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Battlefield 1942 (PC) artwork

Battlefield 1942 (PC) review


"Two words: Desert Command."


Before Dice was busy redefining the LAN based First Person Shooter, it was setting the standard for PC arcade pinball shooters. A contradiction in terms, you say? Have you seen the likes of Pinball Arcade, Pinball FX and Pinball Parlor? It’s thanks to all-time classics like Pinball Fantasies and Pinball Dreams that we have these true to life ball-and-bumper simulators. It is my conviction that Dice has the ability to capture something that few other developers can achieve. Something that has turned Battlefield into a household name.

These days it is in the hands of its parent company, EA Games, but it hails from a time when their reputation was less… flushable than it is now. Back in 2002, Nvidia had hit its stride with the Geforce 2, the Athlon XP was price/performance king, and Windows Activation was raising ire all across the land. Onboard audio was acceptable, gaming components were rare and hardware was cheap. Or should I say "affordable".

Yeah, we’ll go with that.

The reason I mention these things is because you’re going to look at the options and find yourself perhaps a little surprised. Audio channels? 32? 64? Who cares? We did. Especially when software mixing had an appreciable impact on framerate. Doom and Quake were old horses by then, and modern hardware could crank out 60+fps on nearly any ol’ GPU at 800x600. It was then that Dice decided it was time to revamp the playfield.

In 2017 we don’t give ignoble audio processing a second thought – unfortunately – because we’ve got so much extra horsepower lying around these days. The repercussions of software mixing are so minimal now that we’ve just stopped counting, even when AMD tried to bring the issue center stage with on-die audio processing. Trust me, it’s a nice feature.

In 2002 games were almost entirely what we call “CPU bound” because graphics cards were pretty limited in their capabilities, and Dice was – and still is – very conscious of that. They focused on responsiveness and the effect it had on competitive gameplay. You see, Pinball Fantasies runs at a silky smooth 60fps, a factor incredibly important to what we now commonly call “twitch gaming”, where 20ms isn’t really a lot of time.

Just imagine missing a paddle bump because your rig drops a few frames at the wrong time. Now that’s aggravation. The intolerable kind. Refunds would be demanded, player feedback would be scathing. Mind you, there’s key difference between the skill ceiling of a pinball game and a first person shooter. If you’ve good reflexes, you’ve got what may be called “a good head start”. To be competitive you’ve got to have the knack and a lot of practice.

No, I’m not an expert, but we’re well acquainted with how the Pros play thanks the multi-billion dollar industry that is eSports. As for my experience with BF1942? I was terrible. Even my hard won Quake reflexes did little against keen eyed AI, and even less against the hellbent rebel players of reflex-dependent CounterStrike. I had a tendency of choosing a strategy and holding to it fast, which made me a good target for those sniffing out campers. You’re welcome.

Granted I was playing with friends in a local area network, and that makes a difference when you’re personally accountable for the mood of the room. Being witty has its uses when tension runs high. Your contribution is deeper than a few anonymous words thrown across half the known world. Oh, and you might be buying the snacks, too. For everyone.

In the present - 2017 - BF1942’s graphics have not aged well. Even then it wasn’t the “prettiest” game on the market. Scenic RPGs and platformers could lay a better claim to that title, and did so for many years. Could it have been the first hardware-mauling Crysis? Certainly, but it seems to me that Dice understood that trading off some fidelity had more tangible benefits, such as larger maps and a greater variety of roles to choose from.

Also, more players. CounterStrike set the benchmark there. FPS games don't have to be pretty to play well. We just like it more when they are.

Battlefield’s warehouse of vehicles and gear was respectable, and represents what are now industry staples in modern multiplayer shooters. Scout (Sniper), Engineer, Assault, Medic and Anti-Tank roles are all at your disposal. You’ve four to five weapons for each, and no, you won’t be scooping stray armaments and ammo without the consequence of changing your chosen role. Unlike comparable team shooters, there’s no elemental wheel of natural enemies, either. Movement speed is consistent across all classes, and everyone has a bullet slinging weapon.

Personally, I find assault to be the most flexible with his machine gun, pistol and grenades. A few of those will knock out a tank, and you can hold a capture point pretty well if you can find an ammo chest and first aid cabinet to cling to. At least, when you're outsmarting AI opponents. Which, incidentally, brings me to the question of vehicles.

Most of us laughed them off because they were so fraggin' hard to control. The prop driven airplanes, in particular, were always easy to over steer. The tanks and APCs however, could carry as many as three (!) players, and were central to some maps. Getting around in Battlefield requires a lot of patient marching, and a vehicle often does wonders for your calloused feet fingers.

Having something new to learn (play with) was a blast, and sometimes a chore. Air defense was fine as long as the planes were piloted by AI. They were terrible flyers, but fun to shoot at with an assault rifle or anti-air cannons.

BF1942 has but one map mode for all of its historical arenas: Capture the Flag, though it doesn’t go by this name. You’ll play as either the Allies or Axis with the simple goal of having a greater amount of control points on the map in your command than the enemy does. Doing so will decrease their “tickets” from a total of 150, and when one side hits bottom, they lose the match.

How long as it been since you’ve played a game with a reasonably competent Artificial Intelligence? They may be sub-par pilots, but they’ll do their best to snipe you if you’re camped in a base, or reduce your tank to littered parts with rocket launchers, or even snipe you with them. Yeah, the crazy things AIs do. Players have the edge in tactics, naturally, but here’s the funny thing: You decide how much processing power is committed to them.

I had an Athlon XP, a GeForce 4 MX and no soundcard, in 2002. Soundcards was costly, financially, and so were the cycles I spared the AI. Reducing this amount has the logical effect of making them, well… careless, dumb, and slow. They could pull off tricky shots, but not as often. It was a good way to change the odds if you weren’t comfortable with your frustration at losing.

But don’t do it. The point of these games is to have fun, and challenge is every bit a part of it. Dice made the tough decision of limiting the polygon and texture budgets so that BF1942 would run on a wide range of systems. That it did, and for nearly ten years enjoyed a community of dedicated players and modders. Even today you can download mods that will improve resolution support for 16:9 screens, and increase draw distance and texture quality.

Desert Command, yo!

This game represents multiplayer shooters at their finest, and is a smart buy if you want a taste of combat before twitch reflexes and profanity were the mainstays of the genre. Skills you acquire in BF1942 may not be as applicable as they once were, but these are memories you won’t regret having. EA’s glory days may be well behind them, but it’s important that we understand that it’s coding excellence like this that raised them to their current status as a household brand game publisher.

A final word about purchasing this rare bird: EA no longer sells BF1942 and its expansions, even as a collection, preferring to drown its player base in DLC. There's no mention of it being vaporware at this point, and that's a doubtful occurrence at any stretch. In a phrase: "Don't ask, don't tell." Good luck, soldier.

5/5

hastypixels's avatar
Community review by hastypixels (August 29, 2017)

Once upon a time Asteroids was all he ever needed. Over twenty years later poor optimization still ceases to faze him. Remember kids: bandwidth isn't the answer. Fun is.

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