Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Battleground Europe: World War II Online Review

Battleground Europe: World War II Online, developed by Playnet and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Dynamic half-scale battlefield of Western Europe
The Not So Good: Non-constant action due to large distances, outdated graphics with long load times, monthly fee
What say you? The newest version of this MMO will only appeal to those in organized clans: 5/8

One of the most popular genres for PC computer gamers is the first person shooter. People seem to snatch these titles up, wanting to engage in virtual warfare in a variety of exotic environments. However, the massively multiplayer online stranglehold has not really found its way to the first person shooter, mainly concentrating on role-playing games. One of the first and only MMOFPS was World War II Online, released several years ago way too early and with too many bugs. The developers have re-released the game as Battleground Europe, hoping to bring back some of the gamers who shunned the earlier effort. Will there be enough improvements made in the past five years to make the game worthwhile?

The graphics in Battleground Europe are very outdated, on par with, say, Half-Life (the original). There have been some definite improvements over the original version of this game, namely slightly better textures, but the graphics still pale in comparison with other first person shooters that have been released recently (Half-Life 2, F.E.A.R., Battlefield 2). The models and buildings are square and there are hardly any environmental details. The hillsides look good from a distance, but once you see them up close, they lose some of their luster. To make it even worse, the game has some horrendously long initial load times for the low quality of the graphics. The sound is slightly better, in that all of the weapon and vehicle sounds are realistic; there is nothing overwhelmingly great about the sound, it just does an adequate job.

When you enter Battleground Europe, you choose a persona (army, navy, or air force) for one of the three armies (Germany, France, or Great Britain). After that, you need to choose a brigade and then select a mission set by an officer of that brigade. Missions essentially define a spawn point and a target for you, although these two things may be really far apart. You see, the map used in Battleground Europe is a half-scale rendition of Western Europe, which means the distances between two towns is half of what it is in real life. This makes the distance between most towns in the game at least ten to twenty miles. You can imagine how long it would take to run (or even drive) ten to twenty miles. This is unacceptable, and will probably turn a lot of people off who are accustomed to near-constant action like in Battlefield 2. I’m annoyed if I don’t find an enemy unit to shoot at every 30 seconds in Battlefield 2; waits in Battleground Europe can run the realm of half and hour, mainly when you capture a new town and need to move to the next one. This is somewhat solved with mobile spawn points, which are drivable trucks that can be parked near an enemy control point. This works well in principle, but you’ll still need to do a lot of walking. I spawned next to a “hot” city and spend 20 minutes running before I even saw an enemy unit. No thanks. Imagine trying to find about 100 people scattered around half of Texas. The game doesn’t have enough players to populate half of Texas, and really there’s only one city at a time that’s hotly contested, and even then it’s kinda hard to find anyone to kill. Once you do find a choke point, which is almost always a city, it needs to be captured. This is done through a long process of occupying all of the important buildings in a city and then storming the bunker. Completely taking a city can take a couple of hours: realistic, but not very good for people wanting some quick action.

In the game, you can run around as an infantryman or drive a number of different vehicles, both ground, air, and sea based. When you first enter the game, the only class of infantry that is open to you is the basic rifleman, which is discouraging. You need to register some kills and captures before you can unlock the more interesting classes. One of the easier ways to traveling to enemy bases is to parachute in (especially because of the large distance between cities), but you can’t become a paratrooper until level 3. Why restrict the game to the newcomers? It seems that you’d want to keep new gamers interested by offering multiple ways of playing the game, not arbitrarily restricting them to boring grunt roles. I probably wouldn’t have as much of a problem with it except the rifleman is at a great disadvantage playing the large map. Other classes include infantry with submachine guns, engineers, grenadiers, light machine gunners, anti-tank riflemen, and paratroopers. Your officers (who assign missions) are also present on the battlefield, although I’ve never really run across them other than their chat messages. You can also drive tanks and trucks, but since they travel quite slowly and it can take upwards of half an hour of constant driving to get to the action, it’s not an appealing proposition like in Battlefield 2. You don’t really have any vehicle spammers in Battleground Europe because just getting the equipment to the front lines is an exercise in tedium. Planes, however, are pretty popular, since they travel fast, can engage ground troops, and don’t really have any resistance, since anti-aircraft weaponry suffers from the long travel times of the other vehicles.

Battleground Europe is designed with the squad in mind. You really need to have an organized group of individuals outside the game in order to enjoy the experience. The overall game design decision of an extremely large map works against the solo soldier and also makes jumping in for a quick match impossible. I like the play of Battlefield 2 much better: no more than 10 minutes between control points, which means constant action. You are not running or driving for hours at a time like in Battleground Europe. The graphics certainly will not draw anyone into the game being so outdated. In order to enjoy the game, you need to invest some time into it, join a squad, and work towards unlocking the interesting classes. For a game that stresses teamwork, there could also have been some better solid indicators of where to attack; I almost never directly saw my commanding officer, just his orders to attack a certain city or building with no additional instructions. There is an interesting command hierarchy, but most playing coming into the game now won’t really use it since all of the high command positions are filled by people with years of play under their belt. On top of all this, Battleground Europe is $15 every month, compared with Battlefield 2 that is $0 every month. I will say that the dynamic battlefield is quite interesting, which makes you feel like you’re fighting for some overall goal. In the end, though, the cities just go back and forth with no real movement for either side. Unless you plan on playing Battleground Europe almost exclusively and forming up with other players in a structured setting, games such as Battlefield 2 are better for the casual player’s gaming dollar.