Fucked. That’s pretty much the only way you can describe World War I. It was, by all counts, a seemingly endless nightmare. Technology had progressed to where we could, in the roughest sense, accomplish many former flights of fancy and what-if scenarios. It hadn’t, however, gotten so far that we could do it safely or, really, ethically.
That’s the magic of Battlefield 1. Put aside the fact that its handling is exceptional or that it manages to inject so many quality-of-life improvements into its online experience. It manages the simple act of capturing the precise chaos of one of the deadliest, largest, and most deeply impacting wars in the history of the world, and it does so with far more regard and care than you’d expect. (It also looks good while doing it.)
In that sense, it is the exact thing the series needed. For so long, it had been embroiled in a Medal of Honor-type battle with Call of Duty, trying to outdo the shooter king with more spectacle and bombast than itself or its rival had ever done. And it was losing simply by not being called Call of Duty, even though it was, in many ways, superior to the FPS juggernaut, especially in the undeservedly overlooked Bad Company branch of games.
Now, it seems, the franchise has finally realized what it has been doing well at and made a game to capitalize on those factors rather than ones determined by a totally separate string of games. It takes its traditionally large and open worlds and infuses them with stories and characters that take advantage of them as well as design that fully informs the milieu—both socially and mechanically—of the day. And it does it all with a trademark willingness to spice things up and try some variety.
It does so in the single-player through multiple viewpoints on the battlefield. Its introductory mission is so perfectly adept at both teaching you the basics of the game (as if anyone doesn’t know how to look down iron sights and pull a trigger) and setting the tone. It tells you upfront: you are not expected to survive. And then you barrel through several named fellows with distinctly unique experiences in the shit, culminating in a genuinely impactful moment that, unfortunately, doesn’t really get touched on again.
And then you are thrown into the real meat of the campaign, which is actually comprised of several character vignettes. Each one takes place in a different location and, for the most part, works on a new gameplay premise. One of them will place you in a tank in the 1918 Battle of Cambrai. Another will have you as a roguish American pilot pretty much America-ing his way through London. You’ll even get to see what that prototypical technology was like firsthand with a heavily armored Italian gunner.
Whether it’s because this is all so brazenly new to us after decades of World War II and then modern-to-future warfare, the authenticity of it all feels impeccable. As absurd as it is to hear a pleasantly disaffected British woman to tell you your team is losing Apple (there was an entirely different phonetic alphabet back then), the means and ways in which you engage with your given side of the war and your flagrant opponent is stupendous. Each story is set up with deftness and efficiency, making sure they hit the right payoffs as needed.
Not all the missions contained within are equal, though, as some are far better than others. Certainly the stories will appeal differently to different folks, but the gameplay almost objectively vacillates between exciting and engaging to dull and frustrating. Some of the aforementioned pilot missions are straight-up stealth missions (mostly new for the franchise), but about half are riveting while the other half are just bland.
The same goes for the armored Italian fellow, going between visceral and bloody action and glacial plodding across a European countryside. And let’s not even talk about the god damn train with Lawrence of Arabia. That one is pretty much a grand aggregation of all the worst decisions you can make for a video game segment that involves horses, trains, and turrets. It is a categorical travesty.
No matter what country or what character you’re inhabiting, the game manages to keep a consistent finger on the pulse of the war. At times, it’s impossible to see what the fuck is happening, but in a strangely good way. It’s a precisely orchestrated deprivation of orientation, forcing you to accept the explosively uncontrollable circumstances of the war. You’ll end up in a tightly enclosed abby after trucking across a wide open field of rolling hills and all you can see is dust, smoke, and flashes of gunfire and all you know is you have to get in there to secure the checkpoint.
It’s a quality that almost impossible to put into words. How do you even put into specific words a purposefully amorphous idea? But it certainly gets your blood pumping. As someone sounds the charge and your only solace is knowing that you are going in alongside your brethren is one of the most pulse-pounding things I’ve experience in a video game. No one knows what the fuck they’re doing, but you know you can’t stop moving, and that’s frightening yet comforting is so many weird, indescribable ways.
The Frostbite 3 engine can probably raise its hand to a few of these things, though. It, as much as it was with Star Wars Battlefront, is an absolute stunner. The clouds of debris, the lingering fires, and the rumbles of an impending blight. They’re all rendered with overwhelming fidelity. It makes moments of limitation like wearing a gas mask with a reduced visibility as a green haze surrounds you feel more impactful and truly anxiety-inducing.
It also helps that all that trademark destruction of the series is here in its most potent form yet. Whole buildings dropped on top of me as bombers rained death from above. You’ll burst through homes and houses in your tank, putting sensations of badassery right next to solemn realizations. The destructibility is as much a gameplay tool as it is a narrative technique. Taking cover behind crumbling tombstones in a village graveyard is oddly affecting in this game, especially as you reciprocate by tearing more down with your own hail of bullets.
It’s to the point where you stop every once in a while and look around and realize Tolkien probably had a real good point modeling Mordor after some parts of World War I. The game never outright talks about this—how war, in its endeavour to preserve a culture, also costs one in return—but it doesn’t ever really seem to feel a need for it. That’s not the point of the game, but the perhaps incidental respect it has for that is there, at least.
As for the multiplayer, you pretty much know what to expect by and large, but there are some noteworthy parts. Marketing was right, for example, to brag about the crashing zeppelins because those are quite the spectacle. And the inclusion of the Star Wars Battlefront-style super soldier pickups are a nice integration of single-player hero mentality into a multiplayer setting. Oh, and I can’t remember if this was in past games, but the tracker of nearby medics when you go down is a damn revelation.
Then there are the discrete modes. You know Conquest (capture the control points) and its minified counterpart Domination. War Pigeons is an odd but interesting one that feels like capture the flag, but it’s based around holding a pigeon while walking slow or stopping altogether to write a note. And then you have to get to the release point and then safeguard your pigeon as it flies away. It’s ridiculous (there’s just the one pigeon; it’s not like you can tell it which side it’s flying for) and actually quite fun.
And as much as Conquest and Domination are just size variants of one another, the same goes for Rush and Operations. Attackers try to take over control points as they move across a map in multiple stages. But Operations is truly where it’s at. It does away with the timer (relying solely on a ticket count for the attackers), amping up the number of players (giving a reason for the traditionally overpowered snipers to take hold), and introducing the idea of attacker retribution.
Let’s say the defenders manage to gobble up all the tickets from the attackers in a particular wave. Good for them. But the attackers actually get a set number of chances to go again but with a special weapon up their sleeve. In some cases it’s a zeppelin and in others it’s a battleship, but it’s devastating either way. It reminds me of the best parts of the Star Wars Battlefront Hoth battle, particularly from its beta when it was appropriately unbalanced.
There’s a lot of good to say about Battlefield 1, and I’d like to think I covered most of it. It looks fantastic while managing to treat a very touchy war with an unexpected but exceedingly welcome amount of gravity. And all of the lessons the series and studio has learned from their many combined years of experience in making shooters and games in general have bubbled up here. It’s exceptional in so many ways. This is one that will definitely end up on a lot of Game of the Year lists.
+ Frostbite 3 engine is doing god’s work
+ Shooting and moving and flying (and dying) all feel terrific
+ Each campaign story is, on average, complex and satisfying
+ Gameplay variety is there throughout the campaign and the multiplayer
– That damn train mission
Final Score: 9 out of 10
Game Review: Battlefield 1
Release: October 21, 2016
Genre: First-person shooter
Developer: EA DICE
Available Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC
Players: Single-player, multiplayer online