World War I was one of the most brutal conflicts in all of human history. In describing the battlefield for his audience, Hardcore History host Dan Carlin likened it to Mordor. So in bringing the war to end all wars to mainstream gaming, it's only appropriate that Battlefield 1 should start out by having you die. A lot.
Battlefield 1's prologue opens with a succession of soldiers dying in the mud amid doomed trench charges and exploding tanks, which serves to drive home the feeling that this is not business as usual for the series. We're a long way from the fighters jets and high technology of Battlefield 3 and 4. This is the series as it began close to 15 years ago: down and dirty. And when it sticks to that, it's awesome. It's only when it begins to cheat that it gets into trouble.
As always, Battlefield 1 is a sprawling series that mixes tanks, boats, and planes with class-based first-person action. It's meant to feel big and overwhelming with its disorienting explosions, collapsing buildings, and rumbling tanks. And with 64 people on the field, even the largest maps never feel empty. On the contrary, they feel positively chaotic.
But in moving the setting to World War I, Battlefield 1 feels even more amplified and intense. When you hear the scream of a bayonet charge, the hair on the back of your neck will stand straight. You'll laugh at a horse charging around the field until their sword suddenly flashes and your head is separated from your body. It is in some ways a return to the franchise's roots, and in others a total breath of fresh air. After years of modern-day and futuristic shooters, it feels great to be on a historical battlefield again.
Mud and Blood
In keeping with the franchise's renewed focus on history, Battlefield 1's single-player campaign in some ways feels like a history special. Rather than tell the story of one soldier or company, it opts to move from the French countryside to the skies above London to the Middle East as it tells its series of self-contained tales. I've played about half of them so far; and while they certainly have their moments, they're also a little too business as usual for my tastes.
To wit, after the conclusion of the prologue, the first story casts you in the role of a young tank driver fighting behind enemy lines. You are essentially on your own as you roll through the countryside, periodically stopping to repair your tank as it breaks down. It's fine, but it's also the type of mission that you would find in one of the older Call of Duties, even going so far as to have you sneak around an enemy camp hunting for fuses. It's not the type of mission I would associate with World War I.
On the flipside, "Friends in High Places," which features a gambler impersonating a pilot, has a really excellent mission where you have to make your through No Man's Land—the bloodsoaked area between the Allied and German trenches. True, it's yet another stealth mission—Battlefield 1 is loaded with them—but it feels a bit more in keeping with the setting. Less interesting are the flight segments, which effectively turn your plane into an X-wing. I've often thought about what bugs me about campaigns in first-person shooters, and I think the answer is that they just feel too much like arcade games. In trying to appeal to uber casual gamers, they sacrifice anything remotely resembling the challenge and depth that drives their multiplayer modes. Battlefield 1 falls into that trap more than I would like.
Still, I like what EA have done with their war stories. I like that we see much more than the Somme and Verdun and the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. In effect, EA has turned their campaign into a history lesson, offering glimpses of forgotten battles like the Italian offensive in the Alps while lecturing on subjects like the famous Lost Generation—the survivors who grew up in the wake of the trauma of World War I. It's obvious that they thought a lot about how to portray The Great War in a videogame context, and I appreciate that. It's only when they go back to the standard first-person shooter playbook that I start to get annoyed.
Land of the Dead
In some ways, the same can be said for Battlefield 1's multiplayer. Bolt action rifles dominated World War I; and for all the advances of that era, they were still a long way from the weapons that would dominate World War II. But in an effort to diversify the weapon selection as much as possible, DICE has dug deep and introduced a variety of experimental guns, the practical effect being that you won't have to part with your precious LMGs and submachine guns. It speaks to DICE's unwillingness to fully commit to the concept of World War I shooter, pushing them to cut corners wherever possible. But in the end, it doesn't matter all that much.
What matters is that the old Battlefield is back. This is the Battlefield of close-range dogfights, dynamite, and pitched battles over piles of rubble with a flag sticking out. There are no helicopters, guided missiles, or night vision scopes. And you know what? I'm glad. I'm tired of climbing into a tank and having ten different people lock onto me at once. If they're going to blow me up, I want them to earn it.
The back to basics approach fits nicely with Battlefield's other biggest strength: its scope. You'll see tanks rumbling through the streets and fighter planes circling in the air as you frantically fight from house to house in an effort to hold onto your precious flags. It feels like absolute chaos, and just staying alive for a few moments can be a big challenge. Still, if you stick with your team and you're willing to play support, you can make some meaningful contributions even if you're not the best shot.
In that vein, the traditional classes—Assault, Medic, Support, and Scout—return to Battlefield 1, albeit with some modifications. In particular, Battlefield 1's classes are more specialized this time around, with no one class able to do anything. Assault is great at close range but weak at long range, losing their rifle grenades to the Media. Support, meanwhile, can throw ammo, repair vehicles, and suppress enemies with their LMGs, but they've lost their ability to attack and destroy tanks. It's frustrating in how constraining it can be, but perhaps necessary—the synergy between classes are much more apparent now.
Of course, as you level up, Battlefield 1 begins to fall back on its old ways a bit. High-powered scoped riles and LMGs become prevalent, and it starts to bear more of a resemblance to its modern counterparts. Perhaps this was inevitable, but it still made me roll my eyes a bit. But there are other little touches keep it from feeling too derivative. Gas, for instance, is an omnipresent threat, and donning your gas mask keeps you from aiming down your sights, which feels like an appropriate tradeoff. There are also the aforementioned bayonet charges, which are at once awesome to behold and totally chilling.
And in keeping with its World War I theme, Battlefield 1 introduces behemoths—massive weapons that will arrive to aid the losing side of a battle. They include a battleship, an airship, and an armored train, and they're all capable of doing great damage without single-handedly swinging the course of the battle. Of them all, the airship is probably the most annoying, able to cut directly across the field and rain death from above, but it also makes for a gigantic target. The train, meanwhile, rarely seems to do much of anything, mostly because its stuck on a defined route. All three feel appropriate for the era—the Germans famously used Zeppelins to bomb London during World War I—and are effective without being overpowered. They're also genuinely imposing, further adding to Battlefield 1's sense of scope.
In general, I think there's a lot to like about Battlefield 1. It retains the best parts of the series—the vehicles, the scope, the weightiness of the action—while shaking things up just enough to be interesting. Whenever I start to grouse about it being too modern, I see a horse gallop past or a biplane fly overhead and I smile. This is Battlefield as it should be: a chance to dive into a series of historical battles and have fun.