When the opposition pushes all of its war assets toward one beachhead, sometimes it’s smarter to avoid that fight altogether and make headway by creating another front. While Call of Duty, Titanfall, Halo, Destiny, Gears of War, and many other shooters compete in a sci-fi battle royale, DICE instead dove deeper into the annals of military history to reveal a singular first-person shooter gem: Battlefield 1.
The World War I setting feels refreshingly different than the modern sensibilities of contemporary Battlefield games. Biplanes, rudimentary tanks, and cavalry replace the jets, attack choppers, and missile guidance systems that rained death on combatants in recent entries. Most guns have a much shorter range than modern precision rifles, and in general the combat is more brutish. With a startling array of gory melee kills, this may be the bloodiest Battlefield game to date. In between mortar blasts and gunfire, the battlefield rings out with the tortured screams of soldiers being burned alive by incendiary grenades and flamethrowers, the violent coughs of those hit with mustard gas, and the savage battle cries of infantry charging toward enemies with their bayonets. These serve as constant reminders of the vicious nature of a war fought by more than 70 million people across the globe.
The most welcome change to the Battlefield combat is the return of destructibility; buildings haven’t crumbled this remarkably since Bad Company 2. Tank shells turn wooden homes into splinters, decimate concrete windmills, and rip apart everything in between, leaving the maps in ruins after the dust settles. Weather plays a serious role in forcing tactical flexibility as well. When dense fog or intense sandstorms set in, sniping and lobbing tank shells from afar lose their value and you must venture closer to the objectives to turn the tides of battle. When a team falls far enough behind, they receive reinforcements in the form of the behemoth vehicles – a zeppelin, armored train, or battleship. In my experience these heavily armed juggernauts didn’t always help the losing team gain the upper hand, but they definitely cut the gap thanks to their forceful artillery barrages and use as a new spawn point that can place players much closer to their objective.
All of these elements come together in the stellar new Operations mode, which acts like a hybrid of the popular conquest and rush modes. Assaulting teams must capture two-to-three flags at the same time to advance the frontline, and if they are repelled they are granted access to a behemoth the next round. When attackers capture the flags, the infantry belt spine-tingling screams as they charge toward the next objectives. These cinematic moments and the tense battles that can break out around capturing a solitary point create some of the most memorable experiences in the game.
Battlefield is at its best when large numbers of infantry vie for control with support from the various vehicles, which is why Operations and conquest are the best modes of the bunch. Rush used to belong to that class, but with a scaled-back number of players and less access to vehicles, this rendition feels lost in a no man’s land between Battlefield’s truest modes and the less interesting infantry-based team deathmatch, domination, and war pidgeons modes. Each of these diminishes the importance of the squad structure at the heart of Battlefield, and play too much like every other shooter out there.
It wouldn’t be a Battlefield launch without some quality-of-life issues, and Battlefield 1 has its share of minor but maddening annoyances. DICE inexplicably left out the ability to customize your loadouts from the main menu or between rounds, forcing you to waste valuable time you should be spending capturing flags while you peruse unlockable options. The developers also haven’t found a solution for preventing enemy squad spawns from happening directly in front you; nothing is more annoying than training your sights on one enemy only to have three more beam in Star Trek-style out of nowhere. This legacy issue always shatters immersion. I also encountered four or five hard crashes and some extreme server lag when control points were overwhelmed with infantry and vehicles.
One perennial problem DICE solved with Battlefield 1 is the quality of its campaign. Since Bad Company 2, the studio has struggled to inject the best qualities of the franchise into a narrative sequence. Battlefield 1 succeeds in breaking the campaign into six cinematic short stories that explore different experiences from the Great War. The tone of these shifts from somber vignettes that speak to the magnitude of the tragedy to more lighthearted affairs focused on daring heroics. I wish these chapters told real stories of a war so many know so little about, but in execution they are still much more enjoyable than the last few campaigns, and introduce players to the Battlefield basics that carry over into multiplayer.
In an era dominated by modern military and sci-fi shooters, Battlefield 1 going back to the Great War is a refreshing change of pace. After 40-plus hours with the riveting multiplayer action, I’m still eager to charge once more into the breach.
Going back in history to World War I proves a smart decision for the military series.