After completing our recent interview with Dan Blackstone, Senior Producer of the upcoming Xbox 360 version of Battlefield 2: Modern Combat, I was anxious to dispense with the chitchat and enter the overhauled BF universe in glorious high definition widescreen style. The EA gaming gods, perhaps feeling pity for my struggles getting past the oil platform in the Xbox version, granted my wishes and sent over a complete preview build to dive into ” which I was more than happy to oblige. Instead of digging into every nook and cranny that’s best saved for the final review in a couple weeks, I’ll address how I viewed and experienced the enhancements Dan called out in the interview.
One of the more substantial changes Dan mentioned was “re-writing the AI for enemies and teammates” we went through on a mission by mission basis and tuned everything so the experience felt tighter.” This rewritten AI becomes evident in the first campaign mission where I found the enemy troops to be far more aggressive in terms of closing in on each friendly’s position for the kill. They also seem to seek cover more often, though not too often as to never show themselves for a clean shot. I’d still like to see them react more realistically to a missed shot whizzing by their ear. Sometimes they’ll take off running and other times they won’t move a muscle as if thinking they can’t be seen.
The increased aggressive AI smacked my face in the next sniper-based mission. Even though enemy troops still take up shop in the same positions as they did on Xbox, I found their aim more accurate and willingness to hide more convincing. For example, the final part of the mission calls for wiping out enemy insurgents coming down the church road. The first few come in a jeep that are easily dispensed with, but the following wave uses smoke for cover and decoys to occupy your attention. One almost always sneaks through the smoke, comes up the stairs and takes a clear point-blank shot into the back of your head. Enemy movement still appears to be fairly patterned so practice can make perfect. I obviously need more practice.
Whether on or offline, the mindset for playing on Xbox was to check the HUD map for red diamonds and rush those positions. Enemies were just as easy to spot in plain view with a big red diamond over their head as if they have a craving for Arby’s. Due to “community requests to turn off the enemy indicators,” DICE has done just that. The indicators can be togged off separately or the entire HUD can be removed altogether. This change employs a dramatic paradigm shift in how to approach each campaign. Instead of bull-rushing the red diamonds, slow and deliberate movements using the environment for cover are the key to success. Anyone who hasn’t touched the Xbox version in awhile and can’t quite remember each mission should turn off the HUD and indicators on their first try for a completely different experience both against the CPU and even more so human opponents on Live.
The screenshots released have depicted dramatic improvements on Xbox 360 over what I felt were crude visuals on Xbox. Dan stated, “We rebuilt pretty much every asset in the game; character models and animations, vehicles, and weapon from the ground up. Smaller objects in the environment, such as grass, trees, barrels, etc. were also rebuilt.” This attention to detail has really paid off. These aren’t the best graphics Xbox 360 has rendered from a FPS. Call of Duty 2 still holds that distinction though will likely cough it up to Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter in the coming days. But the result does look like a legitimate Xbox 360 game and not a cheap current to next-gen tune-up. Comparing the Xbox and Xbox 360 visuals would be like comparing the effectiveness of a knife versus a bazooka.
The most dramatic visual improvements are on the soldiers and their vehicles. I highly recommend strolling up to any parked vehicle and walking around it to take in the level of detail and interaction with light. I found myself doing just that on several occasions. When one of these vehicles such as a helicopter is shot down and crashes into the side of a building, it’ll both leave a mark and remain in carcass form wherever it landed. Another detail I picked out that might have been on the Xbox version, but I never noticed before, is enemy breath appearing on the snow levels. While looking for an entrenched sniper on top of a school, I was able to see his breath to determine his position where otherwise I wasn’t sure what side of the school he was on.
The buildings and environments are dramatically improved as well with far more photorealistic surfaces but they do reveal a glaring graphical inconsistency: shadow jaggies. A perfectly rendered handrail casts a shadow marred by stair-step edges. In motion the shadow jaggies look even worse. If jaggies had to appear anywhere in the game this is the most inconsequential so their existence is tolerable. Chances are most gamers will be caught up in the action and never realize they’re even there.
My favorite improved visual treat is the more powerful Hotswapping animation. No longer will the camera go around buildings or travel short distances only. Hotswaps can literally last up to 5 seconds and go through windows, doors, stairways and any other opening between one soldier and another. Owners of larger high definition displays will feel like the Marine in Stargate when he reaches the other side. Whoa, what a rush. Combined with a bottle of Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Barleywine will leave anyone wondering what dimension they’ve crossed into. Just beware Hotswapping to someone who wandered off the map. It’s still possible to end up stranded out in never-never land with no way back.
As you may already know I’m a huge fan of movie-quality audio in a game. Even though EA is known for putting out some of the best game audio of anyone, the Xbox version’s Dolby Digital 5.1 mix didn’t quite live up to the action on-screen. To rectify this Dan points out, “New sound effects were recorded to really amp up the weapons and dial up the intensity on the battlefield. We wanted to drive home the fact that bullets are whizzing around you most of the time, make explosions feel like they are rocking your world, etc.” Boy he wasn’t kidding. Gunfire and explosion sampling has been ratcheted up big time both in terms of sheer power and sound field placement, though vehicle collisions come in a notch noticeably lower. The first time playing the sniper mission I missed one of the rooftops buggers who kept taking potshots at me. Rather than run around wildly trying to pick him out, I quieted my mind and listened for the direction the shots were coming from. Without any visual aids I was able to pinpoint his position strictly from the sound of his gun and the ricochet of bullets clanging off the metal around me.
In this same sniper mission is where I scored my first Achievement that flashed on the screen the moment it was acquired rather than at the completion of the mission. Unlike some other 360 games were Achievements have felt more like an afterthought, Dan adds DICE had a clear plan to offer them that both ramp up in difficulty and are spread evenly amongst offline single-player and online multi-player gamplay. This list of all 46 Achievement confirms DICE’s objective:
It’s clear DICE put a great deal of effort into making Battlefield 2: Modern Combat a legitimate Xbox 360 entry and I can’t wait for the opportunity to get on Xbox Live with the final version and partake in what should be frenetic 24-player action. You can bet if I set the match there will be no HUD or enemy indicators!