Battlefield… Battlefield Never Changes.
EA and developer DICE have taken one of AAA gaming’s biggest risks in recent memory by taking one of their flagship titles and dialing the clock back to the Great War with Battlefield 1, and while the authentic WWI setting and grim, anti-war tone bring a lot to the table, the series’ staple formula is largely left untouched.
While not as much of a drastic deviation from other Battlefield titles as I had hoped, thankfully Battlefield 1’s aesthetic often heightens those jaw-dropping, action-packed moments in a way that very few games can even hope to achieve. To run through a muddy trenchway, artillery blasting shrapnel and dirt all around you as whole armies clash in a crucible of bullets and bayonets, with tanks bringing down houses and small planes falling from the air in great flaming wrecks of twisted metal… the intensity can honestly be a little overwhelming at times.
It may just be a videogame, but I believe that is exactly why Battlefield 1 is so effective; you’re not just watching young men charge head on to the slaughter- you’re the one on the machinegun turret slaughtering them. Driving your bayonet up a combatant’s side and hearing the life choke out of him as the blade slices through flesh and bone is nauseating. Crushing men’s faces with a shovel or spiked club, using a flamethrower to incinerate soldiers clustering in a trench, shooting down war horses with an artillery cannon; as much as the Battlefield series has reveled in the chaotic action of militarized combat, Battlefield 1 stands as a stark reminder of the true horrors of war.
Visceral though it may be, it is still a fun game to play. The action is fast and exhilarating, and the visual fidelity can create some truly immersive battlefield environments. One of the most fascinating aspects of the game is that the gunplay seems to have become better as the weapons themselves became worse. WWI was certainly a time of technological advancement, and most of the game’s weaponry is historically accurate (yes, even that awesome tank-hunting rifle), but that doesn’t mean that the weapons used in 1916 were actually good. The automatic weapons are inaccurate and recoil dramatically, the short-range scopes are rudimentary at best, and some of the best weapons in the game are bolt-action. Hell, one of the most effective ways to kill other players is with a sword on horseback. All of this makes earning kills more of a skilled endeavor, creating a more satisfying FPS experience.
And speaking of horses, the vehicles in Battlefield 1 are largely the same as the weaponry. The squad cars and motorcycles of that time period are a blast to ride around in, and somehow the slow-moving aircraft create dogfights that are often far more intense than the battles you wage in Battlefield 4’s modern day jet fighters. I’m not the biggest fan of the tanks, as they’re not very versatile in combat, but I understand their limitations given the fact that these are the very first tanks the world has ever seen (they’re essentially big armored rhombi with machineguns sticking out in every direction). The inclusion of horses is a fun addition as well, but you’re a pretty easy target so their use isn’t all that effective outside of covering terrain quickly.
The one thing that disappointed me the most, however, was how much the game still just felt like Battlefield. I know that’s sort of a petty thing to complain about (why fix what ain’t broke), but I was really hoping to see the trench and chemical warfare play a bigger role in the gameplay. Those elements are certainly there, and they often create some of the most intense moments in the game, but they’re more tailored to the tried-and-true Battlefield formula, rather than vice versa. With EA taking such a risk by allowing DICE to bring the series back to WWI, it would have been nice to see them take even greater risks with the series’ gameplay mechanics.
As for game modes, there’s not much on offering here. Battlefield’s classic Conquest, Domination and Rush game modes return, with two new modes Operations and War Pigeons. While there’s not much diversification to the modes on offer, Operations may very well be my new favorite way to play Battlefield. Operations are multiplayer matches based around actual battles from WWI. In a match, attackers get three waves of 150 respawn tickets to capture two to three control points, which make up a sector. There are three to five sectors per map, with two to three maps making up an Operation. If attackers fail, their next attack wave will be assisted by either a huge zeppelin, an armored train, or a battleship. These Behemoths, which also appear in Conquest, are awesome to use and can often turn the tide of a match.
Operations are particularly engaging because they deliver that large-scale, epic feeling of Conquest, with 64 players running around an open map, but the way the sectors are designed it creates a universal goal for all members of your team to focus on. Even with all those players, many of whom don’t use a mic, you can still see moments of teamwork amidst the utter chaos (looking at you, medics). I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like, with two team captains ordering around the various squads of 32 players in one giant, coordinated battle.
Messenger Pigeon is fun, but more of a distraction for when you get bored of the other game modes. Two teams run around a limited map searching for a messenger pigeon, which they must hold until a message is written and the pigeon can be sent flying off to base. The meter fills automatically and increases faster when standing still, and the messenger pigeon itself can be shot down by the enemy team. Delivering a message will rain artillery fire upon your enemies for a few seconds, and three successful messages will win the round. While the frantic, objective-oriented team deathmatch-style gameplay can be addicting, it’s the female announcer’s dialogue that I find the most amusing. It’s a little hard trying to focus on gunning down a bunch of Germans while a soft-voiced woman distressingly informs me that the “enemies picked up the pigeon!”
As for the campaign, Battlefield 1 goes in a unique direction by replacing one, consistent storyline with five mini-campaigns called War Stories. The War Stories follow different soldiers from all over the world, engaged in various forms of combat seen in WWI. From filling the shoes of a tank operator to waging desert guerrilla warfare beside Lawrence of Arabia, each War Story is well-crafted and personal. DICE manages to tell some powerful, emotional stories alongside delivering an exhilarating series of battles. The concept of War Stories is also well-suited for future additions via DLC, which hopefully DICE will take advantage of. It’d be interesting to see some of the same quality stories told from the perspective of the Central Powers. The exclusion of their side of the war is strange, as the game makes strides to remind us that in the end, beyond politics and nations, we are all brothers, in arms against ourselves.
Battlefield 1 certainly delivers the same level of quality that we’ve come to expect from the franchise, but unfortunately, there are quite a few issues that pop up when playing. For starters, it took me about two weeks to finally get into Operations matches consistently, and although thankfully that problem seems to be alleviating, the load times can still be painfully long. From an aesthetic perspective, there’s a lot of texture pop, and some of the character animations are downright ridiculous. There are also random bugs that always show up at the worst possible time, like not being able to go from crouch to sprint, or getting stuck in your aim-down-sights perspective after being revived. There are plenty of little things here and there that make me wish the game had spent an extra month being polished.
Ultimately, Battlefield 1 is well worth your time. If you’re a fan of the franchise, you’ll find the game to be just as fun as other Battlefield titles, and the WWI setting really does give the game a lot of personality. In an era of sci-fi and modern day shooters, it’s fun to revisit the 20th century, and DICE has created a truly impacting and brutal presentation of the War To End All Wars. The multiplayer is as good as ever, with Operations being a welcome addition to the modes on offer, and the War Stories campaign is an effective tool at providing insight about the war to players. While it could have used a little more time in the oven, Battlefield 1 is a great example of what can happen when a risk pays off.