Lest We Forget: Desert Combat
Way back in 2001, the hitherto unknown Bohemia Interactive Studios unleashed Operation Flashpoint:Cold War Crisis on an unsuspecting world with the sole aim of dominating the military sim market.
At the time, this was a title entrenched firmly at the bleeding edge; “Sandbox” type gameplay, coupled with the ability to drive and pilot a huge range of vehicles made it a huge hit and it quickly gained a diehard following. It was also brutally hard in places, with the AI capable of sending that bullet with your name on it hurtling in your direction with unnerving accuracy, and from incredible distances.
At around the same time, a Swedish development team going by the name of DICE was putting the finishing touches to its take on the open world military shooter, and in early 2002, made available a MP demo, showcasing some of the fruits of their labours. The Wake Island map was the first time that many of us clapped eyes on what would eventually go gold as Battlefield 1942.
It was immediately apparent that the Swedes were taking a very different route to their Czech counterparts at BiS; they would concentrate less on realism, and more on a fast-paced objective game. The first time I clambered on board a Sherman tank, or into the cockpit of a Zero Zen, I knew I was totally and unreservedly hooked. As far as I was concerned, release day couldn’t come soon enough…
In spring 2002, my wishes were answered, and I trotted home with the game in my hot little hands the moment it was out – the sense of anticipation was palpable, and as soon as the installer had done its thing, I was taking on German Panzers in the shattered streets of Stalingrad. Aside from some rather ropey bot AI, it was a complete blast, and very shortly thereafter I was online (on a half meg DSL connection no less!) looking for more of the same heady brew of intuitive gameplay and team-based warfare.
It turns out I wasn’t alone, as global takeup numbers started to go through the roof; I guess a whole load of like-minded gamers fell for the experience of taking part in a battle of huge proportions, with fighter planes tearing through the skies, while tanks and infantry slugged it out on the ground below.
Enough with the preamble already!
OK, better cut to the chase then! The purpose of this piece was to serve as a retrospective of Desert Combat, one of the most seminal game modifications of all time, and a worthy companion to user-generated masterpieces such as Counterstrike and Red Orchestra. So without any further ado, let’s get to it.
Desert Combat is one of the most seminal game modifications of all time, and a worthy companion to user-generated masterpieces such as Counterstrike and Red Orchestra
A few months after the release of Battlefield 1942, a video started to crop up on some of the game file download sites that piqued my curiosity. It showed an A-10 Warthog flying at speed over Battlefield’s El Alamein map; needless to say, this came as something of a surprise given the World War II setting of the original title. Things got even more interesting when said tank-killer was shown vaporising Messerschmidts and Stukas with short bursts from the terrifying GAU-8/A minigun under its nose. Even the B-17 bomber (the largest, and ostensibly toughest aircraft in the game) was dispatched ridiculously quickly by this time-travelling marauder. Interesting indeed.
After some digging, it eventually transpired that this was very early footage from testing by the nascent Desert Combat development team, headed up by Frank DeLise, Brian Holinka, Stephen Wells and Tim Brophy – once the news was out, the community’s response was to start collectively salivating in expectation of what was to come.
Shock and Awe-some
And then it happened.
January 2003 marked the arrival of Desert Combat Alpha .1, and within hours of its release, servers were popping up left, right and centre with players eager to try out the new toys that it brought to the Battlefield experience. Stukas and Shermans were replaced by MiG-29s and M1A1 Abrams Main Battle Tanks, with P38s and BARs exchanged for altogether more up-to-date weaponry such as the M9 or the iconic AK-47.
The already burgeoning BF1942 community was quickly overcome by the shock of the new, and the chance to duke it out on a modern-day total conversion was just too much of a temptation to pass up. The first Alpha was more a proof-of-concept than anything else, but even at this early stage, it was enough to convince gamers that this could well be a mod with a very bright future.
Despite the premise of recreating the events and settings of Operation Desert Storm in 1991, pitting US and coalition armies against their Iraqi counterparts, no new maps were incorporated initially, and the new hardware available was limited to a roster of several of DICE’s own creations (the maps in question had a Desert Combat logo overlaid to signify their compatibility with the mod). At the time of .1’s launch, the team also hinted at the possibility of the introduction of at least one level based on America’s involvement in the conflict in Somalia in the early 1990s. Needless to say, anybody who had already seen Ridley Scott’s powerhouse “Blackhawk Down” movie (depicting the execution and aftermath of Operation Gothic Serpent in Mogadishu on October 3rd, 1993) was potentially interested in a future development of this nature.
When art imitates life
Out in the real world, events were rapidly unfolding in the Middle East that would not only shape the future of this most volatile of regions, but also the global geopolitical balance in its entirety. On March 20th, 2003, United States, British and allied forces launched a full-scale invasion of Iraq, on the pretext of securing or destroying any Weapons of Mass Destruction that were alleged to still be in the country. This was done without the permission of the United Nations, and a state of war was never actually declared.
On April 9th, Baghdad fell to coalition forces and the nation’s dictator had gone into hiding. By April 30th, the first phase of the operation had resulted in the wholesale collapse of Iraq’s armed forces, and many of its numerous troops had chosen to melt away into the civilian population rather than face the combined might of the allied military machine in open battle.
What happened next, including the eventual capture of Saddam Hussein and the rise of the local insurgency has long since passed into history, and the effects of Operation Iraqi Freedom still resonate across the face of the planet to this day.
Meanwhile, the Desert Combat development team, now rebadged as Trauma Studios, was busily moving forward to expand the scope of the mod to encompass what was going on many thousands of miles away from home, and responding to the overwhelmingly positive responses to its first outing.
Before long, Alpha .2 was unleashed on the world at large, bringing with it a vastly increased set of vehicles and weapons (including the M2A3 Bradley AFV and the T-72 heavy tank), and full compatibility with all existing BF1942 maps.
Things got more interesting still with the arrival of .3 in the late spring of 2003, which featured SCUD missile launchers, and the terrifying AC-130 “Spectre” gunship, which acted as a mobile aerial spawn point for tactical airborne troop insertions, backed up by its devastating onboard arsenal including “that” side-mounted 105mm howitzer.
Alpha .3 also marked the mod’s entry into the mapping arena with the “DC Battle of 73 Eastings” level – a sandy setting for an armoured slug-fest of epic proportions.
All the while, player and server numbers continued to grow exponentially as the community embraced the obvious quality of the production, and the change in theme away from BF1942’s World War II locales.
Onwards and upwards
The updates continued for the remainder of 2003, and into the following year, with each gloriously-rendered teaser image building ever-greater anticipation of what was to come, and unbridled admiration for the talented team behind it all.
February 2004 saw the release of Alpha .7, and cumulatively, the list of weapons, vehicles, maps and balance tweaks was truly jaw-dropping, as was the sheer number of gamers getting actively stuck in on a daily basis. By now, Desert Combat was one of the most widely-played shooters the world had ever seen, and had picked up a staggering amount of awards in the process (including GameSpy’s coveted “Best PC Game Mod” gong).
The immense popularity of Desert Combat even inspired “mods within mods” as other development teams scrambled to bend it to their own wills with offshoot projects such as “Desert Combat Extended” and a whole raft of realism adaptations; by the middle of 2004, it had truly taken its rightful place at the very pinnacle of modding world.
On another note, as a longtime Web designer and developer, I can clearly remember how the evolution of the Desert Combat website mirrored the rise in the mod’s popularity, and the continuous improvements in the technology behind the dissemination of information online. My jaw quite literally hit the floor when I first saw how digital super-agency Fantasy Interactive had weaved their own brand of magic with the display of the various weapon and vehicle models; this was truly groundbreaking stuff we were witnessing. Coming from relatively humble beginnings, it was a website that had grown into a true behemoth, very much at the top of the global game. Crazy levels of data being pushed? Check. FWA Site of the Day? Check. Say no more.
Dial T for Trauma
At the same time this frenetic activity was taking place, in Stockholm, DICE were busy making plans of their own. After two years, and thanks in no small part to the highly dedicated modding community extending the game’s shelf life, the huge success of Battlefield 1942 was leading inexorably to a major follow-up. To maintain its position on the throne as the king of open world shooters, something truly special was going to have to be pulled out of the bag.
Needless to say, Trauma’s reputation in the community had skyrocketed, and their production values and attention to detail were now the subject of adoration, and in some quarters even, envy. Ripples from the waves of their domination of the modding scene were now lapping furiously on Scandinavian shores.
The rumour mill surrounding the future direction of the Battlefield franchise was also in full swing, and the widely held belief was that it would leave its 1940s (and Vietnam era) roots behind and shift the focus to more modern settings. Confirmation of this came on September 1st, 2004 when the powers-that-be at DICE issued a communique announcing their acquisition of Trauma Studios for the princely sum of $500,000 USD.
Trauma would now be known as DICE NYC, an outpost of its Swedish parent in the New World, and was charged with helping develop what would come to be Battlefield 2 the following year. DICE’s motivation for bringing the erstwhile Trauma Studios team into the fold was simple; their combined conceptual, modelling and coding skills would be ideally suited to a project with a present-day theme. Moreover, the considerable array of models and code accumulated during Desert Combat’s development could potentially be tweaked, remixed and repurposed for integration into a new game engine; in principle, DICE had made a very smart purchase.
The following year brought mixed blessings; DICE pushed out a press release stating that after seven months of collaborating on the new project, they were closing the New York office with immediate effect. As a reason, they cited that their strategic plans had changed considerably since the buyout of Trauma, and were returning to concentrating on their core Swedish and Canadian operations.
For the rest of us, Battlefield 2 was launched in late June to a tumultuous response (despite a few potentially show-stopping bugs in the initial releases); it was obviously going to be one of the single biggest things to have happened to multiplayer gaming in quite some time, and an even greater smash than its predecessors. Desert Combat’s legacy was plain to see in the incredibly polished levels of presentation, and DICE’s legendary approach to balanced gameplay had made the transition from Omaha Beach to Karkand 100% intact.
One would like to think the rapturous welcome the new title received from reviewers and players alike was of some consolation to the ex-Trauma team, even while they were clearing their desks and workstations over in the Big Apple.
As for DICE and the Battlefield series, the rest is, as they say, history.
What Trauma did next
So what became of Desert Combat? Even in the wake of Battlefield 2’s arrival, it continued to remain insanely popular, with a diehard legion of followers. While it technically never made it out of Beta status, a group of former Trauma staff achieved a degree of closure with Desert Combat Final – a mini-mod of DC 0.7 in late 2004. This brought with it a slew of fixes, tweaks and yep, even more vehicles. Perhaps it should be regarded as the definitive version of DC, and the closest thing to the realisation of the mod’s original vision.
As for team Trauma, the core personnel had rebranded themselves as Kaos Studios, working under the banner of the THQ publishing empire, and two further titles were released over the next three years. These were Frontlines: Fuel of War and the John “Apocalypse Now” Milius-penned Homefront respectively. In April 2011, Kaos quietly closed its doors, and this in turn, marked the end of an era.
While the days of Desert Combat might be all but over, the simple truth is it still represents one of the finest examples of user-generated content in gaming history. Wherever Frank, Tim and all involved in the project might be now, they should be secure in the knowledge that they brought us more epic “Battlefield moments” than anyone could conceivably count in a lifetime or two, and for that, we should be eternally grateful.