DICE has done something new with its Battlefield franchise and it isn’t about to let you forget it. On booting up Battlefield 1 for the first time, you’re thrown straight into a horrifying single-player prologue that sees you struggling—and eventually failing—to survive against an onslaught of enemy soldiers. It’s a not-so-subtle attempt to demonstrate the waste of human life that characterizes World War One; however, the lack of subtlety doesn’t diminish its impact. War is brutal, and World War One might be the most brutal of them all. The prologue hammers that point home.
Not content with changing up the setting, DICE has also shaken up the single-player campaign and introduced the word ‘vignette’ into the vocabulary of gamers everywhere. Instead of one long campaign, there are five short vignettes—or war stories—that show the global conflict as being exactly that, global. Throughout these five stories you’ll play as British, American, Italian, and Australian soldiers, plus a Bedouin rebel. Each story lasts about an hour which isn’t a lot of time to get invested in a character, especially when Battlefield 1 is more concerned with making sure you can drive tanks, fly planes, and wield heavy armor.
The only war story in which I got attached to the characters was The Runner, where you play as an older Australian soldier tasked with looking after an eager young recruit. It’s predictable and ends as you might expect, but it still manages to tug at the heartstrings a bit.
The Runner being my favorite mission might have as much to do with the gameplay as it does the story. It’s the only mission where you stick to typical run and gun FPS gaming. ‘Through Mud and Blood’ sticks you in a tank that has more character than the protagonist, and ‘Friends in High Places’ has you flying a plane that feels like a toy drone. In Avanti Savoia, you wear armor that makes you almost indestructible as you hunt for your brother in the Italian mountains, and Nothing is Written has you battling Ottoman forces by sneaking around the Arabian desert and sabotaging radio transmissions.
When Battlefield 1 remembers it’s a shooter, the game is as scintillating as it’s ever been. The guns sound terrifying and you can’t help but be moved by the screams of your dying comrades as they fall in huge numbers. When your plane gets shot down, you’re forced to push through German trenches at night with bombs exploding all around you. No game has replicated the feeling of a real battlefield so convincingly.
Unfortunately, even when you’re on foot with a gun in hand, the game still doesn’t want to be a shooter. It pushes you towards taking a stealthy approach wherever possible. The stealth mechanics are functional but lack any depth. You throw shell casings to distract guards and either sneak past them or take them out under the cover of darkness. It makes the game too easy and you feel like you’re cheesing it instead of earning a hard-fought victory.
The variety of the missions certainly stopped me getting bored, but it also stopped me getting invested. The single-player ends up feeling too much like a drawn out tutorial for a more exciting campaign that never shows up. The awe-inspiring prologue hinted at a military shooter campaign like one we’ve never seen before. We still haven’t.
You might notice the absence of some prominent countries from the war stories. There’s no French campaign, which seems like a criminal omission, given that much of the war took place in France and destroyed the country in the process. Likewise, the lack of a Russian campaign is also troublesome. EA has promised that the French and Russian armies are coming to multiplayer in DLC, but France and Russia deserve to be in the base game.
In addition, none of the Central Powers are playable in the war stories. Much has been made of World War One not having an obvious ‘good guys vs bad guys’ story, and while that narrative is not entirely accurate, playing as Germany or Turkey would have made for a more interesting story than some of those on offer here. Besides, I want to play as the bad guys occasionally.
I expected Battlefield 1 to look gorgeous; however, the visuals still took my breath away at times. While I didn’t enjoy driving the tank, I did at least appreciate the dark beauty of my surroundings as I powered my way over trenches towards the enemy lines. Barbed wire and dead bodies littered the ground as artillery rained down around me killing soldiers on both sides of the conflict.
Battlefield 1 looks like a World War One game, but it feels more like World War v1.8. There’s a whole host of automatic weapons, and both air and land vehicles are far more prominent than they should be. I don’t need complete historical accuracy. Let’s face it, that would be tedious. Driving a tank is boring, but it would have been even worse if the tank got stuck in the mud every ten feet and the guns jammed more than they fired. Likewise, realistic guns would have meant more time spent reloading than firing, which given the lack of shooting in this game already would have been a problem.
DICE claims that most of the weapons and equipment in the game were in use during the war, and that’s probably true. Regardless, I don’t want to trudge up a mountain in heavy armor, slaughtering everyone I see without any risk of death. Just because something exists, doesn’t mean it should be used in the game.
Battlefield 1’s multiplayer largely sticks to the formula that’s been so successful to date. If you’ve played any Battlefield game since Bad Company 2, then you know what to expect here. Large maps, varied classes, destructible environments, and bad spawn points are all present. Classic modes such as Conquest, Team Deathmatch, and Rush all return and there are a couple of new modes thrown in for good measure. War Pigeons might appeal to fans of capture the flag, but it’s Operations that really grabs the attention. Matches in Operations can easily last for an hour, as one side attacks in waves, pushing the enemy back up to five times in a real test of endurance. It’s the closest Battlefield 1 comes to feeling like a real battle, especially when a mustard gas grenade explodes in a closed space and you scramble to get your gas mask on in time.
My favorite multiplayer memories are usually long-distance sniper kills or lengthy kill streaks. In Battlefield 1, my memories are dominated by the atmosphere of the matches. Rushing over the top of the trenches is always intense, but doing it alongside 31 teammates to the sound of the infamous trench whistle sends shivers down my spine even writing about it.
For better or worse, the rest of the multiplayer will feel familiar to series veterans. Maps get destroyed over the course of a decent Conquest or Operations match, and it never gets old seeing buildings fall apart around you as you’re bombarded by nearby tanks. Conversely, it does get old being picked off by snipers for the tenth time in five minutes. Many of the maps are open, and the spawn points are predictable enough for any half-way competent sniper to figure out. This sort of stuff usually gets countered as players figure out how to deal with snipers, but in my time with the multiplayer, it was a regular occurrence and seemingly only countered by more snipers.
My first ten hours with the multiplayer were some of the most fun I’ve had in a Battlefield game. Unfortunately, after thirty hours the game felt more Battlefront than Battlefield. If you enjoyed flying X-Wings and TIE Fighters in Battlefront, then I have good news… you’re going to love flying the planes in Battlefield 1. That is, assuming you get to fly one. Whenever I entered a plane I got assigned a gunner seat, and about 50% of the time the pilot bailed and let the plane crash into mountains, taking me along with it. Not fun. Don’t even get me started on the horses. What were they feeding those things back in the 1910s? They can take more damage than a tank, and somehow take hits on behalf of the rider for good measure. Want to feel invincible? Jump on a horse.
Taking another cue from Battlefront, Battlefield 1’s multiplayer has special packs that spawn randomly on the map. These packs are usually flamethrower kits, complete with armor, that turn you into a menace in much the same way as being Luke Skywalker did in Battlefront. I’m fine with ‘heroes’ in Battlefront, but they feel out of place here. Maybe flamethrower technology existed in 1918, but that doesn’t mean it should be in the game.
DICE has tried to merge the casual, accessible nature of its rebooted Star Wars franchise to the military shooter that most people expect from a Battlefield game. The result is a game that often feels more like a re-skinned Battlefront than a re-skinned Battlefield 4. A good example of this is the ‘time to death.’ In my experience, time to death in Battlefield 1 is half of what it was in Battlefield 4. Kills come quicker, as do deaths. You’d expect the opposite, given the inferior weapons available in World War One. This lends the game an arcade feel that, while still fun, is not what I was expecting from a historical shooter.
Fortunately, Battlefield 1’s multiplayer launched in a much better state to that of Battlefield 4, which admittingly is a low bar. That said, there are still baffling issues surrounding the interface that haven’t been patched a few weeks after launch. The worst of these is the inability to change your loadout outside of a match. You need to start a game before comparing your guns, equipment, skins, etc. You can usually do this in a mobile app these days, so it seems incredible that you can’t do it in the main menu of the game. The spawn points are also dreadful and I’ve died within two seconds of spawning more times than I can count. Of course, I’ve gotten a fair few kills of my own when enemies spawn in front of me, but those are completely skill based on my part. Honest.
Another disappointment, albeit an expected one, is that microtransactions were patched into the game a month after release. This can’t have surprised anyone, but it’s worrying to see EA sneak this out after reviews have settled. The microtransactions are only for cosmetic items, so if cosmetics are your jam then be warned. You can earn them in-game, but they drop randomly and slowly.
My feelings towards Battlefield 1 are dominated by thoughts of what could have been. The WW1 setting is a breath of fresh air for the FPS genre. I love the idea of the war stories, but not the execution. DICE has tried to make the multiplayer more accessible, but Battlefield and Battlefront are two distinct franchises and are better off staying that way.
Many have accused Battlefield 1 of being a WW2 shooter with a WW1 skin. I can’t argue with that, but I also can’t get that upset about it either. I love running out of the trenches with a group of teammates, as we charge towards the enemy and get mowed down by turrets and sub-machine guns. If we survive, there’s a good chance we’ll end up choking on mustard gas as we try to claim a control point. I’ve not experienced this in any modern FPS, and it does make a difference, regardless of historical accuracy.
And that whistle. Holy crap, that whistle.