Many have questioned developer DICE’s decision to create a game set during the First World War. In terms of both the general appropriateness of the subject matter and the specific issue of whether the century old technology is something that can translate to a modern, first person shooter. In both cases though DICE has fudged the issue enough that it becomes almost irrelevant. The inevitable consequence of which is that Battlefield 1 feels rather less unique than its early promise suggested.
At the same Battlefield 1 does feels appropriately old fashioned, although more in the context of the Battlefield franchise itself than actual history. With none of the complex command structure or technology of Battlefield 4, this new game is much closer to the original Battlefield 1942 in terms of gameplay and options. When playing in 64-player battles you can join a smaller squad of team-mates, which gives you the option of spawning next to an ally when you die, but beyond that it’s just you and your old timey gun against the world.
Not that any of the guns do feel that old fashioned. Although we’re sure DICE do have their historical excuses for most of the weaponry in the game there’s surprisingly little practical difference between using them and any of the more ordinary guns in the modern titles. Almost all are quick to load and acceptably accurate, and there are even what amounts to rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machineguns (not to mention what are essentially Battlefront style hero power-ups, that grant you the likes of a flamethrower or minigun stand-in).
These are no doubt meant to make existing fans feel at home. And yet we much preferred using the weirder, more obviously old-fashioned equipment. Especially the sniper rifle which you have to stop zooming in from in order to manually chamber another round.
By the same virtue tanks are actually more fun to drive and shoot than their modern day equivalents, and rickety-looking biplanes are far easier to control than any jet fighter or helicopter. In fact, the vehicles are a highlight across the board, with most ordinary infantry having no counter to the larger tanks and so no option but to run.
And then there’s the ‘behemoths’ which appear in a map to aid the currently losing team. The giant Zeppelins, destroyers, and armoured trains don’t manage to unbalance things though and ensure the outcome of a match never becomes too predictable.
Most of the modes are Battlefield mainstays, such as Conquest, Domination, and Rush, which again illustrates how little has really changed. There are some new options as well though, such as Operations, which sees you fighting to push or defend your frontline across a series of map sections. That feels reasonably authentic, while the War Pigeons mode – where you have to capture a pigeon, write a message, and release it; while being protected by your team-mates – is pure video game nonsense. And yet while it may not be in the least bit realistic it is one of the most entertaining additions.
As an old school multiplayer shooter Battlefield 1 works extremely well, as you’d expect from a team as experienced as DICE. But there are some surprising, if relatively mild, disappointments. The most obvious, arguably, is that while extremely good the graphics aren’t quite at the same standard as last year’s Star Wars: Battlefront. Which is surprising because the maps are relatively small for a mainline Battlefield game and the destruction effects are still more limited than 2010’s Bad Company 2.
Smaller buildings can be knocked through with a tank, and craters formed by explosions, but even that happens rarely. There’s not even any real equivalent to Battlefield 4’s ludicrously named Levolution moments, with most maps remaining largely static for the majority of a match.
Most of the maps are very well designed though, and we particularly enjoyed fighting in the bombed-out city of Amiens, the inappropriately pretty mountainsides of Monte Grappe, and the decadent beauty of Ballroom Blitz’s French chateau. Although we do feel that DICE has overcompensated in trying to prove that trench warfare was not all the First World War was about, as it actually feels underrepresented, especially in multiplayer. Although at least the dynamic weather system adds an interesting unpredictability to the action that the lack of destruction does not.
In terms of destruction and map size Battlefield 1 still offers more than most other first person shooters, but the game as a whole feels more like a side-step rather than a major step forward for the franchise. And that’s despite the fact that Battlefield 1 has arguably the best story campaign of any of the games (again, the other main competitor is Bad Company 2). The six non-linear chapters all focus on a different theatre and character, as well as one or two particular gameplay elements such as flying or stealth (a surprising amount of stealth, actually).
In terms of acknowledging the ambiguous morality of the war, the campaign tries to get the point across obliquely – through the various flawed characters and the bittersweet conclusions to each story. Which actually works fairly well, despite some basic writing and lots of obvious clichés. The reasons for the war, and who you’re actually fighting, are never really discussed, which wouldn’t be a problem except that you never really play as any of the Central Powers. Instead you only ever control characters who the propaganda of the time would’ve described as the ‘good guys’.
Although there are some sequences that take place in fairly open areas, for the majority of the campaign the maps feel very constrained and linear, with enemies sporting very simple artificial intelligence. The levels are usually strangely empty too, with the D-Day style Gallipoli landings somehow only involving three or four squad mates and the same number of defenders. And despite how much fun they are to ride, horses are extremely rare to see in either single or multiplayer and almost feel like an afterthought. Even though they’ve been marketed heavily ever since the game was announced.
But the complaints you can level against Battlefield 1 are almost solely about what it’s chosen not to do, rather than any problem with what it actually offers. The minor letdown at the lack of historical novelty or major gameplay innovation is countered by the fact that this is still a highly refined and entertaining multiplayer shooter. That in itself only underlines the fact that war, war never changes.