What We Talk About When We Talk About Battlefield: Bad Company
Earlier today, Eurogamer published an interview with DICE general manager Karl-Magnus Troedsson in which he expressed some sense of wonderment regarding why fans hold the Bad Company games in such prestige.
“Some people say this: the Bad Company 2 multiplayer is the best you've ever done,” Troedsson said. “Okay, why is that? It's hard for people to articulate what that is, which is actually hard for us.”
To me, that’s like saying you don’t know what makes Battlefield special.
The major reason I was drawn in by the series in the first place is it felt unlike any other shooter I’d ever played before. When I first booted up Battlefield 1942 back in 2002, the large-scale combat, focused teamplay, and the delicate balance between infantry, land vehicles, and air support won me over. The game shipped with the standard array of modes, but the star was undeniably Conquest. You could sense the maps were all designed with the intent of making these 64-player zone control battles the best they could be. I honestly can’t remember if I ever played the other modes, which had been in every multiplayer shooter that preceded Battlefield and thus felt generic in comparison.
This focus was strengthened with Battlefield 2, which I still consider to be the high water mark for the series. This title stripped the extraneous, vanilla modes altogether, keeping only Conquest and its assault variant. DICE took the same concentrated approach with its futuristic foray, Battlefield 2142, which added only one new mode, Titan, alongside Conquest and Conquest assault.
For the transition to consoles, DICE faced a new challenge. The 64-player battles that made the PC games so great weren’t possible at a high fidelity on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 – especially when the studio planned to introduce destructible environments as well – so the team needed something new. This led to the creation of Rush in the Bad Company games. This fantastic mode has one clear-cut objective for both side of the battle: either defend or attack the M-Com stations. This creates a natural frontline and wonderful sense of tug-of-war where all the efforts were focused on the same goal.
For Bad Company 2, DICE expanded the number of game modes to five – Rush, Conquest, Squad Rush, Squad Deathmatch, and Obliteration Onslaught – but the maps still felt focused and it was probably the most balanced game the studio shipped on consoles. Some players argued the apache helicopter and medic class were slightly overpowered, but the relatively few issues the game had pale in comparison to the problems players griped about in the last two games.
Since the PC titles never shipped with proper single-player campaigns, DICE also had to learn how to tell a story. The Bad Company games carved a unique space in the overstuffed military genre by eschewing a super serious war story in favor of a lighthearted approach that took more queues from Three Kings than Black Hawk Down. The four characters at the center of both games were funny and memorable.
This approach definitely appealed to gamers, as Bad Company 2 was one of the best-reviewed games in the series, lagging only behind the excellent BF1942 and BF2. The sales shot into the stratosphere, and EA confirmed it had a major player in the first-person shooter space. Executives who once left the Swedish studio largely to its own devices suddenly started paying more attention to the franchise, keeping closer tabs on the development, marketing, and press campaigns.
With such a well-regarded franchise in its stable, suddenly EA’s sights were placed on the leading first-person shooter, Call of Duty. Former CEO John Ricciteillo went as far to say that Battlefield 3 was designed to take Activision’s best-selling series down. Nothing is wrong with chasing a frontrunner, but EA and DICE made a critical error in focusing its development attention on emulating what Call of Duty did that Battlefield didn’t. Instead of continuing to hone what Battlefield did best – create focused multiplayer modes that accentuate teamplay and lighthearted campaigns that don’t take themselves too seriously –the philosophy suddenly shifted to align more closely with its competitor.
With the stakes raised by EA and the public alike, Battlefield 3 had to be the biggest and the best. The campaign tone shifted away from the humor of the Bad Company games in favor of a darker theme more closely associated with the Call of Duty series, which has always valued amazing set pieces over character development. The generic characters and linear levels presented in Battlefield 3 failed miserably.
On the multiplayer mode, DICE still preserved the core Battlefield pillars, but in addition went all out with more maps, more progression unlocks, and the largest collection of modes I remember seeing in a modern shooter. Whereas Bad Company 2 featured five game modes after its expansions, Battlefield 3 finished with a whopping 14. This continued with Battlefield 4, which currently has 10 modes. Another is on the way courtesy of the upcoming Dragon Teeth expansion.
Battlefield has become an amusement park with so many attractions you don’t know where to start. This lack of focus couldn’t help but trickle into the game production. By forcing level designers to consider 14 different game modes while creating a map, you eventually start to diminish their ability to make compelling battle scenarios. A map can’t just be designed with rush in mind; the developer needs to consider how it’s played for smaller deathmatch skirmishes as well as larger battles. Inevitably, quality and balance are sacrificed at the altar of the “more is more” approach. Some maps only end up being good for Rush mode. Others work better for Conquest.
Having this many modes seriously fragments the audience as well. When you factor in the Hardcore modifier, Battlefield 3 has 28 different player pools at once. This creates many different audiences, each of whom expects different improvements and modifications in future iterations. I wouldn’t want to be the poor sod who has to sort through splintered community feedback and find the commonalities.
The Battlefield multiplayer currently feels so bloated it’s starting to obscure the qualities that make the franchise so well regarded. In the pursuit of being everything to everyone, Battlefield has forgotten to be itself. Battlefield still promotes teamplay, but only if you’re playing in the right mode. The game still has great rush battles, as long as you’re playing on the right map. It also still has large-scale battles, as long as you are playing playing the right mode and map.
Those annoying qualifiers are why people fondly look back on Bad Company 2 as more focused, balanced, and fun than its successors. Fans want calibrated experiences built on the core pillars of the franchise. Losing the superfluous modes that players can experience in any other shooter and going back to what makes Battlefield unique is what we talk about when we talk about Bad Company.