GAME REVIEW: Battlefield 1 – What’s Old is New Again

Battlefield 1

War. War sometimes changes. And in the case of Battlefield 1, a triumphant return to form for DICE, it’s changed for the better. The year is not over just yet, but it’s hard to see how any other first-person shooter could knock it off its perch as the best of 2016 – it’s just that damn good.

When it was announced that Battlefield would be going back to the down and dirty of historical warfare, the reception was almost universally one of praise. The futuristic and colourless, in more ways than one, FPS efforts we’ve been seeing over the past few years have grated more than they’ve enamoured, leading to a general sense of ennui whenever a jetpack is used or an improbable, almost ridiculously bombastic scenario is facing our heroes. Modern warfare is, for all intents and purposes, over.

So when a thumping Seven Nation Army cover carried one of the most popular game trailers of all-time to send hype for Battlefield 1 to meteoric levels, expectations were high, though there remained a few naysayers. How could a game centred on The Great War, which took place during an era where machines and warfare were not yet fully intertwined, possibly capture the same high-octane pace that the Battlefield series is known for? They may have twisted the truth and forgone total accuracy, but DICE have accomplished it.

Battlefield 1

Transitioning from Battlefield 4 to Battlefield 1 isn’t a smooth experience. Where once you could fly around in a chopper and rain down death like a deleted scene from Full Metal Jacket, Battlefield 1 is more limited in the outrageous spectacle department, though it is not at all lacking. With half the scope of weapons and vehicles to use, it’s a more focused experience, asking you to do less of the YouTube highlight reel moments and instead try to work together. Battlefield has always subtly been about teamwork, though it has been all too easy to neglect that and go on insane solo runs in the past. Battlefield 1, however, makes it very clear from the offset that you can either work together or die alone. Whether you’re crossing the cobbled streets of France or traversing the sands of The Ottoman Empire, you’re going to need someone there with you.

Owing much to its charmingly archaic weaponry, patience is the key when it comes to really understanding what BF1 is all about. Whether by design or not, sure shots don’t always land, as much as you will them to. The guns don’t feel like they ever have before and, although it’s initially jarring, it feels that much more satisfying to pull off an audacious raid on an enemy stronghold or charge up a hill without a scratch. Particularly unreliable are the machine guns, which skitter and twitch all over the place when fired for more than brief bursts. Although it is possible to “rein” rapid fire weaponry in, rifles are the weapons of choice for most and it’s understandable why. It just feels more authentic that a gritty, ugly war would be replicated in a video game with rudimentary firearms.

Depending on who you talk to, single-player campaigns in first-person shooters are supposedly dead. That’s a misconception and one that Battlefield 1 is eager to put to bed, though it must be said that it doesn’t completely ease worries that multiplayers is the primary concern for developers and publishers. The campaign is presented across different “War Stories”: capsules of missions that can take anywhere from thirty to ninety minutes to complete. If you’re determined to sit through them all, you’ll find it has said everything it needs to say within five or six hours, which might be alarmingly short for some. However, the lack of filler commonplace in its peers (QTE scenes, barely interactive walking sections) makes it an often concise and enthralling experience.

These War Stories are strong in the majority with only two real missed opportunities. The narration from a Harlem Hellfighter, a renowned squad of African-American soldiers, feels like it’s leading somewhere but ultimately comes to nothing. Considering he and his squadmates were such a vital part of the game’s monolithic marketing campaign, it rankles to see the lack of representation in the finished product. The bloated and largely uninteresting Nothing is Written, which plays fast and loose with the mythos of Lawrence of Arabia, feels like a placeholder for a different story as it never compels or conveys its message with enough impact to convince.

The rest of the stories are superb, however, despite sometimes not giving themselves enough time for the seeds of their narratives to take root. The Runner, a personal favourite, sneakily makes you care about the grizzled soldier at its center and the wellbeing of his young “apprentice”. Through Mud and Blood tells the story of a tank crew through the eyes of a former chauffeur and includes a jaw-dropping sequence of horrifying beauty that may go down as one of the best gaming moments of the year. Elsewhere, Friends in High Places is a trip to the skies with an unreliable narrator who lies and cheats his way to the glory to be a part of the most light-hearted War Story of the bunch. Avanti Savoia, despite arguably needing more exposition to drive home its conclusion, is a heart-wrenching tale of two Italian brothers at war.

Emotionally manipulative as they may be, largely down to just how damn beautiful the score is, the micro-War Stories add up to a satisfying whole and just about complete package. Plaudits of it being an essential experience and potentially the best Battlefield campaign yet feel wide of the mark, though it’s a fascinating template for the games to come. The days of the white-dude-with-stubble named Jack or Nick taking on absurd numbers of enemies all by himself seem to be fading away in popularity with plenty of calls from FPS gamers for something different. The non-linear, deeply human stories told in Battlefield 1 are a great indication of what that something different could and possibly should be.

Single-player has never been the focus of Battlefield games and it certainly isn’t here. The preference of multiplayer might annoy some traditionalists, but if that added focus creates dozens of hours of gameplay that fly by without the player even realising it as they do in Battlefield 1, it’s hard to make an argument against the preferential treatment. The only competition that comes close to what DICE have achieved here in terms of depth and replayability is Overwatch, but when you consider how limited in modes Blizzard’s cartoonish gem is, Battlefield 1 just about squeaks by.

Of the multiplayer modes, it’s Operations that stands out as a shining example of the enjoyment to be had in complete and utter chaos. A new addition to the Battlefield series, Operations is inspired by the beloved Galactic Conquest in the original Battlefront games and is beguiling in its mayhem. From the first stage to the last, you will gasp at the sheer scale of it, curse the umpteenth time a tank mows you down before laughing as you finally best it with some well-placed explosives. It seems like every metre of progress is a mile as you edge towards the goal, reflecting the harsh nature of the war itself as bodies pile up for small margins. There were many senseless deaths in World War I and although it glorifies killing as much as it does condemn it, Battlefield makes a good case against the needlessness of it all.

Battlefield 1

Taking place over multiple stages, you’re tasked with re-enacting famous battles from the war with the mode having a strong narrative undercurrent – a rarity for any FPS’ multiplayer. What could have been failed attempt at improving upon the famous Conquest mode ends up somehow being the much better experience and something that many are flocking to with good reason. If you’re going to be playing for Battlefield for one thing above all else, make it Operations.

Elsewhere, the series standards of Rush, Conquest, and Team Deathmatch make a return and they’re just as solid time-sponges as they have been in the past. Aside from Operations, the other notable addition to multiplayer is War Pigeons: an utterly ludicrous Capture the Flag-esque mode that is at odds with the tone of the overall game Battlefield 1 is all about solemnity, the harsh realities of war, and also apparently, chasing after pigeons and writing notes for them. As wacky and silly as it may be, a lot of fun can still be had with War Pigeons despite a few notable gripes. It has a nasty habit of spawning pigeons near the same area so the odds can really stack against whoever gets to it second. It might not be the best of what’s available, but it scratches an itch.

The maps to cause destruction on initially struggle to make an impression, but once familiarity sets in, your favourites will become clear. There are arguably none as memorable as Battlefield 3’s Operation Métro or 4’s Zavod, though they are more consistently playable across the board. Argonne Forest (a claustrophobic yet expansive wasteland of forest and mud) and Amiens (a French area with plenty of back alleys to hide in and bridges to explode) come the closest so far to greatness, though only an extra twenty hours of play will see if that’s true or not.

Battlefield 1

It isn’t often that I feel compelled to laud the soundtrack for a game, but it would be criminal not to for Battlefield 1’s stunning, deeply moving score. Finding any weak points in it would be fallacious – there isn’t a bad track amongst them all. Whether it’s the muted orchestral sounds as you fly across a war-torn area or the chest-thumping battle cries, it’s pitch perfect and an example of how music can carry a whole game from fantastic to unforgettable.

Much has been made of DICE’s decision to swap the classes around, giving Medics the health kits in the place of Assault and giving the Assault Support’s main draw. It doesn’t quite stick as Support often seems to be overlooked, though it’s understandable why the change has been made – WWI isn’t as deep a well for technology as modern combat is, so shuffling things over makes it seem broader than it is.

There are other small annoyances that detract from the spectacle of watching a burning blimp descend to the ground or a squadron of teammates charge up a hill to battle. DICE’s newest effort has many glitches that try their best to pull you out of the immersion with most of them being nothing too egregious: clipping; audio dips; the usual. But there have been plenty of cases where life and death is at stake during my playthrough and the game has just let me down. Playing primarily as a Medic, it seems to be rather finicky about how and where I can put my First Aid down to be used by myself and my teammates, often resulting in no healing being done as my soldier aggressively gestures at the floor. Then there’s also this.

There’s also something of an imbalance that comes around whenever a special kit is picked up in multiplayer that it can be nigh on impossible to deal with if the opposition knows what they’re doing. Available as either a Flame Trooper or a Sentry Elite, this “power-up” feels awkwardly shoehorned in and not what the series is about. DICE’s gradual blanketing of all things “Battle” into one similar package might make sense at face level, but just because Battlefront did it, Battlefield needn’t follow suit.

If you chip away at Battlefield 1 and look for issues, they will be right there staring you in the face. The campaign is short but so emotionally charged and lovingly crafted and the multiplayer two patches away from absolute perfection, but after a few hours spent in this harrowing replication of the War To End All Wars, try your best to tear yourself away from it for the next thirty. War is hell, but Battlefield 1 is FPS heaven.

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