Most of the time, games are about escapism, those wonderfully unreal moments that draw us away from our humdrum days. An anthropomorphized rodent or kiddie plumber hopping between flying platforms to save one of seemingly millions of troubled princesses isn't just unexceptional, it's the norm.
However, DICE's Battlefield franchise has always gone quite the opposite way, trying to get closer and closer to the feel and setting of war. This incarnation, Battlefield 2: Modern Combat gets even closer than usual. Set in Kazakhstan, it depicts the forces of China and the West in conflict over Kazakh's scarce oil supplies in the near future, something that is likely to happen - on a diplomatic scale at least - in the near future. That's not so much near to the knuckle as close to the bone. What next? Emergency Vet 2006, where you have to humanely cull flu-ridden avians with a variety of weapons (boltgun, hatchet, bare hands) before the media or animal rights activists turn up?
The single-player campaign, to all intents and purposes, is identical to the Xbox version. Depending on the missions and how you choose to execute them, you play either as a trooper for the U.S.A., the European Union (possibly the only detraction from reality) or the Chinese government (the various Arabic nations lumped together in an endearingly insensitive manner by the Xbox version don't seem to be in evidence). As you progress through the various missions you can choose which side to fight each mission on, until the final mission when you have to make a final decision as to who's side you'll be on - and it's not as clear-cut as EA's typically gung-ho American stance would have you imagine...
As you play through the single-player game, you'll find yourself dying relatively often; the difficulty has definitely been pumped up from the current generation version. One aid that helps enormously is hot-swapping. This involves scanning the surrounding area for the HUD sign that indicates a friendly unit, aiming at it, and then simply tapping the X key to swap to that unit. Several missions are entirely based around using this to override your allies' shoddy aim and suicidal impulses, and taking control yourself. It's different from the Xbox version as well, as line of sight is no longer needed and rather than simply jumping you there instantly, you're given a moment to orientate yourself, during which the camera zooms across the map, through the areas. This gives you a chance to see the layout of the land and to see how many of your allies are left - on the levels where they don't respawn this is crucial. Also notably helpful is the autoswap - when the character you're controlling dies, you zoom out for a quick gaze at the surroundings (whether you want to use the time to mourn or to reconnoitre the area is up to you) and then hotswap into the nearest living teammate. It's a semi-ghastly feeling of possession, making you empathise with the agents from The Matrix temporarily.
Your allies' AI has improved as well, but if you want to complete any of the missions, you'll have to do the majority of killing yourself; there's no Call of Duty 2-style plan of being able to play it on Veteran, but hide behind a wall and wait for your endlessly respawning allies to finish off all the Nazis. You'll also find yourself on your own at inconvenient moments, with all your AI allies dying - though the fixed respawn points are frequent (whether that's by being dropped in from parachute or appearing out of the corner of your eye.)
Your weaponry is unlocked slowly as you play through the single-player, depending on how you do on each mission. You're rated on the basis of how long it took you to finish the mission, how many of your allies survived, how accurate you were, and how many points you've got (assigned by some obscure system we've no hope of working out). The more stars you get, the higher up the ranks you'll rise and the more weapons you'll unlock for each character class. Moreover, you don't just unlock the weapons; you unlock upgrades for them too; more stability, greater clip sizes, more damaging shots, and so on.
The classes themselves are suitably varied. The rifle-equipped assault class is effective against pretty much anything at medium range, whereas the shotgunwielding engineer is the up-close (and anti-tank) expert, and can also repair vehicles.
The Special Forces class seems a little redundant until you get into multiplayer and start using its lethal C4. The sniper on the other hand has a range of nasty tricks, not least his outrageous one-hit-one-kill rifle that can shoot pilots out of choppers. These classes are all fine and dandy, but they only come into their own when vehicles are thrown into the mix. In a straight fight starting far apart, a good sniper could win without moving, which would make the game somewhat dull (if giving a neat Enemy at the Gates feel). However, factor in fast-moving vehicles and helicopters and suddenly only being able to scrutinise the horizon through your scope becomes more of a disadvantage. Battlefield offers a wide range of vehicles from bog-standard hummers to slowmoving, slow-firing heavy tanks. There's even ultra-fast skidoos on the snow levels, great until you hit a mine or even a tree.
Of course, all this nonsense is only a preamble to the real thing, so let's be clear; Battlefield is all about the multiplayer. We were fortunate enough to try it out against the EA developers (surreptiously, as they didn't know we were playing...) and it was at least the equal of the PC and Xbox versions. This should displace Call of Duty 2 at the top of the multiplayer chart, if there's any justice in the world. Simply put, you choose whether to log in for a ranked game or unranked, then select your server.
Maps vary from tiny, intense urban fights to larger snow or desert bound ones (we're lucky that Kazakhstan has one of the earth's most varied climates, it seems). Seemingly included in the Xbox 360 version are the downloadable extra maps taking the total tally up to around 13 - not a huge number of maps we think you'll agree - especially as you can't build your own.
If you've not played Battlefield before, it's all based around flag capturing. On your minimap, arrows point to all the flags on the map. When you die, you can get a better overview of where the maps are, which are under threat and how many of each class of trooper there are on your team. You capture flags by standing (or crouching, or lying if you're scared) in their vicinity for around ten seconds.
Capturing flags doesn't win the game by itself though; if your team holds a majority of flags, the enemies' points value starts ticking down from a maximum of 400 and the game ends when it hits zero. It ticks down faster if the difference in flag numbers is greater. This dynamic dates from the first game, Battlefield 1942 and was unashamedly plagiarised by Star Wars: Battlefront because, to be frank, it's brilliant. The winning team is (naturally) spread more thinly over a wider area defending its increased territory, so is extremely susceptible to focussed fightbacks from the losing side. Battles can swing back and forth, indeed the dynamic encourages it, and other items like the airstrike terminal only increase the chaos.
As the vehicles are only available at certain bases and respawn slowly, and voice communications facilitate co-ordination (though not to the same extent as the squad-based Battlefield 2 on PC) it's easy to organise assaults. All over, brilliant then; the best multiplayer on the Xbox 360.