Friday, 18 February 2011

You weren't there, man! Battlefield Bad Company 2 Vietnam Review

Another expansion to review. This one's only what, three months old? I'm getting better at this, most definitely. This time, instead of the grim darkness of the far future, we are heading to the jungles of Vietnam, with the aptly, if rather extensively, named DLC for Battlefield: Bad Company 2- Battlefield: Bad Company 2- Vietnam.

No screenshot utility, I'm afraid, so it's blurrycam time.
My fondness for the original game has already been discussed, and my love of combating communists is no secret, so I was super excited for this expansion, awaiting eagerly its release in December. A week beforehand, however, possibly in protest at being forced to play the abomination that is Black Ops, my PS3 gave up, the disc drive failing and denying me my prize. Now it is repaired, and the first thing I did upon retrieving it was download BFBC2-V. Loading up the base game, I saw the new main menu option and highlighted it. Upon doing so, the whole menu twisted and reshaped itself- the crisp, modernistic aesthetic of Bad Company 2 shifting to a dirtier, brownish theme, the militaristic background music giving way to Creedence Clearwater Revival. This thematic shift is representative of the whole expansion, really- Bad Company 2 was very definitely a modern combat experience, with its homing missiles, optical sights and high-tech vehicles. Vietnam, however, strips this away- in my first match (where I was top player, naturally) I was struck by how crude and brutal the combat was in comparison- without red-dot sights and motion sensors, fighting is done at close range with nothing but rifles and brawn. It's refreshing, in a perverse way, to have this almost rustic style of game, especially in comparison to Call of Duty, where being set in the Cold War instead of near future changed... nothing at all. BFBC2V does it right, though, with '60s style news reports playing over hippy riffs at the loading screens, it feels like a 'Nam game.

The gameplay of the expansion is similarish to the base game- it's still a squad based shooter, with different classes bringing different equipment and abilities to the fray, and an emphasis on vehicles and objectives. The base game's much-vaunted destructible environments feature, but are less prominent. Though this is, I suppose, thematically suitable (and y'all know how much I like stuff that is thematically suitable), with a limit to how much destruction can be done on a map consisting of some flimsy wooden huts and a hill, it would have been nice to see this feature return more prominently- one of my fondest memories of Bad Company 2 was tearing out the back wall of a building with a Black Hawk's minigun, collapsing the whole structure and crushing the enemies and objective within for an extraordinary number of points, but such a thing is not really possible here.

I love the smell of clich├ęs in the blog post.

As you would expect, the equipment available has lapsed to what GIs and Viet-cong would have had access to- you've got your M16s and AK47s as well as the thunderous M60 machine gun and notorious M14 battle rifle. Vehicles have gone back a few numberplates, too, though the tanks and jeeps are really different only aesthetically to their modern counterparts. The new chopper, the UH-1 Iroquois, known affectionately as the Huey and iconic for its extensive service and appearance in limitless 'Nam flicks, has undergone some changes, though. Bad Company 2's Havocs and Apaches were, essentially, winged fortresses of fire and steel, spitting high-explosive death from above, but the Huey lacks the armour and avionics of these beasts. The lighter bird is more maneuverable and feels less clumsy than these, but small arms fire will damage it and heavy machine guns will tear it apart like paper. While its rocket pods and door mounted machine guns pack a punch, the Huey's coolest weapon is the speaker rack- as it swoops over the battlefield these blare out '60s classics, as well as Ride of the Valkyries, which is, frankly, awesome. Lamentably, you rarely hear the whole track, as every NVA regular for several miles will take a pot shot at it. Maybe they want the chopper destroyed; maybe they just really hate '60s music.

I have to say, I have hugely enjoyed my tour in Vietnam. The classic Battlefield gameplay is extremely solid, more so, I think, than people realise; maybe even better than the great Call of Duty leviathan. It's a game that lends itself to fantastic moments- once, on the NVA side, squatting in the bush with a sniper rifle I spied an incoming 4x4 with three GIs about to ford a river into our base. Quickly, I shot the driver- my exquisite marksmanship ensured the shot went right between the eyes- and the vehicle drew to a halt. The passenger, realising what had happened, leaped out and dived into the roadside trees, while the machine gunner fired wildly in the hope of neutralising the threat. Another precision shot brought him low, and a third killed the third American even as he desperately tried to spot me from his partially concealed position. Aside from being a demonstration in my consummate skill, it was a scene straight from a war film, and it felt very, very cool. I have more of these tales- charging wildly towards an endangered objective surrounded by NVA with naught but a shotgun and emerging the victor, smashing a Huey from the sky with a one-in-a-million shot from a tank's main gun- and I'm sure any Battlefield player would too.

I have it on good authority that chicks go wild for aircraft disguised as sharks.

I can't claim to have many complaints, apart from the aforementioned unwieldy title. There are a couple graphical issues, most notably a very noticable pop-in effect with objects far away- when the detail on that chopper suddenly and obviously ramps up as it approaches, it does rather spoil the moment, if not the bastard's aim. Additionally, there are fewer vehicles in this installment. Vehicles were always my favourite part of Battlefield since I am essentially a child, and their relative lack, especially on the NVA side (though crafty commies can redistribute them if they are sneaky), and the complete disappearance of mounted weapons, is a little disappointing. In the final (free) map pack for the base game they brought a map where both sides spawned with a gunship chopper, a transport chopper, two tanks, a couple 4x4s and some quadbikes- there were far more vehicle seats available than players on the map, and it was glorious- no such armoured affray is available. Sure doesn't spoil the game, though- it's a lot of fun, and even my black heart soars each time I strafe the socialists while blasting out Hendrix. While I'm not sure why DICE didn't release this as its own downloadable game in the vein of Battlefield 1943, it's certainly a welcome addition to a franchise that is going from strength to strength.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Chaos Rising, but how high?

Greetings, reader; I trust this fresh solar cycle finds you well. I have come this day to tell you a little something of the expansion to Relic’s grim, dark future strategy-RPG Dawn of War II- an expansion by the name of Chaos Rising. I am fully aware that the expansion is a year old, and that a second expansion is almost upon us, and I have no real excuse for the late date of this. Take solace from the fact that you are getting this at all.

Dawn of War, as you really should know, is a series of strategy games set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe, a universe with far more horrors and staunch warriors than hope. It’s a science-fantasy setting, where humanity has spread out among the stars, and discovered that the whole galaxy is full of unpleasantness, the mighty Imperium of Man beset from all sides by daemons, aliens and traitors, and held together by the efforts of the superhuman Space Marines and stalwart Imperial Guard.

I spoke of the original Dawn of War 2 some time ago- I was impressed with the way they handled the universe (a universe of which I am fond), of the clever use of the wealth of lore. I liked the gameplay, too, the player needing to make cunning use of cover and specialised troopers to succeed. I liked the story elements, the Space Marines of the Blood Ravens chapter battling to save their recruiting worlds from the barbaric Orks, the enigmatic Eldar and the all-devouring Tyranids. Recently, and with the assistance of a Steam buddy, I managed to finally complete the single-player campaign of the original game, and so moved on to the expansion, which, perhaps foolishly, I had purchased on release date, on the admittedly shaky basis that my future self would thank me.

The sequel is set a year after the events of the original, your Blood Ravens returning to sub-sector Aurelia to investigate the re-emergence of a planet thought lost to the warp (an alternate reality overlapping ours, dangerous but critical to the setting due to its use in faster-than-light travel) and the apparent distress signal sent from the surface of a world that should be devoid of life. Fairly quickly, the marines discover the presence of the Black Legion, Space Marines who have turned from the light of the Emperor of Mankind and devoted themselves instead to the ruinous powers of the Chaos Gods. It comes to light that there is treachery within the ranks of the Blood Ravens, with traitors in the very command of the chapter and within the player’s force itself.

All this is well and good, but what does it mean for gameplay? Well, the introduction of the Chaos Space Marines means a new faction in single and multi-player games. These are similar to their loyalist brothers, but their millennia of exile brings a few notable differences- they lack some of the new and specialised technology available to loyalists, but their experience and the favour of their patron gods lends them an edge in battle, allowing them to summon daemonic creatures and auras to crush their foes.

The corrupting element of Chaos, an important element to the setting, plays a significant role in the campaign, too. The squads under the player’s command have a new “Corruption Meter”, a sliding scale marking the purity of their souls. Corruption is gained by failing objectives, such as rescuing beleaguered scout marines from foes, or using the new “tainted” wargear, items of weaponry and armour that usually have some sort of dark history, offering spectacular power at the cost of damnation. Your marines can redeem themselves by going above and beyond the call of duty on missions, completing additional objectives like assassinating an enemy commander, or taking “penitent” items that have negative effects on their combat prowess to remind them of their duty to the Emperor. Your Marines get additional abilities based upon their level of corruption, too- totally pure squads might have an enhancement to the use of healing items, those with just a little corruption swapping this for gaining health from the killing of foes, and totally corrupted units go to battle with a daemonic bloodthirst. It’s quite cleverly done, with corruption being just slightly easier to attain than redemption, tempting a struggling player to corrupt his force by degrees. Brilliantly, the total accruement of corruption is used to determine which of the player’s allies turns out to be the traitor betraying the Blood Ravens at every turn, a nifty twist in the storyline.

Terminator armour, lightning claws, personal teleporter and orbital bombardment beacon. Is he underdressed? I wouldn't tell him.

In addition to the modifications to the formula brought by the appearance of a corrupting foe, there are some simple additions made as one would expect from an expansion. The maximum level of characters has been raised from 20 to 30, letting players who had maxed their characters in the original still get a sense of progression. New types of weapons have come, too- marines can now use ‘lightning claws’, bladed gauntlets surrounded with an energy field, deadly to armoured infantry, ‘lascannons’, the setting’s iconic anti-tank weapon, projecting a beam of energy that deals ruinous damage to everything but fires about once a week, and ‘melta’ weapons that spray a short ranged stream of superheated matter to cut through anything you can imagine. These are all fairly nifty additions offering the player a little more tactical choice, which is nice in a game where this is a selling point. There’s a new controllable unit, too- a Librarian marine named Jonah Orion. Marine librarians, like the ones found in libraries, are entrusted with the preservation of knowledge and history. Unlike those, however, these ones are also deadly combatants, destroying enemies with blasts of psychic power rather than just stern looks if they are noisy. Jonah has a broad range of abilities, and as such can be used in a variety of battlefield roles- he can smite foes from afar with the power of his mind, slip through the warp to emerge within the matter of an enemy and engage his terrified squadmates in close combat, or use healing powers and protective barriers to take a more passive, defensive role in proceedings. This unit can be very effective, but does require micromanagement of his range of abilities. Lamentably, I suspect to get the most from the Librarian would require more attention and patience than I am prepared to give him.

Loyalist Predator battletanks form an armoured spearhead to be thrust to the heart of the traitorous foe.

The original game’s missions took place on three planets; a lush jungle world, a harsh desert planet, and an urbanised hive-city planet, with a couple map variants on each to keep the player entertained. With the endless randomly-generated missions, these could get tiresome if the player progressed as slowly as I did. The new game has added a couple of settings, first a frozen ice planet, the base of operations for the Chaos forces. This place plays in a fairly similar fashion to the worlds of the last game, but there are a few nice snow effects and suchlike that give it visual appeal if nothing else. The second of the new settings is awesome, though- a Space Hulk, a huge, drifting space vessel forged from the crushed remains of a number of unfortunate ships that slips semi-randomly through space, often containing secrets, always containing nasties. Drawing inspiration from the tabletop game of the same name, missions on the space hulk have the player driving his force through the maze of narrow corridors against a sneaky and deadly foe. Here, I think Relic has outdone itself. Enemies appear from anywhere, bursting from pipes or leaping from overhead, giving the whole thing a tense atmosphere. Adding to the tension, the warp-tainted nature of hulks imposes a time limit on how long your marines can remain before the corruption has a dangerous effect. There’s a real feeling of pressure on the hulk missions as you hunt through the twisted corridors for the relics you seek- your marines combat tangible horrors at every turn even while they whisper and gibber at those within their mind. It was genuinely unnerving to hear the utterly dependable Tarkus rant about how some imagined thing was his and his alone. Unfortunately, the missions aboard the space hulk are precious few, a real shame given their quality.

Chaos Rising, then, is a worthy expansion to a game I enjoyed. It has made many pleasing additions to an already solid formula. I liked the extra wargear options brought in, the storyline with its betrayal and treachery and the thrilling missions on the space hulk. Things I wasn’t so happy with included the fairly short length of the campaign, though I’m not sure whether that’s better or worse than having a hundred new randomly-generated defend missions each day. Relic did give a slightly broader mission range this time, which is also sweet. All in all, I liked Chaos Rising, and not just as a 40K fanboy, and I await the sequel, Dawn of War 2- Retribution, with eagerness.

Tune in next week/month/time I post to see my thoughts on one or more of: Dead Space 2, Bad Company Vietnam, Gran Turismo 5 and Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit. I can’t wait, can you!? If you know but one thing, know this- it is gonna be rad.