World War I was a long, slow and bloody affair. Best known for the horrific monotony of trench warfare and the Lost Generation it birthed, it doesn’t sit easy with what we expect from a first-person shooter. It’s hard to really enjoy that headshot when you’re surrounded by mutilated bodies writhing around in a muddy abyss, you know?
So Battlefield 1 does its utmost to sidestep these issues without trivialising them. It’s a game that relies on developer EA DICE having its historical cake and eating it too, and that’s a compelling paradox to spend time with. Even if it doesn’t always make for the most nuanced proposition.
This is especially true with Battlefield 1’s multiplayer combat, which recreates an apocalyptic sense of scale while deadening the emotional impact of such a colossal loss of life. Because, hey, you’ve only got 10 seconds left to respawn in and Objective D isn’t going to capture itself. To find out how that stark contrast plays out in person, we got hands-on with the game’s Conquest and Operations modes in advance of its launch this coming week.
PREPARING FOR BATTLE
More than anything, Conquest is what separates Battlefield from its not-so-distant cousin: Call of Duty. Given that franchise’s decision to go embrace the Space Age in Infinite Warfare this year, the contrast between the two titles couldn’t be starker. With our feet firmly planted on Terra Firma, we duked it out as part of a 64-player face-off across three maps: the bombed out city of Amiens, the mountainous expanse of Monte Grappa and Argon Forrest’s dense maze of bunkers and shrubbery.
Regardless of setting, you modus operandi is the same: use team tactics to take and control five capture points on the map. Everything about the way DICE presents the pre-match is pure Battlefield, but smarter and shinier. The map immediately looks huge, but it's way more detailed and animated than it's ever been before. From here you select where you want to spawn on the map (you'll be limited to your squad mates, captured points or certain vehicles) and which loadout you want to take.
Even more so than before, the latter choice rests on how you want to play the game. Do you want to be a tank-busting badass? That's the Assault class. A machine gun-wielding tank mechanic? That's support. Or you can be a healer or long-range damage-dealer by selecting the Medic or Sniper class respectively.
As well as dictating which gadgets/abilities you have, your class also dictates which weapons you have access to. During my hands-on so far, I’ve mostly played as an Assault class. Mainly because of my innate desire to be cannon fodder for someone else’s artillery gun, and the fact that I can’t handle a rifle to save my life. A shortcoming that’s punished hard in Battlefield 1.
As soon as you’re dropped into the action, one thing becomes immediately clear: this game is jaw-dropping to behold. Darting through the derelict houses of Amiens, you’ll see just how much effort has been exacted on the map’s scenery in order to tell the story of a place uprooted by WWI. From staring out of a bedroom whose front wall has been reduced to rubble to sheltering from tank fire behind a local monument, it’s in these moments when Battlefield 1’s immense thirst for violence has emotional weight.
Those times when you’ve been stabbed in the chest by a bayonet for the third time running? Much less so.
Life in Battlefield 1’s multiplayer can be short and futile, and you quickly become immune to both these traits. Of the maps we’ve played so far, all of them have offered up awe-inspiring scale in spades. Planes do strafing runs over the scenery overhead, tanks and armoured cars barel over hills while you scramble to get out of their way and squads of soldiers sprint from building to building with bullets and shells landing all around them.
WEAPONS OF PAST DESTRUCTION
If one sight in this game is going to have you reciting Hail Mary at a speed of knots, it’s that of a zeppelin towering over you. These huge, gas-filled monstrosities bristling with weapons are one of the three Behemoth-class vehicles in the game alongside battleships and armoured trains. Chances are, if you’ve noticed one of these looming above then it’s too late to escape the barrage of artillery fire that’s about to rain down in your direction.
When you do respawn you’ll notice the newfound destruction that now litters your surroundings, highlighting Battlefield's famed destruction engine is back again, and is far more impressive than before. Instead of feeling like a fixed, indestructible map with a few objects and buildings that can be damaged or destroyed, Battlefield 1's maps feel entirely destructible. Basically, if you think it should collapse, explode, shatter or fall down, it probably will. This destructibility isn't just for show, either - it can change tactics as you use new craters for cover or destroy walls to get better shots at your enemies.
Battlefield 1 is one of the most visceral shooters we’ve ever seen, and this explosive fervour is only enhanced by its weaponry. The guns in Battlefield 1 are a far cry from the ultra-modern firearms of the last few games in the series, and they feel pretty analogue and comparatively inaccurate as a result. Hold on to your machine gun’s trigger for too long and it’s crosshairs will trail upwards from the recoil. While ticks such as these can be irritating at first, they also makes combat more brutal and tangible, and they sound utterly superb. DICE has once again put a huge amount of effort into producing sound effects that are bombastic and realistic.
Hell on earth
As impressive as Battlefield 1’s multiplayer undoubtedly is, its WW1 setting can feel a bit like window dressing in Conquest mode. Sure, everything looks different, but the underlying mechanics haven’t changed all that much from Battlefield 4. They’ve just been fine-tuned. Thankfully, Operations mode does much to allay the sense of ‘been there, done that’.
A new creation for Battlefield 1 that sees you reenact several key battles from the conflict across a series of maps, it really helps with the idea that you’re fighting for something other than your kill ratio. The only mission we’ve played so far, Conquer Hell, sees you putting up a last ditch defence against a German advance but it was enough to convince us the concept has legs. There’s a frenetic ebb and flow to your fighting as the defeated of each round are bolstered with extra firepower, while the winners have to strike a balance between holding their position and retreating into greater cover.
If Battlefield 1 is trying to tell the story of WWI, then Operations mode is a surprisingly effective way of doing so. It’s the one that gave us properly sweaty palms as we tried to make use of every last bullet.
BATTLEFIELD 1: Initial VERDICT
While we haven’t had enough yet time to properly Battlefield 1’s multiplayer, what we’ve enjoyed so far has been exceptionally exciting and immersive. There are things that could go wrong, of course (those servers had better be working at launch), but I find it hard to see this as being anything other than a monstrously successful game. Especially if it continues to mine its WWI setting with such dexterity.
Battlefield 1 looks incredible and it appears to be deeper and bigger than any of the previous games in the hugely popular series. Now how does that single-player Campaign hold up?