Dice are going back to the twentieth century with Battlefield 1 [official site] and arming players with an assortment of experimental weaponry from the era. Then it’s out of the trenches and into enemy machine guns. Will Brendan survive? Let’s see.
A lot of us have grown up thinking that the Great War was a unique conflict – trapped between old ideas of warfare and new mechanisms of murder. But, if the Battlefield series is anything to go by, the killing fields of World War I aren’t all that different from any war that came afterwards. With Battlefield 1, the series has not changed very much. There are some differences, of course (and some quite good differences) but if you think muddy trenches and mustard gas are going to change anything drastic about the way you storm the next capture point, think again.
I’ll get to the meat of the multiplayer soon but first I wanted to take a look at the campaign mode. If you're not bothered about this, skip about six paragraphs and reconvene at the phrase “BUT BUT BUT”. The campaign takes the form of ‘War Stories’ which focus on a handful of tales, some latching on to real figures like Laurence of Arabia or battles like Gallipoli, but mostly playing fast and incredibly loose with history. As neatly dressed as these tales are, each sprinkled with their own cinematics, set pieces and spectacles, it’s hard to appreciate them as a whole. At their best they offer a slice of high-octane action and at their lousiest they simply replicate assets from the multiplayer and give you a vague “mission” to perform.
One such operation – a mission in the desert - just populates one of the game’s multiplayer maps (Sinai, from the beta) with a smattering of troops, then chucks you onto a horse and asks you to do an identical task in three of the capture points (kill a commander, take his satchel, release a pigeon). There’s some emphasis on you taking a stealthy approach, sniping from a distance, knifing men in the back and so on. And although I enjoyed these hit and run antics in a brain dead sort of way, when I stood back and recognised the level as having been designed for huge groups of players, the whole thing started to seem like a quickly bundled-together parody of MGSV.
Other characters have more bespoke stories. The tale of a Yankee pilot sees you taking part in air battles which are all spectacle – dogfights above the Alps, bomber escort missions over the western front, heroic rescues from behind enemy lines. The main character of this story – Blackburn - is another thing. The game is desperate for you to understand he’s a ‘lovable rogue’ right from the first moment. While this makes sense by the end of his storyline, it doesn’t stop parts of his self-narration from making your eyeballs do barrel rolls. Some spoilers coming up in the next paragraph.
At one point this pilot crashes in enemy turf and you have to move stealthily through the German trenches. Here he says that he has had “plenty of practice” moving quietly, “out the back of bars” or “bedroom windows”. I actually groaned at my screen. Yes yes, we get it, Blackburn, you’re a scallywag. The story finally reveals the reason for this over-confident chatter – he has been telling fibs all along. So he’s not just the lovable rogue, he also the unreliable narrator! A twist that makes you wonder which clichéd version of the protagonist you dislike more - the maverick who redeemed himself through acts of heroism? Or the murderer who fed you a load of horseshit? I probably like the murderer more.
I’ve seen some preliminary articles floating around that suggest BF1 has actually done singleplayer correctly this time. I can only half agree. The war stories (clichés and ridiculousness notwithstanding) are probably the best singleplayer I’ve seen in a Battlefield game. I’ll admit that. But that is a low bar to pass. Such an accomplishment doesn’t make the stories good by themselves. For a start, they are all disparate, fleeting and skeletal. It’s hard for me to care about Italian Dad and his brother, Twin of Italian Dad, when I’ve only known them both for approximately 30 seconds.
It also shares the same problem with a lot of war stories, be they film or book or whatever. You only play as the winners. You’ll fight against Germans and Turks and Austro-Hungarians but you’ll never see a war story with them as the main character, because they are the baddies. Maybe this isn't surprising, but it does clash with the opening message of the game, which sees both you – an American – and an enemy soldier lower your guns at the close of a fierce battle, exhausted and unwilling to fight each other. “Look how terrible this war was,” the game seems to say, “for all sides!” Then it’s back to shooting Fritz in the side of the head, or storming a mountain in the Alps dressed in a full suit of prototype armour, killing approximately 100 Austro-Hungarian troops and twenty or so planes along the way. And that’s just level one Italian Dad. In short, Battlefield 1 seems to want to say both these things:
1. Oh my gosh, isn’t war just awful.
2. Oh my gosh, isn’t war great fun!
As a result, the shifting tones of the campaign mode make it a bit of a cringefest. Often the stories just felt like something to muck about in while waiting for the multiplayer portion of the game to download - effectively a really good, really expensive-looking loading screen. But if you expect to find any decent character, plot, or emotion – that’s not what you’re going to get. Just some gorgeous-looking mud.
BUT BUT BUT. Historical accuracy simulator this is not and I have to concede this. It’s a shooty-shooty bang-bang which mostly exists to allow hordes of up to 64 of us to indulge in spectacular multiplayer battles. So let’s look at it from that (much more flattering) angle.
All the usual game modes are present and correct. There’s Conquest, which sees teams fighting to control the most capture points, there’s Domination, Conquest’s younger brother who doesn’t know how to drive, and there’s Deathmatch, which is like the other two but without the flags. There’s also Rush mode which sees teams attack or defend telegraph posts along an advancing frontline. And then there’s … Pigeons?
This mode is basically Briefcase or Oddball or whatever it was called in other FPS games. Your team has to grab and hold a pigeon for as long as it takes to write a message then release it, all before the other team shoots you in the gut and takes the pigeon for themselves. To make matters worse, there's a slim window when the enemy can shoot your pigeon down after you release it. It’s much more frantic, confined and silly than the other modes. But the best mode is yet to come – Operations. This is where Battlefield 1 feels like it has learned some things from more realistic shooters like Red Orchestra 2.
In Operations, you have an attacker and defender. The huge maps are split up into sectors and once the attacker takes both control points in that sector, they own it. This goes on for between four and seven sectors until either the attackers run out of warm bodies to throw (they have limited respawns) or they capture the final sector. Then it’s onto a second map, and sometimes a third. Unfortunately, the attackers only get three chances to achieve victory – three waves to capture all maps in an Operation. It’s incredibly tough and I have only seen an attacking force succeed once.
To make up for their disadvantage, the attackers get a Behemoth as part of their second and third waves. These are the hulking death machines that sometimes appear in other modes if one side is doing really badly and which players can enter and use to make life difficult and explodey for their enemies. In the desert maps it can be a huge armoured train. In others it is an artillery ship just off the coast. The one I hate most is the zeppelin. It has bombs and four gun emplacements for maximum death-doling.
I spent most of my time playing in this mode. It has a far better sense of flow than the others. Because the attackers always need to capture two points to lockdown a sector, there’s a lot of scrabbling and defensive pushbacks. It reminds me of both the best and most frustrating mode of Day of Infamy. But it isn’t without its flaws.
For instance, the best way for the attackers to conserve their limited respawns is to have lots of medics who can revive downed players. But the game is quickfire and fastpaced - you always want to jump back in as soon as possible. There’s no reason to hang about when you’re dead. You can’t fiddle with your loadout or look around or watch the action through another players eyes. You can’t even move your view around your own dead body to get an idea of how the battle is going nearby your own corpse. You’re locked in.
This means that lying there waiting to see if a medic will come your way is an exercise in patience. You just sit there watching your cadaver jerk around like a ragdoll with a vibrator hidden inside it. This is a little true for the other game modes but during an Operation, you really do feel like you should give a medic the chance to reach you. And this leads to a lot of needless downtime. Conversely, while playing as a medic, most players aren't gracious enough to wait and will immediately and thoughtlessly respawn, completely wasting your revival talent as well as a precious respawn ticket.
There are other issues. One Operation saw my team pushed back to our final bunker in the Alps, while the attackers brought their zeppelin over to pummel us into submission. This match saw both sides constantly bickering in the chat, each arguing that the other side was overpowered. The bunker was too hard and easily defended, said the attackers. Meanwhile our own squaddies were moaning that any time they left said bunker, they got torn to shreds by the two underside guns of the zeppelin. I too was starting to get sick of dying every thirty seconds to a "fucking blimp". I died, respawned, died again, and waited for the eventual message of loss. Then the game ended: we had won. The chat filled up with surprised blues, saying “haha wat” and “lol we won!?!?”
It’s not unusual for the losing side to get frustrated in an FPS, but when both sides feel like they’re losing just based on how many times they’ve died in an annoying way, there might be something a bit overwhelming about the design of your battles. Making everybody feel like a loser might be an appropriate atmosphere to evoke in a game about one of the most futile conflicts in human history, but it also results in some hit-and-miss face-offs.
Still, I had a lot of fun playing as a bi-plane gunner scrambling from one end of the bomber to another over the mountains of Italy, or partaking in a hugely satisfying and almost always suicidal bayonet charge. It’s been years since I had the dexterity to thrive amid the chaos of a 64-person warzone, but it’s still interesting to try and find the tiny differences between sequels and to attempt to settle myself into a niche – cowardly medic, kamikaze assault, dedicated tail gunner.
In this case, I was happy to spend a lot of time hanging back from the firefights and mustard gas of the frontlines so I could take shelter behind a wall and peep over it with my scout’s periscope. This device has some of the highest magnification in the game, and you can use it along with the 'Q' button to mark as many enemy troops as you can. This way my twitchier, combat-ready team mates could see their foes and finish the job. I supplemented this by planting sniper decoys – dummy heads on the ends of sticks – amid rocky outcroppings and the odd shrub. When enemies fire at these it marks the shooter as spotted too. I thought I was being clever when I ran into a cottage on top of a hill and placed two of these dummies in a pair of cottage’s windows. But they turned out to be a little too convincing. A tank levelled the whole cottage while I was still on my way out, killing me and my precious mannequins in the process.
The destructible environments, as you can see, are back. It wouldn’t really be Battlefield without them. Although I’ve always been miffed by Dice’s approach to destruction, since they seem to get away with saying their environments are “fully destructible”, when everyone knows this is nonsense. Some walls fall away like wet cake, and others stay firm no matter how many times you mortar them. And because there’s no markings or signposting to show which is which, it’s often hard to know which type of wall you’re firing your rocket gun at. Short of learning entire maps by destructibility, you just have to accept the odd wasted round, or wasted seconds spent trying to blast something away that simply isn’t meant to come down.
Aside from the sniper’s dummies and periscope, there are other additions. Mustard gas poisons players and forces them to put on their gas masks, hammering the ‘T’ key in a panic. This restricts your hearing, your peripheral vision and, crucially, it means you can’t aim down your gun’s sights, forcing you to fire inaccurately from the hip. If I hate anything more than the zeppelin, it’s the gas. And the only thing I hate more than the gas is when the map’s weather suddenly turns and everything becomes foggy. My periscope becomes useless and the mortar – a weapon I turn to when I want to be a more aggressive type of coward – becomes obsolete. There are other forms of this – a sandstorm in the desert, a haze above the trenches – but they are all twists on the same thing. It sometimes becomes hard to see things.
For the most part I enjoyed all this. Pushing back and forth over mucky countryside as shells and grenades go off around you is hugely atmospheric. And the game looks fantastic - moonlight bouncing off muddy boards, roofs collapsing under tank fire. I definitely prefer this pre-helicopter period of history in terms of the setting. The game’s biggest risk is that of being annoying. The gas, the mist, the behemoths – they are all examples of disruptive events that force you to change the way you are playing and at times this has the effect of being irritating, not dramatic. “Ugh,” you say as another bank of fog rolls in. “Better switch class again.” The game sometimes throws you a bone by announcing that there’s a freshly spawned cache nearby with special weapons inside – a flamethrower, an anti-vehicle rocket gun, a full suit of Italian Dad armour. And these are fun to use and abuse. But compared to the huge battleships or sandstorms these are short-lived advantages.
For many, the race for new guns, gadgets and grenades will be enough to keep you going. Every level you get awards you war bonds – money to buy new bits of kit. I only wish they awarded supporting actions like assists, spots, healing and resupplying a little more generously, because for those lacking the reflexes of a wildcat this is often where the bulk of our usefulness lies. The class system of Battlefield has always been geared toward encouraging a high kill count, even if all the surrounding medic guff suggests otherwise. You are your primary weapon, and a person who can kill fast and die slow will always outrank a person who can heal dozens of his team mates. I wish more emphasis was placed on the supporting classes as true support. The medic, for instance, still feels like a normal soldier who also happens to have a magic syringe, someone who's there to kill first and cure second. I don’t want them to turn it into Overwatch (although, imagine that). But there’s surely something more clever they could do with these four classes. Right now, it all seems very safe.
That’s more or less how I feel about the whole game. It is safely good. Even with the addition of Operations mode and the behemoths and the return to a more instinctively dramatic setting, it still feels like Battlefield. There’s capture points and there’s guns. There’s deathmatch and there’s conquest. There’s grenade spam and sniper alleys and miraculous dive-bombing pilots who somehow manage to use the terrible flight controls. The Great War might have been unique, but Battlefield 1 isn’t. For some, that won’t be a problem. For others, it might be time to sue for peace.
Battlefield 1 is out tomorrow on Windows via Origin for £50/$60.