When it comes to first-person shooters, Battlefield 1 posits that rarest of concepts: a fresh perspective. With the sights and sounds of World War I plastered firmly across its bonnet, Battlefield 1 champions the staple combination of precise mechanics and stellar visuals that has come to define this generation’s triple-A space. Make no mistake: Battlefield 1 is a modern, multiplayer-driven FPS. In spite of the WWI sheen, it won’t take long for most players to find themselves more than familiar with DICE’s 2016 offering. But that does not detract from the fact that this is an excellent example of the genre – and one of the best multiplayer shooters of the year.
Compared to the countless interactive re-imaginings of World War II, video game incarnations of WWI are few and far between. This is hardly surprising, given the fact that so much of WWI was defined by debilitating disease and stagnant trench warfare. Dynamic, challenging gameplay scenarios don’t easily lend themselves to the realities of the Great War.
DICE’s answer to this conundrum is a necessarily mixed one. The developer has taken an incredible number of liberties in resurrecting WWI as a modern, marketable FPS experience. As the title might suggest, this is a Battlefield game first, and a WWI game second.
No doubt, DICE’s vision of WWI is sculpted with remarkable care. Weapons, vehicles and all of the conflict’s various other tools of destruction look, feel and sound excellent. Environments make for beautiful, war-torn canvases. Italy’s countryside ripples with luscious detail. The sandy, desolate peaks of Arabia loom with a haunting kind of majesty. Even Europe’s open skies pulse with life when blackened by countless enemy aircraft. Battlefield 1 can offer quite the spectacle. To be expected, Battlefield 1’s nifty environmental destruction effects allows you to experience these arenas getting obliterated in real time. Witnessing this striking clash between beauty and destruction really helps sell the game’s WWI aesthetic.
Even the game’s cut scenes are of an unmistakably cinematic quality. It is no exaggeration to say that never before has WWI been imagined in such visceral, interactive detail. However, it was precisely when I began to interact with Battlefield 1 that this hard-won illusion started to flicker.
Battlefield 1’s single-player campaign is a collage of six short, standalone War Stories. Offering up the perspectives of multiple nationalities across multiple fronts, these vignettes are designed to offer players a handy window into the conflict’s huge, international scope.
Battlefield 1’s first War Story roars strong out the gate. Finding themselves thrown into the boots of multiple allies, players are asked to survive amongst a brutal, nameless war zone. This initial boon presents an explosive, yet grounded introduction to the exhilarating potential of an interactive WWI. In lieu of this short yet sweet approach, however, the remainder of Battlefield 1’s curt five-hour campaign fails to maintain this distinct sense of gravitas.
Battlefield 1 leaves us with five more War Stories which rapidly lose touch with this early precedent for tense, grounded war-play. Encompassing anywhere from thirty minutes to an hour and a half, these remaining WWI snapshots hinge themselves around individual character development. While this concept is fine in and of itself, but what I found for the most part is that these narrative journeys are rarely well executed. For the most part, you won’t have to search very far until you find some pretty glaring plot holes. And with each story being contained in such a short runtime, any character development that does take place almost never feels earned. Take the jaded, “lone wolf” war veteran who goes from hating his yappy new recruit to risking his life for him within the space of 20 minutes. Why does he do this? Your guess is as good as mine. Moments like this are meant to be touching, but they often felt a little too outlandish to swallow.
Gameplay in these War Stories presents an equally mixed bag. Oftentimes these short campaigns present a perfect excuse to test out Battlefield 1’s excellent shooting mechanics. Even the vehicles feel pretty easy to get a handle on. At times, the campaign even steps up to host some seriously cinematic moments. Realism aside, it’s hard not to enjoy taking down an entire blimp single-handedly.
Curiously, however, these War Stories also tend to rely heavily on some rather less enjoyable tasks. Of the five main War Stories, each manages to shoehorn in one (or several) awkward, half-baked stealth-sections. These slogs will most likely have you alternating between the phrases, “how did he see me?!” and “how didn’t he see me?” Moments like these never failed to rapidly rip me out of the experience.
If gameplay can feel uneven, Battlefield 1’s tone is suitably bipolar. The narrative is as quick to meditate upon the great tragedy that the conflict represents as it is to espouse these glossy, hyper-realised visions of destruction. Among these explosive, tonal oscillations, Battlefield 1’s wider narrative often feels lost. It seems as if DICE can never quite decide exactly what it wants its player to take away from these War Stories.
Turn to Battlefield 1’s multiplayer suites, and the news gets decidedly more positive. DICE has returned to deliver a slick multiplayer experience with all the epic grandeur it’s renowned for. Teeming with hundreds of WWI-inspired toys, there is a lot to get to grips with here. While most of it will certainly feel familiar to series veterans, there is enough variation here to make Battlefield 1 feel like a distinct new entry in the franchise. In fact, this is perhaps the biggest switch up fans have seen since the launch of Battlefield: Bad Company. Players will easily be able to carve out hours upon hours of enervating, all out warfare. Add to this an equally excellent soundtrack, and you’ll find that Battlefield 1’s multiplayer is never far from its next epic moment.
In terms of gameplay modes, there’s nothing particularly new here. You’ll capture command points in Domination and Conquest; storm enemy bases in Rush; count bodies in Team Deathmatch; fight scenario-based encounters in Operations; and play a glorified variation of Capture the Flag in the new(ish) War Pigeons. Without pushing the bar in any significant way, DICE have succeeded in compiling a handful of robust multiplayer modes.
All of this carnage is spread across eleven vast, excellent maps. Whether it’s the baron slopes of Sinai Desert, the steep cliffs of Empire’s Edge, or the nebulous bunkers of Monte Grappa, these dynamic maps breathe life to a whole host of tense skirmishes. Learning to work skilfully alongside your teammates across these awesome locales is much of the fun of Battlefield 1.
The multiplayer experience, however, does still leave a little to be desired. Battlefield 1’s squad spawn system has a pretty persistent habit of offering up some infuriatingly inconvenient spawns. And, if you want to talk about inconveniences, there is no way to alter character load-outs in-game, unless you’re bang in the middle of a match. Granted, this time there is a companion load-out app, but this more often feels like a slow, imperfect solution to relatively simple problem.
Saddled atop a novel facelift, Battlefield 1 offers a compelling take on the modern multiplayer FPS formula. Though its single-player offering may be a mediocre affair, Battlefield 1 strikes at exactly what series fans will be looking for: skilfully realised, epic, all-out-tactical-warfare. History buffs looking for a faithful recreation of The Great War may do best to look elsewhere, but those simply thirsting for their next epic multiplayer fix will be more than satisfied with what Battlefield 1 has to offer.
An excellent – although less-than-innovative – multiplayer affair.