Battlefield Vietnam (BFV) is the successor to the much over-hyped Battlefield 1942 (BF1942) of a few years ago. Hey, don't get me wrong: BF1942 was a good game, but it wasn't the end-all-be-all of human existence that too many reviewers made it out to be. It was a game absolutely plagued by bugs, arguably the stupidest bots ever created, and a number of very irritating design decisions as well. In the final analysis, BF1942 was (and still is) a lot of fun when playing with good people, and it was well worth the money for those who love World War II multi-player-only games. It just wasn't perfect by a long shot.
So BFV has mixed shoes to fill. On the one hand it faces some pretty big expectations right out of the gate. BF1942 did get a lot of stuff right, being the first game to integrate so beautifully its host of vehicles with great infantry kits. Yet on the other hand, BFV has pretty low bars to hurdle in other respects when taking its predecessor's failings into account. Let's see where the chips fall.
Honestly, I never understood why some people were unhappy with the graphics in BF1942. It's true that enabling anti-aliasing made the in-game text more than a bit hard to read, and it's similarly true that other games of the time were far flashier (e.g., Unreal Tournament 2003), but BF1942 looked more than good enough to get the job done. Having said that, it's obvious that the developers listened to the criticism and hit a huge home run where the look of BFV is concerned.
Not only are great models and animation on display, not only is the texture work even better than the previous game, BFV implements the most impressive technology I've ever seen for making the world look like a jungle. From what I understand the developers created code specifically to manage both undergrowth and overgrowth in the jungle. The result is positively astonishing. When you're walking up the Ho Chi Min trail, for example, you really feel like you're in the jungle.
I've heard the jungles of Vietnam described by veterans of that war as "bad ass bush", and after playing BFV I can see why they say that. Almost every grove provides cover that works both ways, providing welcome hiding places just as it provides the enemy with hard-to-spot sniping posts. In the real world, of course, the jungle and its features (e.g., humidity, disease, insects, etc.) are pretty hazardous to one's health in themselves, but despite the terrain's tame role in the game the jungles of BFV nevertheless have to be seen to be believed. I have no other way to describe it. The screen shots I had seen prior to buying the game just don't do it justice, perhaps because of their static nature.
Also improving on the original is the player's ability to customize his look, choosing between two options for bodies and heads with each respawn. That's not nearly the level of customization in other games of late, of course, but it's still a nice improvement. What's more, it probably goes a long way toward mollifying the politically correct crowd. You know the type. They write papers explaining how the game of checkers is an example of racist segregation. They insist that hard drive vendors cease using the terms 'master' and 'slave' when configuring hard drives. In short, they fill up their clearly abundant free time with worse-than-useless drivel. Sheesh. Anyway, the additions to the game in terms of player customization are both welcome and effective.
It looks to me like the special effects have also been improved this time around. The explosions, muzzle flame, smoke, and other effects from BF1942 were pretty impressive, but they're even better in BFV. The same is true of the graphics used for the game's interface, insofar as BFV features far more interesting menus, loading screens, etc. Suffice it to say that BFV easily outdoes its predecessor in the visuals department and unquestionably sets the bar for other games when it comes to rendering jungle environments.
The one negative complaint I have about the visuals is that their "price" combines with a lack of support for common resolutions in a really unpleasant way. I griped about BF1942 because I couldn't run it at my favorite gaming resolution, which was 1280 x 1024 x 32 bpp at the time. Sadly, BFV does nothing to fix that problem, neglecting both that resolution and the far more common 1024 x 768 x 32 bpp. The problem becomes clear when one considers that BFV needs a much beefier machine to run at an acceptable framerate.
My only real choices are effectively to play at 800 x 600 x 32 bpp, 1280 x 960 x 32 bpp, or 1600 x 1200 x 32 bpp. The first choice looks positively awful, pixels popping every which way in some kind of sick homage to the games of yesteryear. Worse, my relatively beefy system (including an Athlon 3000 XP, a Radeon 9700 Pro, and 1 GB of physical RAM) chugs too slowly at either of the higher resolutions without turning down the detail levels by a fair amount. Because BFV doesn't support some of the more common resolutions I'm unable to enjoy the game in all its glory.
In short, BFV is a bit of a pig when it comes to system requirements, and its lack of support for certain medium-level resolutions only exacerbates the problem. I'd say it's time to upgrade, but there really isn't much room to do so with my system. Maybe the next generation video cards from ATI and NVIDIA will fix this problem. Until then I'm stuck playing with middling detail settings, which mars the experience notably.
I'm happy to report that the developers also learned from their previous mistakes in the audio department. When BF1942 shipped its audio was horribly broken, requiring an annoying series of patches just to get the game working with the most common sound cards on the market (i.e., anything from Creative Labs). In contrast, BFV is trouble free right out of the gate. Its audio is beautifully implemented, from the music that plays at the in-game interface to the music and sound effects that play during battle. I have found precisely zero audio glitches with BFV and that's a huge improvement over its predecessor.
Better still, the high production values of the original have remained intact. The weapon sounds are great, the recording of dialogue in all the proper languages really ups the immersion level, and the addition of proper doppler shifting is fabulous. The 1960s "protest music" included in the game doesn't suit my tastes at all, but it does lend a great deal to the game. There just isn't any way to describe what it's like being part of a thundering armored convoy rolling across the jungle as CCR's "Fortunate Son" blares from the helicopters above. The doppler shift as they outpace the armor is such a subtle but beautiful touch; it has to be experienced to understand what I mean.
So, the verdict in the audio department is overwhelmingly positive. I can't think of a thing I'd change with the audio in BFV. It's all fabulous and about as well implemented as it could be. Again, that's a huge improvement over the way BF1942 was mishandled from day one.
The interface is also improved, though arguably not as much. It's definitely nice not to be confronted with a profile selection screen every time I start the game. I griped about that before, and I'm pleased to see that complaint nullified in BFV. Yet BFV also forces the player to sit through the annoying startup screens just like its predecessor. Fortunately one can work around this by adding "+restart 1" to the command line (without the quotes), which makes the game start almost instantly on my system. With that little trick in place BFV starts quicker than any other game I own which is surprisingly refreshing.
The rest of the interface is pretty similar to that of BF1942 in terms of its functionality. All the right key-binding facilities are clearly available, the vehicle interfaces provide all the right information, and even the spawn point selection has been improved by forcing you to re-select only when your old spawn point has been lost. Even the game's performance when switching from the game to the menus has been improved noticeably. Overall, there is very little to quibble about with the interface in BFV, for it fixes almost all of the problems I mentioned with BF1942. It's not a big leap forward, as with the visual and aural presentation, but it is definitely an improvement.
It even adds the more detailed radio chat commands that I so wanted in the original game. Accessing these does require that the player enable the expanded chat interface, and learn the new function key sequences, but the payoff is well worth the additional complexity. No longer is a player limited to simple statements; he can announce where he's attacking/defending, request backup, report all of the different sorts of enemies sighted, taunt the enemy, etc. The radio chat interface is much more powerful and is truly a pleasure.
One last item must be mentioned here: the developers have added the kind of server administration features that should have shipped with the original game. As a result, I've seen server admins being far more proactive, kicking team-killing smacktards, kicking the inevitable jackass who spews malicious and stupid invective, and so forth. I'm not sure of all the enhanced capabilities but, compared to the original, BFV seems to provide a far more pleasant place to play thanks to the new ease in policing servers.
As I said of BF1942, this is where the game really shines. To recap, the conquest game mode is a thing of beauty once you understand how it works. Each side starts with some number of tickets which are reduced in two ways: (1) by killing enemy players, and/or (2) by holding the requisite number of control points. The latter drains the enemy of tickets far more quickly, but the former can make a non-trivial difference as well.
The most obvious change in the game mechanics is that the mechanism for capturing control points has been altered. One of the problems with BF1942 was that a lone player running around behind the front lines could easily capture control point after control point very quickly. It made the battlefield very unfocused because any individual soldier could change the landscape far too easily, erasing any substantive notion of a "front line".
In BFV the time that it takes to capture a control point depends entirely on how many players there are within range. A point that might take a lone soldier a full thirty seconds to capture might take three soldiers a mere ten seconds instead. This encourages soldiers to stick together in a way that BF1942 never did. Oh, it's still possible for a lone soldier to run around grabbing control points, but it's also a lot easier for the defenders to fight back because of the time differential. This change doesn't solve the problem entirely—unlike the onslaught mode of Unreal Tournament 2004 (UT2k4)—but it does do much to lessen its sting.
Of course, most of the good mechanics from BF1942 are retained as well. Flying the aircraft isn't a trivial undertaking, particularly learning how to handle a chopper properly, but it's a skill that is both fun and valuable. The maps are still kind of small for the speeds involved, insofar as either jets or choppers can find themselves outside the battlefield and threatened with destruction all too quickly, but the aircraft are still not to be underestimated. Similarly, the ground vehicles are an interesting and fun mix of transports, armor, etc.
I've read that the developers intended to render the vehicles less overpowering than they were in BF1942, but I'm not sure they succeeded. On the one hand, it seems to me like several of the classes are more broadly useful. The U.S. heavy gunner, for example, has both an M60 and his choice of a grenade launcher or LAW rocket. Whereas the anti-tank kit in BF1942 was pretty much useless for general combat, the heavy gunner of BFV is a walking killing machine. He can cream infantry just as easily as he can cream armor. The disincentive to gear up as a vehicle killer has been eliminated and that's surely a good decision.
Yet I suspect vehicles will still dominate BFV in the way they did BF1942 for the simple reason that the new aircraft are a lot more powerful. The helicopters of BFV are much easier to put to devastating effect because there's no timing involved in dropping ordnance; one simply points, shoots, and rockets slaughter pretty much anything within their blast radius. For softer targets one can also use the devastating minigun. And because helicopters can hover, unlike planes, they can bring their weapons to bear far easier and far more often, no flying around to make another pass required.
Speaking of which, the jets in the game are insanely powerful in light of their ability to drop napalm. The napalm bombs in BFV are nothing like the simple bombs of BF1942, which had a relatively small blast radius. When a jet drops a line of napalm bombs you'll know it, for everything within a wide swath of destruction beneath the plane will be immolated completely. Dropping bombs in BF1942 typically spelled doom for a single vehicle at most; dropping bombs in BFV can spell the end of an entire team if they're in a convoy during the attack. That's seriously destructive power.
I know some have claimed that the heavy gunner class is simply too powerful, in light of his great flexibility, but I don't buy that. He isn't invincible at all and he sacrifices grenades, accuracy with his gun, etc. in exchange for his strengths. I'm more concerned about the aircraft because they're even more potent than the aircraft in BF1942 and seem far more robust as well. I've pumped an entire clip from an M60 minigun into enemy helicopters and watched them continue to rain down explosive death. I guess only time will tell if the aircraft really are as overpowered as they seem to me right now.
The one substantive, negative comment I have about the game is that the medic has been abandoned completely. I thought the medic class was a wonderful albeit underused component of the original game. He was a great guy to have around on the battlefield and was reasonably well armed to boot. BFV does feature medical depots at key locations but I still miss the medic. He was a fun class to play and I'm sorry to see him go. Given the increased damage done by the weapons in BFV his absence is all the more surprising.
A final item is worth noting, namely, that one of my complaints with the original game still stands unchanged: changing kits really ought to be easier. As it stands, the only way to change kits is to pick up a new one from a vanquished foe. I don't have any problem with this aspect of the system. What I do think is silly is that there's no other way to change kits without dying. Why, after all, if I'm standing at an ammo dump, replenishing my stock of grenades, bullets, etc., should I not be able to switch weapons as well? I don't know why the developers didn't change that part of the arming system. It just seems silly.
Let's be honest: BF1942 didn't have a story. It had some neat maps that tied into the crucial battles of World War II, but it had no protagonist and no larger story whatsoever. BFV is no better in this regard. There is no goal toward which the player proceeds, there are no characters to care about, etc. If you're the type of gamer who needs to be sucked into a good story in order to have fun with a game, then BFV will be a crushing disappointment to you. Otherwise, you probably won't even notice; you'll be too busy crawling through the jungle toward the next battle. Personally, that's just fine with me. I don't think every game needs a story in order to be fun.
Like its predecessor, BFV's content is a mixed bag. It surely includes a lot of cool stuff for your gaming dollar. The game features a very nice collection of maps, a bunch of great weapons, fun and useful vehicles, different classes to play, and so forth. There is a lot to BFV no matter how you slice it and all of it is well implemented; i.e., unlike BF1942 you won't find any blatant crashing issues, video problems, audio glitching, etc. Yet BFV does inherit some problems largely unchanged from its predecessor, the most obvious of which to my mind is the obscene stupidity of the AI bots. Consider the following quote from my review of BF1942:
To be more specific, the AI is dumb as dirt. No, wait; that's an insult to dirt everywhere. The AI is dumber than dirt by a long shot. I've complained about the AI in a lot of games, but BF1942 really takes the cake. I have almost completed the single-player campaign, and from what I've seen my "teammates" are completely useless. I regularly see bots mindlessly walking back and forth, clearly trying to get into the tank that's right in front of them. I've seen them get hung up on corners and stand there stupidly "humping" the wall. I've seen them walk readily into streams of machine-gun fire without even the slightest attempt to return fire. They steal vehicles and park them stupidly out in the open, they stand around doing nothing at all, etc. In short, the AI is positively terrible. Frankly, the single-player game would be easier without any AI "teammates". As it is, they simply waste vehicles and tickets and actually make the game harder.
Everything I said about BF1942's inexcusably terrible bot AI is equally true of BFV's bot AI. I realize that the franchise is geared almost exclusively toward the multi-player aspect of the game. That's painfully obvious from the short shrift given to any thoughts of a single-player "campaign" as well as the clear lack of attention to the AI. What I find inexcusable is that the bots are implemented so poorly. I'm of the mind that if you're going to do something then you should do it right. The developers should either take the time to make the bots useful or trim them as a feature altogether. Given the far better AI present in other games (e.g., UT2k4) the bots of BFV are simply beyond the pale.
Perhaps even worse is that BFV does nothing to solve the spawn-raping problems of BF1942. If anything, it rewards them all the more with frequent medical depots and foliage! It's possible in BFV to pick a couple of hiding spots and rape a spawn point for all its worth again and again and again with near impunity. Several of the missions feature environments that are a spawn-raper's wet dream, with ammo and medical supplies near perfect hiding spots.
The one factor which helps ameliorate this somewhat is that BFV features a death camera, which shows the location of the person responsible for your demise. This is particularly important given the tall grass in which snipers can so easily hide on many of the maps. Unfortunately, the death camera doesn't do much to solve the problem. Sure, it's good to know where that sniper is, 100+ yards out on a knoll, but all it means is that it will be still more frustrating when he pops your head after your next spawn. Trust me, you won't have the time to shoot back if he's any good. The grenade launcher is even more effective in that regard as are rockets from helicopters.
As with BF1942, too many games of BFV degenerate into nothing but a string of constant spawn deaths and that's a pity. It really ruins the fun of the game. UT2k4's onslaught mode provides a great solution to the problem; perhaps the mod community will do something to implement it in BFV. One can only hope.
Speaking of the mod community: the whole game does have a certain intrinsic déjà vu feeling to it. That is, because of the freely available Eve of Destruction mod for the original BF1942 one can't help but wonder whether perhaps we haven't been here before? And paid less to boot! Seriously, BFV does feel an awful lot like the original game remade with cosmetic changes and some minor adjustments here and there. I know that seriously understates the amount of work that went into the game, but BFV clearly doesn't take the franchise in any radically new direction. It isn't much of a stretch to call it BF1942 set in Vietnam.
To be clear, however, how seriously one takes this complaint will depend on how much one enjoyed the original. I'm happy to have all the great gameplay and a bunch of fixes and improvements rolled into a new package, but I know others won't be quite so eager to spend more money on something similar to what they already have. I don't mind paying for the fixes, improvements, and new content, but I know that attitude isn't shared by all and it is an issue worth mentioning.
The one remaining thing that I simply cannot avoid is the childish view of ethics and politics espoused by the game developers. I should know better than to expect intelligent discourse from pretty much any corner of society these days, but what I'm sure seems like tolerant, fair-minded commentary to far too many impoverished minds could not be more absurd. I am referring to the text that appears on the loading screens for the various maps. It is not uniformly bad, but the ethics and politics contained within much of it is as self-serving as it is facile. Consider, for example, the text of the "Court of Public Opinion" loading screen for the "Reclaiming Hue" map. It says, and I am not making this up, that:
The decade of the sixties brought about the peace movement. The youth of the nation was [sic] not willing to unquestioningly [sic] follow its leaders, as their forefathers had. Until the sixties, war was a fight for good versus evil and it was obvious why the battle raged. In the sixties that changed and the enemy was not necessarily in the wrong. Right or wrong was a matter of political view and opinion. It wasn't good public relations to win a war when the public questioned the morality of the fight.
This is little removed from the pabulum I've read when grading poorly written papers, or the insipid claims of those students who embrace moral relativism as a tenable view of ethics. The developers clearly think that the decade of the 1960s was a unique advancement in human thought, that the baby boomers were somehow wiser and more independent than any other generation produced in this nation, that Vietnam was the first war that didn't enjoy thoughtless popular support. All of those suggestions are blatantly false as anyone who actually reads history knows. Abraham Lincoln, for but one example among hundreds, faced a wildly divided country embroiled in a war not at all black and white to those who lived at the time, a war in which the youth of the nation surely did not "unquestioningly follow its leaders".
Worse than such ignorance of history, however, is the moral equivalence involved. The statement that "...the enemy was not necessarily in the wrong" is a ridiculous yet sadly common bit of tripe where Communism is concerned. Hands down, Communism was the biggest single destroyer of human life, liberty, and happiness in the civilized world during the twentieth century. Yet as the dullard loading screen for "Cambodian Incursion" proclaims, "The communist ideal of everyone working towards the greater good was more palatable than the exploitist methods of capitalism."
More palatable to whom, one wonders? To the millions who were deliberately starved to death and killed by Stalin? To the still more millions slaughtered in Mao's communist China? To the roughly two million Cambodians executed by Pol Pot? To the South Vietnamese who had to live under the oppressive hell of the communist North who violated the treaty and invaded once the U.S. had left? Historical hindsight is inarguably 20/20: Communism was the greatest evil of the twentieth century, while Capitalism, despite its faults, did more to liberate men and elevate their standard of living than any prior philosophical/economic development throughout world history.
I expect this kind of drivel from the ignorant, but it doesn't make it any easier to swallow. In that respect, BFV is very hard to choke down for those of us who know better. Moral relativism comes both easily and naturally to those without a shred of knowledge of ethics. So much the worse for moral relativism. But I digress.
Score another win for BFV! I say that because its network code is clearly a refinement of that in BF1942. The original game in the franchise had all kinds of freaky problems when released, most of which were corrected later by patches. In contrast, BFV seems absolutely butter-smooth right out of the box. I've been on some laggy servers, to be sure, but when playing on a fast server with a good connection everything works as it should. I haven't seen a single server glitch yet in BFV, whereas I was accustomed to seeing at least a few in any given game with BF1942. That's a big improvement in my book.
I should also note that BFV ships with the Punkbuster anti-cheating software built in from the start. Whereas the BF1942 community had to suffer through all kinds of hacks, cheats, and the odious experiences these generate, BFV should provide a much more fair environment in which to play right from the outset. That, coupled with the additional server-administration interface, makes the game all that much more attractive.
I said that BF1942 was a decent game that just didn't live up to its hype. To the developers' credit, subsequent patches fixed its problems until it eventually became a good game that was a lot of fun to play. This time around the developers deserve much greater credit for shipping a far more capable and far more polished product. I have no doubt there will be problems to address, and that there will be the usual host of "grief players" who aren't happy unless they're screwing things up for others. But if BF1942 was a good game BFV is a great game by comparison.
Just as I asked in my review of the original, here's the final question: should you buy it? If you're the kind of gamer that wants a good single-player experience, then you should avoid BFV like the plague. Most others should put BFV on their short list. Just be sure you're ready to suffer through a lot of spawn raping; the basic game mechanics and map design still really encourage it.
Reviewed by Phileosophos