Blackadder Goes Forth was a fantastic series.
Developer: EA DICE
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Format: PC, PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One
Released: October 21, 2016
Battlefield 1 successfully pulls off an incredibly tricky balancing act – portraying World War 1 as the destructive, wasteful hell it was while providing a videogame that shooter fans could still find entertaining.
Some authenticity has to go out of the window for this to take effect, of course, with a generous smattering of automatic weapons and thrilling gunfights emphasized over bleeding miserably in a soaked trench. Nevertheless, combat in Battlefield 1 can be chaotic to a terrifying degree – a dizzying mass of smoke, gas, explosions, and screams that turns an ordinary shooter into something altogether more intimidating.
Playing Battlefield 1‘s huge multiplayer modes can be confusing and disorienting, but not due to a design flaw. Instead the chaos is deliberate, designed to evoke a sense of panic and frantic survivalism. After years and years of so many multiplayer shooters, it’s been refreshing to finally get another one that can make me feel like a deer in headlights.
Battlefield 1 immediately sets the tone with an opening “tutorial” level focused on the Harlem Hellfighters. Players are informed that survival is not expected, and each death sees them thrust into the boots of another soldier – complete with an individual name and date of birth. Throughout its campaign and even the multiplayer, DICE is quick to remind its audience that World War 1 was a horror show inflicted on real human beings.
Life is cheap and death is free, this is something players are taught from the outset. While any war can produce heroes, it creates significantly more corpses, many young lives ending within only a handful of minutes.
Through a series of short campaign stories and a mercilessly anarchic multiplayer, Battlefield 1 reinforces that message constantly. Even loading screens are filled with educational information about the scale of the so-called Great War. Not just in terms of its death toll, but its geographical spread and the tremendous impact it had on world history.
Campaigns have been a weak spot for DICE in recent years – so weak, in fact, that Star Wars Battlefront never even had one – but this time around things have significantly improved. The campaign consist of six short stories that can be played in any order, each one telling a specific soldier’s story in a different part of the world.
From Australian runners to Bedouin warriors, Battlefield 1 does a terrific job of emphasizing that World War 1 did indeed impact the world as opposed to a couple of nations. It’s so common to simply view the event as something that happened between England and Germany, but this game spans across the globe with a multinational cast of well-written characters.
Each story bears a distinct gameplay theme. One is all about an American pilot and therefore contains all the chapters involving flight. Similarly, a story about a British tank unit is the sole source of land vehicle combat. In this way, DICE has done an admirable job of allowing players freedom to tackle the gameplay they like and discard anything they don’t care for.
Not a fan of stealth? You might want to skip the Arabian chapters and focus instead on the Italian ones, where you get to suit up like a space marine and chew through soldiers with powerful weaponry. Hate planes? Stick to the tanks, or ride across the desert on horseback.
Chapters can be picked up and put down at will, and while every single story will feature at least some regular first-person shooting, they all tend to remain distinct with their own unique structure.
The downside of all this is that no one story is ever given much time to develop, often finishing up all too quickly.
Battlefield 1‘s diverse protagonists are all deserving their own full games – their tales are genuinely gripping and I found it hard to dislike a single one. Any single story could support a full-length campaign, so the bite-sized adventures we get are just a little frustrating.
There’s definitely something to be said for a campaign that won’t outstay its welcome, but I have no doubt that more time spent with each character could only be a good thing.
Returning to multiplayer, DICE has retained most of the flavor you can see in pretty much any Battlefield game. Squads, classes, vehicles, ranking systems, they’re all in place and they’re all instantly recognizable. I can certainly understand some players growing fatigued of DICE’s hallmarks after so many games.
However, this one has its hooks in me.
Perhaps I’m simply so jaded by “modern” military shooters, but I find the WWI overlay truly does lend an added energy to the game. Liberties have been taken with the period weaponry, but the prevalence of slow-loading rifles (complete with bayonet charging), the devastating nature of gas attacks, and the appearance of elite gear for flametroopers and sentinels sets a special mood for every match.
In fact, I’ve no problem saying this is the most fun I’ve had with a DICE game that I can remember – a fun that has a sombre tone to it, given the respect shown for the reality of the war upon which Battlefield 1 is based. It’s a respect that should appear insincere and hypocritical, but somehow works alongside the gameplay, careful to never glamorize things.
Unlike Battlefront, this year’s EA-funded shooter is a complete package with not just a great campaign but multiplayer modes ranging from the moderate to the enormous. Added to Battlefield 1 is a new Operations mode in which one team defends while another keeps pushing back their front line.
Each Operation has a story attached and pits two sides against each other in multiple matches that can last a damn long time. Similar to Battlefront, one team will feel itself forced to retreat as it loses ground, creating a real sense of urgency when territory cannot be held.
Conquest will always be my bread and butter though, and it’s clear I’m not the only one. While it’s never difficult to get into the territory-claiming sprawling game type, the more exotic modes might be tougher to wrangle a team together for.
Being a DICE game, Battlefield 1 is gorgeous and sleekly presented, running at 60 frames-per-second even on consoles. Landscapes look both beautiful and haunting, rendered with a ton of polish but ultimately consisting of demolished buildings and burnt up trees. The sound is just as fantastic, with punchy weapon noises, horrible death shrieks, and encompassing explosions.
One thing to be wary of is microtransactions. At the time of writing, none are to be found, but Electronic Arts has already confirmed they’re coming, and the game’s “Battlepack” system looks custom-built to house them.
Right now, Battlepacks are randomly awarded to players post-match or purchased with “scrap” earned by destroying the contents of previous Battlepacks. In the days since purchasing the game, I’ve thus far managed to acquire only a single Battlepack. It’s a “reward” system that makes Overwatch‘s look positively generous, and leaves a sour taste in an otherwise engrossing game.
The constant reminders that Battlepacks exists are a real hassle, too. There’s definitely pressure on the part of the game’s design structure to treat these “packs” of cosmetics with reverence, despite how miserly the game is with them.
Despite this, Battlefield 1 remains a fulfilling experience on par with this year’s other premier shooters. I get the impression from some commenters out there that I’m supposed to dislike this one, but I’m going to have to disappoint them – Battlefield 1 has provided me with a damn good time and I don’t regret it.
It’s reverent without being mawkish, exciting without being tacky, and robust with content despite all the usual trappings of a big-budget EA product.
War is hell… but Battlefield 1 is pretty damn lovely.