Experience visceral frontline combat at the height of World War I.
PC Release: October 21, 2016
By Ian Coppock
November has landed, and with it, the annual battle for supremacy between Battlefield and Call of Duty. Each year, or most every year, both franchises release their take on intense first-person gunplay, competing for the bigger slice of the venerable shooter pie. This year’s contest represents an especially dramatic divide, because while Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare goes for the same sci-fi setting the series has utilized for half a decade, Battlefield is taking what many gaming industry pundits call a risk. That risk? Going back to a time before modern weaponry and to a setting we don’t discuss nearly enough these days. Whether such a move comprises an actual risk in the grand scheme of things is a topic that we’ll touch on as we review Battlefield‘s bid for military FPS supremacy in 2016.
Battlefield 1 is a military first-person shooter set during the first World War, a setting rarely explored in any game, let alone big-budget ones. Indeed, Battlefield 1 is the first WWI-themed game Electronic Arts has put out since 1994’s Wings of Glory. Battlefield 1 gets its name from developer DICE’s stated belief that World War I was the first instance of “all-out warfare”… whatever the heck that’s supposed to mean. If DICE means the first instance of worldwide combat, then no, absolutely not. However, if by “all-out warfare” DICE means the first major conflict that made use of modern weapons like tanks, machine guns, etc., then yeah, that makes sense.
Like previous Battlefield entries, Battlefield 1 splits its content between multiplayer and single-player modes. The former continues the series’s grand tradition of large-scale, 64-player battles across a variety of modes and maps. The latter mode takes players on a tour de force of World War I’s biggest battlegrounds, from the muddy trenches of France to the peaks of the Italian alps. Battlefield I‘s campaign also visits locales and battles rarely discussed in the western world, such as the Arab rebellion against the Ottoman Empire. Battlefield I also features cameos from such historical figures as T.E. Lawrence (better known as Lawrence of Arabia).
As with Call of Duty, Battlefield‘s story-driven campaigns are often split between at least two protagonists. Battlefield 1‘s campaign takes that design choice even further by splitting its narrative into mini-campaigns called war stories. Each of the game’s six war stories follows a different protagonist in a different theater of World War I. Each war story also espouses a different method of combat; for example, the war story “Through Mud and Blood” allows players to take command of a British Mark V tank, while “Friends in High Places” emphasizes aerial combat from the cockpit of an old-timey biplane. No matter its emphasis, each war story features at least one level of good ole boots-on-ground combat.
As previously mentioned, some of these war stories touch on conflicts and campaigns that are rarely discussed (if not completely forgotten) by the public at large. Battlefield 1 has the conventional Verdun and No Man’s Land campaigns that everyone would expect of a game set in World War I, but it also touches upon much more obscure conflicts, such as the Austro-Italian battles of the Alps and the combined Australia-New Zealand offensive at Gallipoli. Battlefield 1‘s Arabian war story even features a female protagonist, a true rarity for a military FPS. The diversity in setting and story goes a long way toward keeping the narratives and visuals of Battlefield 1 fresh.
Although the war story model affords Battlefield 1 great breadth, the game’s campaign ends up feeling quite shallow because of it. Because Battlefield 1 has 20 or so levels to divvy up between six mini-campaigns, each campaign can be completed in 30 minutes to an hour. That’s not very much time to explore a facet of a major conflict. It’s far from enough time to form a connection with the characters in each tale. Not that the stories are really all that interesting anyways; DICE is great at producing visually impressive environments, but anyone who’s played Mirror’s Edge or other Battlefield games knows that storytelling is not their strong suit. The game’s writing and dialogue is passable, if a bit stale, and the quality of the voice acting varies wildly from episode to episode. A few of the main characters undergo brief but predictable development arcs, but everyone else stays the same.
Unfortunately for Battlefield 1, the fact that each of its campaigns is 30-60 minutes long means that the entire game can be beaten in 3-4 hours. Even for a military FPS, that is a woefully stunted amount of play time. It’s certainly not worth sixty dollars. And sure, it’s not fair to judge Battlefield 1 on its single-player mode alone, but the paltry amount of content degrades the novelty of the game’s World War I setting. The irony is that Battlefield 1 starts out on a profound note, forcing players into an unwinnable battle against German forces, but none of the subsequent campaigns capitalize on that poignancy. For everything else that Battlefield 1 has going for it, its single-player mode is ultimately a disappointment.
It’s lucky for Battlefield 1 that the game features much more bang for its buck in its multiplayer mode. The game continues the Battlefield series’s proud tradition of dynamic environments, drive-able vehicles, wide open spaces, and 64-player capability. All of this makes Battlefield the obvious choice for multiplayer when compared to Call of Duty, whose tiny maps, small matches, static environments, and near-total lack of innovation over the last few years makes it a pretty paltry contender. Battlefield 1 further refines the Battlefield multiplayer experience with a squad system that lets players join and leave servers as a single unit. Sure, this means that Battlefield 1 is harder for solo players, but the variety of terrain and multiplayer modes leaves a lot to be explored.
The gunplay that informs all of this gameplay, though, is a lot more familiar than one might expect of a shooter set in World War I. The firearms may be antique, but they all feel the exact same as do those in shooters with contemporary settings. Even the vehicles, like the Mark V tank, handle virtually the same as tanks in Battlefield 4. Battlefield 1 nixes truly original period gameplay in favor of taking the same gunplay mechanics used in previous games and giving them a century-old coat of paint. In this way, it’s not entirely fair to paint Call of Duty as being solely guilty of no innovation, because for all the novelty afforded by a World War I setting, Battlefield 1‘s guns and tactics haven’t changed since previous Battlefield games with modern settings. That’s a shame, because DICE had an opportunity to innovate older techniques of war and set Battlefield 1 further apart from its contemporaries.
Aside from the multiplayer aspect and its being refreshingly bug-free, Battlefield 1‘s biggest saving grace is its visuals. Indeed, the visuals are the only thing stopping this game from feeling completely like a new shooter disguised as an old-fashioned one. Few game development engines today can hold a candle to Electronic Arts’ proprietary Frostbite 3 engine, and DICE has put it to spectacular effect in Battlefield 1. The game’s environments are saturated with multiple layers of light and smoke, and the textures are unparalleled, espousing realistically rendered mud, fires and environmental objects. Everything from the airplane levels’ cloudy vistas down to the Arab rebels’ sturdy mounts has been rendered in exquisite detail, leaving players with no shortage of things to gawk at. Like DICE’s other games, Battlefield 1 may not have all that much substance, but its spectacle is absolutely gorgeous.
The other specialty that DICE has developed over the years is its sound design. The game’s palette of sound effects works in perfect tandem with the visuals, producing ear-shattering explosions and cannon roars to accompany the smoke and flames. As with Star Wars Battlefront, DICE did an exemplary job of leveraging sound to produce a visceral combat experience, reinforcing the feeling of being in an actual, chaotic battlefield. Even if Battlefield 1‘s gameplay is surprisingly pedestrian, the onslaught of sights and sounds ringing all around the player still makes this game a thrill ride. The music contains the quick strings and deep horns that one might expect from a film scored by Hans Zimmer, and it’s similarly well-placed within the game.
Even though Battlefield 1 gets points just for deviating away from the futuristic motif drowning the FPS genre these days, its innovation, like its beauty, is only skin-deep. Beneath the antiquated war cries and century-old aesthetic lies a game that is in lockstep with titles set in modern times. Its World War I setting is beautiful, but deceptive. It offers the tiniest single-player campaign of any Triple-A shooter in years, and its undercooked war stories never capitalize on their own emotional potential. The game’s multiplayer returns in roaring good form, but whether its own twists on the formula are worth sixty bucks is a matter of subjectivity. Shooter fans will probably enjoy Battlefield 1 just fine, but contrary to what its visuals imply, it doesn’t truly offer anything new.
You can buy Battlefield 1 here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.