They Shall Not Pass is a victory lap of sorts for Battlefield 1, arguably last year's best shooter this side of Overwatch.
Battlefield 1 was proof that a World War I shooter could be both faithful to its source material and fun to play. It was bold, chaotic, and a major breath of fresh air after years of modern military and sci-fi shooters. And Battlefield 1's first bit of DLC, which enters early access on March 14, doubles down on one of World War I's most iconic tropes: its trenches.
Yes, the one element of World War I that everyone said would never work in a modern shooter is actually one of its most popular features. Even DICE is surprised by how popular trenches have proven. But they've dutifully responded by making trenches a major feature in the DLC. And they work.
As it turns out, it's a lot of fun to duck in and around trenches as mortar fire and grenades explode all around you. They make the terrain look war-torn and rugged, adding to the flavor of desperate struggle; and while trenches make for great defensive fortifications, it's also a lot of fun to sneak up behind someone ducking for cover in one and knife them. They also tend to serve as major concentration points, especially around flags, resulting in bigger and more chaotic battles.
Trenches are a prominent feature in three out of four of the DLC's new maps. In Verdun, giant piles of rubble mix with broken trenches to create a kind of terrifying moonscape, a fiery hellscape burning in the background. In Fort Vaux, you actually go under the trenches and barbed wire to fight beneath the remains of a shattered fort, where battles rage both above and below. And in Rupture, you return to the site of a former battle, now overgrown with foliage and roses. It's an eerie and beautiful sight that brings to mind poems written by the Lost Generation as they surveyed abandoned battlefields in the wake of World War I.
In real life, of course, trenches were scenes of unimaginable slaughter as wave after wave of young men were sent to be ground up by barbed wire, machine guns, and artillery. It was in the real-life Battle of Verdun that some 160,000 French soldiers were sent into the meatgrinder, which amounted to close to half of France's death toll in World War I. Verdun's unimaginable slaughter is one reason detractors figured a World War I shooter would never work. Who wants to charge a trench and get mowed down by a machine gun?
But as in Battlefield 1 proper, the DLC makes it work, mostly because fixed fortifications don't play nearly as prominent a role as they did in the real war. You still hear the famous whistle exhorting you to charge, and you are still hounded by snipers and mortar fire, but machine guns are few and far between. Which is not to say that Battlefield I's setting is totally superfluous. Indeed, the desperate back and forth of the DLC's new Frontline mode—a hybrid of Battlefield's familiar Rush and Conquest modes—recalls the ferocious battles that often erupted around a small patch of land during World War I. And artillery is now a greater factor thanks to massive player-controlled siege guns that can be utilized in one of the DLC's two new operations—The Devil's Anvil.
But with They Shall Not Pass, you can sense DICE growing more comfortable with the setting as they make World War I a more and more prominent part of their design. Verdun in particular is a classic World War I setting, its elaborate trenches and gloomy backdrop making it arguably the most interesting and impactful Battlefield 1 map so far. The French Army, arguably the most important antagonist in World War I, is another important addition in that regard. They were an odd omission from the original game, so it's good to see them here in their signature blue, their massive tanks decked out in the familiar tricolour (one of the DLC's optional skins).
When asked why it took this long to get the French in Battlefield 1, DICE's official line was that they wanted to tell untold stories from the war—which is fair enough—but multiplayer maps like the Argonne Forest, which bear a heavy resemblance to woodsy Battlefield maps gone by, tell me that they also kind of wanted to stay in their comfort zone. If the setting didn't work, then at least it could superficially resemble a more traditional Battlefield game. To be honest, strong as they were, even maps like St. Quentin's Scar felt like they could have been in any other Battlefield game. Verdun is DICE truly embracing the War to End All Wars.
Having eased their way into World War I, DICE now seems ready to make it work for the multiplayer in the same way that it does the single-player. And that means focusing on some of the biggest battles of the war.
So should you buy it?
As a lapsed Battlefield 1 player, I found it a lot of fun to jump back into the chaos of World War I. All four of the new maps are great in one way or another, with even the least memorable of the lot—Soissons—still being an entertaining battle in the traditional Battlefield mold. I have fought through many a small village in Battlefield, but that doesn't mean I'm tired of it. Verdun, meanwhile, is one of the most memorable Battlefield 1 maps so far.
Aside from the four new maps and the two new operations, They Shall Not Pass also introduces the aforementioned Frontlines mode, which proves to be a smart addition. The new mode is a kind of a tug of war that begins with a battle over a single capture point, with the losing team being forced to retreat while the winning team advances. If one team pushes the other all the way back, they earn the opportunity to destroy their opponent's telegraph machines. It's confusing at first, but you're apt to get into the swing of things after a round or two. I liked the way that the mode managed to be fast-paced while still feeling essentially Battlefield, which makes me want to revisit it again in the future.
Beyond that, there are the usual array of expansion additions: new guns like the Assault class's viciously powerful Ribeyerolles 1918, which is effective both up close and from afar; new tanks like the French St. Chamond assault tank, and a new behemoth in the Char 2C—a slow moving mega tank capable of annihilating enemy armor in just one or two hits. At an expected $15 for the standalone version ($50 for the Premium Pass), it's fairly pricey, but probably worth it if you want to keep up with the broader multiplayer community.
While I wasn't a big fan of any of Battlefield 4's content, Battlefield expansions have traditionally been very strong, with additions like Battlefield Bad Company 2 Vietnam being legend among the fans. They're often strong investments; and with DICE seemingly being back on its game, it figures to be more of the same with Battlefield 1. With the Premium Pass early access version kicking off tomorrow, and the expansion seeing a full release on March 28, now seems like as good a time as any to jump back in.
My impressions of Battlefield 1's 'They Shall Not Pass' DLC is based on the time I spent with it at an event hosted by EA. I will be keeping an eye on it as it arrives in the wild and offering updates. But based on what I played over the course of a day, I'm pretty much back in on Battlefield 1.