Battlefield 5

Battlefield 2 and the Existential Horror of an Empty Server

As a gangly pubescent turbonerd of about fifteen I was able to convince my parents to gift me a computer, probably for my birthday or some other equally awful occasion. By now the memory of The Game I was itching to play is as distant and forgotten as my childhood hopes and dreams but it might as well have been Battlefield 2 because I played this game H A R D. As a teenager I was responsibility-free and free-time abundant, so I'm sure I had somewhere in the neighbourhood of 1000+ hours with it and numerous mods (mostly Project Reality) by the time all was said and done, but I'd have to find my old Xfire profile to get specific.

Anyway, Battlefield 2 had a demo and that demo was one of the first things I downloaded and played on my new blazing fast Dell™ gaming computer at a crisp 1280 x 1024 on my GeForce 6800 – everything cranked up to max, naturally.

Damn it was gorgeous.

The appeal of the series – its scope and freedom – were instantly apparent. The demo was essentially the full game limited to a single map, the Gulf of Oman – pitting the Americans and an aircraft carrier loaded with helicopters and jets poised off the coast, ready to launch an assault on the sandy shores of the imagined vague amalgamation of the Middle-Eastern Coalition. Backdropped by an airfield, a hotel, a construction site and three forward outposts, this map felt massive and you immediately understood the roles and necessity of all these different vehicles and appreciated their power when you managed to get control of one yourself. As a lone soldier you genuinely feared the sound of rotors chopping at the wind or a jet's engine tearing across the sky, dropping loads of Targeted F-U all over the map. As often as your death might have felt cheap or unfair it didn't really matter because of the novelty of being this singular small soldier in a huge, dynamic battlefield that was about to respawn in 10 seconds with an Anti-Tank kit and snipe that chopper out of the air with your rocket, and that was just so unbelievably cool that your last death wasn't even a thought in your mind.

Battlefield 2 was the first to introduce certain key features that still define the series today including stat tracking, the squad system, and weapon unlocks, but BF2 also had a number of great features that were curiously removed in every iteration since. Most notable is the Commander role which allowed you to airdrop vehicles and ammo, scan the entire map for enemy movement or request a UAV which would ping them on your team's minimap within a certain radius, as well as firing artillery barrages, all while issuing orders to your team's squad leaders almost like an RTS. The in-game VoIP system had separate channels built-in that allowed communication between the Commander and Squad Leader's as well as communication within each squad itself. All of the commander's assets could also be sabotaged, where their ability to use UAV or artillery support was dependent on that equipment – usually located at a main, protected and 'uncappable' base – being undamaged. It was some of the most fun gameplay to be had playing cat and mouse with an enemy commander while trying to repeatedly blow up all of their equipment and cripple their support capabilities – and that gameplay between two single players had direct implications on the outcome of the larger battle and that is at the core of what made Battlefield 2 great.

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That was actually my absolute favourite way to play – to sneak behind enemy lines with either the Spec Ops or Sniper kit and just wreak as much havoc as possible while trying to remain undetected. The unlock for the sniper class was a more powerful rifle that could penetrate the cockpit of helicopters and jets, so it made for a perfect camping tool granted you planted yourself somewhere with eyes on a vehicle spawn – you could take away enemy air superiority without having a single aircraft of your own in the air, and this was the great dynamic of Battlefield – there were all these complementary and opposing variables that could be used in this giant game of rock-paper-scissors that is instead replaced with jets and tanks and APC’s and all other kinds of shit that goes BOOM. Each battle was actually a series of ten separate battles that played out independently while still being linked and contributing to the overall narrative of the match. You and your team could approach every flag or obstacle in 10 different ways and that really made it feel like your choices mattered – it encouraged you to try different strategies when one failed and meant that a single map had hundreds of hours of replayability because of how differently each round played out given your own playstyle, kit selection, or the combined abilities of your team, commander, and squad leader.

(I've been told the commander role was reintroduced in Battlefield 4 – can anybody who's played 2 speak to how they compare?)

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Anyway, I'm bloviating a bit too much. My point is basically that Battlefield 2 was one of the first multiplayer games that I played obsessively and as a result it is one of the few games that spans a significant section of my life. As I’ve grown up I’ve gradually moved on to different games and genres and engagement with video games in general, but Battlefield 2 will always hold a special place in my heart as the game that defined my adolescence – a time when staying up until 4:30 in the morning was of no real consequence and potential and possibility still stretched out seemingly infinitely before me.

It’s 15 years later now and I want to go back, at least to visit.

So I did.

Feeling a little nostalgic, something compelled to revisit Battlefield 2 and in doing so I was overwhelmed by two distinct and separate sensations – the first was a flood of familiar fondness for the music, menus, and aesthetic – general memories of all the good times I had with the game at the peak of its popularity.

The second feeling is a little harder to define, but is a sort of subtle uneasiness of playing it today, ripped from its context and community – what's left is only a husk, like the shadow of a pillar of an old ruin that still stands, but what remains standing is not at all what it once was.

And there's the dread.

With nostalgia naturally comes a certain pain (it's literally part of the etymology) – a fondness for something that can't ever be had again – a longing for something long gone – a familiar and comfortable feeling that is at the same time made unfamiliar and uncomfortable by its distance from the present.

Similarly, there's this strangeness of an empty server – to even have a server maintained with almost nobody in need of its services is kind of.. eerie – that these digital spaces in some sense actually exist separate from the people (not) visiting them, empty and abandoned, is weird. These online spaces are both real and not simultaneously, and walking around an empty server can feel sort of ominous, like you’re somewhere you shouldn’t be – almost like the server is haunted but you're the one doing the haunting.

For me, Battlefield 2 is so much more than just the game of Battlefield 2 – Battlefield 2 was, and is, intimately linked with a particular slice of space and time that was centered on and occurred from my particular perspective from approximately 2005 to 2008. Coincidentally that lines up with my own transition from high school to university, and is punctuated by the global financial crisis of 2008, a brief blip on the radar in terms of global crises to come haha.. ha.. fuck.

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Battlefield 2 is a game that released in 2005.

Battlefield 2 is also a small, fragmented reflection of 2005 itself.

There are probably lots of different 'Battlefield 2's' for lots of different people – a game so intimately linked with a period of time that it is inseparable from that time years later.

If you're young and enthralled by whatever your favourite Battlefield game is, cherish this time now because in a moment you’ll blink and be transported 15 years into the future, and it will be a strange and alien one without any semblance of familiarity – a future where even the things that are familiar, or at least once were, will seem ever so slightly off, strange, and out of place.

Although no two points in time can be separated by almost two decades and not be totally distinct, the sheer absurdity of 2020 already feels like it should be a decade removed from just last year, and that's more unsettling than normal.

I want off this ride and whatever we’re hurtling towards.

I want to be fifteen again, playing Battlefield 2 with the curtains drawn in an unbearably stuffy room with all the angst and uncertainty of youth.

That doesn't sound all that extraordinary because it isn't – but it was.

Battlefield 2 is still available to play if you own a copy. Maybe also if you don't, too, but I wouldn't know.



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