When it was revealed that Battlefield 1 would be set during the First World War, I found it hard not to be excited. A franchise known for its buggy launches, mediocre campaigns and… ‘levolution’, was now trying something completely out of left field, not just for the series but for the entire industry. Very few games are set during WWI, and the ones that are have nowhere near the budget of a triple A series like Battlefield. This fresh direction immediately felt like the right move, especially when considering the plethora of shooters set during the present day or ‘the not too distant future’. Now that the game’s finally out, I can safely say that this was the right move for DICE to make. Battlefield 1 isn’t just a return to form, but a huge leap forward in every sense.
It almost goes without saying that the game looks and sounds incredible. DICE have always excelled in this regard and Battlefield 1 is no exception. The barbed wire and mud of no-man’s land, the rocky outcrops of the Sinai Desert or the thickly wooded Argonne Forest, all of these environments look gorgeous and astoundingly realistic. On top of this is the fantastic soundscape and how the terrain dynamically reacts to the destructive force of battle. It’s one thing for an environment to look pretty, but it adds a whole other layer when you know that almost every single thing in front of you can be utterly levelled by the time the round ends. This destructibility has been a mainstay of the series for some time now, but it really gets to flex its muscles with the First World War. Buildings will collapse around (or on top of) you, huge craters will appear in dirt or sand, wood splinters and stone crumbles all just as you’d expect. Sometimes you’ll duck for cover as a tank rolls past or a bomber flies overhead, only to look up moments later and be met with a completely different landscape.
Then there’s the sound design. My GOD the sound design. I’ve gushed about DICE’s unmatched prowess in this area before; Battlefront and indeed previous entries in the Battlefield series have never disappointed when it comes to aurally overwhelming the player, but I have to say they’ve outdone themselves yet again. The pitter-patter of dirt as a mortar narrowly misses you, the concussive thud of artillery raining down all around, bullets and bombs whining as they fly past, and some of the most disturbingly realistic screams I’ve ever heard in a game. Never has a videogame more accurately captured the relentless bedlam and sensory overload of war.
Battlefield may not be known for its single player, and these days developers are damned if they do, damned if they don’t with single player campaigns. They either spend the extra money to churn out some boring, monotonous drivel with a famous face or two, or they ship the game multiplayer-only and people complain that it’s not worth the asking price. In this case the relatively untrodden ground of WWI allows DICE to tell a series of brief, but engaging tales. Don’t get too excited, Battlefield 1’s campaign may not be as forgettable as the last couple, but at the end of the day it’s still just good, not great.
The campaign consists of a collection of ‘war stories’, each of which are about a completely different person, fighting in a different theatre of the war. The time you spend with these characters is short, but it’s enough to get a general sense of who they are why they’re fighting, with some being more likeable than others. There are attempts to reach the emotional heights of a well-crafted war film, but it never quite gets there. Unfortunately, given the ludicrously over the top action the characters are put through (one level sees you wearing a suit of metal armour and storming a fort with a machine gun), the attempts at emotional nuance come across as shallow and overly sentimental. I still enjoyed the time I spent with it, and as an added incentive there’s a number of collectibles and challenges for each level which, when completed, unlock weapon and vehicle skins useable in multiplayer. This may sound meaningless, but they’re actually pretty damn cool.
This series of course has its roots in multiplayer, and multiplayer has always been its strength. Battlefield 1 is no different. There’s the tried and true game modes, such as Rush and Conquest, but the new mode Operations is where I’ve been spending most of my time. One Operation will take longer than the other modes, but it’s by far the best way to get truly immersed. Simply put, Operations are a careful mix of Attack/Defend, Conquest and Rush. The defending team must protect one sector at a time, if the attackers capture all points in a sector, the defenders are forced to retreat and defend the next sector. It utilises the same maps, but they’re organised in different ways, allowing you to fight in areas previously out-of-bounds. It makes maps you’ve played over and over again in other modes feel brand new again, but also focusses the action in a completely unique way. For example, in the Conquest version of the St Quentin’s Scar map, there’s a system of trenches that run along the edge of the level, in the Operations version however, these trenches are situated right in the middle, and so become the centerpiece of the match. Concentrating 64 players into specific areas allows for some chaotic gunplay, and gives the truest impression available of how the actual war would’ve played out.
The flow of battle in this game feels so fluid and natural, DICE seem to have got it down to an art form. In previous games in the series you’d occasionally have these ‘Battlefield Moments’ where the stars align and some epic combat happens or perhaps you have a great run with a shotgun or in a tank. These moments were a blast when they happened, but you were just as likely to spend your time getting sniped as soon as you spawn, or having to run for ages just to see another player. During my time playing Battlefield 1 these moments are happening every minute of every single match. The maps are designed in such a way that enables frenetic, strategic and balanced combat to unfold. This careful design also means there’s very few instances of frustrating bottlenecks where everyone is just spamming grenades. The maps aren’t flawless, in fact some are in dire need of tweaking, but the improvement in level design over Battlefield 3 and 4 cannot be overstated.
There’s a simplicity to the weapons and gadgets that made me feel such relief. There’s semi-automatic rifles, old-timey SMGs, shotguns and sniper rifles. Everything is easy to identify visually and you know exactly what a weapon is going to feel like before you shoot it. As franchises like Call of Duty and Battlefield have moved from WWII to the modern day and beyond, the weapons feel far less grounded. Each gun is more convoluted and soulless than the last, and there’s only so much enjoyment one can get from adding an ACOG sight or an under-barrel grenade launcher. Battlefield 1 takes it back to basics. There’s still plenty of customisation and unlocks, but it all feels auxiliary. It’s there if it interests you, but it’s not at all necessary to have a good time.
Despite the incomprehensible horror of the actual event, DICE have managed to take one of the lowest points of our history and turn it into an incredibly immersive and visually unrivalled multiplayer shooter. Not content to just slap a WWI skin on Battlefield 4 and call it a day, DICE have improved upon their formula in almost every way. The game looks unbelievable and sounds even better, the campaign is actually worth playing, the new Operations mode is an instant classic and the level and environment design is sublime. Battlefield 1 is about as complete a package as you can get and I can’t stop playing it.
Battlefield 1 was reviewed on PC, using a review code provided by the publisher.