When EA DICE announced that Battlefield 1 would be set in World War I, I rejoiced. As an history enthusiast, i’m painfully aware of just how overlooked the Great War is in media, and especially in video games. Of course, portraying this kind of conflict in a first person shooter, while also making it fun for a wide audience is a big challenge.
The folks at DICE certainly took a slightly unorthodox approach, but it paid off, delving into some of the least known aspects of the conflict that was supposed to end all wars, but just ended up laying the foundations for one of the bloodiest centuries of human history.
The story of the single player campaign is routed through a series of episodes that jump between completely different war theaters, from the Western Front to the Alps and the Middle East. Each segment has its own protagonist, and is fully separate from the others, showing the war through a relatively wide series of perspectives.
The prologue is probably the chapter that sets the mood in the best way: it immediately tells you that you’re not expected to survive. When you die, a brief epitaph appears on the screen, and then you’re transported into the boots of another soldier. Unless you’re extremely good (and you know that I’m not), you’ll waste the lives of several young men before finally reaching the end of the sequence. This is exactly how World War I (and war in general) should be portrayed.
This interesting plot device is abandoned in the following chapters, where you play a specific character, and you just reload from the last checkpoint when you die. On one side, this is entirely understandable: it’s necessary in order to give the stories a more personal angle, but on the other end, it’s still a bit of a pity. The impact given by the sensation of having wasted someone’s life each time you get killed is humbling, and turns the prologue into a quite unique and emotional experience.
All the stories are well narrated and interesting, and they showcase very different aspects of warfare. From from the first tanks to guerrilla operations in the desert.
On a personal level, it’s actually extremely refreshing to see an Italian protagonist among those chosen for the game, especially considering that the epic and tragic clash between Italy and Austria across the Alps is one of the most interesting (while less popular) aspects of the conflict.
The folks at EA DICE certainly seem to have gone out of their way to provide some unusual and diverse perspectives, but some rather crucial ones are missing, and their lack is easily felt by anyone who knows the history of World War I.
There is absolutely no presence of French and Russian characters, despite the fact that especially France played one of the most relevant roles in the war, if not the most relevant among the Entente nations. The fact that the appearance of those nations is planned for the games’ DLCs is a bit frown-inducing.
Even more sadly, despite all the effort to show diverse points of view, DICE fell into the usual issue that we see consistently in this kind of game: the story is narrated entirely from the point of view of the victors.
Not only we don’t ever get into the boots of a soldier of the Central Powers, but only two characters belonging to the losing faction make a somewhat relevant appearance at all.
The first is an anonymous soldier at the end of the prologue, that never says a word and appears only for a few seconds. His portrayal is certainly symbolic, but it’s definitely too little.
The second is an Ottoman officer that ends up playing the sad role of the stereotypical evil villain. He’s such a stereotype, that he would more easily fit into an Indiana Jones flick than into a portrayal of a tragic conflict that takes itself any seriously.
While your mileage may vary on the influence of this on the quality of the storytelling (and in fact it doesn’t affect the score at the top of this review, since it’s mostly a personal pet peeve), it’s certainly a missed opportunity to show the tragedy of the war from what would have really been the most diverse range of points of view possible, in accordance to what seems to have been the developers’ basic intention.
One could say that resources are not infinite, and that in the end DICE had to make a selection, but the single player campaign is ultimately very short. It can be completed fairly easily in five hours, and while the focus of Battlefield games is certainly on the multiplayer, the volume of the single player feels flimsy, especially considering the gaps mentioned above.
Yet, there is another face to this coin: while the single player campaign is undeniably very short, all the missions are very tight and dense, and very well put together from a gameplay perspective. They’re also quite challenging on normal difficulty, and offer an extremely wide variety of gameplay situations.
You’ll find yourself assaulting well defended hills and forts, driving tanks, piloting biplanes, crawling across trenches, stealthily ambushing patrols, and much more, in a package that feels very fulfilling and is definitely a lot of fun to play through.
It’s hard to deny that the quantity of content will quite possibly leave you feeling a bit disappointed at the end of the campaign, but what is actually there is one of the best and most unique single players experiences I remember playing in an FPS game.
Ultimately quality is more important that quantity, but a bit more quantity wouldn’t have hurt the game for sure, especially if DICE didn’t make the usual mistake of forgetting that wars are fought by two sides, and that the losing one doesn’t exist just to provide targets and villains.
Graphics are certainly one of the most impressive areas of Battlefield 1. This probably won’t shock anyone considering the technical prowess of DICE’s FrostBite engine, that keeps impressing in every game made with it.
That said, despite the lack of surprise, it’s really hard not to let your jaw drop when you notice just how good Battlefield 1 looks. From dirty to buildings, everything comes packed with an incredible visual impact even on consoles. The level of detail and density of the environments are absolutely astonishing.
The heavy use of photogrammetry, combined with a top-notch lighting engine that ties everything together perfectly, give the game a sense of gritty visual realism that feels absolutely spot-on for World War I. Add to that some of the best destruction ever included into a Battlefield game, and you get an experience that easily stands up there with the most visually impressive games in the market, while beating most of them in terms of scale.
While more subtle, the audio compartment of the game isn’t inferior to its visuals. The score is fantastic, made of tracks that range from the grandiose and epic to the appropriately somber. It’s just the perfect silver lining on top of all that visual glitz.
Sound design is also nothing short of awesome, with a wide variety of guns coming with very recognizable and satisfying effects. I can’t really say if they’re any realistic (I have never shot a World War I rifle, after all), but they certainly do their duty masterfully in terms of making you feel immersed in the action.
Of course graphics and audio would be meaningless without tight gameplay, and the basic mechanics of Battlefield 1 feel nothing short of shooting Nirvana. Not only you have a very wide variety of implements of destruction at your disposal, but almost all have great personality, and feel awesome to use.
Some guns are more satisfying then others, and especially the single-shot bolt-action rifles are just perfect. Not only they’re accurate and effective, but every well placed shot that sends an enemy back to a spawn point feels very rewarding due to the challenge provided by the lack of automatic fire.
As a consequence, sniping also feels great, with a nice choice of rifles that can easily satisfy any need, depending on whether you like to snipe from a very long range or while pressing more aggressively towards the enemy lines. Each rifle has a different sweet spot range-wise, so it’s important to match your weapon with your favorite play style.
On the other hand, if I have to find a category of weapons that aren’t as impressive as the rest, it’s paradoxically the light machine guns carried by the support class. Not only they aren’t exactly fitting for the setting, but they feel lacking in precision and impact, often making you feel like you’re spraying and praying way too much.
On the other hand, support soldiers come equipped with a mortar, which is absolutely deadly in its airburst variant. When playing support I often find myself simply waiting for the mortar to recharge, using my limited ammo to rain fiery death on the enemy from relative safety, and then withdrawing in some hole until I get more shots. It can be a lot more effective than actually pulling out my main gun, and that’s a clear telltale sign that there is balancing to be done here, on both ends.
Guns are, obviously, just the tip of the iceberg, as another traditional aspect of Battlfield games is vehicular warfare. Both planes and tanks are a lot of fun to use, especially if you have some mates to put in the gunner positions.
I have heard many complain that tanks are overpowered, and it’s indeed very scary to turn a corner and find yourself facing off a hulking steel giant on tracks, training its guns right in your face, but that’s exactly what a tank is supposed to feel like (at least on the receiving end).
I feel that most simply don’t know how to attack a tank effectively. There are plenty of tools that can damage their armor, and a well coordinated infantry squad can very easily chew through the heaviest tank just as soon as the driver gets too bold, as long as they know what they’re doing.
A bit of balancing might be needed for bombers and fighters: while bombers are very vulnerable to land-based anti-aircraft guns due to their size, they can often prove very challenging for fighters. They can soak up a lot of machine gun damage, and if the bomber carries even just one gunner that knows his job, he’ll make short work of most attacking fighters quite easily.
Maybe anachronistically, considering that World War I was the first conflict in which technology really supplanted traditional tactics, the most satisfying “vehicle” is probably the horse. Cavalry is doubtlessly a bit vulnerable, but horses are fast, agile, and they really pack a punch when simply riding down enemies or delivering deadly saber charges.
If you fight on horseback in Battlefield 1, not only you’ll be very effective (provided that you know what you’re doing), but you’ll also look really cool while mowing down enemies left and right. It’s simply pure, unadulterated fun in quadruped form.
The game doesn’t come with a gazillion of multiplayer modes, but the ones provided certainly do their job. While Domination and Rush are good if you want tighter, more focused matches, Conquest is probably what you’re looking for if you’re a Battlefield fan, with its enormous 64-player matches that feel so chaotic and satisfying at the same time.
A brand new feature comes with the Behemoths, that will come to the rescue of the losing side as a balancing factor. Depending on the map you can get a massive airship, an armored train or a dreadnought-class battleship. They’re extremely heavily armed, and they provide some really fun gameplay for the side controlling them, and an interesting challenge for the opposing force.
The airship is particularly spectacular, as it’ll come crashing down dynamically on the map when destroyed. It will flatten everything on its path (including you, if you forget to run away very, very fast), and will remain on the map as a giant wreckage that will serve as a new obstacle across the battlefield.
There is also a new kid on the modes block, and that’s Operations, and boy it’s good. Operations are basically large scale battles with dynamic fronts that progress depending on the performance of the two sides in conflict.
If the attackers are successful, they will push the defenders back until they are completely defeated, progressively moving through the massive maps pretty much like a real battle would. On top of that, Operations include multiple maps that create a larger scenario, giving the feeling of actually influencing the outcome of the war instead of simply fighting a self-contained match.
They have become without a doubt my favorite mode, and I can’t see myself playing much else, but considering the variety of tactical situations, I also don’t think they’ll get old any time soon.
The only flaw I can see with Operations, is that some maps feel a bit imbalanced in favor of the defender or the attacker. Especially when behemoths enter the battlefield, there are areas in which there simply aren’t enough tools to fight them off.
An example (but there are multiple) is Fao Fortress when the battle rages around the actual fort. If the battleship helmsman is any bright, he’ll stay out of range of basically all the defensive cannons, while the dreadnought’s heavy guns will easily be able to pound the enemy into smithereens, since they can shoot a lot farther. The behemoth is still somewhat vulnerable to bombers, but those can be easily obliterated from the sky with AA guns.
To complete the multiplayer suite, there is the War Pigeons mode, which is completely new. Each side needs to find a pigeon coop, grab a pigeon, wait for a while in order to write a message (you can do that faster if you don’t move), and then release it in order to deliver the message. If you’re successful, you score a point.
While it almost feels like a joke, or at least a more light-hearted and playful way to spend a bit of time with the game, it’s actually a rather interesting take on the classic capture the flag, and it’s certainly enjoyable if you want something not too involved, but still fast and fun.
Especially if you’re playing the “bigger” modes, the game’s multiplayer is absolutely spectacular and impressive. The combined arms approach of the series and the large number of players are really at their finest here. You’ll be surrounded by explosions and destruction, with whizzing bullets coming from all sides. Never before in gaming I have felt this immersed in what feels like being part of an actual field battle.
Ultimately, Battlefield 1 comes slightly short of perfection (but what game doesn’t?) due to the light-weight single player content, some balancing issues, and a few areas here and there that could have used a bit more polish. Due to the lack of representation for very relevant members of the Entente and the Central Powers, it feels like something is missing from DICE’s grandiose view of World War I.
That said, it’s an absolutely fantastic game. It shows the courage to break the mold of the established FPS settings, by bringing forth a nearly forgotten era, that comes packed with a lot of charm of its own. On top of that, it does so with tight and impactful gameplay that will keep the fans busy for a long time.