Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Bad Company 2: The Online Experience

It's been a month since the game's released.  And I have promised that I would be writing this review to properly ensure that I have virtually viewed every aspect of the game on the multiplayer front.  As one might have guessed, this is to make sure that I have played it and know just how the weapons feel and work while playing online.  While other reviewers may have put in only certain amount of hours just to review the online experience, I clocked in over 120 hours just to make sure that I leave no stone unturned.

Since the game's release, the servers has gone through a few revisions.  At the time of writing, the server is on R9 while the server has been released as R3.  For the client, we have seen 2 major updates to address various issues.  However, like any new game released, there are still issues yet to be resolved.  This is something the PC players have to deal with until things are ironed out.  Not that I'm complaining or anything, this is just a natural occurrence.

To start off, the first step is to create an EA account.  This account will be the master key to anything EA-related, which range from posting on forums to playing other games published or made by EA themselves.  The second step is to create a "Soldier," which I rather call a profile instead as it is more fitting.  The maximum number of profiles you can have is 6.  Originally, each profile generates a unique "GUID" but this has since been changed.  Upon creation of a profile, you start out at the very bottom of the ranking list.  In fact, you're so far down you don't even have a rank name or level.  There's no rank symbol and you're just a nobody.  This is entertaining at first.  But it seems that being at the bottom of the pile also follows you for a while as well, since you're very limited in what you are capable of.

All online multiplayer functions are listed in the "Multiplayer" part of the menu at the top.  To play online, there are two ways to start.  The first is to find a server to play on using the "Server Browser."  The second is to use the "Play Now" function.  The latter is a no-frills method to get you connected and into the action as quick as possible.  But more often than not, this is not entirely a good thing to do.

A good aspect to having a variety of servers out there is to find one that is managed by a community or clan.  A managed server, as opposed to those provided by the company, has small perks and benefits that may suit your interests and needs as a player.  These benefits can include a friendly atmosphere, a cheat-free environment, or little rules or guidelines that you prefer or like.  Servers that are not managed are likely to be filled by other players who take pride in taking every advantage that they can get.  Though this is not always the case, the possibility is there.  A friendly atmosphere is more suitable for a new player than the ones that are brutal and ruthless to the ones just starting out.

Once on a server, you're shown a screen that gives you available spawn points and classes for you to choose from.  Spawn points are locations which you will be placed in with the class you selected.  These spawn points can be your base or on other players if you belong to a squad.  Squads are groups of players organized together for strategic and tactical operations.  You can join a squad or you can run around as a loner.  But there benefits to being in a squad than running around as a lone wolf.

There are 4 classes to choose from: Assault, Medic, Engineer, and Recon.  Each class can perform special functions and abilities and each class has certain weapons that only they can use.  The Assault class carries the assault rifles with a grenade launcher attachment and can resupply ammunitions to other teammates (or foes if you're not careful enough).  The Medic class can heal wounded players and can revive if they are shot down.  They carry Light Machine Guns and can help support the team by lessening the impact of reinforcement tickets (more on this later).  The Engineer class carry small Sub-Machine Guns and rocket launchers to take down various types of vehicles (armored, light armored, watercrafts, and aircrafts).  But at the same time, they can also help repair vehicles for the team.  The Engineers are like the Alpha and Omega of vehicles.  Recon is often mistakenly referred to as a sniper.  That's only partly true, because of the outfit that they wear and the weapon that they commonly use.  Recon is short for reconnaissance and their job is to gather tactical intel on the enemies.  Having a sniper rifle equipped with a sniper scope is only an added bonus of being able to see far and find out how many enemies are visibly there.  The Recon class carry motion sensor balls which act as miniature radars with limited lifetime.  These little balls can help scout out moving enemies nearby and can be the difference between a successful squad or a dead one.

Each class can be customized to a certain extent but you cannot start out with a weapon that is specific to a different class.  You can, however, pick up a weapon that is from another class if they are laying on the floor or after killing an enemy.  Often this action can benefit you and your teammates by being more flexible and versatile in using different classes and weapon kits.  Customizing your class is available if you unlocked certain tools, abilities, or gadgets.  Some unlocks are available to all classes and some are specific only to that class.  Some are also available to certain vehicle types, which can help enhance the vehicle's ability to attack or fend for itself.

But unfortunately, these are benefits available once you start gaining these unlocks.  As a new player, you're very limited.  Remember what I mentioned, about being at the bottom of the pile?  Think of it as starting out with nothing but a spoon to defend yourself with.  While the analogy is quite exaggerated, the notion and feeling is true.  The Assault class does not have the ammunition box to resupply.  The Medic class does not have the ability to help heal or revive others.  The Engineer class cannot even repair nor even defuse a bomb using a toothpick and chewing gum.  And the Recon class cannot throw out motion sensor balls for reconnaissance.  Every tool that help define their class is locked away until you gather enough points to unlock them -- hence "nothing but your spoon."  This isn't the first time this has happened.  The same was true in Battlefield 2142.  And I loathed how that was set up for new players.  It is one thing to have certain special abilities locked away.  But to lock away basic functions that define the class itself, that is beyond terrible and beyond failure.

Gaining points which will lead your profile to gaining ranks/levels is simple.  Doing a variety of tasks help you gain extra points which also shorten the time between each level (at first).  These tasks are all related to supporting both your team and your squad and they include resupplying, obeying objective orders, and getting headshot kills just to name a few.  With points being this easy to earn, the time between each level and potentially each unlock is relatively short.  And soon, that hurdle of being at the bottom of the pile will be out of the way and you can truly start playing at full capacity.

Having spent a month playing the game online, it seems that each class has a weapon that is the most well rounded and suited for that particular class.  There does not seem to be any single class that overpowers the other by a significant margin.  Everyone can be killed off, if given the opportunity.  And there does not seem to be any major vantage point to unbalance the game.  In the time since its release, the game has received two sets of maps.  The first set are two new maps called Nelson Bay (a Rush map) and Laguna Alta (a Conquest map).  The second set are alternate modes of Arica Harbor (originally a Rush-only map) and Laguna Presa (originally a Conquest-only map).  The release of new maps are welcome but I question as to the dedication the developers have when it comes to creating maps.  Originally, after the Day 1 Map Pack release, there are 5 maps of Rush and 5 maps of Conquest.  Cycling through these 5 maps become repetitive.  And with no developer tools to create user-created maps, it raises concerns amongst the gaming community as to how long the game will last when the developers (DICE/EA) decides it is time to leave the game alone and begin a new project.

Along with new maps, the game has also received server updates to help with stability and to fix minor issues.  However, for the first two grueling weeks, the backend framework to the entire game has been under heavy loads.  Such heavy loads rendered players unable to connect to servers, losing the connection to the server, or being dropped entirely from the EA network.  Such heavy load was unexpected by both the publisher and developers and they both scrambled to rectify this to cope with the load.  Several maintenance appointments were made and the backend performance has improved over the days and weeks.  It was due to this that improving the game servers and the client were delayed until resolved.  But that did not stop the design and creative teams at DICE from designing and developing new maps for inclusion.

As a player, I can understand that the priority in getting the game to be successful is to first ensure everyone can play.  The next step after making the backend more stable and robust is to then begin fixing game issues.  However, in the time since the backend was stabilized, little was done to alleviate the issues that plagued the game.  Some were minor, such as small text and graphical issues.  Others were absolutely necessary or needed for better functionality.  One functionality that seems to have been missed is proper joystick support for a variety of game controllers and flight sticks.  These include, but not exclusive to, the Saitek X52 and various Logitech flight sticks.  Also necessary and worth noting is the inability to use the Xbox 360's second analog stick, which I personally use exclusively for flying.  While some controls can be changed, I am severely limited in how I can fly the aircraft.  Not being able to fly the aircraft the way I wanted to inhibits my ability to try out flying in general.  There's a limit as what I am able to do as a player and as a gamer.

Another quirk that I have noticed is the naming of certain ranks.  The names do not coincide with the insignias that they truly represent.  Most rank insignias are split off into three levels of bronze, silver, and gold before moving on to the next rank insignia in line.  As a result, certain real life ranks cannot be used.  A single gold bar that denotes a 2nd Lieutenant in real life would not be the same as seen in Bad Company 2 (which calls that particular rank a Chief Warrant Officer III).  The same can be said for 1st Lieutenant and Captain, which are represented as a single and double silver bars respectively.  Another quirk related to ranks is the exclusion of other higher rank insignias known in the military, such as the Major, Lieutenant Colonel, and Colonel, which are represented with a gold leaf, a silver leaf, and an eagle.  We may never know why these were not included in the game as they are much better than a triple bar of bronze, silver, and gold color.

Spending the first 2-3 weeks with the game is not easy.  And I was very close to writing an early review based on what was presented at the time.  I can only hope that as time progresses and in the coming weeks or months that we'll see more improvements with the game, both on the server and client side.  There is a lot riding on this game, as it seems to have taken away a lot of the misery that came with playing a certain other franchise game.  Having a large map and area to run around in makes for a very different playing field, as there are numerous routes and methods to attack a strategic point.  And being able to customize your weapon and kit loadout to respond to different situations is a welcome addition.  It helps to keep the game ever-changing and ever-evolving, something that isn't always possible when playing other titles.  Is Bad Company 2 the game that puts the other to shame?  Absolutely.  Having dedicated server along with being able to enhance PunkBuster further by streaming to anti-cheat organizations makes a world of a difference.  Not only do I, as a gamer, feel better playing on a streaming server but I know that these anti-cheat organizations are always ahead in ensuring that a guilty cheater will never play on the same server again.

So how do I rate this game?  That's a tough one.  Visually, the game garners a 8.5 out of 10.  Without proper hardware, I cannot bring out the absolute best in visuals.  But that may be me.  In theory, the potential of this game's visuals can go up to 9/10 or 9.5/10.  It's nice to know that there are one or two DirectX 11 features implemented in the game.  And it's comforting to know that much of the fancier visuals are available to those with capable hardware.  The visuals can be tweaked to one's personal preference and there's room to get the most out of many video cards today.  The game is very taxing on the card but not so to really cripple some of the older ones.  The best bet to improving the game's visuals and framerate is to simply upgrade to a better video card.  At US$150, one can get a modest card capable of handling the game and at 1680x1050 as well.  Anything higher and you're going to have to spend more on a more powerful card and more powerful setup.

On the audio department, I have heard a lot of PC games and their audio systems.  In many of these audio systems, I have the configuration set for 2/2.1 speakers only, as I often use headphones and my audio system is not technically capable of 5.1 audio.  With Bad Company 2, all that has changed completely.  The way the weapons and tanks fire truly made them more powerful and more lifelike than before.  I do not get the feeling that a simple sound sample is played when a weapon is fired.  Nor do I get the feeling that once I hear it, that's all I hear.  When that tank fires its main cannon, you get that loud bang and with it, that echo that goes along with it.  It's not just some normal echo that you come to expect if you were to yell across a canyon.  It's that risidual effect that you hear directly after the shot.  It's these little things that brings the game to life even on a very cheap US$15 headset.  If the game can do that to a cheap headset, one has to wonder just how amazing it sounds on a proper 5.1 audio system.  To rate this, I think the game deserves a perfect 10 of 10.  Sure there are other aspects to the audio such as music but they seem to come in as a minor factor that I didn't even bother.  The voice acting?  There will always be criticisms of that as well.  But so far, those two aspects are about average that there's nothing to really factor in to the overall audio package.  There are better mediums and titles for which to criticize musical composition and voice acting.  This game is not it.

The story aspect of almost any game tend to be one that is always criticized a lot on many PC games.  A lot of first person shooters do not have great story writing and it's often reserved for the RPG genre and often console-only games.  Bad Company 2 is quite lacking in the story and feels much more episodic than being a complete story.  To the very least, it helps bring an additional story to the crew of Bad Company.  However, much like any game featuring a returning cast, there are questions and little loopholes that the developers forgot to fill in.  While there isn't any when viewing the game by itself, there are a few when you view the first and second Bad Company games.  Sadly, I have to rate this at a meager 5.5 out of 10.  The appeal is there when you want to hear some comedy coming out of the Bad Company crew.  But there isn't much now as there were in the first Bad Company.  And the only comedy left were in the idle chatter of your crewmates, which you'll have to take extra time to listen in if you find the opportunity to.

Next stop is the replay value or lasting appeal to the game.  As with any Battlefield game, the appeal is in the multiplayer aspect of the game.  The main focus has always been the multiplayer aspect.  While there is some replay value in the single player campaign for Bad Company 2, the only thing left on the PC is to simply collect the rest of the collectibles and destroy the other hidden M-COM stations.  Without any sort of achievement system in place that the console players have, the PC version has little to go on for replay value.  However, its lacking in replay value in the single player is made up by the multiplayer portion of the game.  Other players will challenge you and duel you.  They will backstab you and they will work with you.  They will join you and they will leave you.  There is so much joy when you play with a team that simply clicks in, and everything falls into place.  You get killed and you get revived.  You spot an enemy and you watch your buddy's back.  There is nothing better than being on a team that works together to bring the enemies down.  Yet at the same time, it can be brutal when the opposite happens.  You spawn in only to get killed immediately.  It can be disheartening to be on the receiving end.  But it helps you out to learn from what you've experienced.  To become better or to simply walk away and find a more comfortable place to play in.  The choice is there and the replay value doesn't go down.  To that end, I can only answer with a 9.5/10 at this time.  The game is being improved upon as time progresses.  And I expect that it gets better with more maps and hopefully with more issues resolved.

So, a 8.5, 10, 5.5, and 9.5 ratings in four categories.  If we average them, that becomes a 8.4 rounded to the nearest tenths.  That's pretty dismal when compared to another site's review of the same game.  But there are some things one has to consider.  Average means jack squat.  What you look for is how the game is played.  Sure there are maybe one or two aspects of the online gameplay that may be worth noting and criticizing.  But I also consider the overall package of the gameplay, when I factor in how much time is spent with the weapon compared to the others.  And then there's the online experience.  There's a small hurdle at first but once that's passed, you're well on your way to seeing how well you place amongst your peers.  And then there's the ability to have a leveled playing field.  A certain competitor's game does not use the same system at all.  As a result, the playing field is warped and distorted immensely.  Cheaters are rampant and there's little you can do to control who you play with, especially for like-minded players who are in two different clans.  Bad Company 2's dedicated servers along with the ability to stream to anti-cheat organizations enables all of us to have a more leveled playing field.  This also filters out any caught and guilty cheaters from ever joining streaming servers as they are forever locked out.  There's also being able to play with others who work with you to complete objectives, instead of running around aimlessly trying to get the most kills.  There are no kill streak rewards nor is there a tactical nuke to ruin everyone's fun.  You are either to attack or defend certain objectives and that's all there is to it.  How you do it is up to you, your squad, and the rest of the team to decide on.  Therein lies the possibilities.  Therein lies the potential.

The ongoing question and comparison to a competitor's game will always be there.  How does it compare?  And is it any better?  Simply, it is apples and oranges from here on out.  However, I stand with Bad Company 2 due to its dedicated servers.  The ability to run a dedicated server and have a place to call "home" is many times better than a peer-to-peer setup that more games are seemingly starting to use.  There is a limit as to how far you can go with a peer-to-peer setup.  For some genre, this is fine.  But in a first person shooter, this is not the best idea or method to use.  Maybe when every single person in the world has a 100mbit/s fiber connection that this idea may be considered fine.  But we're very far away from that kind of scenario.  Dedicated servers makes for a leveled playing field and gives players a centralized place to play on.  It can be managed and rules can be set up.  It can be private or it can be public.  It can be ranked or it can be unranked.  Dedicated servers offers more flexibility and possibilities than a peer-to-peer setup can ever provide.  And because of that, a certain competitor's game can never win in the multiplayer arena.  When you want to truly test your skills and ability as a player, you play on Bad Company 2 servers.

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