Wot I Think: Battlefield 1

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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.

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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.

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