The original Bad Company wasn't particularly concerned with realism. Sure, at first it looked like a fairly down-to-Earth military FPS, but before long the story descended into an enjoyably madcap homage to Three Kings - replete with stolen gold, illegal invasions, and more guns than you could shake a suspiciously gun-shaped stick at. When you start to think about it, even the basic premise for Bad Company is pretty ludicrous: The US Army take all their biggest rebels and rejects, dumps them together, and then sends them off into extremely dangerous situations. I'm no combat strategist, but this sounds about as sensible to me as getting Harold Shipman to manage the local bingo hall.
We've already seen quite a bit of Bad Company 2's excellent multiplayer, but it was only last week that DICE and EA finally allowed us to take a peak at the new single-player campaign. Two levels were available to play, and on the basis of the action they contained, it seems as if Private Marlowe and his military misfits will soon be back to their old tricks. In fact, that's a bit of an understatement - because they now seem to have been inadvertently turned into the world's most unlikely special operatives.
The setup for this sequel is that Russia and the US are now at war with each other. On what should be a routine recon assignment in Alaska, Marlow and co inadvertently stumble across a Ruskie plot to decimate the States with some kind of superweapon. This discovery eventually leads our chaotic quartet to South America, on a mission to deliver some highly important intel to a NSA Operative named Aguire. Once again, it seems odd that such an important mission would be left to a bunch of screw-ups, but who cares? The mission provides a neat excuse to blow lots of things up and to shoot lots of militia troops - and in this area, BC2 excels.
The action kicks off with the gang watching as Aguire is captured and dragged away by Bolivian militia forces; it seems that most of South America has chosen to side with the vodka-quaffers, rather than the stars-and-stripes brigade. It's time for an impromptu rescue mission, and as is often the case with these boys, subtlety doesn't have much of a role to play. There's roughly 60 seconds of peace at the very start of the stage, as you creep down a hillside towards the first pair of guards, casually standing watch on a bridge. A nearby supply crate allows you to customise your weapon load-out, selecting any two guns from an impressive library of firearms, and then as soon as you open fire the level kicks off good and proper. The bullets start flying, and the onslaught remains fairly constant until you battle your way to the end.
Somewhat inevitably, I frequently found myself comparing my experience with the single-player segments of Modern Warfare 2. Like Infinity Ward's gargantuan hit, scripted events and set pieces play a large role in the action: In one early scene flaming militia troopers stagger out from the wreckage of a ruined hut, screaming in pain. Later, an explosion topples a heavy stone statue, sending one of your comrades diving for cover. And at the climax of the stage, after taking out a rather fearsome tank, the game confronts you with an unexpected do-or-die moment: an enemy officer takes Aguire as a human shield as he backs away towards an escape chopper. One of your mates hands you a pistol, and you're left with a few seconds to make the vital shot. It's fun stuff, but it's very reminiscent of the cripple-the-suspect bit in MW2's Rio level.
Of course this similarity is hardly a bad thing, but personally I found myself more taken with the general, bread-and-butter mayhem. In Call of Duty, I find that you tend to adapt your tactics to suit whatever weapons are at hand - but in Bad Company, things often work the other way around: you pick your guns, and head into the firefights as you see fit. The combination of large-scale maps and powerful draw distance ensures that sniping is often a viable (and hugely satisfying) tactic, but if you'd rather pretend to be Rambo, that'll certainly work too. Perhaps I've just grown tired of precision shooting, but for some reason I was immediately drawn to the latter approach, wading into battle with an XM8 prototype assault rifle and a whopping great light machine gun. Both of these toys made quite magnificent sounds - particularly the "FLUMP!" of the XM8's underslung grenade launcher - and on the whole I'd have to say that BC2 has some of the best sound design I've heard in ages. The four members of Bad Company are likeable and well-voiced, but it's the sound effects that really steal the show. If you sit still and listen for a second, you'll be amazed by the level of detail in the game's audio.
It's also worth stating that while the much-vaunted destruction engine is extremely impressive, you can't quite blow up everything: every once in a while you'll find a thick stone wall, or something similar, that refuses to give in to your explosive prowess. While this initially comes as something of a disappointment, it's probably quite realistic - I'm really no expert when it comes to real-life munitions. In any case, the destruction that is here is hugely gratifying, and there's plenty of it too. If you fire a 40mm grenade into a wooden hut, the whole thing will go up in a massive cloud of dust and smoke, with splinters and shards flying everywhere. You can't quite flatten the entire map, but you can do a hell of a lot of damage, and it's immediately clear that we'll soon be demanding this degree of destruction in all our games.
Before that happens, however, DICE is somewhat ahead of the curve, and it's clear that it intends to show off its bells and whistles at every available opportunity. The second demo level, for example, starts off with the team approaching a mountainside base in an attack helicopter. Before the chopper can land the player needs to clear out the drop-off area, and there's only one tool for this kind of job: a minigun. No need to worry about reloading here, just hold the trigger and spray the area until everything stops moving. There are lots of terrified troopers running about in this section, but the level designers have also left plenty of empty vehicles lying around too, ostensibly just so that you can shoot them until they blow up. And after you've finally rid the area of sentient life, you land and get to explore the fruits of your deadly labours on foot.
To be honest, I slightly lost the plot during the latter half of this second mission. The BC team are tasked with reaching a communications outpost, then Sweetwater fiddles with a computer to bring an orbiting satellite out of orbit... then there's a mad buggy chase to reach the crash site before the Ruskies. A busy press event probably isn't the best place to soak up the nuances of a twisting plot, but it all seemed utterly bonkers to me. And in retrospect, I rather liked that. As much as I loved the constant bedlam of Modern Warfare 2, it was all a bit too serious at times. Bad Company 2 isn't exactly a piss-take, but it seems to have its tongue more firmly wedged in its cheek. It's a cocktail of carnage that mixes James Bond-style antics with the unstoppable badassery of Arnie in the 80s, and then pours the whole thing into a camouflaged military-issue canteen.
Two levels isn't a lot to go by, but if the entire campaign can match the tone of this brief snippet, then BC2's single-player will have plenty of fans. Whether or not it will fully escape the shadow of the game's multiplayer... well, that remains to be seen. DICE has been refining the Battlefield formula for the best part of a decade now, and when it comes to multiplayer team deathmatch on an epic scale, there are few developers who come close. The original Bad Company certainly had its fans, but from what we've seen so far, it's increasingly looking like this sequel will blow it out of the water. We'll find out for certain pretty soon.
Battlefield: Bad Company 2 will be released on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 on March 3.