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Impressions: Battlefield 1 Multiplayer Beta

Horsing around

The Battlefield 1 [official site] beta has launched and despite some troubles it is now recruiting strapping young men and women to come and fight. We gave Brendan a shovel and volunteered him for the front lines.

As daft naming conventions go, many thought Microsoft had set the bar after slapping a big ‘One’ on the end of their newest Xbox. That is, until Battlefield 1 was announced, prompting the gaming intelligentsia (journalists on Twitter) to reflect on the silliness of it all. If there were 358 missing Xbox consoles between the ‘zero’ and the ‘360’, then there must also be some dimension containing all 2140 unannounced Battlefield games. In this dimension, nobody eats or sleeps. There are no movie theatres or public parks. There is only churning war, snipers and grenade spam. There is only Battlefield.

Thankfully, in this dimension, we only have a handful. The latest of EA’s gun-'em-ups is taking us all the way back to War 1, the first war humanity ever fought. There’s a lot of familiar ground – you’re still capturing outposts and draining the enemy of points – but the setting does sometimes make it feel like someone at Dice accidentally pressed the reset button during a development meeting and then pretended it was all intentional.

The beta only offers one map – the desert of Sinai – but it’s a good one. A healthy mix of open desert, sand dunes, rocky canyon passes, small hamlets and crooked townships. One capture point is far to the south of all the others, offering isolated vehicle battles and skirmishes on a much smaller scale than the angry and chaotic melees that take place in the town to the north. Every so often a huge dust storm will rise up out of nowhere, obscuring your view and offering some respite from the dozens of Turkish or British snipers encamped amid the rocks.

Anti-air emplacements and howitzers (at least I think they’re howitzers) are also sprinkled around control points in a way that makes them important to use, especially in the Rush mode, which sees one team attack and another defend. The effects of these weapons look pretty swish, you know, in a destructive and violent way. I hopped onto the AA gun for a spot of plane bothering, for example, and the sparks and puffs of the flak almost distracted me from the incoming bi-plane. Later, I was prepping a control point with dynamite when a shell landed right beside me. I survived somehow, but came to my senses at the bottom of a huge crump in the sand. It may simply be the setting but it feels like a war in a way that the modern versions haven’t often felt.

There’s also an enormous armoured train that steams through and blasts everything to pieces. It’s one of the game’s ‘behemoths’ which will include airships and battleships, and which come along when you’re losing so badly that Major Game Design thinks you need a helping hand. Up to six people can clamber inside this train and wreck the desert with its moving cannons and anti-air gun, while the driver can stop at any of the control points along the track to help out with capturing. If that doesn’t make things ridiculous enough for you, there’s a flamethrower and a giant mini-gun-type-thing hiding in crates at a couple of the control points.

While it’s a pity there aren’t other maps for people to try, Sinai does confirm that the sense of scale behind the series remains intact. It doesn’t feel quite as big as previous maps, for some reason, but it does feel well-rounded. Even though my team suffered loss after loss, there was a lot of back and forth as each outpost changed hands over and over, which is fitting, considering the history of War 1, which was famously fought over a single football pitch at Christmas time.

The classes on offer are unsurprising. An assault man, a medic, a sniper and a support. The medic is functionally pointless until he unlocks the medical crate, leaving only bandages for the rare moments when they’re useful. The support has his bag of ammo and a tripwire bomb, useful for doorways and corners. The sniper has his rifle and a flare gun which ‘spots’ enemies close to the landed flare. And the assault is a crazy walking bomb, with anti-tank grenades and dynamite – not to mention the ability to perform a wild bayonet charge. All the classes get a lot more goodies as you go up in rank, according to their speciality. Many guns are still hidden, earmarked “for the final game”, but in the beta the sniper gets a periscope-thing for spotting enemies directly, for instance. And the assault gets an anti-tank mine, as if he should be trusted with any more explosives.

There is a reason the assault man is so fiery, however. In this war, infantry bazookas are rare. There’s only one in the beta - a ‘rocket gun’ that takes some XP hoarding to unlock. This means tanks can often prowl around with impunity, so long as they avoid the bombers overhead and tight corners where assault men hide in corners and lob their little bouquets of death. The tanks themselves are a little different. The most useful one is more like a group transport, fitting five people, with guns on all sides. It’s a monster when fully loaded, bristling with firepower. But it’s also ponderous to drive and if destroyed, a whole squad has gone to hell. You can customise the fittings of these vehicles, albeit to a lesser degree than your human deathman.

I had far more fun on horseback, however. Clamber onto one of these and you get access to a sabre, which you can hold aloft and swing at the plebs still scuffling through the sand. I achieved as many kills in a single life of a cavalry man than I did as a gunner in the Massacre Tank. Although the slashing motion doesn’t exactly feel accurate. It’s like there was a big bubble next to my horse in which any soldier would die if I swung the sword even remotely on time. I only died to a cavalry man once, and I did feel a little robbed, a little cheated. But mostly I just felt dead.

To make up for the return to old-fashioned weaponry, there is a small platter of grenades to unlock. You start out with frags, smoke and gas (every soldier has a gas mask he can wear by tapping ‘T’ which protects from gas but slightly obscures your view and removes the ability to aim down sights). But with ‘warbonds’ you earn from levelling up you can buy grenades that explode on impact, incendiary grenades, or lighter, less-damaging ones that go further when thrown.

All in all, it’s a strange mix of familiar feelings. The setting and atmosphere is one of older shooters, when they were entrenched in the conflicts of the 20th century, but much of the chaos and silliness of the modern era has remained. The map is bristling with prototype weapons, even the presence of so many tanks is something that makes you raise an eyebrow. These industrial killing machines may have been around in War 1, famously triggered by the assassination of indie band Franz Ferdinand, but they wouldn’t have been so numerous.

Of course, fast and loose with history is the way of the blockbuster shooter and, as you may have noticed, I’m not particularly concerned by that (if you want something more “realistic”, I can easily recommend Day of Infamy or Red Orchestra 2). Meanwhile, fans of Battlefields 2 through 2142 will likely be unfazed, happy that the world is still at war and that this war is still as ludicrous as ever.

Battlefield 1 is in open beta now and downloadable via Origin.

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