The Battlefield video game series has turned the clock back and forth in its military combat scenarios for nearly 15 years. Whether it’s wars of the past, present or future, developer DICE has continuously introduced various set pieces and weapons into the games. As such, the eras have ultimately set the stage for the same experience over and over: big battles, big squads, and big machines.
There are certain eras when it’s easy to imagine DICE being forced to use the Battlefield formula drastically – perhaps millennia in the past, where the only “vehicle” on offer is a giant Trojan horse, or so far in the future that the battles take place via telepathy (or something weird like that). But the latest rewind to World War I in the latest episode, Battlefield 1is apparently not enough of a change.
Tanks, boats, planes, grenades, sniper rifles, shotguns, automatic pistols, mounted chain guns and so on – in many ways you have played this Battlefield before. In fact, anyone enamored with an impressive advertising campaign, complete with riding Ottoman warriors and time-bound biplanes, should take a breath and plant their war-torn boots back in the mud of a trench. In practice, horses are slightly slower engines. Biplanes work as you would expect from an airplane.
So this is business as usual, right? Not exactly. For the largest part, Battlefield 1 gets away with normality by delivering exactly what we hope “triple-A” games can deliver with their mammoth budgets and huge expectations. This is a beautiful, polished and often very fun experience for the masses. It’s also another feather in the cap of PC gaming in 2016, as this game has been optimized so nicely that it now offers a “next-gen” experience on even moderate PC hardware.
“A worthless, lying bastard”
Campaign mode is again a decidedly single player affair, but not in the same vein as other recent ones Battlefield spell. Honestly, the last three major series releases have all dropped the ball in delivering decent campaigns. Each strove for some Dutylike threshold of how a military shooter video game should look and play, and that approach misses the point of Battlefield. Giant-squad battles were removed. The game’s war machines had been relegated to boring, automatic controls on the rails. The lots reeked of heaven.
After all, how can you tell a story of a huge team from all over the country when you’re too busy making jokes and fighting back between Guy McGrimaceface and his “clearly going to die by mission nine” friends? (For the record, battlefields offshoot Bad company 2 release was the rare exception with a high quality story.) What a difference 100 years makes. Battlefield 1 is certainly not the end of all single-player military shooter modes, but the construction of “war stories” is a brilliant solution to the previous games’ tendency to get stuck in the narrative weeds.
BF1 tells its story of World War I through five separate war plots featuring five protagonists from around the world – all after a short, introductory mission in which nearly every character you control dies. In this intro sequence, instead of rewinding to a post-death checkpoint, the camera turns off and a narrator describes the emotions of war as you take on another soldier in that same battle. (This final battle doesn’t end well.)
The approach is interesting, but it also sets a disjointed tone that perhaps focuses too much on the small-scale, individual war experiences. The soldier-death camera pan moments include short epitaphs (soldier’s name, year of birth, year of death), which strike a surprising anti-war tone. How often does a video game remind you, when your hero dies, how old did he get? Do many similar titles stop and show you a character’s real, full name while loading the next battle sequence?
But the narrator of the intro never seems to say anything with the same emotional weight as those announcements, nor does any other characters. Battlefield 1s stories don’t talk about the full extent of the global conflict or their own country’s involvement, meaning the results feel surprisingly tone-deaf at times. The opening scene, in particular, completely avoids mentioning the history of the protagonists: the Harlem Hellfighters, an American battalion that was forced to enlist with the French during World War I because they were black.
Why indicate this? ‘Cause at best, at least, Battlefield 1 makes for some very moving plot moments that raise expectations for what a war game’s campaign can deliver. The best stories narrow their focus on storytelling to smaller relationships, with the protagonist of each war story building a relationship with exactly one fellow soldier. A sibling here, a subordinate there – these people are the reason you fight in every story.
This approach usually works because: BF1‘s acting and writing sustain scrutiny, if only because the best of these five war stories spring lavishly from so many pulp novels written and told in the aftermath of the war. The best is the story of Clyde Blackburn, an American “badly lying bastard” who makes his way into a wealthy British man’s fighter plane only to find himself in a war by accident. Thanks to your masterful piloting and shooting, Blackburn proves that he is a hero to the Allies.
Blackburn is all cheese and swagger, bragging and honking at every turn before having a full telegraphic coming-of-age moment at the end of his story. Solid acting and snappy pace make these traditional pulp stories easier to enjoy, but so does the fact that his missions are pretty good. Blackburn’s story begins with a stunning test flight over a snowy French mountainside, in which he gains full, unfettered control of an aircraft. The story continues in the air and in the mud, regularly alternating between full-on bombast in the air and stealth sneakers in the trenches.
Not every story is this good; the worst is a dull slog alongside the Italian army, in which your character wears super armor and mows down nearly 100 men in an open field while trying to find and rescue his brother. You can hardly die in this armor, and the level is designed in kind, encouraging you to walk forward and kill without any sense of suspense. In other levels, at least, a lot of the kills are done in a one-on-one situation, where you’re battling a terrible opportunity. Compared to that, the murder of your Italian protagonist’s invincible suit feels less justified.
As for the rest, there are some gems, both in terms of meaty story setups and mission variety. Each story lasts about an hour and a half (a total of seven hours), with that time being filled by a few specific bottlenecks in the mission where the difficulty peaks with little reason and even less explanation of what the heck you should be doing. The worst offender is the final task in the story of Lawrence of Arabia, in which players must destroy a monstrous mortar-equipped train. They’re guided to shielded, missile-firing turrets, which can be used to fire at the train, but that train apparently has laser-precise mortar accuracy and will instantly kill you at any turret manned for more than a single missile shot. Your other option is to run to the train and place a close range bomb or grenade, but attempting this can be tricky as the mission produces endless waves of Ottoman Empire troops and trains mortar shots.
I scoured this boss’s map looking for better weapons, vantage points, hideouts, or strategies, but couldn’t find any – and it’s the same with the other sticking points I’ve come across. Fortunately, the game’s better missions don’t hold you back with poor design and limited options; opening up the full range of firepower and maneuvering in the open field, offering you tall windmill towers to snipe from, wooded paths to sneak through, or weapons depot buildings to search for blind “Leeroy Jenkins” storms. Battlefield is at its best when players are given actual choices, so it’s good to see that series element come to the fore in this campaign.
Choking points engulfed by the enemy can be brutal, but they’re rare enough that you can probably swallow them – and in the process you’ll enjoy a BF1 campaign that rarely feels like too long a tutorial. Players won’t be held back as they figure out how to sneak through an abandoned converted outpost, pilot a plane and fire its cannons at the same time, or navigate a crowded battlefield complete with dozens of troops on both. sides.
Moreover, these spread out stories allow the campaign levels to jump not only from country to country, but also from gameplay style to gameplay style. Good storytelling, good pace, and clever use of battle maps (some of which are borrowed from the multiplayer mode, along with others that aren’t) add up to the kind of single-player offering that I don’t regret. Compared to many other single-player games in the military shooters of the past decade, that’s (unfortunately) a lot of praise.