Battlefield Vietnam pre-Alpha Test Drive
"You're gonna love the Nam."
December 9, 2003. Redwood City, CA - You know 2004 is going to be a good year when it hasn't even arrived and you've been invited to attend a press-only, first hand LAN test for Electronic Art's Battlefield Vietnam (sequel to the smashing Battlefield 1942 for you Taliban living in caves). Hoorah! I mobilized immediately and rendezvoused with SimHQ's Bubba Wolford en route from Houston to San Francisco. We marched into EA's Building 250 bright and early, eager to witness the evolution of one of the most undeniably fun and enjoyable PC games ever.
"Goooood Mornin', Viet-Nam!"
This was my first visit to EA's campus. Their headquarters is comprised of several modern office building sprawled across a couple city blocks, with parks, volleyball courts, and spacious landscaping framing the grounds. Mercy! This is a good company to work for. Inside, the building was dense with activity. Our friendly PR contact, Steve Groll, escorted us up to the PR offices. There we met Tim McDowd, Jerris Mungai, Erica Kyles, and the other EA folks who have worked to keep us up to speed with the status of various Battlefield projects, as well as Medal of Honor: Rising Sun (2003) and past titles such as Sub Command (2001), and Fleet Command (1999). After a couple cups of coffee we were brought to the combat room.
Subsim (your humble correspondent) was seated between Sal "Sluggo" Accardo from Gamespy and Wolford (SimHQ). Across the table was Computer Gaming World's Senior Editor, Ken Brown and Assistant Editor Johnny Liu (two really nice gentlemen), along with Groll (EA PR). Somewhere in the bowels of the development studio, a score of EA and DICE developers were poised to welcome us to the jungle. EA producer Reid Schneider probably intended to brief us on the new features and maps but being able soldiers, we dove in and the fighting and smack began. My friend from SimHQ reminds me that I suggested earlier that we team up on the other journalists and here I am, on the opposing team, sending full metal jackets his way. Too late, can't talk, no time for sentiment, must kill.
If you've played the BF42 mod Eve of Destruction, you have had a taste of what's to come with Battlefield Vietnam, but that's all, merely a taste. DICE has adopted the great gameplay and balance that makes Battlefield so addictive, coupled it with a new and far superior graphics rendering engine, infused new sounds, and expanded on many elements that take the game to the next level. Some of the changes were so clever I wanted to deliver myself a "why didn't I think of that!?" slap.
"All he's got is that stupid gun he carries around like John Wayne."
There are four classes of soldier available--infantry, engineer, heavy weapons support, and sniper. Medics were absent in this build. However, each of the four classes has two sub-classes, so for example you may choose between an engineer with mortars or an engineer with mines; a heavy weapons solider with an RPG or a shoulder-mounted, heat-seeking SAM, etc. You also have a few choices for the uniform and facial characteristics for your solider so the BF-VN maps are not filled with clones. This all adds up to greater diversity and should make the action even more interesting. The VNC soldiers have some note-worthy weapons at their disposal unlike anything seen in EoD or BF42: tire-puncturing stars, pungi sticks, and booby traps (I got the impression more of this type of weapon will be in the final version). EA plans 14~15 maps in total, from rice fields and huts, to jungle warfare, to urban settings.
The first map we were shown featured a group of linked islands, rivers snaking through jungle foliage that would make Capt. Kurtz nervous. A huge variety of ferns, vines, Eucalyptus trees, banana plants, trees, brush, and undergrowth make BF-VN an astounding place to hunt and do battle. In regular Battlefield 1942 when you come under fire your first response is to drop prone and look for cover. In the denser parts of the Battlefield Vietnam jungle, you drop prone and disappear. DICE will want to look into making the enemy name tags harder to pick out for this to have total effect but as it currently plays it's pretty good. To offset the abundance of cover and prevent BF-VN from becoming a sniper haven, DICE has added a "threat indicator", yellow arrows around the mini-map that signify which direction you are being shot from. Think of this as being able to hear the shots and discern their origin. A very good touch.
"Here, only the silent survive."
Once you are down and hiding in the grass, you find that the leaves are slightly translucent--you can perceive movement and shapes through the vegetation. This is a big improvement over BF42, where once you hid behind a bush, you couldn't see a darn thing. If you crawled forward until you could see, you were no longer in cover. With the new game, you can hide and still see pretty well. Boy, are snipers going to like this. Groll mentioned they are considering putting a limit on the sniper class, say, allowing only two snipers to a game per side. Hoorah! I have little doubt that DICE/EA will be successful in getting the right balance--that's one of the hallmarks of a BF game.
The graphics shine in other areas as well. The huts, hootches, and bridges are authentic-looking. Explosions have more of a hot gas/billowing fire effect. Tanks, artillery, jeeps, Hueys, and Cobras are nicely detailed and the lines and rounded surfaces are smoother than in BF42. Soldiers spray blood when hit by rifle fire. The new rendering engine improves the overall look significantly. Visibility is limited but it appeared that I could see farther and more clearly than BF42. One element that won't make the cut is weather effect, specifically rain. EA producer Reid Schneider says, "Our goal is to make the player feel like they're really in Vietnam. We've created a lot of fogging effects and lighting effects to get that eerie, creepy feeling. Weather effects are something we are looking at but I don't believe we will be able to support that." His team has accomplished the overall effect. BF-VN looks more like a place and less like a game than BF42, which is saying a lot because the maps of BF42--Wake, Guam, Husky, etc.--always stick in my mind as locales I know just as personally as my own neighborhood. The new Battlefield game will virtually take you to Vietnam.
Really superb audio effects compliment the graphics. The game environment is laden with subtle ambience: crickets, winds, footstep sounds. Tanks and heavy artillery create massive peals of thunder, making blasting stuff even more pleasurable. Schneider tells me that the finished version will also include NVA propaganda radio.
"A day without blood is like a day without sunshine."
After nearly an hour of furious action, in which Subsim routinely topped Gamespy, SimHQ, and CGW, along with many EA devs in the final outcome, we got a change of maps. We were on the Ho Chi Minh Trail with even more thick foliage. I was Charlie, I laid pungi sticks everywhere and took cover on a bluff overlooking a pair of swinging vine bridges, waiting for Sluggo (Gamespy) or Capt. Sparrow (Steve Groll, EA) to venture by. After capping several brave souls who tried to cross the bridge, I ventured forth my own bad self and got across. I grabbed a tank and began shellacking the hell out of an American base. Hoorah! I moved up to the center of the base to capture the flag. New to BF-VN is a small stopwatch that tells you how long you have to wait until the flag changes to your side. If you are alone the stopwatch can take a good, long, nerve-racking time. If you have teammates on hand the flag changes much more quickly. Schneider says this is intentional to foster more team play. I kind of liked the suspense of crawling around a flag, not knowing when or if it was going to change, but most of the other testers agreed the new way is better.
Eventually the flag changes--triumphant, I drive my smoking, damaged tank over to a fresh, new one and switch. Suddenly I'm getting blasted! It's loud and with all the rocking going on I cannot get my bearings. That rascally Groll has jumped in my near-death tank and is pasting me good. I work the turret around but my tank explodes before I can teach him to mind his elders. I've met my match and the smirking is unbearable. So it goes.
"You either surf or you fight."
The vehicles in BF Vietnam are not far removed from their ancestors in BF42. Of course, they are 1960's vintage and this go-round they include air assault and troop transport helicopters. A chopper can lower a chain to a boat or tank and air drop in to another distant location--a great tactical move. The helos in BF-VN are more more responsive to control input and easier to fly than those in Desert Combat or Eve of Destruction because they use a different physics model, one designed for rotary wing aircraft. You can load multiple infantry in a Huey, man the door gun, and even blast Wagner from the speakers and put the fear of God in the Communist enemy. Jets can deliver napalm loads that are a sight to behold, huge walls of fire.
Tanks play a reduced role in Vietnam. The terrain doesn't favor armor--so many ravines, rivers, and trees mean you can't take your Patton cross-country at any decent rate of speed like you could in BF42. Heavy weapons soldiers with RPGs can take advantage of the abundant cover to attack tanks and escape retribution easily in many areas. Tank versus tank engagements are even scarier than before. When your tank is hit by another heavy round, it gets shaken and throws your aim off. Tankers will have to devise different tactics to use armor effectively. Expect to see smacktards streaming the chat window with "I need a pickup" now more than ever--DICE thoughtfully included the ability for the passenger to shoot while riding in the jeep. There are no submarines in this installment of the Battlefield series but they do have some nifty patrol boats and one-man junks. Fast and maneuverable patrol river boats with mounted .50 cals will allow you to load up men, cross rivers, and sweep in behind the enemy positions. I impressed Schneider with my naval skills by running my boat aground several times. Hoorah!
"Out here, due process is a bullet."
One more map, nirvana approaches an end. This one is called Game Warden. Trails, rice paddy fields, hootches galore. An EA staffer lays out a huge platter of chocolate chip cookies. I smell 'em but I ain't budgin'. My buddy SimHQ has teamed up with me and we are causing the enemy much grief and consternation. I try the heat-seeking shoulder-fired missile out on an attacking helo--he toasts me. I blast a guy getting in a helo and he retorts he was trying to have a look at the in-flight music...oops, sorry about that. Forgot this is an evaluation test not the bragging rights for the International Fall Frag Fest. Getting carried away is easy with this game.
EA says they are especially committed to minimizing any bugs with this game and they are including Punkbuster, a comprehensive anti-cheat utility. Another concept they are considering is adding more control over game types, such as an option for "sniper only" games and the like. I mentioned the appeal of surprises like the hidden airfield one of the BF42 desert maps and Schneider agreed that there will be such secrets in Vietnam. Finally, the single player version of BF-VN has not been forgotten. The dev team has taken steps to ensure the AI soldiers will interact with vehicles more naturally and the player will be able to issue hold position and attack commands that his AI squad mates will follow.
"Sound off like ya got a pair!"
So, what do I think? I'm glad to say it was very impressive. It's a Battlefield game, in all the best ways that count: gameplay, balance, atmosphere; but it's a new game in many other ways--a different period, more classes, customizable characters, more weapons, nicely modeled helos, new and quite interesting maps, and utterly great graphics. Battlefield Vietnam wins the war of multiplayer action/wargames, hoorah! EA's approach to the game and and attitude toward the player community is totally earnest. They value the mod community and they respect player opinions to a greater degree than I have seen in a while. EA flew in a cadre of journalists from Europe to ensure good coverage across the Atlantic, a marvelous thing to do, in my opinion. Playing the game and conversing with the dev team leads me to believe that they are going to have another blockbuster on their hands.
by Neal "Tex" Stevens
A free copy of Battlefield Vietnam to the first player to correctly list the source of all the heading quotes above. Post your guesses here!
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Anticipated release: Spring 2004
Hardware requirements: Pentium 1.8 GHz
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