The First World War was a long, slow and bloody affair.
The horrific monotony of trench warfare and the Lost Generation it birthed doesn’t really 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?
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.
Across both its single-player campaign and the multiplayer gameplay we’ve dug into so far, Battlefield 1 delivers a bombastic take on the ‘Great War’ that mixes stomach churning savagery with spectacular set pieces - and a generous lashing of artistic license. But hey, if it’s accuracy you’re after, there are plenty of documentaries that’ll do the trick.
Are you not entertained?
Video games have done World War II to death, but it’s not hard to see why its predecessor has remained comparatively untouched.
Aside from the gruelling nature of the combat, this conflict doesn’t have the same indisputable ‘good versus evil’ narrative and ultimately served as a prelude to even more brutality. That’s some tough stuff for a game to get to grips with, let alone one that’s meant to be entertaining in the same way as a FIFA 17 or Forza Horizon 3.
Keeping that in all mind, Battlefield 1’s opening 20 minutes are the most affecting I’ve experienced all year in gaming. Having been concerned about how much brutality was going to be whitewashed out for the sake of keeping proceedings light and fun, my fears were instantaneously allayed.
As an introduction to the game’s War Stories, Storm of Steel is a total masterstroke. So much so that the five other hour-and-a-bit-long offerings that comprise its campaign mode never quite scale the same gut-wrenching heights. That said, they’re still worth buying Battlefield 1 for. Even if you couldn’t care less about its multiplayer.
War Stories: a campaign mode worth caring about
Ignoring id Software's sensational Doom, it’s been a torrid time for FPS campaign modes. They've often amounted to little more than a distraction from online play, with uniformly laid-out missions, meat-headded braggadocio and preposterous cinematics.
It's why Battlefield 1 deserves so much credit for not simply giving into temptation and creating an 8-hour Michael Bay movie.
Freed of the necessity to tie into an overblown narrative, each War Story takes place in a completely different country and centres on a specific mechanic. From the tank-based dramatics of Through Mud And Blood to the sniper-friendly Nothing Is Written (starring Laurence of Arabia?!?), they’re glorified tutorials for your multiplayer travails but so well-executed that you’d be forgiven for not noticing.
Friends In High Places, in particular, is a blast. Controlling a renegade pilot battling against both Fritz and his own conscience, it’s the most glamorous of all the War Stories but still retains a character arc worth investing in. If that’s the closest I get to crawling unarmed through a No Man’s Land-like hellscape, then it’ll suit me just fine.
More DLC, please
Combined, War Stories are a huge leap forward from Battlefield Hardline’s turgid campaign, but they’re not perfect.
Enemy AI, in particular, is all over the place. In supposed stealth missions, you can walk up right up to your chosen victim and offer them open heart surgery on the house. When spotted, though, these same foes have a psychic ability to devise your whereabouts. Aside from ramping up the game’s difficulty curve and breaking your immersion, these moments are just plain annoying.
Think lying prone behind a tree is gonna give you enough cover to restore your health? You’re in for a rude surprise, friend.
Still, I’d happily pay out for another War Story if one were to crop up in Battlefield 1’s upcoming DLC. Having been thrust onto the beaches of Gallipoli and soared above the skies of London, I’m not ready to call it quits with DICE’s dramatic vignettes.
Especially since they provide such a stark contrast with the game’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 and Objective D isn’t going to capture itself.
Multiplayer: big on destruction, less so on subtlety
Wondering if Dice has flunked the multiplayer? Don’t. Even though a lot of the subtlety that’s so carefully rendered in each campaign is unceremoniously dispatched as soon as you hit a loadout screen. Partly out of necessity and partly because a 64-player face-off is always going to dissolve into total and utter chaos.
Yep. More than anything, Conquest is still 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. Regardless of setting, your modus operandi is the same: use team tactics to take and control five capture points on the map.
Preparing for battle
Everything about the way DICE presents the pre-match is pure Battlefield, but smarter and shinier. The map immediately looks huge, but it's far 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 time so far, I’ve mostly played as the 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 sniper's scope to save my life. A shortcoming that’s punished hard in Battlefield 1.
Blood and glory
As soon as you’re dropped into the action, one thing becomes immediately clear: this game is jaw-dropping in action.
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 weight.
After you’ve been stabbed in the chest by a bayonet for the third time running, though? Much less so. Life in Battlefield 1’s multiplayer can be short and futile, and you quickly become immune to both these traits.
All of Battlefield 1's maps offer up awe-inspiring scale in spades. Planes do strafing runs over the scenery, tanks and armoured cars barrel 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 is going to have you reciting Hail Mary at a speed of knots, it’s when there's a zeppelin towering over you. These huge, gas-filled monstrosities bristling with weapons are one of the three Behemoth-class vehicles, 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. Battlefield's famed Frostbite 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 I’ve ever seen, and this explosive fervour is only enhanced by its weaponry.
The guns are a far cry from the ultra-modern firearms of the last few series entries, 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.
Ticks like these can be irritating at first, but they also make 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 WWI 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/death ratio. Especially since each battle ends with a voiceover explaining how your in-game result would have affected the course of the war.
From Oil of Empires to Conquer Hell, each Operation is immensely well put together giving a visceral arena for you to either dig in and fight for your life, or gun your way through with all-conquering purpose. Since these conflicts last for upwards of 30 mins each, you really get immersed in the warfare's frenetic ebb and flow. With gameplay taking place of three rounds, losers are bolstered with extra firepower and 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 me properly sweaty palms as I tried to make use of every last bullet.
Battlefield 1 Verdict
There’s an awful lot that could have gone wrong with Battlefield 1. An incendiary FPS that allows you to climb onboard tanks, trucks, planes, trains, zeppelins and more, and doesn’t end up as a total mess? That’s a tough ask.
From almost the first moment you step into DICE’s latest creation, there’s the overwhelming sense you’re in safe hands. This game is respectful of its setting without ever forgetting it’s supposed to be entertaining. And although its War Stories best pull off this high-wire act, Operations are a great way of bringing the same empathy and tension to a multiplayer mode.
In the battle for ‘Christmas console essential’, this shooter will take some beating.