Battlefield 1 is as equally ugly as it is beautiful.
War is a terrible thing. I won’t even begin to try to relate to those who have gone to war and experienced it firsthand. Battlefield 1 does a chillingly brilliant job of not only realizing the horrors of World War One, but also honoring the men and women who endured it.
The Battlefield series is most popular for its large scale online multiplayer, but this year’s rendition gets more personal with 6 different (miniature) Campaign stories that take place across multiple war ravaged landscapes. Each story centers around one character controlled by the player, and that character’s team. Battlefield calls these more intimate short campaigns “War Stories”.
There are five stories in whole (six if you include the intro); each with its own unique protagonist, and each lasting anywhere from 1-2 hours a piece. With such a short time to spend with five different characters you might think it difficult to form any kind of attachment to them – you’d think wrong.
The intro campaign is there for just two reasons: To familiarize you with the game’s mechanics, and to set the tone - the grim, intense, brutal tone. It does this with an opening statement that essentially says “You are on the frontline. You are not expected to survive.” You are then dropped into play as one of many Harlem Hellfighters. The scenario: a hoard of German soldiers charge the artillery battered frontlines of France, and you are tasked with the impossible: hold the line.
The muddy earth is torn up from its roots, only ruins exist where homes once stood; leagues of bodies are strewn about and mixed in with loose dirt, rubble, and shell casings. The tension is palpable. Screams pulsate around you from all directions full of pain, anger, and fear. The only things that dampen the shouts is the crack of gunfire, and the constant thundering of artillery barrages. It is total chaos. I wouldn’t have known who I was firing upon if it weren’t for the Germans distinctive helmets. It’s a crazy intense way to get you very quickly acquainted with the war.
The cherry on top of this all? You die. A lot. You die and each time you do the screen fades to black and reveals the name of the person you were controlling, their date of birth, and the current day – the day they died. This happens many times in this opening sequence. Even if you are a skilled player you’re going to die. Although this part in the campaigns narrative fails to create any real bond with the Harlem Hellfighter pictured in the opening cinematic (you never actually play as him from what I can tell) it develops the character that is the war itself. This opening hellish war story drops you into the war at its ugliest and makes it known that this isn’t even a fraction of the hell that was ‘The War to End All Wars’.
The rest of the game is equally as intense, if not more. In the remaining war stories, you develop more of a bond to the characters you play as and their companions. In the campaign ‘Through Mud and Blood’ you play a former chauffeur who has volunteered as a British tank driver. Together with the crew of “Black Bess”, the given name of the Mark V tank, you plunge into German lines to reach a strategic hold in France during The Battle of Cambrai. ‘Nothing is Written’ takes a more stealth approach to Battlefield as you play a Bedouin rebel working closely with the British officer known as Lawrence of Arabia to overthrow the Ottoman occupation of the Arabian Peninsula. But my favorite was ‘Friends in High Places’. You play an American pilot/gambler/swindler who manages to con his way into the British Air Force. There’s a little bit of everything in this War Story – aerial and ground combat, stealth, and even a part where you must make it through No Man’s Land alive. It’s. fucking. INTENSE. HOLY. CRAP. I’ll stop talking about it there; the less you know going into it the better.
Battlefield 1’s War Stories at each moment are sublimely written, and are a masterclass of gameplay and character development. There isn’t a moment that feels lazy or sloppy when it comes to the story. EA Dice does a phenomenal job at bringing you into each moment, and making you feel like you’re there. This isn’t solely due to the writing, but also largely in part due to the fantastic sound design and gameplay.
The game is graphically stunning. It’s one of the best-looking games on console to date. The Frostbite engine was previously used in EA’s Star Wars Battlefront, and, as I’m sure you already know, the environments in that game were damn near flawless. The same thing is true for Battlefield 1. Everything is meticulously detailed, down to even the grit and mud caked onto your gun, or the raindrops dripping from its pocked barrel. There are occasionally spots that don’t look as good as others; sometimes it’s all too obvious where the developers were counting on you to focus your attention, but it doesn’t happen all that often and is an understandable sacrifice made given the limitations of the hardware. These spots of less attention are usually away from where your missions focus is anyways so it doesn’t pull you out of the experience often, if at all.
So, the game looks good, so what? The important part is that it plays well, right? Yes. And you bet your ass it plays well. The controls are very responsive and intuitive; they don’t do anything different than your usual FPS which is comforting when you’re using a rifle that looks like a combination of a shotgun and a slide-projector. Despite its setting in the early 1900’s it plays like a modern shooter and controls very fluidly until the moment calls for heavier, clunky movements (i.e. using a heavy rifle, driving a toaster-shaped tank, wearing heavy armor). The game doesn’t change the genre – it doesn’t need to. It takes the genre back to when you had to use iron sites; back to when falling damage was a thing. It’s refreshing to play a game where not everything feels crisp and shiny and new. If I had one disappointment, it’s that I didn’t get to play a campaign entirely from a trench. I know, that could have been very boring, and would be awkward to set a pace to, but I wanted that! I wanted to feel afraid of the artillery barrages, and the gas bombs, and the tanks rolling over head. I feel like there was a missed opportunity on a very raw, muddy, fucked up combat in the trenches, but there’s always time for that in DLC! Maybe!?
Battlefield 1 is one of the best games to come out this year and presents a refreshing, much needed change of pace for the genre. The War Stories are excellently written in not only narrative, but also from a game design perspective. The pacing is excellent and there isn't a moment that feels unnecessary or overused. The game plays like a dream and is simple enough to jump into, and a joy to master. It is graphically stunning, and has some of the best audio production in a game. Every single sound feels unique whether it's the crunching of gravel under your boots, the whoosh of a plane nearly colliding into yours, or the scraping of metal as you exchange your empty clip for a full one. I still have a ton of collectibles to go back through the single player and get, and I've hardly touched the online multiplayer, but judging from what I have tried I wont be done with this Battlefield 1 for a long time.
I played on PS4, but it's also available on Xbox One and PC. Battlefield 1 has been out for a couple weeks now, and I realize this review is late, but I got my copy very late. That's what happens when you accidentally ask for a review copy from the UK office... We live and we learn, people. Go get it now if you haven't already, and I'll see you on the battlefield.