Only a few times in a year does a big-budget, heavy hitter of a game truly live up to the level of hype it had received leading up to its release. These days, most blockbuster titles (especially in the crowded FPS market) fail to meet expectations altogether – leading to frustrated fans and the further erosion of faith in the big cornerstone publishers. Even more rare, happening maybe once or twice in a year will a new big-name release not only meet, but exceed the already sky high expectations of its fans. I am very happy to report that that is exactly what EA and the DICE team have managed to accomplish with Battlefield 1. In terms of what a first-person shooter can be, it is difficult to describe Battlefield 1 as much less than a masterclass in how to take a risk and turn a little-explored era in video games – the First World War – into the new flagship game of the genre. While not completely without fault, Battlefield 1 manages not to throw the baby out with the bathwater – it seamlessly incorporated the lessons learned in what made Battlefield 4 and its predecessors so successful, while also bringing in some new mechanics that refreshes the formula and keeps the series famous dramatic, big-battle multiplayer exciting in the new setting. The end result is a game that challenges the notion that big studios like EA are incapable of evolution in their established properties. Battlefield 1 is helping to broaden the horizons of the FPS genre, one tank, biplane and bolt-action rifle at a time.
The stories and campaigns have rarely been the highpoints of games in the Battlefield series. However, Battlefield 1 has taken an innovative step to avoid the same pitfall that Battlefield 4 and prior games have fallen into story wise – just ditch the contrived, drawn out plot altogether. Instead of tasking the writers with coming up with a whole story populated with white bread, uninspiring characters fighting in strictly choreographed battles against an unbelievable enemy with increasingly over the top set pieces, Battlefield 1 does what seems obvious but really isn’t in the FPS genre these days – using the time period the game is set in, actually tell some of the stories of the soldiers whose experiences came to define the war. These short vignettes of real stories from the “war to end all wars” not only make the single-player campaign a compelling alternative to what would typically be considered a multiplayer dominated game, but provides a much needed narrative in a genre notorious for playing up the pomp and circumstance of war and romanticizing battle, at the expense of showing just how futile and merciless fighting a war really is. Going into this game, many observers were worried that the developers of Battlefield 1 would fall into the old Call of Duty trope of us vs. them, oversimplifying the true horrors of a war as unthinkable as WWI, to make it more palatable to the average person looking to buy the game. Play through the first 5 minutes though, and those concerns could immediately be put to rest as the player is thrust into the short collection of mini-missions that make up the prologue – an experience that the game openly tells the player they are not expected to survive. A crash course in just some of the horrors that awaited the average soldier on the frontlines of this war, whether it be the ceaseless machinegun fire, the artillery barrages, the impossible to survive charges into no-man’s land and of course, the poison gas.
Over the course of the six story arcs we are introduced to the six different characters we play as – a cast that well reflects both the well-known stories and the silent heroes of the First World War, from the British tank driver in France to the Bedouin woman taking up arms to aid in the efforts of T.E Lawrence, a.k.a Lawrence of Arabia. With all of the pieces taken together, Battlefield 1 strikes a marvelous balance with its approach to a story driven campaign. It highlights acts of true heroism and bravery without beating its chest or shying away from the difficult realities of the war, it offers up actually compelling characters whose triumphs and struggles carry real weight as opposed to the meathead protagonists one would often see in other FPS campaigns, the writing stays strong throughout all 6 stories while also keeping the action intense, and where many games veer into tokenism, the cast of characters here all have a clear and important purpose while also maintaining an impressive diversity.
But of course, the main selling point of any contemporary Battlefield game is its big, loud, cinematic 64-player battles. On this front as well, Battlefield 1 does not disappoint. From its impressive collection of era appropriate weapons to the huge scope of its dynamic maps to its many fully operable vehicles to its multileveled nature incorporating land, air and sea, Battlefield 1 unsurprisingly sets the bar for what can be accomplished in any sort of multiplayer game, period. The action, whether it be trying to hold the flags in Conquest or simply to hunt down the other team in Team Deathmatch is explosive, and the smallest details to the big new “Behemoth” mechanic (Massive vehicles that interact with the map such as armored trains, a battleship, or a giant airship) are all sublime. Nothing quite beats the thrill of jumping into a biplane and getting into a dogfight with an enemy player, or smashing through the walls of a building in a tank, or leading an assault on an enemy stronghold on foot. Every game is dynamic and varied, and each map offers its own quirks and challenges. All told, there are so many variables to the cause and effect of each battle that every match feels new and fresh.
Battlefield 1’s greatest crime is that there simply isn’t more of it. Both the single and multiplayer modes offer an improvement over what has been seen both earlier in the series and in the genre as a whole, and in virtually every way this game is pushing the boundaries of how a time-tested formula can be improved and innovated on without sacrificing any of what made it great in the first place. There is still the occasional bug or glitch in the multiplayer, but hardly anything that distracts from the gameplay. The visuals are sharp, the framerate is smooth, the interface is easy to navigate, the controls take little experience to learn and the music perfectly sets the tone for the game. I’m looking forward to all there is yet to see from this game, and hope that other franchises in the FPS genre will take a lesson from what is working here. Where most games fail to live up to expectation, Battlefield 1 is certainly the exception and not the rule.