The crude, archaic charm of World War I’s weaponry lends unique personality to Battlefield’s already strong first-person shooting.
Battlefield’s formula for large-scale, objective-driven warfare is as intense and theatrical as ever against the haunting, archaic backdrop of World War I. Battlefield 1’s single-player campaign is a short but pleasantly surprising anthology of small, human stories that does a good job spotlighting some of the key technology of the era.
Storm of Steel, the prologue mission, sets this up with a tragic honesty. You take on the role of several members of the US 369th Infantry, an all-black regiment known as the Harlem Hellfighters. I was happy to see the historic importance of these soldiers, mostly made up of African-American and Puerto Rican-American men, recognized so early on, but I would have preferred to see their rarely-told tale saved for a full, character-driven mission.
As you and your fellow Hellfighters desperately try to push back the incoming German forces, you’ll meet death time and time again, but it won’t necessarily be your fault. Sometimes death is awkwardly forced upon you if you end up surviving longer than the script expects, because death is part of the plan. At least it’s handled poignantly. While Storm of Steel effectively works as a way to introduce you to some Battlefield basics — how to shoot, reposition, and reload — its grim reminders of World War I’s overwhelming death toll establishes the tragic tone.
The first story-driven mission, Through Mud and Blood, is by far the weakest when it comes to character, and the huge jump in quality that follows makes me wonder why DICE kept this one as the opening to begin with. The answer is probably familiarity — you play as Daniel Edwards, a young, inexperienced soldier part of a British Mark V tank unit pushing through German lines into Cambrai, France.
Edwards makes a cliche leap from a rookie struggling to operate the clunky Mark V to a one-man army who ends up bearing the brunt of his tank unit’s mission: going on foot to scout out enemy encampments, battling enemy infantry and FT-17s while his tank, Black Bess, demands repair, and finally holding out against waves of enemy vehicles in a wrecked trainyard. Not that the slow heaviness of the tanks isn’t fun — that last section in the trainyard is actually the first mission’s high point.
It’s a thrilling battle that had me desperately weaving my clunky Mark V in and out of cover, hopping out to repair with a wrench (a quicker, but consequently riskier alternative to repairing from inside), and swerving around my opponents to get a better shot of their tanks’ less-armored rears.
bird segment was meant as a way to teach you how to operate biplanes, but that comes later, in the much stronger second level, Friends in High Places, which excels in both gameplay and storytelling. It’s a level that’s full of high points — figuratively and literally. You spend most of your time in the air as a cocky American pilot who has infiltrated the British Royal Flying Corps for his own amusement, and the chance to fly the Bristol F2.A biplane fighter. Flying any of Battlefield 1’s biplanes, in single- and multiplayer, is a freeing experience. They cut through the air smooth as butter and control with ease and precision.
As the American troublemaker narrated his escapades with his unsuspecting British co-pilot, I tore through the sky shooting down German aces, leading them full-speed towards barrage blimps before pulling up and watching them crash, while still taking the time to swoop down and bomb the anti-aircraft trucks below.
Soldiers charge over fields, tanks roam the streets, and fighter planes dive and spiral overhead. On the micro level, squad leaders issue orders, medics rush in to revive downed teammates, and snipers lay prone in what they hope is an unnoticed spot. Teams win or lose based on their ability to work together, to push on the objective, to fully utilise a broad spectrum of class roles. All of these are things that, if you’ve played any Battlefield game, you have seen and done hundreds of times before. The pace and style have shifted, but only when judged within the constraints of what a Battlefield game is.
Take, for instance, the destruction of buildings—a recurring feature of Battlefield games. Once again, buildings are vulnerable to explosions, be it tank fire, aerial bombings or just old fashioned dynamite. But, as my pigeon calls in an artillery strike, the buildings are levelled beyond anything I experienced in Battlefield 4. Only partial bits of wall and staircase survive. In the thick of the action, Battlefield 1 feels chaotic, deadly and destructive.
It’s a better infantry game, too. The key to this is the early-20th century weapons, and, paradoxically, how much worse they are. Guns here are less effective than their 21st century counterparts, and Battlefield 1 is better for it. Each weapon has its strength, but its weaknesses are more notable. A sniper’s headshot is a guaranteed kill, but every rifle available to the scout class is bolt action. If you miss, you waste precious seconds refilling the chamber while your target is finding cover.
For me, it’s a change for the better. If I’m under fire, I appreciate the chance to get away. If I’m sniping, I’m too enamoured with the satisfaction of using a bolt action rifle to mind that I’m working harder for each kill. Once again, DICE’s sound design is extraordinary. The sense of power implied by each weapon’s audio and animations makes most guns a pleasure to use. I predominantly play medic, and the selection of semi-automatic rifles feel gratifyingly hefty, even as I struggle against their kick.
Audio has always been a big part of the series, and Battlefield 1 is no different. Specific sounds cues become crucial for processing the carnage of war, from the scream of a soldier in the midst of a bayonet charge, to the distinctive zip of a sniper’s bullet narrowly missing your head. It allows you to parse important details invisibly, and makes the game feel better to play. Whether it’s the low rumble of a tank’s engine, or the cacophony of a high rate-of-fire LMG, everything sounds powerfully lethal—providing additional texture to the onscreen action.
The reworked weapons have a greater skill ceiling, and, because of that, your class choice and loadout feel more important. Each role has a stronger identity, and often excels at a different range. And even within those categories, it’s possible to tailor for specific playstyles. The assault class can wield shotguns, for the up-close-and-personal touch, or submachine guns for a slight increase to mid-range efficacy. The LMG of the support class is great for laying down suppressing fire, but some models have better hip-fire accuracy for a more mobile loadout. The armoury may not be as large, but you’re still rewarded for finding the gun that supports how you want to play.
The additional tools you carry feel more important, too. If you’re playing medic, you’ll likely stick with the tried and tested medibag and reviving syringe. But other classes have access to a broad range of kit. The assault has a variety of options for damaging vehicles. The scout, meanwhile, is a pure troll, able to carry everything from tripwire mines to a decoy head that reveals the location of any soldier shooting at it. Such options open up a greater degree of customisation, allowing you to further define your actions and how they work in conjunction with the team as a whole.
Arguably the most dramatic change for moment-to-moment play is the way vehicles interact with the battlefield at large. Planes, tanks and horses (a horse is a sort of vehicle, right?) are selected directly from the spawn menu, and vehicles feel less numerous than in previous games. Part of that is likely the absence of shoulder-mounted rocket launchers, making it harder for infantry to take down a tank. In addition, drivers can now repair tanks and planes (but not horses) from inside the vehicle. The upshot is that a careful driver in a fully manned heavy tank can be a significant problem, able to easily push forward a team’s front line. But lose a tank carelessly and it could be some time before a new one will spawn.
The balance here feels pretty good. Yes, tanks are a threat, but they should be. From an infantry perspective, it adds to the chaos and panic. Tanks in Battlefield 1 feel like they’re designed to make infantry combat more exciting. Where previous Battlefield games have been about combined arms warfare, Battlefield 1 is focused more on the infantry experience. Tanks and planes are significant, but not constant. Rather, they’re a frequent peak (or, depending on which side you’re on, a trough) along the timeline of a match that feels like it’s mostly about the ground troops. Maybe my perception of this is slightly off, though. One of the major consequences of the vehicle spawn timers, and the way they’re selected from the menu, is that I rarely get the chance to experience a battle from the driver’s seat.The 10 maps each offer a different set of challenges and considerations, whether it’s the varied elevation of the mountainous Monte Grappa, the large, defendable mansion of Ballroom Blitz, or the wide, open expanses of Sinai Desert. I’m yet to bore of any, helped largely by the multitude of styles, and the way the boundaries are redrawn based on the game mode. The strangest consequence of the maps used are the armies involved. In multiplayer, you’ll play as British, Germans, Austro-Hungarians, Italians, Ottomans, and Americans. The French and Russians are conspicuous by their absence. For what it’s worth, the French are planned for a future DLC expansion. Nevertheless, it feels like a strange decision to exclude them from the base game, given their major role in a real war that actually happened.Once again, Conquest and Rush are main multiplayer draws, with Team Deathmatch, Domination and War Pigeons providing a secondary, infantry-only experience. As usual, Team Deathmatch feels out of place, offering a simpler, objective-free match type in a game that really doesn’t support that style. Battlefield is at its best when you’re working towards objectives, collaborating with your squad to sneakily back cap a point or arm a comm station.
In addition to War Pigeons, Battlefield 1 offers another new mode—this one significantly larger and better. Operations are a multimap combination of Rush and Conquest that challenges attacking teams to liberate sectors. Attackers must capture all sectors, in sequence, across multiple maps. If they fail they use up one of their three attempts, but, on each subsequent attempt, spawn with a ‘behemoth’—massive, deadly vehicles that are different based on the map currently in play.
Behemoths are a cool addition, responsible for some of Battlefield 1’s most spectacular moments. The best is a giant airship that looms over the map, raining down explosive fire with deadly accuracy. Its presence feels properly menacing, countered by the immense satisfaction that comes from bringing it down. Behemoths can also appear in conquest, where they spawn for whichever team slips too far behind in points.
Battlefield 1 is, at the most reductive level, still a Battlefield game. As such, it offers many of the same experiences as its (many, many) predecessors. Two things mitigate that. Firstly, Battlefield is an excellent template for a multiplayer shooter. Little provides the same sense of unpredictable sandbox drama, at least outside of more hardcore simulators such as Arma 3. Put simply, a Battlefield game is no bad thing to be. Secondly, little differences can have a big impact. Battlefield 1’s little differences mean better infantry combat, a heightened sense of destruction, and a pace that feels more deliberate and tactical. This is no simple rehash and replacement, and, while I appreciate Battlefield 4’s sense of scale, for me, Battlefield 1 is the better of the two.