When Battlefield 1 was first announced a few months ago, its World War I (WWI) setting took many by surprise. World War II, modern combat, and near-future combat, are standbys of the first person shooter genre. Many significant wars have remained under represented, or not represented at all, as developers have continually favored tried-and-true over new and different. With Battlefield 1, DICE and EA have broken this repetitive pattern and produced something truly magnificent.
Singleplayer: A War of Many Perspectives
If you pick up a history textbook, it’ll tell you that there was a very clear enemy, an obvious aggressor, and a terribly evil man behind the events of World War II. In the First World War, on the other hand, the lines of right and wrong, good and evil, were not drawn so distinctly. A single assassination served as the catalyst that caused the war to break out, but various countries were pulled into the conflict for different reasons throughout the war’s four-year duration. Sometimes referred to as “The War to End All Wars,” this was a clash of old tactics and new technology; old empires were toppled and new countries rose to prominence in their place.
In order to highlight the complexities of this war, DICE chose to build a singleplayer campaign that bounces from soldier to soldier and nation to nation, divided into separate, segmented War Stories that offer differing tones. Instead of the tried-and-true but all too common “let’s save the world” shtick that so often describes a modern FPS’s plot, DICE set out to portray the realism, horror, and occasional honor of The Great War.
Erik Ortman, lead UI and user experience designer at DICE, told me that, “It’s about people. It’s not about this massive, superhero, human character that can do all the things, it’s about putting you into these different stories and allowing you to explore them and create your own narrative around that.”
The prologue follows the Harlem Hellfighters, after which you can move to other theaters of war as you please. The prologue effectively sets the dark tone of the campaign through its portrayal of WWI’s hellish frontline combat. It shows the absurdity of fighting over swathes of muddy, ruined ground and that in many cases, survival is nothing more than dumb luck. Particularly poignant is the proclamation at the outset, “You are not expected to survive.” And you won’t.
The first War Story I played is called Through Mud and Blood. It takes place in France, near the end of the war and features a heavy push by British infantry and armor through the dug-in German lines to the town of Cambrai. After steamrolling trenches and obliterating field guns, the end of the first segment sees you flying a carrier pigeon back to call in artillery support. At first, your graceful white squab glides over beautiful countryside, but then the grass and trees give way to a blighted landscape, scarred by mud and blood, the same tiny patch of land that so many lives were spent liberating just moments ago. Say what you want about flying a pigeon in an FPS, but the whole experience was appropriately thought provoking and eerie.
In many ways the War Stories felt like an interactive history lesson as they led you on a running and gunning adventure all over the world. The characters in each story were relatable and had some exceptional voice acting, furthering the experience. Jumping from place to place, seeing the war from different perspectives, all of which shared a commonality in their sheer brutality, was refreshing and a brilliant way to mix things up.
The combat and gunplay are as solid as you’d expect from a Battlefield game, although enemy AI wasn’t intelligent at times. During portions of the War Stories, stealth also becomes an option. Stealth isn’t something the series is known for, but it has been integrated well by offering an alternative to repeatedly kicking down the front door. However, this is Battlefield, so I regularly opted for the guns-blazing approach anyway.
Despite some minor cutscene hiccups and some silly AI, this is the best Battlefield campaign I’ve ever played. Where modern shooters want you to come away feeling empowered and emboldened as if you just saved humanity’s collective ass, Battlefield 1 is quite the opposite. It left me with a profound sense of awe, of horror, and of sorrow and respect for those who took part in this conflict.
Multiplayer: Classics Stay, Newcomers Win the Day
More than anything, the Battlefield series is known for its multiplayer. But what exactly makes the franchise’s multiplayer so special, so entertaining? This success can be attributed to five basic components: maps, match type, weapons/items, vehicles, and destruction.
In comparison to previous iterations, one of the biggest changes for multiplayer maps in Battlefield 1 is their basis in history. Whereas Battlefield 3 and 4 had maps that were loosely based off of real locations, they weren’t tied to history in any relevant way. This time around, DICE has produced maps that are directly related to real locations, real cities, and the battles that took place in those areas. As a player, you’ll even get what feels like a short diary entry and a brief introduction at the beginning of Operations matches explaining the strategic significance of a given map during WWI. The historical and tactical context given to these places adds a sense of purpose, furthering the vicarious drive to take your objective. In addition, the maps are geographically varied, their landscapes both unique and absolutely stunning.
Battlefield multiplayer has long had a good selection of match types. There’s the iconic Conquest mode, Domination, Rush, and Team Deathmatch, just to name a few. These classics will all be making a return in Battlefield 1 with the addition of two new match types: Operations and War Pigeons.
War Pigeons, so named because of the bird’s frequent usage as combat message carriers during WWI, is won by protecting a VIP of sorts (whomever picks up the pigeon) for as long as it takes them to write a message and release their flying rodent. Writing the message happens automatically when holding the bird, so you can continue to run and gun, but writing is much faster when stationary. This must be done three times for a team to win, provided that your pigeon doesn’t get shot down.
Operations, the second new match type, is where Battlefield 1 comes into its own, where its multiplayer shines brightly. Before beginning a round, a soldier’s voice will tell you in no uncertain terms how much he loathes the enemy, how he thinks they are weak, pathetic, and easily beaten. It adds a touching personal perspective to the experience. After that, you’re given a narrated tactical overview of the territory and your objectives, and the historical reason they had to be taken or protected (whether you’re attacking or defending). The introductions fit brilliantly within the Operations match type, giving them emotional weight and making the mission feel truly crucial.
If you’re attacking, your team starts at one end of a large map and must push through to the other side, capturing the final objective that lies there. However, the territory between your starting point and the final objective is divided into linear sectors, each with two or three control points. These control points must all be captured and held simultaneously in order to proceed to the next sector. When a sector is liberated, the next attack is kicked off with the eerie sound of the flute-like “Charge!” whistle and a blood curdling, collective roar from the advancing soldiers. The attacking side is given three attempts; defenders must simply prevent any and all forward progress. If an attack is successful, then the match progresses to the next map in the series. The experience is engrossing and invigorating, not just a mindless, digital massacre, and it portrays accurately the territorial tug-of-war that so characterized WWI.
I had wondered how fun it might be to have a pitched battle with 63 other people, all wielding the bolt-action rifles that were so prevalent during WWI. Would it be a total let down? Well, utilizing a fair bit of artistic license, DICE has made the hundred-year-old weaponry feel as powerful and deadly as ever. “There is so much variety and diversity in the things you can do with this era in terms of the weapons,” Ortman told me.
Overall, the range, accuracy, and fire rate of everything I used seemed balanced and deadly, but with distinct advantages and disadvantages. What’s more, the firearm audio sounded simply amazing, probably some of the best I’ve ever heard, in fact.
Reloading many of the weapons actually requires a little skill and planning in Battlefield 1. For example, a rifle might hold 10 rounds, comprised of two separate five-round magazines. If you expend eight bullets and reload, your soldier will slam in a new five-round magazine and then load the three remaining rounds manually, making your reload considerably longer. Each weapon is different, but it’s more important than ever to be aware of your ammo status and to time your reloads properly.
The integration of special weapons feels awkward. When picking one up (like flamethrowers or extra powerful machine guns), you also don a set of armor, essentially turning you into a “juggernaut” by vastly increasing your survivability but also decreasing your movement speed. This dynamic ends up being somewhat similar to the special troops and heroes from Battlefront, except now you can replenish both health and ammo. This idea fit well in Battlefront, but it has no place in a WWI setting, tending to feel strangely out of place and annoyingly overpowered.
Melee combat, which has featured prominently in the marketing of this game, needs some tweaking. The execution animations, which are triggered when you successfully melee from behind an opponent, are still gruesome and appropriately varied for each weapon used. However, frontal melee was clunky and frantic, and inexplicably long-ranged at times. Bayonet charges and their accompanying blood curdling scream are immensely satisfying when they connect, but are too frequently interrupted by small obstacles.
Vehicles have long been a source of great fun and great contention within Battlefield games; balancing them properly is tough. Anti-vehicle weaponry is now more scarce. The only rocket launcher available requires you to be prone to fire. Anti-tank grenades can’t be thrown very far, and dynamite requires great personal risk. Taking down a tank isn’t easy, but they are cumbersome and in need of a bigger crew than before to really excel. Although different, the balance here still feels remarkably good.
The destruction in Battlefield 1 is right where it should be and noticeably better than its predecessor. It seems to have been scaled up from Battlefield 4, resembling more closely that of DICE’s Bad Company 2. When asked about this, Ortman told me, “It’s not just about these giant set-pieces, we tried to make the destruction a bit more intuitive.” And he’s right, it is more intuitive. In addition, the reactive physics from explosions on buildings, soldiers, and vehicles has been improved. Grenades and artillery are particularly satisfying.
At the LA event I attended for Battlefield 1, I overheard many other journalists saying they hadn’t had this much fun since Bad Company 2, me included. The classic modes, which have made Battlefield what it is, feel right at home in WWI, bringing both familiarity and consistency. Operations and War Pigeons are excellent additions to the formula, offering a refreshing new challenge with a historic twist. Matches feel like a multi-layered, orchestrated maelstrom of death and destruction. All in all, it’s a multiplayer masterpiece.