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Battlefield 1943 (Xbox 360) artwork

Battlefield 1943 (Xbox 360) review

"In 1942, in Vietnam, in a fictionalised present day and even a century and a half into the future, the Battlefield series of games has provided exactly what the title suggests, and it was this very quality that sold me on Battlefield 1943. I had never played games online before and didn’t know whether I’d enjoy it, but as I ran along the top of a sun-baked ridge on Wake Island atoll, bombs screeching past overhead to spatter me in chunks of earth as tanks rolled by and my comrades sprinted for t..."

In 1942, in Vietnam, in a fictionalised present day and even a century and a half into the future, the Battlefield series of games has provided exactly what the title suggests, and it was this very quality that sold me on Battlefield 1943. I had never played games online before and didn’t know whether I’d enjoy it, but as I ran along the top of a sun-baked ridge on Wake Island atoll, bombs screeching past overhead to spatter me in chunks of earth as tanks rolled by and my comrades sprinted for their lives into the smoke, I couldn’t help thinking, ‘this is awesome.’

And I wasn’t alone. The first time I demonstrated BF1943 for one of my friends, his initial reaction was twofold: firstly, ‘the maps are huge!’ and secondly, ‘it feels pretty authentic.’ I’m not saying that this game is like war – indeed, I’d argue that being too much like real life combat would be a very bad thing – but it emulates the chaos and cacophonous bedlam that a lifelong civilian would imagine characterises the front line.

Let’s rewind for a moment though, and take in a brief summary. Before the release of Bad Company 2, BF1943 was the newest Battlefield game and is still the first to be available only by download. It was, and is, priced for impulse purchase (which was how it came into my hands) and offered a real alternative to the dominant online console shooter, the much lauded (and equally maligned) Call of Duty series. Unlike a full retail game, BF1943 has no single player option – not even an Unreal Tournament-style series of bot-filled deathmatches. But that’s never been the purpose of a Battlefield game; developer Digital Illusions CE has always focused on online competition, and in BF1943 they condensed this into its purest form: a Second World War setting; three distinct character classes; three large maps; several vehicles; two factions. I have heard the game criticised for being too simplistic, but it is this very simplicity that makes it great. And please don’t mistake a simple concept for a basic execution.

In essence, the player is randomly assigned to either the US Marines or the Imperial Japanese Navy, with both factions trying to seize control of three Pacific islands. Being an online first person shooter, the basic idea is to kill members of the opposing team, but Battlefield 1943 adds to this the idea of ‘capture points’ and ‘spawn tickets’. Each match plays out on one of the islands, chosen at random. Every island has five locations that can be captured by either team. For each such location that your team holds, the enemies’ spawn tickets deplete faster, and every point they hold has the same effect on your team, until eventually one team runs out of spawn tickets and loses the match. The more capture points your team holds, the more likely you are to win. It’s a simple idea but it works well.

To aid in the conquest of these islands, an assortment of vehicles can be procured. Some, such as tanks and planes, are clearly intended as offensive weapons, but even relatively weak vehicles such as jeeps and landing craft are vital for crossing the large maps with speed. Moreover, these vehicles provide some of the greatest opportunities for imagination and improvisation in the whole game. Planes, for instance, can be used to bomb or dogfight, but they can also allow you parachute into otherwise unreachable areas, or they can be crashed into entrenched defences. There really are as many possible uses as you can think of, and the same applies to the other vehicles too. Some of the best moments in Battlefield 1943 result from thinking, ‘I wonder what will happen if I do this…’

The three distinct character classes further enhance the freestyle nature of play. The rifleman is entirely combat-centric with a semi-auto weapon and matching rife grenades, the infantryman carries a submachine gun in addition to an anti-tank bazooka and a wrench for repairing friendly vehicles, and the scout uses explosive charges and a scoped rife. Each class has its strengths, and it’s very unwise to try and stick to just one. As the flow of the battle shifts, different classes will become more or less useful. Additionally, the game doesn’t bother with now-common FPS features such as customisable loadouts, rewards or unlockables. Everyone has access to the same three classes, and these classes contain the same weapons and gear for every single player. Whilst some might complain about the lack of options and advancement, looked at in another light this means that the battle is always a level playing field, and success or failure is determined entirely by skill (and luck) rather than by having superior kit.

The flexibility of approach means that BF1943 neatly avoids some of the most common frustrations in online shooters. Camping snipers are seldom safe, since you can approach them from the land, the air or the sea. Nowhere is entirely defensible – even more so considering the developer’s recent fondness for destructible environments. Most buildings can be damaged or even razed to the ground, given sufficient ordinance. Bridges can be destroyed; even the earthen roads become pitted with craters as the war rages on. Nowhere is safe, and no two battles are ever exactly the same. Other typical problems that this game overcomes include spawn camping (kills made in the enemies’ base don’t count) and reflex-based gameplay (of course reflexes play a part, but just charging around with your finger twitching on the trigger will earn you an abundance of ignominious demises).

It’s true that the budget price and download-only nature of BF1943 have some negative consequences though. It looks decent enough, but it can’t compete with full retail games on the visual front. The maps are sufficiently large and varied that they take a while to wear thin, but there are only three of them and sooner or later you’ll want more. The absence of unlockables means 1943 lacks the sense of progress and the drive to advance of other games. Some of the character exclamations – notably “headshot!” – grate pretty quickly and the character models themselves are fairly uninspiring. Still, complaining about these flaws seems churlish when you consider the bargain price and the ability (indeed, necessity) to buy from the comfort of your own home. The one serious criticism I have – and one that should have been addressed, bargain price or not – is that team chat only works half the time. It’s something you may not notice, since by and large people aren’t that talkative, but if you do start chatting to a friend or teammate you can expect sporadic, and sometimes lengthy, burst of infuriating silence. It’s a shame, because the developer’s attention to detail is otherwise commendable.

Battlefield 1943 is an impressive game in so many respects that most of its few technical shortcomings are really of very little consequence. The more serious one, a broken chat function, doesn’t have much impact when no-one wants to talk, but it does limit the potential for cooperative tactics – a crying shame in a game that seems designed for a tactical approach. Still, BF1943 manages to stand up well to its competitors despite being an Xbox Live Arcade game that costs about a quarter of the price a new full retail game and, in this reviewer’s opinion, it beats many of them at their own game by making everything bigger and more explosive. The next game in the series, Bad Company 2, is more polished and has more of the usual FPS features but it is also significantly more expensive, and in my view 1943 does a good job of holding its own regardless. This battlefield is one well worth fighting on.

Oh, and the theme music rocks.

SamildanachEmrys's avatar
Community review by SamildanachEmrys (November 08, 2010)

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