“Wars are fought for many different reasons, and sometimes, when they don’t give you good ones, you have to make up one of your own.”
-Preston Marlowe, Bad Company
Given the last few years of grappling with reasons for war in the wake of United States military policy, the protagonist of Battlefield: Bad Company, Preston Marlowe, seems to have a pretty optimistic viewpoint for a soldier. It is also a fairly radical statement for any soldier.
Given to taking orders and encouraged to not concern themselves with things like reasons in the big picture, soldiers are intended to carry out objectives given to them, not to decide for themselves what motivates them.
Curiously enough, soldiering is often a fairly good metaphor for the video game player. Gamers are accustomed, especially in linearly scripted games, to often being given short term directives, and they frequently fulfill them with little particular concern for the larger reasons why.
Certainly, sandbox-style games like The Sims exist in which a reason to play must largely be one that “you have to make up on your own,” but this is less often the case in the single player campaigns of first person shooters.
Bad Company does fall into some familiar territory of the FPS by indeed setting short term objectives for the player within the setting of some kind of fictional “Eurasian” conflict. Yet, as its narrator and protagonist suggests, there is an additional interest in allowing the soldier/player some additional freedoms both in the game’s mechanics as well as its narrative.
As Preston Marlowe, a new member of Bad Company (a company of rogues and criminals given the dirtiest jobs by their commanders), you serve as both soldier and renegade in a foreign war. Since Bad Company is populated with criminals serving their time by serving their country, Preston and his fellow GIs are extremely self-interested and self-motivated. In the context of the game’s story, this is as a result of discovering some battlefield gold early in the game that will drive the company to fulfill their own “side” goals through the course of the plot by collecting wartime booty while carrying out their other orders.
The hunt for personal satisfaction and recompense in the form of gold also drives some of the reason for the design of the game itself and the way players might choose to tackle the game. While missions presented from chapter to chapter require the player to most often fulfill a miliatary objective, the larger battlefields offered here in the form of “mini open world” maps offer a chance for exploration (to hunt for collectibles like weapons and the aforementioned gold) by exploring sections of these maps to which you don’t necessarily “need” to go.
Some of that freedom, too, is found in an open approach to combat itself with the freedom to approach the assault of small villages or other military emplacements using a variety of strategies, from urban room-clearing tactics to the mayhem of vehicular assaults to the simple but devestating ability of some pick ups to call in air and artillery strikes. The impressive destructibility of environments also allows the freedom of choice. You can drop smoke and make your way into buildings to clear out the enemy, but you can just as easily blow the wall of a building to expose the opposition to you and your companions’ personal arsenals.
Explosives come in the form of grenades, rocket launchers, plastic explosives, and even crates and barrels that the inhabitants of the various towns and villages raided by Bad Company have conveniently painted completely red to let your strike force know just exactly what will explode after being hit by a few bullets.
Absurdities like that one, the ubiquitous and obvious exploding barrel that has become a staple of the FPS, do in fact abound in the game. The convenient but also offputtingly simple mechanic of respawning after dying in combat makes the single player campaign feel more like a multiplayer experience at times, particularly since combat rages on as you respawn at a checkpoint and all the work that you’ve accomplished (buildings blown up and enemies already killed) remains the same. As a result, the game is less than punitive by allowing its player to make scads of mistakes without serious consequence. It also makes the game feel less than tense or realistic. If you die, you can almost always pick up immediately where you just left off. Indeed, if a group of soldiers or a tank is giving you particular trouble, you can always run in firing off a rocket launcher or focusing on a single target expecting to die. If you hurt the tank a bit or remove one of your opponents, charge right back and whittle down the forces again and again until the job is done despite your countless deaths.
Gritty realism and tension is by no means an essential focus of the game. Given the radically free approach to soldiering that the game advocates, this should come as no surprise, though. Also with the swath of excellent FPS experiences in the last year or two (like Call of Duty 4 and Bioshock), an FPS focused more on fun than authenticity or a deeply written narrative is a bit refreshing.
This focus on fun also may explain the more cavalier approach to the game’s setting and war story. By removing the game from real world conflict, it allows the player some escapism that the headlines don’t provide. The absurdly Balkanized name of the fictional nation (which having only heard in the game’s cut scenes, I am loathe to attempt to spell) suggests a place where the game takes place without giving it a specific real world recognizability. Additionally, little details make these “foreign” encounters (and by foreign I mean both taking place in a foreign country but also in a completely foreign and alien place due to the nation’s lack of a real life counterpart) seem even more “foreign” to the game’s audience. I was especially struck by the music in the game. Often heard as ambient sound when in the vicinity of an idling vehicle, radios in the game play odd little unplaceable surf tunes that sound decades old rather than contemporary. The oddity of a 40 or 50-year-old soundtrack playing in modern military vehicles produces a further distancing of the setting from reality. Bad Company are really strangers in a strange land.
All in all, the game is a satisfying experience viscerally, and its chief charm is the often witty and cleverly written chatter of Bad Company itself. Despite some of the mechanics’ nods to a multiplayer experience, the single player campaign has fun characters and allows the player to have fun by blowing the hell out of a battlefield that because of its foreignness leaves us with no guilt over the horrors of war. This is war at its silliest. Still, a little silly isn’t a bad thing in a world where things can become too recognizable and familiar to seem even remotely so.