Battlefield 1: All the Horror, All the Glory

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Battlefield 1 is a return to form in some respects. DICE has done away with the claustrophobic spaces of Battlefield 4 and Hardline. Finally we see the return of vast, open maps that are shaped by the conflict that takes place within their confines. No wall or building is ever absolutely safe. At any moment, a shell, tank or explosive could shatter the walls or even bring the building down on top of you. Every window or ledge could harbor a sniper. Finally, we have a Battlefield game that achieves the scope of older entries in the series, but it comes at a price.

Battlefield: Bad Company was my first introduction to the series. Though it seems largely forgotten now, I still maintain that it was one of the best games the franchise has ever had. It's sequel was just as good, and paved the way for Battlefield 3, which many people seem to consider the best of the franchise. Having grown into the series from these three stellar games, I was so disappointed when Battlefield 4 introduced maps that felt so small and closed off. Clearly, it was done to emulate the design of the wildly successful Call of Duty, a move that baffles me to this day. But those days are behind us.

The first thing I did when I picked up Battlefield 1 was jump into the campaign. As a veteran FPS player, I guessed that I would be well prepared to deal with the denser environment and chaotic scenes of the European trenches. I was wrong. There is a maniacal force to the campaign missions, a frenetic pace that can erupt all at once only to be replaced by an eerie quiet and slower bearing in the next moment. This jagged structure nurtures a strong paranoia during play and keeps me on my toes even in moments that seem peaceful. It is a masterfully executed trick to heighten the tension that works especially well in some of the more picturesque environments.

The campaign itself is broken up into several "War Stories" that can be played at any time in any order. Each one of these takes place with different characters, in different places and different times in the war. The characters are varied and interesting as is the gameplay from mission to mission. The overall theme of the stories highlights the horror and madness of World War I, but it does so in stark contrast to its own design and multiplayer which is built specifically to reward the player for each kill (and it does so very, very well). It's a very odd bit of dissonance that detracts from the otherwise well stated message.

If you're looking for a game that give a good perspective on World War 1, Battlefield 1 isn't it. Because of its nature as a largely multiplayer shooter, it depends on fast-paced play and weapon handling. As such, there are a number of liberties taken with the weapons available in the game to speed up their handling, rates of fire and overall capabilities. This in itself is not damning, but when you add those to the already dichotomous narrative of the game, the effectivity of its portrayal is significantly diminished. I would still recommend Valiant Hearts as the best portrayal of World War 1, from a historical perspective.

Ethical conundrums aside, the multiplayer experience in Battlefield 1 is at once excellent and frustrating. Some players are able to pull off seemingly impossible shots with ease and can dominate a match if hidden in the right place. There are plenty of tools to combat each other with among the various classes but it would seem that some of the weapons available to players of higher level are dramatically more effective than those available to lower level players. Because of this, the first 7 level gains or so can be a particularly grueling slog. I expect that some tweaks to the advancement system will be coming to speed things up.

Still, Battlefield 1 is an excellent game that illustrates the chaos of conflict on a large scale. It is a return to form for the franchise and a perfect example of what sets it apart from games like Call of Duty. As a fan of the franchise, and a fan of the FPS genre in general, I am happy to add it to my collection and look forward to playing it for a long time to come.