Everything Old Is New Again
Battlefield 1 probably feels like a tangential release for people only familiar with the franchise’s recent history. The previous two numbered Battlefield games have tried chasing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare so much — at least in terms of storylines and aesthetics — that it’s easy to forget that DICE was also the studio responsible for Battlefield: 1942 once upon a time. It’s left plenty of longstanding fans screaming, “Make Battlefield great again!” or some variation of those words over the past few years. They ‘member. Well, here it is, DICE’s answer to your pleas. COD fans, you’re welcome to come along too.
While the growing sentiment in comment sections has been that developers should take military shooters back to World War II, DICE apparently felt the need to take it a step further. Either that or the project lead for Battlefield 1 has the same disregard for time-travel as Professor Hubert Farnsworth . Well, “Good news, Everyone!” As it turns out, the Great War does indeed make for a great video game, but does that make Battlefield 1 a revelation or merely a reskin? The short answer is both, and the long answer is…
Location Is Key
It would have been foolish for DICE to completely start over at this point. Despite the modern military genre feeling tired, the last few Battlefield games certainly haven’t been terrible. Far from it in fact. Sure, the series has lost some of its charm — its je ne sais quoi — since Bad Company 2, but DICE still raises the bar with each release when it comes to their audio and visual prowess. Not to mention Battlefield’s shooting mechanics and multiplayer remain some of the best in the business. The core fundamentals have always been superb, no doubt. Some of us just needed a reason to care.
Battlefield 1 addresses this issue by including a colorful, reverent, and poignant single player campaign. And, naturally, there will be plenty of people out there who will say, “No one cares about story in a Battlefield game.” Well, whether those people realize it or not, often times campaigns establish context within a world and build atmosphere, which helps keep many players engaged far longer than they would have otherwise. Even successful multiplayer-only games like Overwatch find ways to make up for a lack of single player content through the use of opening cinematics and in-game lore, but I digress (for now). The important thing to note is that Battlefield 1 feels inspired thanks to its campaign, and this bleeds over to every other aspect of the game.
The story itself is actually a collection of six vignettes and, thankfully, playing through each of them is enjoyable this time (unlike other Battlefield games that made you feel like you were forcefully swallowing your vegetables just to get to dessert). Not only does each small handful of missions serve as a tutorial of sorts for the multiplayer, but the stories actually contain substance. They’re widely diverse also, taking you through numerous locations in Europe and the Middle East on foot, by tank, and by biplanes. By By Bi.
Each player character is initially set against a somewhat cliché backdrop. These are stories that we’ve all heard before. There’s a short story about a roguish pilot who is basically Han Solo, a flashback about an Italian veteran that gets bookended like Saving Private Ryan, and another tale that runs adjacent to Lawrence of Arabia’s.
No single story lasts longer than an hour even on the hardest difficulty setting, unless you’re searching for collectibles and that still might be a stretch. That means these stories are often clumsily set up, but their existence alone is enough to make Star Wars: Battlefront fans lament what could have been. Sigh.
What’s astonishing is that by the end of each journey these rather ham-fisted introductions turn into something more. These are the stories of the forgotten — of the soldiers whose names have been washed away by statistics. It’s what makes pushing an MK.V Tank through enemy lines a harrowing triumph; it’s what makes escorting bomber planes to attack a major German fort truly epic; and it’s what makes creating a distraction for an artillery strike all the more heroic.
With the exception of the pilot’s story, which is still a lot of fun to play despite being downright cartoonish, Battlefield 1 rarely sacrifices its more grounded story to maintain its breakneck pace. Sure, a few characters are a bit larger than life, but so were the circumstances. Even the scenarios that veer a bit too much into the fantastical have a historical context that makes their dramatization a bit easier to swallow.
This extends to gameplay as well. Remember Battlefield: Hardline’s somewhat hilarious use of stealth in broad daylight? Anyone? Well, it has returned for Battlefield 1, except usually only in the dead of night or during sandstorms — you know, when it’s an appropriate time to be sneaky. Once every so often there’s a segment where AI obliviousness is a bit odd, but even then at least you’re dodging in and out of artillery fire or sneaking behind enemy lines. So while it isn’t always an improvement, it is most of the time.
A Strong Foundation (That You Can Blow Up)
All right, now that you’ve finished your Brussels sprouts let’s get to it. Battlefield 1’s multiplayer is phenomenal. Thank you and goodnight. What? More? Fine. It’s really really good, and not because radical changes have been made. As was mentioned earlier, the mechanics, the large-scale warfare, the gorgeous graphics and sound design (bravo on the musical score by the way) are all still at the top of their class and, by extension, largely unchanged. That doesn’t mean there haven’t been improvements, just don’t expect any huge changes.
But while we are on the subject, the environments themselves evolve more organically than the last few Battlefield titles. Level-ution is gone in favor of more physics-based destruction. Structures and terrain collapse and deform in a way that’s sure to delight Bad Company 2 fans. If one were to simply look at a before and after picture following a 64 player battle of Conquest or the new Operations mode, all the chaos, the devastation, and the tea-bagging that transpired would be evident without ever seeing a single bullet fired. Each match is still an all-out war, but one that’s almost lovingly detailed, like if explosions were snowflakes. Awe.
What DICE has clearly gotten better at since Battlefield 4 is tailoring game types to maps. Even Team Deathmatch feels like it has gotten some much deserved attention, while Conquest is still the mode every map gets designed for first. That being said, even though Conquest and Rush are still great, the new Operations mode is the standout here. There’s a bit of a historical context given before each Operations battle, which is a nice touch. The battles themselves task the attacking side to capture two and sometimes three points simultaneously to advance to the next sector. Meanwhile the defensive side tries to exhaust the attackers 150 spawns. If they manage to do so, the attacking side will get two more chances, but with a behemoth vehicle (zeppelin, armored train, or warship) aiding them during the next capture attempt. Should the attackers win there will be a rematch on a second map to see if the defenders can stop further advancement. These Operations campaigns are large orchestrated mayhem, and oh so much fun.
The classes players can select from don’t function all that differently from previous games. The assault class starts with an assault rife and the tools necessary for blowing up heavy artillery; the medic has a semi-automatic weapon and heals teammates if he or she is a decent human being; the support class will carry an LMG and resupply comrades with ammo or fix vehicles with a magical wrench; and snipers will continue to camp far away from objectives, contributing little, and typically getting stabbed while laying prone aiming into the trunk of a distant tree. Don’t be a sniper. Snipers are idiots…
One In A Million
Whether or not Battlefield 1 is a return to form or an expansion will likely depend on how cynical you are. One reason that the game will probably please a lot of people is because it’s the first Battlefield game in a long time to feel inspired. Unlike other shooters that have been taking the Michael Bay approach by adding more weapons, more explosions, and more FUTURE, DICE’s decision to scale things back makes Battlefield 1 feel unique given the current landscape. Less is more. And let’s face it, in terms of game mechanics and scope there’s nothing that can compete with Battlefield anyway. All it really needed was a worn coat of paint.
Varied, weighty campaign
Tried and true gameplay
Possibly the best looking game of the year
Unmatched sound design
Minor glitches, progression issues
Storylines somewhat hurt by shorter length
This year’s top 10 list is running out of room