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A Dismal Outlook for the Future of Game Development?
Published on June 22, 2005 By mittens In PC Gaming
The review will come eventually, but for now I'm just going to rant about a few things regarding the recently released Battlefield 2. Published by everyone's favorite draconian institution Electronic Arts (Remember kids, Challenge Everything, except the publishers) and developed by Dice.

Let me start off by saying one thing: Battlefield 2 is an absolutely incredible game. I might even dare to say that it is the best thing to ever happen to multiplayer gaming, and no, don't even ask me "What about Everquest/WoW?" I'd rather kill myself. BF2 is action-oriented, team-centric modern warfare gaming at its best, and a number of the games I've played online, including one game I just finished moments ago on a completely random low-ping ranked server with a bunch of complete strangers, have been some of the best moments of my gaming career in recent years.

With that said, let me add this: I really hope Battlefield 2 isn't indicative of the future of gaming. Fantastic game? Sure. Though there is just such a gigantic pile of shit aspects of the game that need to be waded through before your average gamer (ha, like Joe Blow has the necessary system requirements, scroll down to the bottom of the page for the demo requirements and just tack on a gig or so for hard drive space, to get this monster up and running) can even begin to enjoy the game. Let's go through the list:
  • The Menu Interface - So, you got the game installed, and are hankering to just play the game you shelled out fifty bucks for? First, you're greeted with a rather lengthy game loading time just so you can view all those pretty little videos: EA, Dice, Legal text, nVidia (The Way It's Meant to Be Played (TM)), an actual game cinematic, and a welcome cinematic; surprise, surprise, when you rename all these video files, your game loading time will decrease significantly.

    Next, when it comes time for account creation for online play, you can create a new account in-game. This aspect is actually fairly nice, because I've played games where you have to start the game up, just to find out you have to create an account on the game's website, then wait a bit, then go back and actually try to log in. Though the problem with account creation in Battlefield 2 is that the game has a tendency to lock-up when its in the process of creating an account. This forces you to kill the the process, restart the game, retrieve the account that you just created (the game didn't save the data, because... well... it froze), then log in. Joy.

    Then it comes time for the actual control, video, and audio configuration (more on the video/audio in a moment). The control interface is so horribly designed that when you want to redo a control that is set, the game may tell you "Conflict With Bind" (or something along these lines), so you have to hunt down the actual function that this key is assigned to, and yes there is a much better way to do this by simply asking the user if he/she wants to reassign anyway, but the kicker here is that this function may not actually be in the interface. If you want to reassign a key assigned to certain functions that are not in the menu, then you have to quit out, find your config file, and search through that to find functions that cannot be rebound in the game menu. Also, no matter what you try to do, you cannot have the "Crouch Into Gunner Position" function assigned to the same key as your normal "Crouch" key. Great.

    Then the server browser; oh, god, shoot me now. Not only did Dice not include a way to mark certain servers as Favorites (inexcusable), but the sorting and refreshing of servers simply freezes the game while they execute. Instead of sorting or showing servers as they appear, the game just stops. Also, servers that show up with a ping of 0 are displayed as having a "very low ping," instead of being very far down the list as these are servers whose ping query has not come back yet (thus, chances are that this server is going to have a very high ping). You also cannot refresh a single server to see if that server has room for you to join yet. Oh, and one final note, if you connect to the same IP too many times, the game just crashes. So if you want to continually try connecting to an IP of a full server in hopes that eventually someone will leave and you can get in, you'll eventually crash.

  • The Driver Problem - So, if you want to enjoy those pretty shadows (which are actually very useful in-game) that Dice programmed for gamers to gawk at, you're sure as hell going to have to install some new drivers for that shiny GeForce card of yours (I can't say whether ATI users had their own problems with the game or not, I'm an nVidia man for the current technological generation), because those old ones are going to give you a whole lot of in-game artifacts that you simply cannot ignore.

    Any game that requires a driver upgrade for everyone has got a problem in my book. Generally gamers like to be on the bleeding edge with their drivers in the first place, but this is the first time in my memory that a game has required new drivers for any users of a certain architecture of video cards. Come on now; I cannot say for sure whether or not these shadows used some new hardware feature supported only with the 77.xx series of ForceWare drivers, but it's still shoddy programming in my book to not have a fallback plan. If the user doesn't support a certain feature, don't just give up and say "Oh well, blocky shadows for you!" Give these guys some kind of shadows that don't make the game world look like it has been painted black, and throw out a community or in-game update that tells the user "For better performance of shadow type A, install the drivers included with the game."

  • The Hardware Problem - The game has its hefty system requirements, and even heftier "recommended" requirements, and I meet all of these. I have an AMD64 3500+, 2gb of DDR400 RAM, an AGP 256mb GeForce 6800GT, and a Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS. The game's manual lists both my 6800-series card as being "top of the line" ("NSIST ON NVIDIA") and an ad for my Audigy 2ZS as a top-of-the-line audio card ("Chosen by Games. Loved by Gamers."), yet... I can't run the game with maximum-detailed graphics nor highest-quality audio.

    The game runs at a solid 40fps with almost all settings maxed out and 2x antialiasing. I cannot even stand playing the game with the texture quality at "High," despite the fact that it's the default setting for my options. You see, when I run the game with "High" quality textures, the game stutters in 3-4 second increments at seemingly random periods. This is a problem that DOOM 3 had, except DOOM 3 was candid about it: the game needed a video card with 512mb of VRAM in order to run in "Ultra" quality. As I looked through the Battlefield 2 manual hoping for an explanation behind this problem, I saw nothing; in fact, the video settings don't even get explained at all. How cute. As a programmer, I'm almost positive that the stutters are the result of insufficient VRAM on my 256mb card (yeah, the newly-released GeForce 7800 GTX also has 256mb of VRAM) to support all the textures on the card at one time, therefore the game pages the data from system memory (the choke point (ie. the cause of the slowdown) is a result of the AGP/PCIE transfer from the system memory), and that's why the stuttering occurs.

    So, here I am with an almost PERFECT system (no pci-express, not the fastest processor available, and I didn't exactly want to upgrade to dual 7800 GTX cards on the day of their release), but this is a problem that even having dual 7800 GTX cards could not fix, as the dual-gfx setup would still require a card with 512mb of VRAM to fix this problem (for instance, two 256mb PCIE cards will still only leave you with 256mb VRAM). I know less about the audio jargon, but what I do know is that I have the same audio card that EA/Dice is promoting in their manual, but yet I can't use "Extra" audio quality? Perhaps "Extra" is for a to-be-released card, but in that case, why isn't the texture quality "Extra," since no consumer card has yet to have 512mb of VRAM?

  • The Teammate Label and VoIP Bugs and Customizable Resolution/Fullscreen - This is a very well-known bug, but that doesn't make it excusable. There is a very common bug in the game where teammates will not be given the "teammate" blue name label, but instead are given a red label. This wouldn't be as big of a problem if the label was always displayed like teammates' were, but no, the red label functions just like every real enemy's red label: it only appears when the targeting reticle is hovering over that player. This is a very common bug, and I'm simply mystified as to why this wouldn't have been caught in testing, as it's a huge problem for a game based on teamplay. I would've forgiven Dice for this screw-up in the demo if there had been a quick patch for me to install on release day (today or yesterday), but this hasn't happened.

    Also, the Voice-over-IP feature of the game, where you communicate with your squadmates and your commander in an effort to promote better teamwork is fantastic. Though, as you may guess, there's a nice little bug which makes the actual reliability of this feature working very flimsy. Some games it works, some games it doesn't. Hell, one game it worked fine for me on one team, but when I switched teams (in the same server, same game, same round), the functionality was lost. This is also something I feel could have been patched on day one.

    Finally, Battlefield 2 supports customizable resolutions and windowed mode play (which I feel is essential for games in an era where dual-monitor setups are common) is not supported through the in-game menu, nor the config files themselves. To fiddle with the resolutions, you need to alter the shortcut program flags and add the following text: "+szx +szy " (I have my set as: "+szx 1272 +szy 995"). To enable windowed mode, simply change "+fullscreen 1" to "+fullscreen 0." Once again, this is a functionality that needs to be in the menu or, at least, in the config files.

  • The Ranked Server - One of the features I was most looking forward to about Battlefield 2 was the in-depth stat tracking that EA and Dice have been touting for the last year or so. After playing on a couple of ranked servers this afternoon and looking through the stats, I just about had to change my pants. And as a member of a very active, and fairly "professional," clan of Battlefield 2 servers, I went and looked up some of the prices for a ranked server (only EA-sanctioned dealers can provide ranked servers). Boy, what I surprised at what I found out. A 32-slot, public server (from Art of War Central, a very reputable server dealer), would cost you a price of $191.95/month for a ranked Battlefield 2 server. That's more than A HUNDRED DOLLARS more per month than a 32-slot, public unranked server. I'm seriously having trouble comprehending what in the hell EA was thinking? Basically, what this means, is that if you and a bunch of friends in a clan, or company, or organization, are going to be shelling out some MAJOR cash if you want your stats tracked on your very own server. Now, remember, this is one of the features that is touted on the back of the game cover! This is endlessly worse than anything the MMO* games have ever charged a player (~$100/month more than an unranked server, just for the ability to run a ranked server). I'm... Actually speechless.

As I said, once you get the game configured, it is a real blast to play, but the items listed above are simply a shame. Some of these things most likely won't ever get changed (such as the menu UI/server browser), and some are bugs that should have been caught in testing or at least patched on the day of the full game's release.

Though, then again, I've come to expect such things from EA. Oh, and while I'm bitching, kudos to Dice for hiring the Desert Combat team, making Battlefield 2, then throwing the guys out on their asses now that the Desert Combat IP has been assimilated!
on Jun 22, 2005
You know, most developers design games so that when it comes out, the top of the line card can only run it at "medium" seetings. This is because they want to add room so that in a year or two, when people see the game on the shelf and think "oh, I heard about this. I should buy it!", it can still compete graphically with newer games. In two years, when you're playing on your shiny new nVidea 68 million with a terabyte of VRAM, you can put it on "High". The game looks FANTASTIC on my computer, Which is an Athlon 1700 with a gigabyte of DDR ram, and a radeon 9600 with 128 megs of VRAM. On my friend's computer, with a shiny new 64-bit processor, and a 6800 with 256 megs of VRam, it looks good enough to reduce anyone who still remember playing games on an NES to tears. What you have is a non-complaint. You should be happy that it looks great on modern systems, and will look EVEN BETTER years from now when humans can afford the technology they developed it for.

As for the rest, it's EA. What did you expect?
on Jun 22, 2005
Excuse me, but I never once said I faulted EA for designing a game that would take advantage of future hardware. I don't know if you read the little tidbit where I referenced DOOM 3 having an "Ultra" mode where it would be necessary to have a 512mb VRAM card to play smoothly, but they were very candid about this requirement in a number of places. And when I load DOOM 3 up, the default setting for texture resolution is HIGH, not Ultra.

My problem with Battlefield 2 is that when I load the game up, every setting, with the exception of anti-aliasing which is almost always a setting that is disabled even on fast hardware, is maxed out. Not once have I read that a 512mb VRAM-capable card would be necessary for maximum graphical settings. And not once was my card designated by the game to not be able to support the highest texture resolution.

My problem is not that the game doesn't support my pretty little card that you seem to think I'm so very attached to, and it isn't that the game's graphics are not up to par (they do, in fact, look incredible), it's that there is not a single spot in the manual or options page that should make me think I could not max out the game's graphical settings without adversely affecting my game's performance.

You see, a constant framerate is a very tolerable thing; I get that whether I have texture resolution at High or Medium. What I don't get when texture resolution is at high is stability in that frame rate. In fact, the game very nearly freezes at seemingly random times due to a re-caching of the textures from the hard drive to the video card's memory.
on Jun 23, 2005
I have very similar specs to yours (only 1 gig ram, crappy audio,pci-e 6800gt) and the game runs perfectly smoothly on my computer. I'd be inclined to say it's an AGP bandwidth or memory problem of some sort.

Also, this doesn't excuse EA, but you can delete the startup movies manually and it skips them fine.
on Jun 23, 2005
"I have very similar specs to yours (only 1 gig ram, crappy audio,pci-e 6800gt) and the game runs perfectly smoothly on my computer. I'd be inclined to say it's an AGP bandwidth or memory problem of some sort."

You have to give more information than that. When you say it runs "perfectly smooth," what are your settings? I can run the game perfectly smooth at 40-50fps when I have everything at high (except texture quality, which is at medium, and FSAA which is at 2x).

And yeah, I know about the startup movie thing, that's what I did from the get-go when I got the game. Some people may not feel safe doing this though, for whatever reasons.