stomach into the dirt. I never really bothered using the increased accuracy to fight with, because if you dived to prone at the top of a hill, the ropey physics engine would transform you into a frictionless toboggan, sliding over the ridge and down the sheer drop with the feeling that you were starring in your own personal action movie.
There was one time where I did feel like the hero that saved the day. Through dumb luck, I had managed to be the last soldier on my team alive. All control points on the map taken by our dreaded adversaries, and that meant no teammates could spawn. Alone, no reinforcements possible, hunted by the enemy, I hurried towards a lone control point, the invisible eyes of my entire team spectating my movements. If I died, it was game over for the good guys. No pressure, right?
So of course I managed to capture the control point, ushering in a wave of vengeful troops. It felt pre-destined: I was the lone soldier, the hero of the hour who comes and saves the day. It was my finest moment: reverting their flag to grey immediately signposted my presence to the enemy but prevented them from spawning at that crucial point. It left me to kill soldier after soldier after soldier, pick up their weapons, find a lucky medic kit and feverishly heal myself between loosing off rockets at a prowling tank. Of course I captured the point. I was the hero, if only for a brief moment.
That's the best part about Battlefield. Every person who's played any of the Battlefield games has a story similar to that. One soldier who makes his presence known on the battlefield. The king of the server, or maybe just the hill, just for a moment. Winning the battles, even if the war was lost.
I visited Rushi recently. We hadn't seen each other for quite some time, and had grown distant. We're older now, have sensible haircuts, boys trying to play at being more mature. As he was preparing lunch, going on about some work related nothingness, I quietly installed the Wake Island demo on his laptop and loaded up a game. I turned up the speakers as I spawned, a lone Japanese soldier on his aircraft carrier, floating off the shore of that familiar crescent shaped rock.
"Is that Battlefield?" Rushi asked, as I turned the laptop screen towards him. Smiling, he took control and ran over to one of the planes, climbed in and started her engines. "Oh man," he grinned. "I remember this." Picking up speed, the plucky little fighter plane flew along the deck, taking off once again, majestic, into the sunny blue skies. Almost immediately, Rushi crashed it pathetically into the ocean.
We laughed, a couple of distant friends transformed instantly back into silly teenagers. "Go on, spawn", I prompted. "Have another go. You'll soon get the hang of it again."
The servers for the Battlefied 1942 Wake Island demo are still up. Maybe you'll find us there, but we'll be too busy playing soldier to fight.