DICE and their Battlefield series have a reputation in gaming. Above all else, they create incredibly authentic experiences.
Not realistic. No. Other studios make realistic games, your ARMA, your Squad and Project Reality. They are fiddly, demand your sole attention and require detailed focus on perfect simulations of suppression and firefights.
Battlefield games capture the feeling of those things. With a decent headset and a little suspension of disbelief, you believe in what you’re playing.
Most of this comes down to technical work. In terms of graphical fidelity and sound design, Battlefield is unparalleled. The game is stunningly pretty. It’s not as realistic and defined as something like Call of Duty or Titanfall, but the overall style suits a broader scope. Not every buckle has to be seen when there’s 64 players swarming a map. Instead, the smaller, more appropriate details are focussed on. Sand shifts beneath feet and treads, mud splatters across weapons and equipment. When storms or fog roll into view, the game somehow amazes even further, as viewpoints are reduced with fine rain or sand. In moments like these, you have to rely heavily on ambient sounds and watching flares and shells streaking across the sky as flames strike up in the distance.
More than ever before, the sound design is perfectly appropriate. The soundscape design of previous Battlefield games is justly lauded, but now there’s a host of little details to make things even better.
The whistle that goes up from squad leads on commission of an order. The yelling of (what feels like) the entire team as the rounds begin and everyone charges forward.
If there are games that deserve surround sound headsets, Battlefield 1 is one of them.
But what of the gameplay? I mean it’s all well and good standing and staring, but it’s Battlefield.
You’re here to fight.
Well, normally, this is where I’d tell you to forget about the single-player campaign and just wing it on multiplayer conquest mode.
For the first time in years, neither of those are what you should do.
Battlefield 1 has a good single player campaign. It’s not perfect, I think it’s got plenty of flaws. But it’s definitely worth playing.
The game boots up with arguably the strongest campaign. You’re in the boots of a Harlem Hellfighter on the western front. The German forces are advancing. You have to hold them off. So you learn how to shoot, aim, move, throw grenades, crouch. You hold the line. You hold it right up until you can’t. Your character dies. A stark white message flashes up on the screen showing your character’s name, date of birth and date of death. The game continues as if it didn’t matter. A little reminder of the machinery of war.
It’s not exactly as powerful and affecting as I suspect DICE had hoped, but it’s a clever trick to have the player recognise the humanity behind the conflict. (Also, I love playing with respawn and death mechanics in games. More devs need to acknowledge the inherent weirdness in those functions)
From there, you’re treated to a very linear sequence of set combat scenarios where death continues the story and flashes a new death card. It’s a short, sharp introduction to the setting. That’s campaign one. There are six, hour-ish long stories about different aspects of the Great War. They vary in quality a touch.
They’ve very much adopted the Call of Duty model of having the single player campaign be a set up for the multiplayer mode. But rather than the gallery of toys you have in COD, here the player is guided through each of the roles they might have in the online modes.
So in one, you play an Italian Ardite. Heavily armoured, you learn how to attack fortified positions and capture points.
As a Canadian pilot, you learn how to fly, dogfight, bomb and shoot down planes.
An Australian runner has you delivering orders across a combat zone and learning navigation and maneuvering at speed.
A British Tanker teaches you land vehicle movement and how to scout and spot targets.
Finally, a Bedouin Freedom Fighter shows the importance of planning around the foes you face and how free you are to engage your objectives as you choose.
Narrative wise, none of them are particularly special. There’s a neat twist with narration in the pilot campaign, but otherwise they just play out as standard WW1 tropes and stories. Comraderie, bravery and heroism against horrifying odds and pig headed officers. All the things you’ll recognise, none of them executed quite as well as DICE may think they are.
In terms of tone and execution especially, after the very human, grounded intro, it’s a little hard to explain away killing 75 Ottoman soldiers as a Rambo-esque female Bedouin fighter.
On top of that, one problem I do have, suspension of disbelief aside, is the decision not to include anything on the Russian front, or anything in Africa or Asia. Or the decision not to include anything from the perspective of the central powers. There’s a whole wealth of interesting stuff to work with that seems to be just ignored. It’s just a little disappointing.
But the short form nature of the campaigns lends itself well to the idea of DLC campaigns, especially if they’re based off any additional maps and armies. (Russia has already been confirmed at time of writing, but we shall see)
So single player is a good, solid experience. Much better than the last few campaigns in Battlefield games, but still not quite in the Bad Company calibre. The main focus though, as I said, is the fact that the single player is driven by improving the multi-player experience by teaching players basic skills. This focus, and the short sequencing of the missions, is key to why the single player is successful. This game have a purpose, unlike BF3/BF4. Any player who has played through the campaign will be well equipped to hold their own on the multi-player setting. That’s the end goal. Even someone who has been playing 3/4 and as far back as 1942, like me, benefitted from learning the nuances of the systems for this iteration.
Not just content with changing the conventions of the lacklustre battlefield campaign, DICE have also managed to make meaningful changes to the multi-player suite. These are, broadly, positive.
First up, the classes have changed. The Engineer is gone. His repair abilities now go to the Support class and Vehicle class, which will automatically be selected when you spawn in on an open vehicle. Anti tank rockets and mines have been spread between the four main classes, and everyone can have some sort of anti tank capability added. This ends up meaning that a Tank or vehicle appearance is something that requires a change in approach; whether bringing up your own team’s armour to counter, or coordinating infantry based explosives and fixed emplacements.
In terms of character creation, this flexibility of gadgets and tools is required for good play. This is mostly due to the fact that this game has almost no customisability of individual weapons. Rather than 14 types of scopes and grips and attachments, now players choose a magnification on their sight, whether they attach a bayonet and decide if they’d like to add an unlockable skin. Weapons tend to have two or three variations in style to choose from, eg.
Mondragon Storm (Foregrip, Iron Sights, for close range)
Mondragon Sniper (Scope, Bipod, for long range)
It’s actually kind of refreshing, though it does lead to a kind of uniformity of choice on certain maps.
However, this leads to one of the games largest flaws. The Unlock system is impenetrable to the immediate eye. There are player levels, denoting rank and granting ‘warbonds’ (Ingame Currency). These can then be spent unlocking weapons, gadgets and tools. Except they can’t, if you haven’t also achieved the correct class rank. So in order to use a specific rifle as a recon class, I have to play as that class with weapons I may not like, level that class up by playing well enough to make points and then hopefully have enough currency left over at the end to actually buy the rifle.
It feels convoluted and obtuse, with the explanation leaving much to be desired.
And as for the unlockable skins I mentioned earlier, those can only be gotten from Battlechests. These are claimed by levelling sometimes, spending scrap (another currency gained from duplicate skins) or placing in the top ten players of a full match. You get a random skin from a random weapon. EA have confirmed Microtransactions are coming, I would not be shocked if these boxes played a part.
One of the most high profile features that’s been talked about are the Behemoths. Huge vehicles that hold 5-6 players and can inflict massive amounts of damage on enemy forces whilst also capturing points.
They come in Zeppelin, Battleship and Armoured Train forms.
I feel like they’re a successful move away from levolution gameplay, where the players have little to no control of the match, to something tangible for teams to counter. In game, they serve as a balancing force to allow a losing team to begin to recover, if played well.
In terms of multi-player then, I said I couldn’t recommend jumping straight into conquest mode. It’s not bad. It’s exactly the same as it has always been. Consistent, relatively balanced. Good. But there’s good. And then there’s the better thing.
Operations mode. The final successful evolution of Rush Mode.
Battlefield: Bad Company 2’s destructible terrain and console focus made Rush Mode an excellent and coordinated game type. However, the move to bigger maps in 3 and levolution events in 4 meant that Rush became poorly regarded in comparison to the traditional Conquest. Battlefield 1 improves on the rush formula, making things grander and grittier.
Operations mode is a game type that is focussed on pitched battles and repeated assaults on fixed defenses. It’s a quintessential WW1 mode. Each consists of a Defensive side and an Offensive. The offensive team has to capture sectors from the defenders by taking objective points. Each sector has one-three objectives to capture. If the attackers take a sector, all of the defenders are highlighted on screen as they retreat to the next sector along, and the formula repeats. Overall, it’s a fine game mode. The best part is in the total war trappings surrounding the match. The defenders have unlimited tickets. The attackers don’t. They have set tickets (boosted by capturing sectors in a match)
This would be enough of a twist by itself to make things interesting, but DICE have gone further to make a truly compelling game. The attackers have a certain number of rounds available to take all the sectors. Lose one, and the next round is supported by a behemoth. And you’re not just taking all the sectors in one map. There can be up to three.
This means that teams have to work together. Medics have to revive and heal. Armour has to be carefully conserved to avoid ticket bleed. It’s a game mode built around bayonet charges through gas clouds. Desperate shelling of strong points to disorient the defenders. Valiant last stands as attackers swarm into churches and through streets. Watching impotently as a Zeppelin destroys everything around you.
It’s my favourite innovation in Battlefield in a while.
Honestly, minor griping aside, this is my favourite Battlefield in a while. The game has so much going on that I just love. The setting feels fresh and new after floundering in the modern era for the last two games.
The gameplay feels purposeful. The initial satisfaction of finding your role and place in the team, and starting to really contribute is wonderful. A return to the battlefields of the past has lead to a return to the past quality of Battlefield.