To meaningfully address the horrors of World War 1 while simultaneously using the subject matter as the basis for living room entertainment is to tread a very fine line indeed. In the past, action-adventure games set in this period have historically tended to glorify events for the sake of their genre, thereby avoiding such tonal inconsistency altogether. Indeed, when it was first announced with a bombastic reveal trailer, it looked as though Battlefield 1 would also continue this trend of hollow dramatization. Instead, however, DICE has taken an impressively mature and respectful approach to the period and, in the process, has produced one of the best Battlefield games since Bad Company 2.
For the first time in the series, Battlefield 1’s campaign isn’t centered around a single story or protagonist. Instead, it is divided into five separate tales that take place across the global theatre of conflict during different stages of the war. It kicks off with a remarkably powerful prelude, which immediately makes it clear that DICE will not be holding back on depicting the tragedy and brutality of war. One particular mechanic employed during this sequence, which I won’t spoil here for the sake of impact, hauntingly reiterates the staggering rate and needlessness of death during the Great War. It will likely stay with you for long after you’ve put the controller down. Come the end of 2016, it may well stand out as one of the most memorable videogame openings of the year.
Following this brief overture, players are able to jump into any of the aforementioned vignettes in whatever chronology they please, as each narrative is isolated from one another entirely. They all differ remarkably in tone - one plays out like a pulpy Steven McQueen adventure, for example, whereas another takes inspiration from tank movies such as Fury. They also vary in regards to gameplay, and it is here where the episodes diverge in terms of quality. “Friends in High Places”, for instance, excels in entertainment value largely due to the fact that it involves air combat, which feels more responsive and satisfying than ever in Battlefield 1. “The Runner”, on the other hand, feels far too familiar as a ‘one man army’ adventure, which the FPS genre has been using as a narrative blueprint for decades. Sometimes the emphasis on sequential objectives, too, can make the experience feel instead like a glorified tutorial for what’s to come in the multiplayer. However, the episodic structure ensures that you’ll never be doing the same thing for too long.
The mini adventures tend to be over within 90 minutes, which doesn’t allow for much in the way of meaningful character development. That said, the cinematic quality of the frequently employed cut-scenes, anchored by impeccable voice-acting performances all round, make it easy to immerse yourself in the scenarios of the protagonists, even if none of them stand out as incredibly memorable characters. In addition, the Battlefield 1 score - a healthy mix of stirring anthems and sombre soundscapes - has never been better, and is finally able to once again incorporate the classic Battlefield theme in all its pure goodness; an endeavour the last three titles in the series somehow managed to botch.
If Battlefield 1’s campaign demonstrates the maturity of DICE as storytellers, the game’s multiplayer portion is a positive reflection of the studio’s ever-expanding ambition when it comes to scale and immersion. After the many troubles we encountered in the game’s beta testing last month, it is immensely pleasing to be able to report that Battlefield 1 boasts a satisfiable, if not perfect, deal of polish that has clearly been a priority for the studio here. I did notice a couple of technical hiccups in both the singleplayer and multiplayer components of the game on PS4, the worst of which was a visibly jarring screen-tearing issue when riding on horseback. Still, my extensive time spent with the experience has been mostly free of bugs. The online servers too, at least for those who own the early access edition of Battlefield 1, have held up fine, which bodes well for the netcode over the coming days and weeks.
Online gunplay retains the intuitive punchiness from the campaign, and the audio-visual fidelity is - as you might expect from a DICE game - sublime. Contrasted with the unengaging dogfights of Star Wars Battlefront, vehicular gameplay has a renewed sense of heft and weight to it as well, and the new ‘Behemoths’ represent game-changers in every sense of the word. These multi-manned war machines are often awarded to the losing team halfway through a match, essentially making them the Blue Shells of Battlefield in their ability to completely redress the momentum of the fight. The airship is as visually imposing as it is dangerous, but to take one down and see it collapse across an entire section of the map is indescribably exhilarating. Overall, the diversity of small but significant enhancements to Battlefield’s multiplayer gameplay makes the experience feel more intense and grounded than its predecessors, which synchronises perfectly with the WW1 setting.
All the usual Battlefield game types are here too, including the classic Conquest and Rush modes (which are still, in case you were wondering, as entertaining and addictive as ever), but the biggest changes arrive in the form of two new modes; Operations and War Pigeons. Operations allows for the same offense-defense dynamics of Rush, but raises the stakes by extending the fight across several maps within one game. These are intensive, lengthy battles that can last for over an hour at a time, which itself adds a new dimension of scale to the already engaging moment-to-moment gameplay. War Pigeons is a little less ambitious, as a capture the flag variant wherein two teams fight for control of the titular pigeon to earn points. It feels almost like a party game compared to the rest of Battlefield 1’s more operatic modes, but it at least offers another option for small-scale firefights to those who need a break from the all-out warfare.
There are two sore points to Battlefield 1’s online offerings, the first of which is the varying quality of maps; some of which are fantastic and others totally unappealing. Argonne Forest, for example, feels like an immediate winner and excels as a model example of beautifully realized aesthetics and smart level design. The same, too, can be said for the St. Quentin Scar and Amiens. The desert maps, however, are lacking both in terms of visual diversity and emergent gameplay. The sparsity and largely flat gradient of the landscapes gives an undeniable advantage to snipers, often leading to firefights that are no fun at all if you prefer more dynamic gunplay.
The second issue with Battlefield 1 concerns Battlepacks. Though this reward system has been simplified since Battlefield 4, and made less “free-to-play”-esque to some degree (there are now only three tiers of Battlepacks), it still means that progress for new customization options still depends somewhat on luck and chance rather than ability or effort, which inherently feels unfair as a reward system. For some, this may not be a problem, but it shouldn’t be discounted as negligible considering this is a $60 title.
All in all, Battlefield 1 is a game that benefits tremendously from the mountains of experience and acquired talent that DICE now possesses as one of the leaders in multiplayer gaming. With the surprisingly mature campaign, the studio has proven itself capable of sophisticated storytelling, and the multiplayer is as engaging as it’s ever been. In a market crammed with games focused on the future, it’s safe to say that a return to history was a seriously smart move for the franchise, and it’s paid off in dividends.