World War 1 saw the industrialisation of war and the wholesale slaughter of 10s of millions of soldiers and civilians between 1914 and 1918. Unlike World War II, there were few ideological villains to conquer or justifiable moral campaigns; rather the world saw a clash between empires and colonial powers. The fighting was bloody, brutal, and indiscriminate – and somehow, bizarrely, less justifiable or palatable than the wars that followed. Battlefield 1 takes the subject seriously, and, as such, tells the best story the franchise has ever produced.
Battlefield 1 breaks free of the franchises’ mediocre reputation for single-player campaigns, with the exception of the Bad Company series, to present a thoughtful and harrowing representation of The Great War. The campaign presents six War Stories that can played in any order offering different and personal perspectives of the war. The personal and grounded approach in this short-story format strips the glorification from war and delivers stories of survival, rebellion and even redemption in the face of impossible odds. The success of Battlefield 1’s story lies in the respect DICE have given to the subject.
The stories are inconsequential in terms of the overall war and have less to do with fighting for a cause than fighting for their lives. The Australian veteran in the Gallipoli campaign devotes his energy to keeping his under-aged, inexperienced charge alive, while the Italian soldier clad in armour charges up the hill into enemy fire; not for his country, but to protect his brother. The Lawrence of Arabia story breaks from this theme depicting the Bedouin rebels uprising against the Ottoman Empire, but does so to introduce us to a female protagonist fighting for her people’s freedom. The diversity of Battlefield 1 is handled in a way that doesn’t feel forced or tokenistic; rather it aims to highlight the broad scope of people involved in the war that are often glossed over.
When the game first loads it immediately dumps you into the shoes of an African-American soldier from the Harlem Hellfighters regiment in the midst of a German attack. The opening is powerful in setting the tone of the game with an unsettling message delivered before you take control: “What follows is front line combat. You are not expected to survive.” When your soldier inevitably falls to enemy fire you seamlessly take control of another, with the name of each appearing on screen after each death. Once the carnage is over, you realise this wasn’t some decisive battle, merely one of the war’s many blood-soaked stalemates of seemingly no consequence to anyone except the dead and dying soldiers in the mud. This sequence bluntly sets the tone of the game (even multiplayer to a small extent) and dispels any notion that this is another gung-ho army-of-one shooter. The War Stories are for the most part decent with well-crafted stories and interesting characters – given each story only lasts a couple of hours.
Each War Story presents a different element of Battlefield combat which keeps the experience from becoming stale – an issue the franchise has struggled with. The campaign walks a fine line of being a solid gameplay experience while also not coming across as crass entertainment. It constantly confronts you with the gravity of war and tries to remove the bombast we’ve come to expect from the genre. The section about a British tank crew highlights the terror machines brought to war and the extremely high mortality rate the tank crews suffered. This is echoed in the excellent ‘Friends in High Places’ story about a scoundrel American pilot, as the average life expectancy of an Allied pilot amounted to about 17.5 hours of flying time. The introduction of turn-of-the-century weaponry and technology gives an entirely different dynamic to gameplay compared with gun-fetishism of the series’ modern-era entries. Guns feel less accurate and clunky while still satisfying to use, and the liberties taken by DICE with the use of obscure and experimental weapons highlights an interesting time in technological advancement – albeit for the purpose of killing. Melee weapons are disturbingly effective in close-quarters combat, as is the ability to close in on the enemy with a bayonet charge. Stealth makes up a good part of the campaign and is borrowed almost completely from Battlefield Hardline – for better or worse. The AI is a bit dumb, and the stealth is overly forgiving, so at least it’s not frustrating.
As usual for the series, Battlefield 1 looks incredible. Battlefields look like hellish scars on the earth: churned mud, destroyed buildings and forests decimated by relentless shelling and fighting. The detail put into the environments, weapons and soldiers all work to cement the game in a sense of reality, to give a sense of what the soldiers of WW1 saw. Sound design in Battlefield games are usually top-notch, but Battlefield 1 takes it to a whole other level. You can almost feel the dirt spraying over you from ricocheting bullets, guns rattle and ping as they fire and reload, and then there are the screams. As your unit charges at the enemy, the battlefield fills with sounds of shouts and machine-gun fire, and, before long, the screams of wounded and dying start to drown everything out. These moments are a gut-wrenching bucket of ice water poured over you, shaking you out of the usual joy you might feel when surviving an onslaught in games like this.
Multiplayer is still the core of Battlefield 1, and the move back in time has done the series a massive favour. Classes are more defined, teamwork is essential, combat is smooth and satisfying, and Battlelog is dead! That’s right: multiplayer options are now accessed in-game through an easy to use menu – ground-breaking stuff. Along with the usual Conquest, Domination, Rush and Team Deathmatch game modes, Battlefield 1 introduces Operations and War Pigeons. Operations attempts to bring the tone of single-player into multiplayer by presenting hypothetical battles based on real events in the war. Each map is split into sectors that have to be defended, and if they fall the defenders retreat to the next section and so on until the map is lost or won. Depending on how the battle went, it can flow into the next map as a continuation, and once the game is over the narrator explains what could have happened if history had gone differently (depending on who wins). The battles are made all the more tense as when attackers make their charge on a new sector their war cries and whistles fill the air. War Pigeons is an intense close quarters battle where teams fight to capture a pigeon to send off orders for an artillery strike on the area. Everything works in a seamless manner as your zoom from the overhead map view to the ground when spawning, and when entering or changing positions in a vehicle, you actually see your soldier climb around rather than magically swap places. The design touches like this do a great job in keeping you immersed in the action.
Classes are split into Assault, Medic, Support and Scout, each with class specific weapons and equipment. For once the classes have a unique utility in battle as their weaponry limits their effectiveness in certain situations. The Assault class is suited to short/medium range fighting, taking out vehicles and dying a lot. Medics have medium range rifles which should keep them from getting involved in firefights and rather keeping the team alive. Support has machine guns that get more accurate the longer they fire to encourage better suppression. And Scouts have little close-range survivability and excel in spotting and sniping from afar. So far the mix of classes has given the multiplayer experience a good flow as it’s easier to adapt to the enemy’s strategy with well-defined classes to counter with. A new feature is the introduction of elite and vehicle classes. Players can don armour to become a walking turret or a flamethrower pack to do the obvious, while players who spawn in vehicles come with their own specific loadout, which is a nice touch. There’s currently a decent number of weapons and equipment to unlock, which will undoubtedly be expanded upon later with the planned expansions. As you earn new levels, you earn War Bonds, which are spent on unlocking new equipment. I’m personally not a fan of the purchased upgrades system as there’s no way of knowing whether you’re making a good choice or not, but it does allow you to get to know the ins-and-outs of your loadout.
Vehicles are intimidating and can turn the tide of battle if used correctly. Tanks are slow, armoured beasts that have the luxury of living in a time before RPGs. As such, it usually requires a coordinated attack by anti-tank grenade carrying assault troopers and stationary anti-tank guns to take them down, all the while they obliterate everything else. Planes are relatively easy to fly, and bombers can be quite effective at clearing out points, especially with nose and tail gunners. Currently, they feel a bit too sturdy as they can be flown into the distance to be repaired in flight, while also taking a lot of effort to shoot down. The big feature of Conquest and Operations is the introduction of Behemoth vehicles. When a team is losing by a significant margin, they are given a Behemoth vehicle: either an airship, armoured train or dreadnaught. The Behemoths have huge amounts of health and firepower that when used can effectively turn the tide of battle as the winning side has to work out how much energy to spend taking it down while also holding on to their lead.
World War 1 was always going to be a difficult war to represent in a video game. There is an overwhelming consensus that the war should not be represented as a form of entertainment, or that legacy of the millions who died be disrespected by a bastardised depiction of the conflict. For the most part, Battlefield 1 succeeds in presenting a sombre and respectful depiction of WW1, it’s just the multiplayer that fumbles the game’s overall tone. The tone goes from “your enemy are still people under their uniform” to building up your K/D ratio and laughing manically during tank rampages. Operations mode at least tries to inject the horrors of war into the multiplayer experience, but ultimately the experience feels like any other Battlefield game. The marketing of Battlefield 1 hasn’t helped much either by gleefully encouraging gamers to “enlist” in the war or using #WW1things on Twitter. I also have a bone to pick with Battlefield 1’s season pass which has left the base game short on some content that really should be there at launch. There are nine maps at launch and six game modes, but Hardcore and Custom games are still to be rolled out. If only Battlefield 1 would take Titanfall 2’s lead and dump the season pass model altogether, which is about as likely as Half Life 3 ever being released.
For a long time, Battlefield games have been nothing more than a platform for a military shooter without much soul. The Bad Company games worked so well as they made the story about the soldiers rather than the war, and absolutely nailed the multiplayer component. Following games presented cookie-cutter storylines and bland characters, carried only by excellent multiplayer gameplay. Battlefield 1 succeeds because it tells a story worth telling in such a way that doesn’t trivialise the horrors of war. This is of course contradicted by the fun of multiplayer. It could be argued that Battlefield 1 isn’t an appropriate platform to explore the themes of World War 1, but it does just enough to not be disrespectful.