Wednesday, February 9, 2011

In Depth: Battlefield: Bad Company 2: Vietnam

The fire burns everywhere. Hillside razed, embers burning where once a jungle stood. Flames tear homes apart, a hut, a home, now charcoal skeleton. Those flames aren’t mine; but these, the flames burning through the Charlie lying all around, they are. They’re my flames, on my Charlie, and I’m proud. Beside me, a marine sniper laughs as he puts a round through someone’s skull at 300 meters. Brass, they call this place Hill 137. Gunny, though, he calls this place Hamburger Hill. The place where Charlie made mince meat out of Marines. This place is a battlefield. I’m in bad company. Trapped in Vietnam.

Journey to this place cost me. Not so much as I’d expected, though.

Available now for $14.99 US, or 1200 Microsoft Points, Battlefield: Bad Company 2: Vietnam is the only true multiplayer expansion so far released for Battlefield: Bad Company 2. Definitely the best Bad Company 2 expansion for me to put my hard earned money towards, too. Sure, there’s the Onslaught Mode and SPECACT bundle out there already. But, really, I found the attraction of actually paying for either the new class skins in the SPECACT bundle or the cooperative-only Onslaught Mode to be kind of, well, nonexistent.

Fortunately, I guess, the Onslaught Mode was included in the cost of the Bad Company 2 Ultimate Edition I picked up at EB Games for about $78, along with a download token for the outstanding Xbox Live Arcade game Battlefield 1943. No SPECACT bundle token though, so I guess I’ll have to bear life without those four achievements for now.

Vietnam, obviously, takes place in both a location and an era entirely independent from Bad Company 2’s standard multiplayer. This mere change of time and place, however, doesn’t stop Vietnam from being a drastic departure from vanilla Bad Company 2 in terms of aesthetic and gameplay.

Once I downloaded the Vietnam patch – over a gigabyte, so I went and watched an episode of 30 Rock while I waited – and actually paid for the expansion itself, I noticed a change to Bad Company 2’s main menu. There, beside the “Onslaught” option, sat a new “Vietnam” tab. I highlighted and opened it, expecting a simple message to pop up, welcoming me to the past.

Instead, I heard music.

Some folks are born, silver spoon in hand.

Fortunate Son, by Creedence Clearwater Revival, now playing through my Astro A40s. Fantastic choice of song, something that really complements the virtual “cover art” for the expansion. And, what brilliant cover art this is. A Marine armed with a Remington 870 shotgun slightly to the left of centre, an arm and leg illuminated by fire’s orange glow. Behind him a Medic walks tall, M60 slung over his shoulder. Their third squad mate mans a Jeep’s heavy machine gun, while three Huey transport helicopters fly overhead.

Given what I had unwittingly bought into, this menu is about the most perfect introduction DICE could have given me to Vietnam; the menu characters and vehicles move slowly as the music plays, giving a real sense of life to what I saw.

Life, really, is what Vietnam is all about.

Because, after I scrolled through the weapon stats page to see the kind of hardware I’d be working with, I felt the urge to explore. Picking “Play with Friends”, I decided to play with an old friend from my days at Ferny Grove High School. Curious, I scrolled through the map list. Five new maps. Fifteen new weapons. I pressed the Xbox Guide Button, joined Mickey’s Xbox Live party, and joined his game.

Now, I got to see the awesome treatment DICE has given to the loading screens for each of the five new maps in Vietnam. Vantage Point, Cao Son Temple, Hill 137, Phu Bai Valley, and Operation Hastings each opens with a degraded projection of the map in question, showing bases and objectives to be captured. The loading music is really the most fantastic bit of all this. I’m pretty sure that Ron Burgundy himself actually plays the jazz flute intro to Cao Son Temple. Hill 137's "Muscle Soul" is probably my favourite of the 49 tunes hidden away in the soundtrack, though.

After loading into “Operation Hastings” with my squad, the immensity of this particular map immediately struck me. Unlocked after Vietnam players performed a collective sixty-nine million squad actions, Hastings is just goddamn massive. There’s enough room to fit four Conquest flags instead of the usual three, and space for two main battle tanks, a helicopter, a patrol boat, and several light vehicles, per team. Simply traversing this map on foot would be suicide in Bad Company 2. Vietnam, though, makes the journey much easier.

Though some Vietnam multiplayer maps are significantly larger than those in Bad Company 2, they’re a hell of a lot more claustrophobic and paranoia inducing, too. At first this would seem paradoxical. Jungle encroaches on personal space, though, leaves you alone with yourself, when you know armoured support is only ten meters east of your position. Fewer long lines of sight mean snipers will be able to spot fewer enemies as they approach their position. Ancient temples, rampant vegetation, scrambling villages; fresh air is difficult to find in Vietnam.

Charlie could be around any corner. Normally, somebody named xX I D0 UR MUM Xx or something similar to that will be around the corner instead, trying vainly to hide behind a wall with a shotgun.

One 40mm grenade later, that wall’s got a hole blown in it and xX I D0 UR MUM Xx is feeling rather poorly.

Weapons do far more damage in Vietnam than they do in standard Bad Company 2. This means you no longer have to play hardcore mode to kill an enemy without going through a full clip of ammunition. Recon teams can now put down foot mobile soldiers without always getting headshots. To make it harder for these Recon snipers, Ghille suits are now gone from the inventory. Hide behind a bush using the Recon class, and you’ll stand out like a Medic or Engineer. Now, playing Recon is less about camping in trees and more about taking higher ground and spotting.

Sure, Recon players can still camp behind a rock pretending they’re Carlos Hathcock; but it won’t be long before they’re spotted by an enemy sniper and cut down by a Patrol Boat’s dual heavy machine guns. This, and increased weapon damage, is all part of a delicate balancing act DICE clearly hoped would fix some of the issues inherent in Bad Company 2.

DICE have made many other little changes from Bad Company 2 to Vietnam; most of these alterations are fairly subtle, with their purpose being less than obvious. Two changes have been made that are quite noticeable, however: vehicles are now far less effective without support; and infantry kit loadouts have been changed slightly to redefine infantry roles.

Lone vehicle effectiveness is vastly reduced in Vietnam, probably because military vehicles in those days didn’t really have the kind of armour that their equivalents would have today.

Observant players will notice this almost immediately upon their first encounter with a Huey. Helicopter pilots are no longer capable of dominating everyone and anyone on the opposite team, because Huey helicopters have weak armour. In Bad Company 2, the Hind Transport, and Tiger and Apache attack helicopters, were almost impossible to kill once they were in the air, being completely immune to small arms fire. This essentially meant that, once a decent pilot had destroyed the few anti-air gun emplacements on the map, he could proceed to slaughter the enemy team unopposed, laughing maniacally all the while.

Now, going anywhere near enemy medics, tanks, or jeeps, at all, will get you shot down if you don’t use cover properly. There are no longer wars of attrition between helicopter pilots and tank commanders. If a tank spots a Huey approaching, that Huey is dead unless it backs off to find another attack vector. Huey rocket pods are incredibly powerful, though, capable of gutting tanks with either careless drivers, or unmanned mounted machine guns.

Problem is, through the thick canopy of the jungle, Hueys can be hard to spot. Likewise, when circling with a helicopter, it can be very difficult to spot the jeep or tank that you’re hunting. Infantry are definitely helpful, being able to more easily spot and call out enemy armour and positions. When that tank symbol pops up, I’ve found it’s best to aim the rockets and blast it before it blasts you.

Tanks also no longer have coaxial machine guns, instead sporting flamethrowers that generally seem pretty useless at any range beyond five feet. This leaves tanks unable to engage either infantry or helicopters with the efficiency they used to; although light vehicles are still easily dealt with. Because flamethrowers have such pitiful range, manned machine guns are essential. In Vietnam, tanks must operate with a crew of two.

Infantry are the deadliest force to stalk through the jungles. Vehicles, like it or not, are too cumbersome to travel anywhere except for roads that are probably mined. Tanks and even jeeps are just big targets asking to take a hit. Without friendly foot mobiles to back them up, they tend not to last very long

Why? Because, infantry, far from being valuable only as vehicle support, are the deadliest force present in the fetid undergrowth of Vietnam. Each class, or Kit, has been fine-tuned close to perfection. Now it really feels as though each kit stacks up well against the other.

No one kit is the most effective overall, because of the changes listed below.

Overall Changes:

No class can attach a Red Dot Sight or 4x Rifle Scope to their weapons anymore. The R870 Shotgun and the Flamethrower may both be equipped as any Kit’s primary weapon, alongside the WWII Thompson, and the M1 Garand available via the Battlefield Veterans program.

Assault Kit

In Vietnam, The Assault Kit receives a nerf – an effectiveness decrease – to the close quarters combat effectiveness of its 40mm Grenade Launcher. DICE made the change relatively easily, by swapping out rifle-mounted grenade launchers for the M79 “Wombat Gun” or “Thumper”, a separate single shot grenade launcher. Fans of Modern Warfare 2 should recognise it as the secondary “n00b tube” many players would equip themselves with for room-clearing classes.

The M79 being an equipment type launcher like the RPG-7, now takes much longer to switch to than an underslung rifle grenade launcher does. Thus, Assault players must now focus on good marksmanship and alertness. If you get ambushed at close range, you can no longer just switch to your grenade launcher and blow your enemy to smithereens by putting a shot behind them. Just try this, and you’ll be left fumbling for your M79 while an enemy Engineer is turning your once pretty face into bacon bits with a repair torch.

Recon Kit

The Recon Kit sees a subtle increase in its anti-armour effectiveness at the cost of a reduction in effectiveness versus infantry. Because they no longer have a ghillie suit to blend into vegetation, Recon players get something of a boost to their offensive capabilities.

Namely, the Recon Kit now includes both C4 and a Mortar Strike Designator.

Lurking snipers now pose a double risk to careless tank drivers, being able to take them at both close range using C4, and long range using a Mortar Strike. On the plus side, no additional optics – bar a 12x Scope – may be mounted on a sniper rifle, vastly decreasing a sniper’s close-range effectiveness versus infantry. The Sniper Spotter Scope cannot be attached to any weapon, either, making it harder to spot enemy troops moving carefully.

Given the sniper rifle can be pretty ineffective at close range, now, I found it more fun to use a Thompson submachine gun as my primary, playing the role of commando more than sniper.

Engineer Kit

Engineer effectiveness at long range is vastly reduced in Vietnam. My beloved Engie can only use his M1 Garand in long range combat situations. However, the Engineer is unquestionably the most effective class for getting up close and personal. Really, nothing much is more satisfying in Vietnam than shredding enemy infantry into pieces with a submachine gun before putting an RPG-7 into their supporting tank's exhaust port.

Interestingly, the RPG-7 is the only launcher available in the Engineer Kit. Anti-tank mines are still there, but gone are the Carl Gustav Recoilless Rifle and the AT4. I’m glad to see the Carl Gustav gone. No longer do Engineers possess an anti-infantry launcher so accurate it begged to be used exclusively as a high-explosive sniper weapon.

The RPG-7 no longer has a scope attached, instead using the iron sights that Call of Duty players will be accustomed to. These sights make it a little harder to aim the RPG-7 at long range, further limiting its already terrible long range performance.

Medic Kit

Medics are less dangerous at long range than they were in Bad Company 2, being unable to use any weapon aside from light machine guns or the weapons that any class can use. This doesn’t automatically make medics terrible at a distance, though. Anybody with half a brain can tap the trigger to help pick off enemies from afar with their Light Machine Gun. Any class can attack at long range. Medics just aren’t meant to do it.

These changes seem to ensure that Medics actually do what they’re meant to do. Light Machine Guns are there to clear hostile areas quickly, and take down helicopters and light ground vehicles like jeeps. After the medic is done providing support, they’re meant to heal any squad mates who have been wounded or incapacitated by enemy actions. Bad Company 2 saw many medics sit on their own life-giving health crates trying to snipe people with scoped M60s. Medics in Vietnam tend not to try that, because they need to stay close to their squad to stay protected. Their anti-helicopter prowess makes them an even bigger target than they were before, so most Medics I’ve encountered will actively try to keep friendlies alive.

Really, what Vietnam encourages, aside from excessive use of flamethrowers, is the use of the four Kits for their actual intended purposes. Soldiers sitting on an ammo box, trying to use their 40mm launcher as a mortar, will soon be either sniped or gunner down by a helicopter. Same goes for Medics who like to pretend they’re their own little gun emplacement.

This whole new level of Kit balance isn’t what makes this expansion so absorbing; though, I found it definitely helps that people aren’t screaming about “Recon campers” and “Assault tubers”.

What makes Vietnam so very ensnaring is the culture. M40 rifles have “Hell Sucks!” carved into the stock, and there is a peace symbol engraved into rear casing of the M10 submachine gun.

And, like the base Battlefield: Bad Company 2 game, the Vietnam expansion is heavily steeped in popular culture. However, instead of mocking other popular video games as Bad Company 2 does, Vietnam uses music to pay homage to several films which revolve around the horrors of the Vietnam War. Though, true to DICE’s style, some of these references are more tongue-in-cheek.

Fortunate Son by Creedence Clearwater Revival and Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries seem to be the two songs that play by default whenever I get into the pilot seat of a Huey helicopter, referencing Forrest Gump and Apocalypse Now, respectively. There are apparently 49 other Vietnam-era songs that’ll play through the radio of any United States Marine Corp (USMC) vehicle you dare to commandeer, but really, nothing beats the Huey’s onboard radio.

Jumping out of a Huey landed on a small patch of turf while “ Some folks are born, made to wave the flag” waffled eerily out of the pilot’s radio, took me way back to my early teen years. Back to the first time I saw Forrest Gump. This, again, provided yet more proof that my mental health is not so sound as I would like it to be. Rather than remembering one of the profound life lessons I should’ve learned from Forrest Gump, I felt compelled to scream “I gotta find Bubba!” into my headset microphone. Cue me running through the jungle as quickly as my computerised legs would take me, while enemy mortar shells pummelled the ground all around, shredding Vietnam’s luscious jungle vegetation into pulp.

Similarly, manning the side gun of a Huey cruising at 50 meters over the treetops is creepy enough without music. Just me sitting there in the air, the rotor’s overhead whir the only indicator of what NVA attack might come from anywhere. Once the speakers start to howl Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries at the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regulars lurking in the undergrowth below, though, the tingle in my spine is almost too affecting to bear. I know they can hear us, now; and, I can almost hear them, plotting my demise. I hope, once the fighting erupts, that my pilot can dodge Rocket Propelled Grenades.

Being this immersed in a world I’ll only inhabit until my next virtual death isn’t an experience I’m used to in an online multiplayer first person shooter. Games like Halo 3 and Call of Duty titles like Black Ops and Modern Warfare 2 are great fun, certainly; but, when playing, I’m always aware of them being games. There’s a big rush to do whatever suits me, to get whatever weapon is my favourite, or to get to my favourite part of the map.

Vietnam, even more than the already entrancing Bad Company 2, is almost too real. Teammates feel less like players, and more like actual squad members.

While I’m escorting a tank through a likely choke point, flamethrower at the ready, blood runs cold when my Sapper goes down. Our medic yells, “Get down! Sniper!” I move into a trench, knowing danger can only come from the narrow path before me. Medic gets to work, patches up the Sapper. Both move to safety with me, while the tank starts shelling out the only high ground that provides any cover. Our own sniper team, two men just ahead of our position, well hidden, make the kill. “Got the son of a bitch,” one mutters.

Our tank stops firing, and we move ahead, checking the road for mines. Soon, we meet the rest of our armour, and roll towards the NVA’s position ahead.

This isn’t me over glorifying the situation, either. Storming bunkers with flamethrowers, being forced to pull back after an unsuccessful attack on enemy tanks, hearing klaxons as your Huey careens earthward. These are moments you’ll live through, or die during, several times a day in Vietnam. Often, you’ll have to fight like this several times in a single match. Really, the potential for action is what makes the idea of playing Vietnam after a hard day at work so attractive; DICE’s outstanding menu design, choice of game soundtrack, and ever-helpful in game dialogue is what keeps you immersed in action that could, otherwise, easily be mindless.

All that sucks about this, truly, is looking at your watch when you finally decide to go to bed. More often than not, mine reads “5:30am”.

When I bought Battlefield: Bad Company 2: Vietnam in December 2010, I really couldn’t have asked for a better game expansion to spend my 1200 Microsoft Points on. For me, it’s an outstanding improvement upon what really had to be the best First Person Shooter title of 2010. DICE didn’t just change the battlefield for this expansion. DICE didn’t just try to breed a clone of Bad Company 2 that wore a different outfit and spoke with a foreign accent. Instead, DICE took what issues existed in the original game, banished them to the Negative Zone, and built a brilliant new Battlefield: Bad Company 2 expansion.

Now, more than ever, I’m waiting for Battlefield 3. If DICE can maintain or even improve upon the quality of Vietnam, then I’ll be a very happy man-child. Until Battlefield 3 is released in Fall this year, which is probably late Spring for Australia, I think I’ll be just fine.

After all.

Grass huts don’t burn themselves to the ground.