In this day and age of giant walking tank battles, armies comprised of or assisted by robots, space warfare and exo-suits EA and DICE did something arguably novel when they released the awkwardly titled Battlefield 1, a game set way back in World War 1.
It’s been a long time since we’ve seen a game set in the 1900s let alone way back in the “Great War” of a hundred years ago.
When it was announced there was a lot of speculation on whether or not EA and DICE could handle the sensitive subject matter pertaining to one of the darkest times in all of humanity’s collective history. World War 1 was absolutely brutal as the world shifted from single shot rifles and horseback led charges to massive artillery barrages, gas attacks and the horrors of trench warfare.
Did they succeed in presenting the war respectfully and in the right light while also giving the consumer an enjoyable video game?
Well…unfortunately the answer is far from a simple yes or no.
Battlefield games, especially the last two or three titles, have not exactly been known for the strength of their single player campaigns. By all accounts 2015’s Battlefield: Hardline (or Battlefield: Cops and Robbers as I’ve heard plenty of people disdainfully call it) had an atrocious campaign revolving around a drug war and my personal experience found the buggy and nonsensical campaign of 2013’s Battlefield 4 to be extremely disappointing. In my discussions with friends I’ve recently heard 2011’s Battlefield 3 evoked as the last good campaign but while I admit it wasn’t bad it certainly wasn’t memorably either, feeling more like a collection of “moments” scattered among a by-the-numbers Call of Duty campaign clone.
For my money, and after all this is my blog, the last really good campaign in a Battlefield game can found in 2010’s Bad Company 2.
Battlefield 1’s campaign falls between the merely “okay” Battlefield 3 and the solid Bad Company 2.
The campaign is presented in an interesting style, breaking the story into five core yet separate parts (six if you count the intro segment, seven if you include the closing video presentation and credits). When you fire the game up for the first time you are presented with a violent cutscene showing the up-close nature of the war and a series of facts/comments about how brutal the war was, the incredible loss of life it resulted in and the utter futility of war.
You are then told you are being thrown into frontline combat and that you are not meant to survive. The battle is intense and no matter how well you play you will die. At death you are whisked into the body of another soldier on the field of combat and this pattern repeats five or so times before closing on two lone surviving soldiers facing-off among the ruined fields and shattered bodies.
From there you get to chose which of the five vignettes you wish to play next, each focusing on a different soldier: the driver of a tank crew in the British army, an American pilot with a roguish nature, an Italian foot solider reminiscing about a battle, an aging Australian taking a young man under his wing and a Bedouin rebel working directly for the famed T.E. Lawrence. Even though these vignettes are numbered, they do not have to be played sequentially.
In my opinion this was an interesting way to handle the campaign. World War 1 was absolutely massive and would have been very difficult to tell as a single cohesive story so breaking it up into these separate vignettes was probably the best way to cover the most ground in the truly global conflict.
Unfortunately not all vignettes are as strong as others.
My personal favorites were the tank crew, the Italian solider and the Bedouin rebel. The tank chapters were definitely at their strongest when you were actively using the tank but suffer a little when you are placed outside the tank and are either tasked with escorting it through the woods in heavy fog or when you need to steal repair parts from a village occupied by hostile forces. The Italian soldier segment suffers a bit from tonal dissonance as the story it tells really taps into the human aspects of the war but the gameplay is pure power fantasy. That said I still really enjoyed it for what it was, as there is something undeniably cool about marching around in a suit of armor with a powerful machine gun. The Bedouin campaign opened with one of the surprisingly common stealth segments. It followed this initial stealth segment with another stealth based segment, one that was arguably the most directly in my face with one of my big gripes (I’ll discuss this more in a moment) and wrapped up with a straight-up “boss fight”, this last segment was actually my favorite part of the entire vignette and saved it from being one of the lesser segments in my eyes.
The other two vignettes were not nearly as strong. I largely disliked the pilot segment, not caring one bit for their sudden use of the “unreliable narrator” trope in the narrative it wove. I did like the final sequence of the vignette but unlike the Bedouin sequence I felt the overall gameplay of the segment didn’t work for me. The Australian segment had characters I quite liked, namely the grizzled old veteran message runner Frederick Bishop and his young charge Jack Foster. While I enjoyed the dynamic between the elder Bishop and the young Foster I felt the actual gameplay of this vignette was incredibly lame, in its simplistic shoot these guys, run over here, run back here, run over there again, shoot some more guys structure. At least the rest of the vignettes attempted to do something new and mix-up their formulas, this one just felt way too by-the-numbers and almost like a filler segment to round out the campaign.
Taken as a whole I quite enjoyed the campaign but collectively it has two big problems for me.
The first is that it is entirely too short, clocking in at somewhere between five and six hours. You can get more out of it if you focus on picking up all the collectibles and maybe if you are are determined to pull off the stealthy bits flawlessly but frankly the campaign just isn’t that long. I would have loved to have spent more time with some of these characters in longer form stories and find it a real shame that things wrapped up as quickly as they did.
The other major problem with the campaign is that many of the single player levels are ripped straight from the multiplayer. The 2nd and 3rd Bedouin levels in particular are taken straight from the Sinai map (the enemy camp to the left of the start point is the spawn point for one side, the far off camp is “G” flag on the multiplayer). While this is far from a crime, I much prefer my shooters to give me maps based on levels from the campaign. I just happen to find it much more satisfying when done that way and find it irksome that they plainly just dumped some single player objectives into the multiplayer maps.
I guess that brings me to the multiplayer.
Battlefield has always been a game about its multiplayer. In the past I have put an obscene amount of time into the Battlefield multiplayer, especially Bad Company 2 and Battlefield 3 (I put a fair bit of time into BF4 as well but not nearly as much as the other two).
Battlefield 1 feels like it started development as a proper Battlefield game and then some Battlefront got mixed in and then some other random (and unwanted) changes occurred and what came out was a weird Battlefield-ish game that no doubt will appeal to some and turn away others.
This is not a Battlefield game for everyone.
As I said, they made some changes to the much beloved formula and frankly your mileage may vary on how well they work.
Gone is the traditional ticket counter in conquest. Instead of seeing an ever shrinking pool of available respawns you now have an ascending “score” that appears to climb faster based on the number of flags your team has captured. Not only does this change the flow of the matches but it fundamentally changes the medic class as in the past you could prevent ticket bleed by reviving fallen comrades. Also at the end of the match the final score screen shows “flags captured” and “squad respawns” but says nothing of how they effect the score. I’ve seen more than one match lost where my team had one or both categories “won” so I have little idea why they are so prominently displayed on the screen.
New to the series are elite units, which take the form of “pick-ups” on the map. These essentially are Battlefield’s answer to the hero units in Battlefront. Much like in the Star Wars game, these units are overpowered bullet sponges that can wreck a full squad with little trouble. In fact the only way I’ve found to take them down instantly is to run them over with a vehicle (check out the video at the end for a glimpse of this). Frankly as cool as it is to run around in a suit of armor with a machine gun (exactly like in the single player campaign) or a flamethrower I don’t find these units to be a welcome addition.
Also new are the behemoths, large multi-person vehicles that essentially exist to help the losing team turn the tide but many of them are so far removed from the flags in conquest that they just end up being interesting distractions from the main objective.
The leveling and progression systems have been reworked as well and in my opinion they haven’t been changed for the better. Instead of granting you new guns and attachments as you climb through the levels you are given a set amount of warbonds that can then be used to purchase new guns, grenades, melee weapons and class based tools that are also unlocked by progressing through the game. I feel like this is done simply because there aren’t nearly the amount of different weapons in this iteration as there have been in the past.
Those are the big changes that stick out to me right now but there are a litany of small things that detract from the game. Often times the squads on the team menu are locked, which is particularly bothersome when you jump into a game alone and need to squad up with random players. I played three matches yesterday unable to join a single squad on my team, leaving me without the core mechanic of being able to spawn on other soldiers. The horse unit really needs to be nerfed a number of ways, its health needs to be dropped and the sabre attack the rider can wield is way too powerful. Most of the maps work for me but both Sinai and Suez Canal maps need to be reworked ASAP. Sinai is simply bad almost entirely due to the placement of the flags but Suez is horrific. I’ve yet to see a balanced or back and forth match on that map, one side or the other takes two or all three flags and the other gets stomped into the dirt every single time it has come up in a server rotation.
All that said I still have had my share of fun with the multiplayer. While it isn’t exactly what I wanted from the franchise and its return to historic warfare, the problems I have with it aren’t enough to make me hate the game. Since BF3 I’ve not seen a Battlefield game launch at its optimum level, usually several patches have to roll out before the game hits that perfect stride. As it obviously remains to be seen just what will happen with this game in future, I find myself optimistic that a more polished experience is on the horizon.
Yes it is disappointing that the game doesn’t quite live up to my expectations but in the release it broken, fix it later era we now live in, few games do.
Final Verdict: 6 out of 10. Battlefield 1 is a slightly above average offering from the EA/DICE team. If you can keep an open mind you might find enjoyment in this game in spite of the flaws it undeniably has. Did I want this to be a 10? You betcha, unfortunately it isn’t by a long shot but I still enjoy it quite a bit and will be playing it often into the future.
Check out the video below for a brief look at the highlights I collected during the time I was working on this review.