Having laid down the gauntlet with The Great Trailer War of 2016™, the pressure has been on DICE to deliver with Battlefield 1. Infinity Ward was continuing with the natural evolution of Call of Duty’s newfound sci-fi stylings and pushing into space, while DICE did the polar opposite and set the gaming world on fire with a return to Battlefield’s historical roots. The hype for Battlefield 1 was very, very real. Now I’ve got Battlefield 1 in my hands though, it’s simultaneously the best Battlefield yet and the worst at being an actual Battlefield game.
So I’ve had my ups and downs with the Battlefield series over the years. I adored Battlefield 1942 and BF: Vietnam. I was happy spending hours just piloting choppers as Fortunate Son blared out. I then enjoyed Battlefield 2 but felt my interest waning slightly. The less said about the immensely over-rated Bad Companies the better. Then came the modern warfare twins - BF3 and BF4. Very similar to one another and good games in their own right, but just ever-so-slightly lacking that Battlefield sparkle.
Which brings me to Battlefield 1. I couldn’t have been more excited during the reveal. Here was the Battlefield series returning to historic theatres of war. There would be no heat seeking missiles, umpteen assault rifles and death from a thousand metres by sniper rifle. Instead it would be trench warfare. Mustard gas. Experimental weaponry.
It’s odd because it was only about a decade ago that everyone was sick to death of World War 2 shooters. Medal of Honor, Call of Duty, and Battlefield had found successful formulas and were ramming it down our throats at any opportunity. Then Modern Warfare happened, and all of sudden we couldn’t move for gritty tales of spec ops teams and doomsday scenarios. Ever since then I’ve been pining for a return to historical theatres of war, and it seems everyone else was too.
World War One and World War 2 both still stand as the most rich for storytelling, yet the former has been sorely underused. It’s not difficult to see why. It was a terrible, brutal war. More so than just about any war in history. Never have so many died in fighting for so little. As people we also inherently love a good versus evil tale, and The Great War was none of this. It was just pointless death after pointless death. It’s miles of trenches and months of deadlock don’t translate well into the world of online gaming. But it did have huge ramifications for the next century of warfare.
That’s probably why one of the big selling points for Battlefield 1 has been its campaign, an aspect rarely talked about in other Battlefield titles. Told through a series of vignettes, each is a little mini-story focusing on the human aspect of World War One. Where Battlefield 1 differs most from the usual shooter campaign is that, for the most part, you aren’t a one man army. You’re part of a ragged team trying to survive against immense odds. Creaking from battle to battle without an end in sight. One has the player becoming an ace pilot, or riding through the desert alongside Lawrence of Arabia. Another a member of a dysfunctional tank crew. They focus on different characters and war fronts from 1914-1918, each stretching from two to five missions. They’re surprisingly varied and usually well written, each a bite-sized slice of history.
They’re certainly better missions than the Battlefield series has ever done before. That’s damning with the faintest of praise though, and a bit like saying Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith is a better movie than The Phantom Menace. Battlefield campaigns have always been, for want of a better word, trash. It’s always been a mystery to me why they even bothered to include them other than to add a bullet point to the back of the box. Battlefield 2 never suffered for its absence. Battlefield 1’s campaign however is the first in the series that has ever justified its existence. It’s certainly not worth paying $60 for on its own, but it’s a neat, well thought out accompaniment. Here DICE has presented some harrowing, often downbeat tales which run counterpoint to the bravado and hoo-rah attitude of the CODs of this world. It’s almost comical that this can sit on the same disc as the pigeon-capturing and horse-flying zaniness of the multiplayer.
The real meat of Battlefield 1 lies in that multiplayer however. The good news is Battlefield 1 looks and plays unbelievably. War has never been depicted to such an insane degree of detail before. While some of the smaller modes boil down to just running and gunning through French chateaus a la the original Call of Duty, the larger Conquest and Operations game types can be absolutely astounding to see unfold. The latter in particular, a new mode, is spectacular. The 64-player matches are a combination of Conquest and Rush, rolling across multiple maps as defenders try to hold off the ever more powerful attacking forces. The moment where you rush onwards to a new set of capture points really is a sight to behold. 32 bloodthirsty warriors screaming and tearing down a hillside at a waiting bank of MG nests and trenches. How it all runs so well and yet looks so beautiful and chaotic is an absolute mystery to me.
The ever reliable Conquest remains much the same. It’s beginning to lose its lustre somewhat but it’s still a fantastically enjoyable and varied mode. Sometimes the flag capture merry-go-round can get a bit tiresome, but if you join a decent, well organised team then you can actually focus on keeping what you hold rather than endlessly circling a map.
A quick shout out to the new War Pigeons mode as well. Despite the daft name it’s actually pretty decent. A fusion of King of the Hill and 1 Flag CTF, players have to race towards a pigeon on the map which is constantly moving. Once there they can grab it and then write a note for it to deliver. Once the note is written it must then be carried by the pigeon to a destination in order to score a point. It seems daft and frankly it is, but it's a lot frantic fun as the pigeon is tossed from team to team while a building crumbles all around it.
Map design is by and large fantastic. There isn’t a dud to be seen, and even the tighter urban environments manage to avoid becoming an overly chaotic mess like Operation Metro thanks to a great deal of destroyable architecture and plenty of tight, winding paths to sneak around on. Unfortunately water-based maps have had to take a real backseat here with only a sprinkling of opportunities to use a boat, but everything else is just about covered.
Beta map Sinai Desert is actually one of the weakest of the bunch, although even it has some strong design work in places. The bottom capture point is much maligned but it can swing the tide of battles and provide a spot to flank any one of three other points. I’d say there’s enough maps in here to justify the price of entry but be warned it’s only going to be a few months until the premium map packs begin to drop and the player base starts to fragment.
On the subject of the online, let’s talk about the unavoidable cloud hanging over DICE. It can be easy to forget thanks to the huge degree of success it’s achieved since, but Battlefield 4 launched with a great number of problems that certainly caused some bad blood between DICE and its fans. Fortunately, I can tell you that Battlefield 1 never falls into the traps its predecessor did. It runs fantastically. The netcode is functional. And the campaign doesn’t suck. Win.
Not all is perfect in the land of Battlefield, however. A number of the tweaked systems don’t suit a game of this nature. Battlefield 1 borrows as much from Star Wars Battlefront as it does Battlefield 4. The majority of the vehicles are only accessible from spawn points at the main base. A vehicle driver is given his own unique kit and weapons. The aim from DICE here was clearly to have tank drivers spawn as tank drivers and stick to playing tank drivers, rather than just abandon their metal steed at will. But what I always loved about the series was its dynamicity. Hopping from vehicle to vehicle to suit your needs; capturing a flag deep in enemy territory before hopping into a plane and flying to the other end of the map. Here you’re kind of lumped as a vehicle driver OR a foot soldier. It makes the vehicles hugely uninviting, and in truth it means Battlefield 1 feels more like a 64-player Call of Duty than how BF1942 or Battlefield 2 made me feel.
I think the main problem behind this stems from is the lack of bases. It was a thrill to parachute in behind enemy lines and mine up their runway, cackling as an unwary pilot blew himself to smithereens. Heck, I always immensely enjoyed the thrill of just taking off in plane. Battlefield 2’s aircraft carriers were always incredible for this. Now pilots just spawn in the sky, Battlefront-style. You barely ever stumble across a spare vehicle at capture points either. They’re more of a footnote than the meat of the game. More in line with the real war perhaps, but Battlefield 1 evidently isn’t a game all that concerned with historical authenticity.
Battlefield 1’s borrowing from Star Wars Battlefront doesn’t end there either. There are also uber powerful class upgrades which can be picked up, providing lucky players with flamethrowers or an absolutely lethal machine gun. They’re BF1’s version of Heroes and I’m not entirely sure they’re a good fit. They throw too much chance into the equation and come off as a desperate attempt to make all players feel empowered every so often, regardless of skill level. It feels like giving every Olympic athlete a gold medal and a pat on the back just for turning up.
It’s all meant that what we’ve ended up with here is a game which has lost a little of the Battlefield DNA. Battlefield 1 is a fantastic experience for those who outright prefer being a foot soldier but it’s definitely made the whole game a little more rote and predictable.
Despite these flaws, DICE has done an immense job in fine tuning and polishing the Battlefield 1 formula, and it’s sure to have a huge hit on its hands. It’s easy to see the appeal and it’s definitely going to hook in millions of new fans after a shooter fix, but I have a feeling it’s going to prove a divisive game for long-time Battlefield fans.
Battlefield 1 is a fantastic game, but not necessarily a fantastic Battlefield game. The boots on the ground multiplayer is second to none, but the vehicular action which was always the focus of Battlefield has moved to the wayside, replaced by run and gun action and a surplus of snipers picking people off. That said, like Star Wars Battlefront it’s an absolute feast for the eyes, and half the fun is the visual spectacle of seeing just what insanity can unfold when 64 players are given hundreds of ludicrously dangerous toys to play with. Backed up by the most solid campaign in Battlefield history, Battlefield 1 gets a wavering thumbs up from me.