So in war, the way is to avoid what is strong and to strike at what is weak.

-Sun Tzu

I have a feeling DICE may have had those sentiments in mind when rival Infinity Ward announced last October that Modern Warfare 2‘s PC version would lack support for dedicated servers. In the PC community’s seething discontent, the Battlefield developers found a rare opportunity: a weakness in the enemy’s line that would allow them to slip past and inflict some serious damage. The press release salvos DICE fired off in the following weeks felt like they were calculated to grant the developer as much of a tactical advantage as possible from Infinity Ward’s minor misfortune. Then, a couple months before Bad Company 2‘s launch, the conflict escalated: EA announced that they were ready to attack the single most profitable entertainment property of all time, ever. Is this a battle that Bad Company 2 could win?

In true gamer fashion, that all depends on your victory conditions.

Those familiar with the Battlefield series may have raised an eyebrow at EA’s bold pronouncements. DICE’s flagship franchise has always relied more on epic scale and expansive environments than on meticulous pacing and mind-blowing action set pieces, and while gazing across a vast desert with the knowledge the you could explore every dune if you so chose is appealing, it doesn’t exactly put asses on couches. But what Battlefield lacks in Shock and Awe, it makes up for in spontaneous, unencumbered gameplay. There are simply more ways to approach a level in Bad Company 2 than in most shooters, and while no single route is as richly detailed or intense as those found in Modern Warfare 2, you feel less like you’re being dragged along on a leash and more like you’re actually driving the action yourself.

The difference isn’t as dramatic in Bad Company 2‘s single-player campaign – in fact, it’s the element of the game that is most clearly influenced by Modern Warfare 2‘s blockbuster ambitions. As with the original Bad Company, the story follows the eponymous rag-tag squad of American servicemen as they become embroiled in a Russian plot to turn the tides in its war with the U.S. The story takes you to a variety of exotic locales that are conspicuously similar to Infinity Ward’s big-budget thrill ride: a Siberian outpost, a South American slum, etc. Perhaps it’s less a case of outright imitation and more a question of inspiration – there’s only so many plausible scenarios in which the Cold War heats up, and all signs point to South America as the main instigator. (I’m looking at you, Chavez.)

But the plot and setting are pretty much where the similarities end. Instead of scripting out a rigid sequence of events for players to experience one after another, Bad Company 2 often lets players decide how to approach a challenge. Frequently, that involves one of the game’s many combat vehicles, including Humvees, choppers and UAVs (this time with offensive capabilities rather than just a radar scan). While the game’s default first-person gunplay doesn’t feel quite as fast-paced or polished as that of its chief rival, the vehicles are the exception: They’re incredibly powerful, relatively easy to pilot and a ton of fun to use. That’s partly a product of the game’s engine, which allows levels that are almost entirely destructible. Lay into a building with an M1 Abrams and you can bring the sucker down – along with everyone inside of it.

While the game’s single player bears the influence of its competitor, though, its multiplayer is a different beast entirely. This isn’t arena combat with a veneer of realism – Bad Company 2‘s multiplayer maps feel like genuine battlefields. The first time you parachute into the game’s Valdez map, you get a sense of the scale: The level stretches out for what seems like miles ahead of you, although you never have to go too far before you come in contact with an enemy. That’s because Bad Company 2‘s Rush mode expands the map incrementally each time the attacking team manages to detonate both of the defenders com stations. It’s the best of both worlds: You get to experience a battle that takes place over the entire map without having to trudge for miles before you encounter an opponent.

Bad Company 2 adds a couple unique mechanics that help you better take advantage of these sprawling environments. The first is the option to join a squad of three other players in the game’s Rush and Conquest modes. Staying with your squad gives you a huge tactical advantage, but there’s more to it than that: If you die, you can opt to respawn next to one of your squadmates rather than a respawn point. As long as your buddy isn’t taking fire when you click the button, you can stay right in the thick of the action without having to deal with much downtime. Just as important is the ability to spot and call out enemy locations to your teammates. Hitting the “social” button while a target is roughly centered in your reticle temporarily adds an orange marker above your enemy’s head and shows his location on the minimap – once that happens, it’s much harder for him to escape.

The game’s multiplayer offers a slightly modified version of its predecessor’s class and unlock system. By playing as one of the four main classes, you earn both general and class-specific experience that goes toward new weapons, gadgets and “specializations” that function pretty much like perks. Surprisingly, even some of the most basic class abilities aren’t available to you until after you’ve reached a certain number of points: As the medic class, you start out with a light machine gun but don’t gain access to your medkit ability until after you’ve ranked up once. It’s a minor quibble, but when it can take over an hour to accumulate enough points to earn the Repair Gun as an engineer or the Sensor Ball as a recon, it’s frustrating to pour your time and energy into leveling a class that doesn’t interest you.

But the features that PC gamers will likely most appreciate exist off the battlefield, including dedicated server support and (at some point in the future, DICE assures) modding tools. It’s possible to control every parameter in the gameplay – you can turn on or off friendly fire, allow/disallow vehicles and much more. It’s perfect for the hardcore player who knows exactly what he’s looking for in a server, but for more casual players who simply want to hop into a game without too much effort, Bad Company 2‘s multiplayer is a bit hit or miss: You may be dropped into a match on a European server, for example, automatically afflicting you with near game-breaking lag.

Bottom Line: In a field where developers are increasingly regulating every aspect of gamers’ experiences, Bad Company 2 lets players tell more of the story. It’s not always for the best.

Recommendation: If you primarily game on the PC, you’ll probably appreciate the amount of control Bad Company 2 puts in your hands. If you don’t, you may find the alternative more immediately engaging.

Score: [rating=4]

Jordan Deam would like to remind developers of another relevant Sun Tzu quote: “Though we have heard of stupid haste in war, cleverness has never been seen associated with long delays.”

This review is based on the PC version of the game.

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