I’m a pigeon. I’m a tank, I’m an Australian war hero, I’m a faux English aristocratic ace pilot. In Battlefield 1 I am all of these things. I am also a competitive squad-based multiplayer, but refreshingly for the Battlefield series, the single-player campaign is the highlight of the package. While the multiplayer is competent as ever, the campaign narrative is a sensitive and mature (words rarely used in relation to the triple-A first-person genre) reminder of the horrors of the First World War that places it at the centre of the Battlefield 1 package.
In a year marked by some surprisingly excellent first person shooter single-player campaigns, Battlefield 1manages to differentiate itself. In some ways, it is the opposite of the Doom reboot. Where Doom was fantastically loud, brash, and full of kinetic, over-the-top warfare, Battlefield 1 is slow, considered and thoroughly concerned about the context of its violence. It has perhaps, the most openly emotional campaign of any shooter ever.
The challenge for any potential World War One game has been to present a game that is compelling (trench warfare was horrific, but also generally torpid) yet still remains faithful to the setting. Battlefield 1 addresses these challenges by forgoing the Heroic Man with Gun story, and instead telling five anthology stories spread across many different theatres of war. While the muddy fields of France are there, you will also be flying in London, riding horseback in the middle east and scaling the side of a mountain in the Italian mountainside. As an Australian I was also pleased to see the Gallipoli campaign represented (and as a flag nut, extremely pleased to see the correct use of the red ensign!).
Each chapter focuses on one type of mechanic – flying, tank driving, sneaking in a way that feels natural to their setting. Hence they feel like mini-campaigns in their own right, telling complete novellas. Freed from one person’s story, the anthology approach allows a wide range of timbres, for success and failures, with some stories patriotically uplifting and some devastating. That said, in the campaign you still play on the side of the allies. I would have liked EA to push the boundaries of World War 1 storytelling even further by forcing us to consider the war from another perspective too.
Stealth mechanics from Battlefield Hardline have been integrated into Battlefield 1’s campaign and used to interesting effect. In some missions when you are alone and deep behind enemy lines, the option to use a more low-key approach feels much more natural and forces you to consider the environment and your potential path through it more carefully. In a certain way these scenes are set up in a very similar manner to enemy base camps in Far Cry 3 or 4. Get through the base quietly and you’ll encounter fewer enemies. Go all in and expect the cavalry to arrive. Still, unlike those games or Battlefield Hardline, there is no real benefit or disadvantage to taking the quiet way except for an internal sense of satisfaction. That satisfaction though, can be dampened by the fact that the AI is pretty poor. Enemies will stand out in the open and charge right up to you. That goes for your AI comrades as well, who are normally nothing but alternate bullet sponges.
Destructive environments make a welcome return, and with the liberal placement of powerful field guns throughout the single and multiplayer missions you can never hide somewhere for long once you’re spotted. Particularly in mission when you’re alone this makes things much more stressful, and you have to adjust your tactics accordingly.
The stories are heavy, and the triumphalism that permeates so many other games in the genre is almost totally absent here. There are moments where you might purportedly be victorious, but developers DICE have done a fantastic job of reminding you that even these victories were but part of a larger, disastrous waste of life. It’s bittersweet, and threads the needle carefully between the need for engaging gameplay and taking its subject matter seriously.
As much I have praised the single-player, multiplayer is still there and the majority of your time is likely to be in this mode. Some classes here have been switched around a fair bit, but the total end result provides relatively clear options still.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Battlefield 1’s multiplayer is a reskin of previous entries, but I don’t think the gameplay doesn’t truly either differentiate itself from other games in the series nor ground itself enough in the mechanics of fighting in a different time and place, over one hundred years ago. In a sense that’s inevitable. How you fight in multiplayer is fundamentally opposite to what warfare looked like, but it can be jarring nevertheless.
New game mode War Pigeons is a fun exception. It makes no real sense but teams need to firstly find a pigeon located somewhere on the map before holding it for a short time while you write a message and release the pigeon – where it can be shot down, restarting the entire process. As the first to three wins the tension in each match slowly ramps up, especially for the last one, much like a match point in tennis.
Building on the already excellent graphical underpinnings of Star Wars Battlefront, Battlefield 1 is amazingly presented. Yet the content matter that it deals with precludes the ability to talk about it using the usual terms of “gorgeous” or “beautiful.” There are certainly some set-pieces that are stunning though, and some meticulous details that are impressive to look at.
In game logistics Battlefield 1 has finally ditched its horrible browser-based launcher. The new launcher is now a native application that also manages Battlefield 4 and soon Battlefield Hardline. How the old system survived so long is testament to ineptitude, but I am glad the new application is finally available.
I experienced a small number of bugs during my time with the game, but nothing that broke the experience in the same way that too many games in the last couple of years have. With shooting fundamentals that are as stolid as ever, a compelling narrative, and expansive, deep multiplayer, Battlefield 1 is a triumph in pushing the boundaries of the first-person shooter forward. Even though it has gone back in time, this latest entry is a leap forward for the series, a refreshing change of pace, a pace that I hope can be kept up.
Released: October 2016
Platforms: PC (Windows 7 or higher), Xbox One, PlayStation 4
Genre: FPS, Action
Publisher: EA Games