We are going to introduce a new type of feature today called Level-up where we talk in-depth about memorable missions, levels and chapters in video games. We kick off our first one with a stage from Battlefield 2: Modern Combat called Metal Island.
There was a time – and believe me when I say this – when the first-person war shooter market wasn’t dominated by Call of Duty. When this critically-acclaimed Activision series first hit the shelves in 2003, its two main competitors, Medal of Honor and Battlefield, had made their debuts not few years prior. Together, the three series transformed the new subgenre – the first-person WWII shooter – into the single most divisive subgenre of the early 2000’s, and they remained champions of the cause until Call of Duty decided to step up their game one step further. Released in 2007, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare took a more contemporary spin on the war theme and turned the series into a household and iconic name of recent times. Whether or not you’ve played a single Call of Duty game, there’s no doubt you are aware of what they offer. Followed by two sequels, the Modern Warfare arc quickly overshadowed every first-person war shooter available on the market… even one quietly released on the Playstation 2 that, coincidentally enough, also had the word “Modern” in its title:
2005’s Battlefield 2: Modern Combat.
A spinoff of Battlefield 2, this game is easily among the best in the rich and impressive library of the console. It also has a somewhat unique status to its siblings: it was PS2-exclusive (until a HD remastered version was bought to modern consoles very recently) and remains the only Battlefield title to date to use the RenderWare engine – its predecessors and immediate follow-ups favored the Refractor engine, whereas the now-legendary in-house Frostbite has been in use since 2009. In case you’re wondering why the name sounds familiar, some of the more popular games to use the RenderWare engine include (but not limited to): Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne and the Burnout series of racing games.
Modern Combat was one of the last games I’d played on the PS2, before retiring from that console and console gaming as a whole. I find controllers cumbersome and generally prefer the keyboard + mouse setup, but this is a story for another day. Now, as one of my favorite first-person war shooters, I’ve always wanted to participate in something that would alleviate its status from an obscure shooter to an appreciated classic from a recent bygone era. YouTube comments and forum-posting only got me so far, so I decided to take the greatest moment from this game and just write the best I can about it. My primary purpose with this article is to expose more gamers to a forgotten, solid shooter.
So without further ado, I present to you my most favorite mission from Battlefield 2: Modern Combat – Metal Island.
Before you make yourselves cozy with the bucket of caramel popcorn you no doubt have in front of you, let’s take a moment to reflect on the title of the mission: Metal Island. As far as cool level names go, this one is cooler than cool; it’s the coolest. And also quite misleading. It refers not to a hideout haven for headbangers and air guitarists, but rather alludes to the oilrig that you have to defend. In response to victory from the previous mission, Submerged, in which you destroyed enemy submarines, NATO has decided to move its forces to the oilrig and the neighboring island, and it is up to you to protect both areas from enemy capture. What follows next is at first a constrained mayhem, then full-out chaos – the very recipe that fuels most of Call of Duty’s celebrated moments.
What makes Metal Island that much better than the other, more deserving missions that appear in the game? The moody, silent third mission, Headshot, makes for one tense level, with its combination of stealth, precision, and titular action. Submerged, the fourth and lengthiest mission, has you traversing first a forest (to take out machine-gun bunkers) then infiltrating the enemy fortress to destroy the submarines. The way it utilizes a unique Far Cry-like approach to finishing the mission is noteworthy. Even bombastic missions like Big Bang, Heavy Tonnage and Burning Bridges are worthy of adulation. And while these missions are great and praise-worthy in their own right, Metal Island’s greatest strength is that its makes the best use of the ultra-sexy Hotswap feature that was unique to this installment.
To explain Hotswap: the ability to take complete possession of any living friendly soldier. Simply put, you’re everyone and no-one… pretty much like the Agents from The Matrix. If you die, you will be immediately hotswapped to the nearest soldier. This feature plays a heavy role in the game, and frankly it makes for a nice break from other shooters where death equals to game over. If your currently chosen soldier is carrying a weapon you’re not terribly fond of, just look around for a friendly and wait for the icon above his head to turn white (indicating he’s within range; blue means he’s far away) and then hotswap to him. Here in this game, unless all of your troops are dead and there’s nobody left to hotswap to, the length of one mission can reach minutes you wouldn’t be able to achieve in other similar games, even in those that utilize the regenerating health mechanic. Because how well implemented Hotswap is, it doesn’t get stale.
There’s one downside, however: Hotswap is only featured in Modern Combat. No other game from the Battlefield franchise carries it, and to my knowledge no other game in general has a similar mechanic as Hotswap. The indie darling, Swapper, and the PSP-exclusive, The 3rd Birthday, implement their own variations of body-possession mechanics, but none reach to the fluid and addictive levels of that featured in this game. I would love to see Hotswap return again. Not a variant, not a revamped version; Hotswap as it appears in its most perfect form in Battlefield 2: Modern Combat. Preferably in a game that’s also on the PC. Thank you.
Now let’s talk about the mission at large. After the extensive driving in Radio Silence, and silent quickscoping in Headshot, and endless walking in Submerged, you’d think Modern Combat would get to the action already. With Metal Island it lays the action blueprint upon which later missions build their foundations upon. The aforementioned Burning Bridges is a prime example of grand-scale explosive action a la Michael Bay, but let’s not digress any further. Metal Island is designed in such a way that it instills fear, tension and anxiety even in the most calm, confident of players. With this mission, the game re-invents itself and turns into a different beast entire. With Metal Island, the game gives a two-finger salute to whatever you’ve come to expect from Modern Combat and broadly announces “the rules have changed”. Those who look for inspiration in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’s dramatic and suspenseful All Ghillied Up or in the equally stellar Behind Enemy Lines intro from Medal of Honor: Vanguard, should also take time to appreciate and learn from the way how excellently Metal Island drums up enough on-your-toes action and quick bursts of thriller to make you feel comfortable with the new set of protocols… before taking you by the nape of your neck and plunging you into hectic, stressful (albeit disciplined) action that never loses its momentum.
You start off Metal Island on the oil rig with nothing to greet except a torrent of rain. Far away in the distance you can see white icons. Hotswapping to them reveals the island, one of the two locations you’re assigned to protect. From here the oil rig looks intimidating in its scale and size. Because you’re on an island – and the definition of island goes a small chunk of land surrounded from all sides by water – you see several gun-rigged boats, and your expectations tantamount to the unfolding action only increases. Thankfully, it doesn’t disappoint. When you Hotswap back to the oilrig, the in-frequent radio chatter breaks the ambient silence. Suddenly one of the men shouts to look up in the sky – and before you know it a dozen enemy paratroopers are descending on the oil rig. Those who haven’t had the pleasure of playing Modern Combat yet might be thinking to themselves “this is where all hell breaks loose”. Let me quickly answer that by saying no, not yet.
The first invasion is but just a constrained demo of what is to follow next. The enemy comes in heavy numbers, and after a minute of fireplay, the action halts quickly as it had begun. Then an onscreen prompts tells you to secure the island. Once you Hotswap there, and after you’ve taken care of the baddies for a minute, again everything stops as quickly as it had started. Only this time the following silence resonates a bit longer. For the first time playing Modern Combat, fear and dread come to the player with full force.
When on the oilrig, players will learn to use the multi-structured infrastructure to their advantage. The well-placed barrels can be saved for taking out multiple baddies at once when ammo is running low. It also provides plenty of hiding spots, though the fairly-decent enemy A.I. will always weasel you out. It is advisable not to stay in one position for too long. The island provides a smooth stretch of land that houses your command HQ. You can take shelter here from oppressive sub-machine fire from the overarching nearby hills, but it is more fun to go out and confront them head-on. Once again it is strongly advised not to linger in one position.
Start of the second invasion. Paratroopers come in increased numbers and fight with twice the aggression. Although there’s no considerable spike in difficulty, the nearly endless spawning of enemy troopers, in contrast to your handful of friendlies, amps up the fear factor by eleven. When enough falling bodies have been dealt with, a new terror dominates the skies: choppers. Thankfully the oilrig comes packed with anti-aircraft support. While they’re fun to use, timing and precision is key as one missed shot can cost you the lives of your squadmates. The recharge time is aggravatingly slow, so missing is not an option. If you do miss however, there’s always the other AA-gun to make-up for your miscalculation.
The thing about Metal Island I like the most is how cinematic it feels in front of the other missions (bar Heavy Tonnage), and how it tries to keep everything in focus at once. From any given viewpoint from the oilrig (unless you’re facing completely the other way) you can see the island, and vice versa. By keeping the action (more or less) centered and in direct focus, the scale and size of the level, and by extension the significant role of your squadmates, is augmented in a really good way. Hotswapping to a friendly in the hopes of taking out the one remaining baddy only to see another nearby friendly finishing him off for you really transforms them from a dummy of code into that much more real and believable. I do wish full voice-over had been supported, but I’m not complaining and it is fine just the way it is.
The third invasion. The nest has been toppled over and every wasp in residence has come out to attack. This time you need to protect both the island and the oilrig, simultaneously. In a fairly intermediate game like this the margin for defeat is quite low, but if you’re not careful or decide to focus your attention on one area for too long, you’ll be seeing the game over screen long before you can say “unfair”. As if defending both areas from the sky wasn’t enough, the baddies take the battle to the sea, and this is where the stationed boats come to play. Those who favor the Soldier class in Team Fortress 2 will feel right at home for this sequence if they Hotswap to a bazooka-wielding squadmate. With correct aim and accurate timing, you can take out enemy boats while standing on the roof of your command HQ. For those unafraid of deep waters can man one of the boats and act as either driver or gunner. Personally it’s more fun to be the driver, because the driving A.I. of npc’s is decent at best. If you let any of them drive, well, er, let’s just say you’ll be glad you’re home alone and that there’s no one to hear the obscene expletives spewing from your mouth.
When both the island and the oilrig have been secured, a congratulatory message signals the end of the mission. Thus ends Metal Island, and thus start the more epic missions of Modern Combat – namely, Heavy Tonnage, Burning Bridges, Big Bang and Catching Flak. No matter how impressive and intimidating these missions may be, Metal Island will always be close to my heart because of its cinematic quality and near-perfect loud-soft dynamic.
Metal Island, you rock.
I’m truly sorry for the pun, but it had to be said!
Article by Hamza