Well, didn’t see this coming.
Not literally, of course. Anyone with a tangential following of the AAA game market saw and heard Battlefield 1 coming from months away, with its bombastic announcement trailer set to a techno-remix of The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army.” While the franchise’s decision to pivot away from the current to future looking design of most first-person shooters in favor of WWI was an encouraging one, further promotional material (up to and even after the game’s release) seemed to point to more business as usual, just set in a historical period. Thankfully, Battlefield 1 is not more of the same, and the genre is better for it.
Firing up Battlefield 1 for the first time is developer DICE’s first opportunity to set the tone for the game instead of the marketing, and the moment is not wasted. After a primer on the War To End All Wars, players are dropped into a hellish war zone, with the only detail provided being “You are not expected to survive.” This is not a warning or a joke, but a promise. Strangely enough, this ends up being Battlefield 1’s greatest strength. Most war games, historical or not, choose to create characters that defy logic with their ability to cut through swaths of grunts while sustaining no major injuries or consequences. Battlefield 1 chooses a different path and allows the highly complicated and violent history of the era to create an environment that simply cannot be conquered—we simply fill the roles of the cogs in the wheels of history. While it may sound counterproductive, the fact that players will not have as large of an impact as they might in stories of other games lends Battlefield 1 a gravitas not seen in this genre since the first couple of Call of Duty titles.
This works, for the most part, due to the choice of such a lesser-discussed, yet highly-impacting period of world history as its setting. Face it, you probably didn’t learn nearly as much about World War I as you did World War II in school, but the world structure we know here in the Western world is pretty much established out of the ruins of this war. World War I changed the way war was fought forever, not to mention the way the world views war as well. With that impact already in mind, Battlefield 1 makes the focus on the intimate stories of the soldiers deep in the muck. Playing the campaign is the best way to pick up on this mentality. I wrote in depth here previously on what I believe to be the best part of the campaign, but that is only one portion of the picture. Battlefield 1’s campaign is divided into “War Stories,” individual story segments set at different times in entirely different combat zones with entirely different characters. These aren’t stories of the greatest battles of the war (in fact, more than half involve battles ending in stalemate or losses) but stories that might have been told by survivors of the conflict. Each are set up this way, too, with narrations from the characters interlacing the gameplay and cinematics.
While each War Story is fundamentally different, from a structural standpoint each tend to follow a similar path: we are introduced to the player character and scenario, usually along with a few NPCs we’ll be experiencing combat with. We’ll then get put into a combat situation that transitions to some sort of vehicle section, followed by some time behind enemy lines requiring strategy and stealth, and a big finale section that’s meant to put what you’ve gotten used to in other sections to the test. That all probably sounds really formulaic, but it manages to pull off the trick due to the aforementioned narrow focus. What matters more than the big picture is the story in the moment. Because these are the lesser known stories, we cannot know exactly how things will turn out. Will the stranded tank unit manage to keep it together to rejoin its unit? Only one way to find out. Can a ragtag resistance group fight off the technological marvels of the Ottoman Empire? Not trying simply isn’t an option. A strong sense of investment is formed in each story that drives the need to see things through. Sections involving actions behind enemy lines are particularly tense, as they go against the FPS tradition of stringing together “big damn hero” moments containing larger-than-life actions. Instead, a stealthy and calculated approach is far more successful and recommended. With AI capable of actually investigating the things you do near them, these moments add appropriate tension without hitting Assassin’s Creed levels of ridiculous. Those work so well, in fact, that when a couple of the War Stories do include a “big damn hero” moment, it almost blows the effect of the whole piece.
There are a few missteps: particularly one of the stories, about a survivor’s search for his brother in a war zone that is far too short and ends up somehow trying to question if God decides who lives and who dies, as if we spent a whole lot more time in the story than we did. Other issues come in the written epilogues at the end of each section. These are usually used to handle the more uncomfortable parts of the war, which often end up undercutting the story we just played witness to. Notably, a story involving T.E. Lawrence spends the entire section setting him up as a charismatic leader, only to point out that the British reneged on Arab independence following the war and calls Lawrence a “controversial” figure.
In spite of these, the campaign ticks all the boxes: diverse weapons, unique characters, clever use of vehicles and strong gameplay implementation. Quite frankly, the campaign has no business being as good as it is. It easily could have gotten away with being a multiplayer tutorial, but chose instead to try to lend gravitas to the era it was depicting.
Even more interesting, the multiplayer decides to implement this same idea where it can. DICE’s iconic open battlegrounds make their triumphant return and DICE decides also to borrow from its Star Wars Battlefront to create Operations, a new mode allowing players to reenact actual historical battles. Operations is the backbone of the new multiplayer, including both 40- and 64-player matches across rolling landscapes of villages, towns, bases and more. One army mounts a defense against the invading force, trying to defend from section to section of truly full-scale combat zones. Cleverly, each section is divided up so that players only need to focus on one at a time, keeping the scale under control. This push-pull is still daunting, with matches taking around an hour or so a piece. Operations also opens with dialogue from soldiers meant to set things up in similar fashion to the campaign, but the very nature of online multiplayer simply does not allow for the same effect to be had. Yet, some effort is better than none.
If hours-long war reenactments are not for you, don’t worry, more standard multiplayer modes return, along with a revival of server browsing, allowing players to specifically set standards to find and create the games they want to play. It is across the multiplayer that one can find appreciation for the other large success of Battlefield 1: everything feels good. The older weaponry evokes a sense of care required to properly handle. Running and gunning simply will not work in this game, even frontline classes will need to take care; getting caught in a bad spot is far more common in this type of war. Weapon tasks such as reloading and scoping are not immediate as well. Yet, all of these actions feel satisfying, even if the pace isn’t as fast. When reloading any weapon, the clicks feel correct, along with the motions. It seems to take the correct amount of time you would expect from this era of weaponry, even when playing on a console at 30 frames per second.
Standard issues that come up during multiplayer games still exist here, such as the reality that jumping into the multiplayer at this point will create a significant curve between a new player and established ones. The aforementioned mentality that death is expected helps to mitigate a lot of that terrible feeling, along with medic classes capable of reviving players in the interim between death and respawn giving a second chance. Other problems aren’t so lucky to have detraction. Multiplayer matches can give way into some pretty chaotic situations that are pretty fun in the moment, but counteract from the seriousness generated by the campaign. For example, one match saw me hop in a land tank and simple demolish every building between me and the capture point. I then sat directly on top of the point until it was captured, rinse and repeat. Not a chance that’s a real war strategy.
Another notable issue in multiplayer is Battlepacks. Battlepacks are blind packs that are earned following matches. They have made appearances in other Battlefield titles, though they work differently here. In Battlefield 1, Battlepacks grant skins, experience boosts and pieces to unlock one of two special melee weapons. These do not drop to every player but seem to be randomly distributed, as I couldn’t identify the trigger for earning them. In fact, after several hours of play I have yet to receive a single one. Battlepacks can also be purchased using one of two methods of in-game currency called Scrap, but Scrap must be obtained by scraping weapon skins. If this sounds like a cycle, that’s because it is. You can’t get started with Battlepacks unless you get a drop. However, that’s why I feel like it’s worth bringing up. Battlefield 1 has a shop section within the main menu that seems primed to offer Battlepacks for real-world cash, possibly set to be turned on after most early sales hype has died down. At the time of this review, that is not the case, but I won’t be shocked if I’m right on that. As for the other currency, Warbonds, these are just earned through leveling up in multiplayer and are used to buy weapons and gadgets. There doesn’t seem to be a path to purchase weapons with cash as it stands.
Other issues are present outside of direct gameplay. Battlefield 1’s menus are a complete mess; it looks like the interface for the main menu was ripped from the Xbox 360’s dashboard design. The main portion of the screen is covered in tiles and each section of the menu has to be tabbed to using a button. The menu does not launch on anything playable, instead the menu tries to be helpful and show videos that can be watched to improve multiplayer performance or give news. This isn’t a bad thing, but having to tab multiple times to play the game at all while the menu scrolls slowly is no way to efficiently navigate. The occasional glitch occurs as well, and sometimes player characters fall through maps or get stuck on rocks. While crouching, I’ve been pushed by an invisible force into the heat of combat. My personal favorite occurred in the campaign, as I managed to push my horse near a rock formation, only to have it climb an invisible wall and get stuck hovering about two feet off the ground.
The game also is severely lacking in certain forces that were incredibly influential in WWI, particularly the French. EA has already gone ahead and confirmed that the French will be made available as paid DLC in the future, because of course it is. Once again, the presence of a store driving the point home only serves to make me distrusting of what may happen with the remaining content going forward. I should stress that this review and score only applies to the game made available right now, and do not recommend purchasing the existing Season Pass.
Even if not perfect, Battlefield 1 is just astounding in what it gets right. Going above and beyond to distinguish itself as a unique experience in the war game and FPS genres pays off in a truly enjoyable game. Despite what the advertising would have you believe, this is not your normal video game shooter, and I highly recommend it. I hope this starts a trend in the FPS genre to set games apart from each other instead of chasing the hot trend.
Format: PC, PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One
Released: Oct. 21, 2016