When EA and DICE revealed that their next entry in the Battlefield franchise would be set during World War I, I had mixed feelings. As a lover of history, the time period was instantly acceptable to me. WWI is a largely unexplored in the video game space, and I think most of that is due to the prevalence of World War II content being more of an inspiration thanks to the multitude of movies and television shows that portrayed it.
I think its accurate to say that WWII is a “popular war” when comparing it to other periods that lend themselves to a movie or video game, and it’s been some time since a non-modern take on warfare really hit mainstream in video games. I use the term “popular” with a lot of caution, mostly because wars should not be held up in a popularity contest, but in the framing of video game history it is easy to say that WWII was a staple for a long, long time before the current modern and futuristic settings supplanted it.
So for a variety of reasons I was pretty excited when I saw Battlefield 1’s first trailer. It is a huge period of history to explore for a narrative, and is filled with events that will no doubt provide great stories, technology, and environments to play in as a gamer.
And yet, another part of me was skeptical that WWI offered enough content diversity to match offerings of past Battlefield games. As far back as Battlefield 2, the series has provided a plethora of modern, near-future, and future tech to fill our load outs with hundreds of weapons, attachments, gadgets, and vehicles to keep the Battlefield formula’s biggest draw: the sandbox. I worried that the era of WWI didn’t provide enough “stuff” to keep the sandbox’s variety on par with the rest of the series. Players expect the unlock tree for battlefield games to be massive. Every game in the last decade has expanded on this very concept. This is a tricky proposition for both world wars, but the era of WWI would certainly present a greater challenge in this respect.
I’m pleased to report that, due mostly to DICE’s impressive historical research and dedication to the product, my concerns are unfounded. There is so much content in BF1 that players both old and new will love the tools at their disposal. But there’s so much more about it worth noting, that my initial worries seem silly now.
The game itself is beautiful. I’ve played it on both Xbox One and a (admittedly) mid-range PC, and the visuals were stunning. The Xbox version (and PlayStation cousin, I’ll assume) is gorgeous, and can easily be argued to be the best game showcasing current-gen console graphical capabilities. I’m sure there’s a lot of technical reasons for this, such as Direct-X 12 on Xbox, but keeping things simple here: Console players will love this.
The PC version running on a midrange rig is also nothing short of awe-inspiring, and I can only imagine what top-notch builds will do. DICE has once again showed that their Frostbite engine is capable of looking great alongside playing great. Sure, there are some bugs here and there (There’s still some hitbox issues I saw in MP, as well as some questionable movement through walls) but it is not a Bethesda release, so you won’t hear me advocating a “wait-and-see” approach in that regard. That said, you may want to hold off if you’re a multiplayer only customer, as it is probably going to be congested at launch.
As I said before, the amount of content in the stock-release is pretty great. There are a handful of games modes, ranging from staples “Conquest” and “Rust”, as well as death match modes, and a fun new story-ish mode called “Operations” that involves playing multiple matches in succession in order to conquer and control points on the world map. They all provide you with the ability to continue leveling up and earning war bonds (the in-game currency). Warbonds are part of the new upgrade system that ditches sequential upgrades and instead gives you the ability to buy upgrades so you can focus on what you want. There are still sets of requirements to certain unlocks, such as being a certain level for a specific class, but overall it seems like a good change that offers more flexibility.
Battlepacks are still a thing, but they are unlocked a little differently this time. Instead of receiving them after you level up, you have to earn them in matches by achieving certain objectives or high scores as an individual or squad. I’m guessing this is a move to inspire more players to play the game’s objectives and bolster overall teamwork, and I’m pretty optimistic that it will work in that regard, since they are now slightly more difficult to come by.
Battlepacks have also been repurposed to provide specialized weapon builds instead of unlocking random attachments for the library of weapons. In an interesting twist, you can “scrap” their rewards for cash and use what you receive to buy something else. It’s a fun tweak, but still raises some concerns when you remember they are also offered as an optional micro-transaction purchase. I fully expect some players to buy their way to certain weapons quicker than most players will by earning them in-game.
This is a trend in gaming I’ve never liked, but have come to accept. Some games found better ways to do this. Halo 5: Guardians has largely cosmetic micro transactions, and has funded their entire DLC strategy through them, allowing all players to receive the DLC for free. Battlefield, unfortunately, still has their $50 premium pass for all the DLC going forward. Much like Battlefield 4, (And Battlefield 3, and Hardline, And Battlefront!) users who don’t buy the DLC will be separated from those who do, making the game much more fragmented as time moves on. This also means that Battlepack purchases are purely there as a revenue stream. Disappointing, to say the least, but not unexpected. This is an issue that EA and DICE do not seem to find problematic.
The soldier-based gameplay is an absolute blast, and the maps are clearly geared toward that style of gameplay. There are lots of maps that feature underground passages, dense city streets and buildings, bunkers, trenches, and natural obstacles native to things like forests and deserts. Navigating them is fun and somewhat tense, as you never know what will pop up around a corner. Of course, there are a fair selection of maps of various sizes, with the larger ones having more spawn points and vehicles to cut down travel time.
Despite the history of the series, there are times where Battlefield 1 seems to de-emphasize vehicular combat. I partially think this is a natural response to the time period of the game. Instead of high-powered tanks, jets, and helicopters we have been using in past entries, we get slower moving planes, less capable tanks, and near useless jeeps and buggies.
(But the horses are awesome!)
While there are a reasonably large variety of vehicles available, I was clearly not able to accomplish as much in one of them as much as an infantry unit would, mostly because they have limited combat capability and are relatively easy to destroy. This is especially noticeable in airplanes, which move slow, have sluggish controls, use inaccurate weapons, and can be torn to shreds by the generous amount of fixed turrets placed around the maps. There’s also a big hole left behind by the lack of helicopters in this time period, which served as a worthy offensive weapon as well as transportation option in Battlefield 4. The vehicle gripes I have are by no means a detractor from the overall experience, though, but I felt it was important to mention. I was always drawn more toward vehicles in past games, but not this time. Not as much, anyway.
“Behemoths” are a fun vehicle-ish addition to the formula, however, and can turn the tide of a battle pretty quickly. The armored train that is available in some maps can be moved between capture points, making the control of territory easier for the team using it. Battleships can be used to bombard enemy checkpoints and strongholds on the map. Zeppelins are essentially flying gun platforms and can quickly grow the kill-count of whatever team has one. As of right now, only one behemoth can be on a map at a time. I’d love to see two zeppelins show up and duke it out over the map, and maybe even provide a Titan-esque game mode that was introduced in Battlefield 2142 way back in 2006. Zeppelins are by far the most enjoyable behemoth type in the game, and when they are destroyed they crash down on the map and showcase the best of the Frostbite engine’s destructive capabilities.
As for the single player, this may be the first storyline since Battlefield: Bad Company 2 that has truly had me hooked. The stories of Hardline and Battlefield 3/4 weren’t terrible, but didn’t really present likeable characters or situations worth caring about in the long run. They all seemed to overstay their welcome despite being short runs by most campaign standards.
Battlefield 1 does something new for the series: it created an anthology of stories, rather than one large one to focus on. Each story covers the war from completely unrelated perspectives, and presents each one in a short focused sequence. They do not connect to each other, except that they all take place during the same war. Each one is a few missions long, and focuses on a specific type of warfare or thematic element. One story is very tank-focused, while another highlights a more rebellious style of combat. There’s even an interesting take on a “behind enemy lines” sequence that presents a stealth-approach that seems like it was inspired by the stealth elements of Hardline. They all highlight the complex sandbox of the Battlefield franchise in a meaningful way, and actually provide somewhat of an introduction to the multiplayer offerings.
Each of these stories has very memorable moments and characters, and while they are not deeply explored as characters from other games may be, they do a great job of highlighting the human side of this war. From joy to sorrow, desperation, and fear, these characters are how the story of the war is really presented to the player, rather than just by raw visuals and plot points. You’ll end up seeing the war from multiple factions that fought, blurring the lines over who was “the good side” or “the bad side”.
Many times throughout the stories, the game continues to impress on the player that the war was, quite frankly, unimaginably brutal. The loss of life was unprecedented at the time, totaling in 17 million dead and 20 million wounded, including civilians. New elements of warfare were introduced, including chemical and gas attacks, aerial combat, tank combat, and many other new technologies that were designed solely to kill. As a result, this game is dark from the very start to the last moment of the campaign. The entire emphasis of seems to have been aimed at making this point abundantly clear. The very start of the game is quite frank about it (paraphrasing):
“More than 60 million soldiers fought in the war to end all wars. It ended nothing.”
Followed up shortly by:
“You are not expected to survive.”
Dark story-lines are not a new thing in gaming, but very rarely do I find myself genuinely upset by what is portrayed. It’s easy to say “It’s only a game” (or movie, or tv show) as an excuse for other stories, but when one learns (or is reminded) that this war actually happened and was considerably more devastating in reality, that excuse carries less weight. Honestly, I’m kind of perplexed that the industry’s past fixation on World War II never prompted that sort of response from me. I now wonder if the brutality of that war took a back-seat to gameplay at that time, or perhaps because the visuals were considerably less impressive than this one. Whatever the reason, this game unlike any other in recent memory actually had me frequently stopping to think about the actual war it was based on and come to terms with how bad it was. Games like this are by definition glorifying war, and Battlefield 1 is hardly avoiding this trend, but I also think Battlefield 1 does well not downplay the seriousness of it either. There are times where you really question why these people are fighting. It’s a question that should always be considered before violence is used to solve problems. It’s a lesson we would all be well to learn from.
I don’t want to end this on a dour note, so now I’ll discuss what may be the most impressive addition to the Battlefield franchise with the launch of this game: the game’s main menu.
You may have noticed in a Battlefield 4 update recently that the entire game’s UI was overhauled. This was a preparatory move by DICE in anticipation of Battlefield 1’s release, and there’s some huge technological aspects to their updates you may not be aware of. Once Battlefield 1 rolls out fully, it will use the same menu system BF4 was given, and the menu allows BF1, BF4, and BF Hardline(!) to essentially exist as one large game. You can easily bounce between them without having to boot down your current title and launch another. You can play MP matches between all three games seamlessly, and bring your squad with you as well (provided all party members own all three games, of course).
This somewhat mimics the functionality of the (still broken) Halo Master Chief Collection on Xbox One, allowing you to play all three current-gen titles in one standard experience. In a way, it sort of positions all three games as really large expansion packs, allowing you to experience them all in one place. It is still unclear how matchmaking will work (as it has not yet rolled out) but the way DICE has described it, it sounds like a great way to get your WWI fix and then still bounce back to the modern eras the other games offer.
In the gaming world, this is a new idea. Before, when a new game comes out, older titles tend to fade away due to player migration. Now, this is essentially gone. BF4, Hardline, and BF1 now exist in the same place, and can be enjoyed as long as possible. This is a technological accomplishment for the Battlefield team(s) that, so far, seems to be going on with little fanfare, and I hope that changes. I find it fascinating, and I’m looking forward to seeing how long they do this. Will Battlefield: Bad Company 3 (DICE, please do that next) use it? I sure hope so.
On its own, however, Battlefield 1 is one of the most fun games I’ve played in years, and I’m thrilled that DICE has put extra effort into historical accuracy. We don’t see this much attention to that side of things outside an Assassin’s Creed game, and while the game certainly skews toward the action-movie side of warfare, it’s still a lovingly crafted tribute to a terribly brutal war that seldom gets the attention it deserves. This game feels like a point of note in the history of the medium for a number of reasons. Gameplay, story, message… there’s a lot to like about this game.
Don’t miss this one.