This is the main event, folks. Last week, one of the world's biggest publishers of electronic entertainment, Electronic Arts, released a game that it intends to go head-to-head with the crown jewel of its main rival, Activision-Blizzard. With Bad Company 2 released a mere four months after Modern Warfare 2, things are about to get interesting. There's a lot at stake here - billions of dollars in revenue, the respect of the gaming public and the title of the World's Greatest Online Multiplayer Shooter. It's an epic showdown that neither company can afford to lose ... which makes it all the more surprising to learn that Activision and EA aren't even playing the same game.
It's a ridiculous statement on the surface. Sort through all the press releases, the screenshots, the box art, etc., and you come away with the distinct impression that Bad Company 2 and Modern Warfare 2 aren't just playing the same game - they are the same game. Both focus on acquiring, equipping and discharging an endless array of high-tech yet realistic firearms. Both surround you with a squad of surly yet loveable comrades whose purpose is to lighten the mood between gun battles as much as it is to lay down suppressive fire. Both haphazardly sketch out a story involving a heated conflict between Russia and the U.S. that includes, among other things, a trip to South America, an E.M.P. and a rogue Russian commander who wants nothing more than to see the U.S. in ruins (although he has both arms in Bad Company 2).
But while DICE and Infinity Ward's approach to story and setting may be nigh identical, their attitude toward gameplay is vastly different. It's immediately evident in the games' single-player campaigns: While Modern Warfare 2 sets players on an uninterrupted (but conspicuously narrow) path through each level, peppered with dramatic moments and spectacular set-pieces, Bad Company 2's level design is simultaneously more open and fragmented. As a result, Infinity Ward's game is paced perfectly to deliver a constant wave of tension and release according to the developers' precise vision, but that comes at the expense of player agency - many felt that Modern Warfare 2's single-player campaign more closely resembled a rail shooter than an FPS. And while DICE's level design allows you more flexibility in how you tackle each challenge, that approach sacrifices the highs and lows of the experience. If Modern Warfare 2 is the roller-coaster of first-person shooters, then Bad Company 2 is the bumper cars: You may never have the breath sucked right out of your chest, but damn if it doesn't feel good to send somebody flying into the wall from a well-timed collision.