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Losing Control and Loving It

March 23, 2010

While I have no trouble recognizing that its single player experience is highly flawed, I’ve been having gobs of fun with Battlefield: Bad Company 2 over the last week or so. In very much the same way that gamers have a choice between sims and arcade experiences when it comes to sports games, Bad Company 2 almost feels like the “arcade-style” counterpart to Call of Duty‘s sim-type experience. You get a little more leeway as far as taking damage, your in-game buddies are caricatured and jokey, and the plot, as it exists, is little more than an excuse to put you and your buddies in all sorts of exotic and oppressive places ripe with blow-uppable scenery. Sometimes it’s a little too cute for its own good (calling an early jungle-based chapter “Heart of Darkness”, for example), but it rarely fails to put a smile on my face.

Of particular note here are the on-rails sequences, which I never fail to love.

Typically, these sequences involve some NPC piloting a vehicle of some sort while the player mans the gun(s). The idea, as is often the case in these largely cinematic breaks from the gameplay proper, is that without teamwork — a presumed expert piloting the vehicle, and the sure-handed player handling the weaponry — the team won’t be able to get out of there alive.

There are plenty of understandable criticisms to sequences like this, primary among them the loss of freedom associated with on-rails play. There’s no strategy involved in these sequences, because all you’re doing is spotting the bad guy and trying to shoot the hell out of them until they blow up. You don’t get to explore the map, and you don’t get to camp behind cover and pick off the enemies as you stay all but undetected. The other issue is “I could do better” syndrome, the phenomenon common to TV viewers of professional sports, all of whom are convinced that in a pinch, they would do a better job than the playcallers and decision makers that are making all those millions of dollars coaching. It’s awfully easy to be frustrated when your driver decides to careen over the remains of the bridge that you’ve failed to save for the tenth time, when turning off and trying to find an alternate route is obviously a better decision. Losing control hurts, especially when you’re so in control for so much of the game.

That said, those sequences provide something that has increasingly gone missing as first-person shooting has gradually become more cover-oriented and strategic in the current generation: pure, unchecked adrenaline.

Judge me if you must, but the pinnacle of my own first-person shooting experiences is and has always been the first two Doom games; I say this as a matter of establishing context, and as a reason for why my own thoughts might not mesh with those who grew up with Goldeneye or Halo as their formative FPS experiences. The vast majority of enemies in the Doom games could be taken out in the open — bullets and shotgun blasts didn’t hurt that much, and fireballs moved slow enough to be dodged. Some of the most difficult enemies didn’t even wield guns, instead relying on speed and stealth (read: near-invisibility) to take down the player.

What this meant to the player is that if he was ever faced with an enemy one-on-one, a perfectly valid first instinct was to shoot. At best, a single shotgun blast could take care of the immediate threat. At worst, it would knock the enemy back a bit. While you had to be careful in Doom, you didn’t have to be too careful, and you certainly wouldn’t do yourself much good hiding behind a crate for any length of time. The best way to get through Doom was to eliminate the immediate threat as quickly as possible; a modern shooter requires careful planning, study of firing patterns, and knowledge of which cover is breakable and which will hold up under heavy fire.

None of this is even to mention the slow-burning pleasure of driving around in one of the game's tanks.

The rails sequences allow the player to revisit the goal of eliminating the enemy as quickly as possible; waiting too long to fire a rocket at an incoming helicopter, for example, is a quick way to a fiery death and a quickly-loaded checkpoint. Not only that, but by putting weapons on many of the vehicles that essentially amount to unlimited-ammo supermachineguns, the player gets the thrill of not having to keep up with inventory management — you don’t even have to pick the right gun, because it’s sitting right there and you have to use it. Putting a sequence on rails is a release for all of the tension that crouching and crawling and covering and sniping has led up to.

Sometimes, you don’t want a timer in your head, constantly ticking down to the next time you know you’re going to have to duck. Sometimes, you just want to blow away the bad guys.

Now, the reason these work in Bad Company 2 is largely because of the constant tension of not being able to jump out into the open and just start firing; despite my love for these sequences, I wouldn’t want them to take over the game. What I’m largely celebrating here is the ratio of average, everyday firefights to high-speed on-rails sequences. By making them an important and oft-recurring part of the gameplay, DICE has instilled in the player the knowledge that all of the hard work is leading up to something, that you’re going to get to take out the frustration of rarely getting to admire your own handiwork on a few hapless and very much explodable Jeeps.

Because who needs realism when you have explosions to trigger?

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