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Funny To A Point – Once More Unto The Breach With Battlefield 1

by Jeff Marchiafava on Nov 04, 2016 at 11:01 AM

Sci-fi shooters are so passé. This week's Funny To A Point heads back to the Great War courtesy of DICE's Battlefield 1, and because I'm not above bribery, everyone who reads it gets some free and totally wicked in-game prizes!

I've been a fan of the FPS genre ever since a grade-school friend and I (covertly) played Wolfenstein 3D on his dad's computer, but I was largely oblivious to DICE's brand of digital warfare until Battlefield 1943. The download-only experiment stripped the developer's already-established multiplayer formula down to its bare essentials; there was only a handful of maps, a single primary weapon per class, and no upgrades, health packs, or ammo to worry about. That simplicity – along with a complete lack of player progression – did nothing to diminish the thrills of parachuting onto unsuspecting foes, laying waste to enemy entrenchments with powerful tanks, and driving a C4-laden jeep straight into a capture point, then jumping out and detonating it at the last second. That last strategy never worked once, but damned if it wasn't fun.

Battlefield 1943 made an incredible first impression on me, but it was one that all subsequent Battlefield titles have failed to live up to. Bad Company 2, Battlefield 4, and Battlefield Hardline  all sport a modern setting, and bring all the middling distractions of modern life along with it. Progression-based unlock schemes served up an unending stream of weapons, attachments, and other gadgets that left me standing around on the battlefield like a confused dad trying to figure out his new iPhone. All of a sudden, your loadout was more important than your actual skills with a gun (or a controller, as the case may be). My enjoyment suffered because of it – sure, you're getting an endless string of carrots, but the donkey ride is a lot bumpier. Besides, carrots aren't even that great of an incentive anyway. I mean yeah, they're good for you and they have a somewhat pleasant flavor, but when you think of a tasty snack as a reward for hard work, you don't think "I want a carrot." In fact, now that I think about it, the carrot is supposed to be for the donkey! We're the donkey in this metaphor! And that's how you derail a conversation...

All this is to say that 1943 made Battlefield my favorite online FPS series, and I've been patiently waiting ever since for a subsequent entry to recapture that same magic. That's why I was excited that DICE was eschewing all the high-tech unlocks and sci-fi hocus pocus of modern shooters in favor of a more grounded historical setting for Battlefield 1. Could this finally be the one?

As with most shooters, I started Battlefield 1 by checking out the single-player campaign, a nice ego-booster before going online and getting slaughtered by a bunch of kids and/or howler monkeys (their screeching is virtually identical over a headset, so I can't infer one way or the other). DICE infamously botched Battlefront by forgoing a campaign for some lame training missions and a barebones horde mode – because lord knows there aren't any interesting stories to tell in the Star Wars universe. In the lead-up to launch, DICE vowed to create more dedicated single-player content for Battlefield 1, but still not a traditional campaign – the game developer equivalent of Bart Simpson telling Lisa, "I can't promise I'll try, but I'll try to try."

Don't worry, you only play as baby blue eyes for 1/5th of the campaign.

Turns out, a series of small vignettes was the best thing DICE could've done. Instead of creating one bloated story about a super soldier that somehow does everything himself, the format allows DICE to jump around to lots of different characters and lots of different stories. Granted, those stories still aren't great by any stretch (the one with the Italians is the best, which should surprise no one), but they let DICE take advantage of the game's diverse settings and diverser (that's a word, trust me) gameplay mechanics. I enjoyed the single-player stories, but more than anything I was excited by the possibilities of what DICE could do with the format in the future. The top priority for future content should be the Red Baron – the pilot, not the pizza...though if he doesn't bite into a slice for the first time and remark that it's his new favorite food, you're blowing it.

With the campaign under my belt, I jumped into multiplayer (well, actually I jumped into bed because it was already 2:00 in the morning, but the next night I jumped into multiplayer). While it's still not the 1943 fantasy I've been dreaming of, it's pretty darn great. Battlefield 1 does indeed scale back the unlockables, and while you still have to mull over you loadout, most weapons are "sidegrades"* – i.e. not distinctly better or worse, just different attributes that accommodate different styles of play. There's still plenty of leveling to do and medals to acquire, but I don't feel like I'm at an unfair disadvantage when I get mowed down in a hail of gunfire (it's still not my fault and the other player is probably using cheat codes, but WHATEVER).

Battlefield 1's biggest selling point by far is Operations mode, which specializes in Battlefield's patented brand of coordinated chaos. The mode requires the attacking team to capture and hold multiple points simultaneously, which triggers a retreat for the defenders. This reveals all the fleeing combatants on the attacker's screen, who automatically begin yelling as they charge towards the next line of defense. It's a nice little moment of victory in a larger war, and a good opportunity to score some quick kills – turns out shooting people in the back when they're marked on your screen is significantly easier. However, if you want a pro tip for winning Operations mode almost 100% of the time, here it is: be on the defending team. Attackers only get three attempts to fight their way through multiple capture points, at multiple stages, on multiple maps. Most matches peter out by the end of the first map; if this was the way WWI was really fought, we'd still be fighting it.

Speaking of historical accuracy, DICE certainly fudged some aspects of WWI-era warfare, but most of the weapons, vehicles, and items are at least plausible. In fact, you might be surprised by how much is based on actual weapons from the era. Sure, the anti-tank grenade looks like someone just taped a bunch of grenades onto one stick, but it turns out that was a real thing – and that's exactly what they did to make them! Medics remain the most outlandish embellishment – you spend most of your time running around the battlefield sticking syringes into people's asses to instantly bring them back to life. As absurd as that sounds (and feels), for the love of god, BE A MEDIC. Most matches hinge on their support. And while you're at it, spend the 60 warbucks to unlock the medical crate, ya damn cheapskate.

Fire Tornado Blimp is NOT historically accurate...or is it?!

Another thing I love? Not having to talk to idiots! I usually dread dipping my toes into the cesspool of online gaming to test how acidic the water is for a new game, but Battlefield 1 makes it unnecessary – the game's command wheel allows you to effortlessly request orders (seriously squad leaders, GIVE ORDERS!), call for a medic, and say thanks when someone lends a helping a hand (it's just polite guys, seriously). Sure, you'll still get steamrolled by a squad that's in a mic-fueled mind-meld, but you were never going to beat them anyway...

Outside of Operations, Battlefield 1's other game modes hold up pretty well. Conquest continues to be the knock-down-drag-out war it's always been (in a good way), while Rush sports a smaller player count. This may sound like a bad thing, but smaller teams makes the standoffs at capture points more manageable. It's kind of like taking the bag of candy away from your kid during a post-trick-or-treat binge – they may not be happy about it, but you're saving them a bellyache. So far, War Pigeons is the only major mode that isn't doing it for me. War Pigeons tasks you with grabbing the titular flying rat and writing out a message for it to fly back to HQ. You write faster if you stay still, so the best strategy is to grab the pigeon, find a secluded spot, and lie down. It's a strange thing to be doing in a military shooter, especially in a world where Hatoful Boyfriend exists (and if you didn't know it existed until right now: SORRY).

More than anything, however, Battlefield 1 once again succeeds at serving up memorable, and often downright crazy, moments. There have been times when I've walked around the battlefield in daze, marveling as gas grenades pop off plumes of smoke, heavy artillery booms in the distance, buildings are razed to the ground, and bullets whiz by from every direction. On more than one occasion I've stopped and called my wife to come look at the sheer spectacle of it all. She hasn't seemed particularly impressed, but having played countless other online shooters in my time, I can confidently say that she should be. (She also seems rather apathetic about my blow-by-blow commentary: "Ooh, I just stabbed that guy with my bayonet...aww, his grenade got me anyway. I'm back up – a medic revived me! Now that's team work! Right, honey? Honey?")

Unlike other shooters – including Hardline's "levelutions" – Battlefield 1's best moments aren't scripted. Like the time I jumped out of our exploding Zeppelin and shot an enemy sniper as I parachuted to the ground, then tried desperately to run out of the path of the flaming wreckage as it came crashing down. It didn't seem to faze the other players, but I'd like to think that if it really happened in WWI, both sides would take a moment to stop and comment on how crazy it was. "I mean seriously, did you see that thing?"

While much of Battlefield 1 recaptures my love of 1943 (the game, not the year – I'm not that old), the experience still has its problems. For starters, you've got what feels like a nanosecond window to leave a server after a match or else you get locked into the next round and have to wait for the next map to load before you can quit. Astonishingly, you also can't customize or even view your loadouts outside of matches (on console, anyway), which means you'll be sitting on the sidelines during the opening salvo while you compare gun stats and weigh your next purchase. The weekly medals are also frequently borked, showing up as one set and then switching to an older set after you've already started your mode. Then there was the time my losing team was reinforced with some kind of instant-death Blimp, which was supposed to provide a friendly boost to even things up but instead showered our bodies all over the battlefield.

"Awesome, there's an open spot in the Zeppelin! I'll just...wha- oh, see you later..."

DICE needs to work as quickly as possible to address these issues, along with the aforementioned Operations imbalance. There is a ridiculous abundance of topnotch shooters out right now, which gives all of us fans the ability to act like entitled divas** with our game time; I've got plenty of other games vying for my attention – if I want to get instantly blasted out of the sky like that, I'll go back to playing Pharah in Overwatch, thank you very much.

Battlefield 1 could also use some quality-of-life improvements. Comparing and contrasting potential gun purchases is a hassle. Sure, there are green and red dummy bars for some of the stats, but what does a +50 RPM firing rate really amount to? Which guns come with scopes? Which have a magazine on top that's going to block half your damn view when you look down the sights? With fewer weapons to unlock, purchases are a bigger deal – and not something I want to make in the middle of a round. Sure, you can try out the guns in single-player (if you can find them), but a dedicated practice range would be a big help for comparing the actual feel of different weapons (also, I could use the target practice). And how about throwing some actual weapons into those loot boxes? Cosmetic rewards are fine for a game like Overwatch, but Battlefield 1 already has custom loadouts and weapons with different stats – might as well throw some of them in the loot boxes, because weapon skins ain't that exciting a reward (still better than carrots, though).  

To be fair to DICE, the Battlefield 1 companion app does let you customize your loadouts at any time. To be fair to players, omitting the option in the actual game in order to force them to download a damn app is egregiously stupid. But I'm glad I did, because it introduced me to the wonderful world of the emblem editor, which allows you to make your own custom patches for your soldier. Granted they don't show up on your soldier on the squad screen, and for some stupid reason the post-match stats screen displays players' PSN/Gamertag avatars instead of their emblems. But if you flop just the right way you can catch a glimpse of it on your corpse when you die, and any players you kill will have it emblazoned across their screen while waiting to respawn, so creating an awesome custom emblem is still worth the effort. At this point, I've probably spent as much time creating emblems as I have actually playing the game. I'm not sure what that says about me, but my weirdo compulsion is your reward! (What, you thought I was lying about the bribery prizes for reading? Think again!)

Note: Cork and I ran into some issues while testing out the import function for custom emblems. In theory, you should be able to log into your Battlefield 1 account via PC or the app on your phone, then click on one of the links below to have it pop up. When Cork tried one of them, however, it pulled up a wickedly intricate pot leaf with the number "420" emblazoned above it instead. EA says it has fixed the problem with incorrect emblems showing up, but if one of the following links takes you to a swastika made out of dongs, don't blame me.

Gun Angel & Freemason
These were my first to attempts at using the editor, so naturally I went with something as sacrilegious as possible, followed by the symbol for a paranoid conspiracy theory. You are playing an online game, after all.

Mad Charlie & Flying Ace
Realistically, Charlie Brown wouldn't last a day in World War I – his big round head is basically a giant bullseye. About five minutes into working on the emblem, I realized Snoopy's Flying Ace persona is so much more appropriate for the time period, so I made it next.

P.T.F.O. (& flag variant)
If you've played a Battlefield game before, you'll get the acronym. This one makes killing lone-wolf snipers extra satisfying, because they'll be forced to stare at it while waiting to respawn. Think of it as a friendly reminder to stop screwing over the team! The flag variant seemed even more appropriate, since, ya know, capturing or defending a flag is usually your objective.

Gangsta Squirtle (& dual-wielding variant)
I don't know why the thought of a gangsta Squirtle amuses me so much, but it does, so I made it. YOU'RE WELCOME.

Princess Mononoke Spirits & ...Bob Ross?!
Look, I needed to have something on the T.V. while I wasted all this time making emblems, and The Joy Of Painting just got added to Netflix. And yes, the paints are all red because it's the blood of your enemies.

King Jerk & King Crybaby
And finally, the culmination of my emblem skills: those jerk emojis from Clash Royale. Both are perfect for trolling enemies – either you're giving them the sarcastic thumbs up for how "good" they are, or you're mocking their frustration with a whiny crying face. It's not exactly sportsmanlike, but hey – this is war.

*Other "-grades" you should be familiar with:
Cupgrade: A made-up thing a car salesman talks you into paying extra for.
Supgrade: When you put off eating lunch so long that you decide to just eat supper instead.
Pupgrade: Trading in an unwanted pet (i.e. cat) for a way cooler puppy.
Clowngrade: When your birthday party goes from bad to "OMG, mom hired a clown."
Browngrade: When you try to return a soiled pair of pants to the store, because diarrhea falls under the Act of God Clause.
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**That does NOT mean, however, that you should go on social media and be an asshat to developers. Respect the people who make the games you like! (return to top)

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