Battlefield 1: return

A closer look at DICE’s WWI shooter

*Spoilers ahead*

I’ve had a lot of time to think since my post last week.

Firstly, a correction. Previously, I lauded Battlefield 1‘s creation of smaller, less hero-like characters and its focus on squads, but that’s not entirely what the campaign is about; only one out of the five main playable war stories focuses on a small crew while the others contain a single, all-capable soldier that supposedly singlehandedly carries the day. However, I still stand by my determination of this game’s story to be excellently told, despite each vignette’s short length and lack of real character depth.

But let’s start from the beginning.

Battlefield 1, when you first boot it up, throws you right into the action. In an era where most video games – particularly triple-A titles – have you navigating a series of menus and loading screens, I was caught off-guard and thrown into a bit of a shock when I found myself immediately as an infantryman trying valiantly to hold off waves of enemies. Unlike Hollywood’s bright colors and orange explosions, the trenches were dark, gritty, disgusting, and utterly terrifying. As you’ve probably read elsewhere on the Internet, Battlefield 1 tries to tell the story of the first World War from the perspective of a man in the trenches, and this initial, sobering experience where all of your player characters are inevitably killed in action serves as a reminder of the conflict’s brutality.

Then, when the sequence is complete, does the game finally give you its main menu. You have the option of jumping straight into the franchise’s signature multiplayer, but, of course, after an opening like that, you’re compelled to complete the campaign – in this game, called “War Stories”.

And war stories they are. A war story is not a massive campaign. You don’t listen to your grandfather talk about all the generals’ planning, the logistics, the supply chains, etc., etc.; no, he talks about a single moment burnt into his memory. A week, perhaps, or maybe a single night deep behind enemy lines. Similarly, each war story in the game focuses on a single conflict. This provides a unique sort of storytelling: in exchange for losing potential character depth and a unifying, satisfying beginning-middle-end structure, the game is allowed to focus in on these desperate times, and the emotions that ran wild with the moment (as opposed to with interpersonal connections).

The result is a global look of the war to end all wars – of how the conflict affected all continents on the globe, and of how soldiers of different backgrounds dealt with obstacles in their paths. While the game is more historic than some of DICE’s past titles (the female narrator’s small tidbits about different events are fairly interesting), the campaign was more visceral than factual.

Unfortunately, these war stories are short, both in length and number. My personal favorite is “Through Mud and Blood”, because I felt that of the five this one really represented the transformation of civilian to soldier, of man to squad, and of innocence to despondence. I enjoyed what little harmony and dissonance there was among the tank crew (reminiscent of Fury, one of my all-time favorite war movies), and the tale of a last, bold offensive to Calais was extremely compelling. This was the first time I’ve wanted more of a Battlefield campaign, and not more from it.

Gameplay wise, I’m not sure what to think. I wasn’t quite a fan of the usage of Hardline‘s detection system in all of the war stories, and I still don’t think the system itself is quite polished anyway. I appreciated the increased choice in approaching each conflict, but in some cases, it just felt like an excuse for DICE to use it in more than one game.

Then there are some smaller details. Last time I already described the game’s beautifully crafted sounds, but there’s more. In one scene in “Through Mud and Blood”, Edwards is ordered to search a nearby town for spare parts. If you go to each objective in distance order, you’ll realize that the furthest one has a horse nearby. Story-wise, it’s most likely a German horse or a horse that the Germans captured, but gameplay-wise, it offers a subtle hint of how to get back quickly to your commanding officer after having completed your mission. There are moments like this scattered throughout the game: a sniper rifle up high, a suppressed (not silenced, dammit DICE) pistol hidden in a stealth segment – all tiny details that gently assist you in planning your next move.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Battlefield game without the needlessly destructive multiplayer. Which, of course, still feels like a Battlefield game with its WTF moments and potential for massive streaks. I personally like the restructuring of the different classes (and the addition of Elite Classes). Each one’s equipment makes more sense than it did in games past (snipers, for example, really have no need for C4), and I feel that there’s a little more synergy between them. The addition of Operations was also a good choice, as each one is like a mini war story told through players’ actions. In one case, there were a large number of snipers on the enemy (defending) team, and the sense of stern resolve I developed while pushing up slowly into enemy territory further proved to me that it is possible to tell a compelling player-driven story.

It’s not all good, though. For most people, the first World War brings up thoughts of trench warfare and all-out charges across no man’s land. There are moments where this happens in the campaign – and sometimes moments in multiplayer – but sometimes, Battlefield 1 feels less like a specifically WWI shooter and more like Battlefield in WWI). Now, granted, you can’t just make a trench shooter if you expect to tell a tale of advancing and retreating forces, but I would like to see some more actual trench warfare, especially in multiplayer. There’s also the dispute about weapons. Those familiar with firearm history will recognize the StG-44 as the first successful assault rifle, and the M1 Garand as the first largely adopted semi-automatic rifle (though there were some used in somewhat large numbers in WWI). Personally, I think people are overreacting about the “inaccuracy” of weapons. Firstly, as far as I can tell, nothing about the appearance of these weapons is inaccurate – that is, they all existed. The thing is, how do you balance a game if you limit yourself to weapons that actually worked? The Cei-Rigotti never made it past the prototype stage, for example, but it is an example of a real WWI automatic rifle. Personally, I’d just prefer to see more experimental things – the Guiberson comes to mind – or if not experimental, then wackier equipment like periscope rifles.

In all, though, Battlefield 1 is a refreshing step in the right direction. With the market so over-saturated with modern and future shooters, it’s nice to take a step back and put yourself right into the mud. I know it’s not the first WWI shooter – in the last few years, I scratched that itch with Verdun – but I do enjoy seeing a larger studio tackle a little-exploited scene. I can only hope that the shooter scene expands further.