Back when it was revealed that the next installment of EA/Dice’s ever-popular shooter series would actually be set in the First World War, a few people – myself included – found themselves somewhere between intrigued and sceptical. On the one hand, The Great War provides ample Narrative opportunity (see the really rather excellent Valiant Hearts, for example), but on the other, given the conflict was most famously characterised by Trench Warfare, it seemed to many that this facet might prove difficult to reconcile with the large, sprawling theatres of war that have become the trademark of the Battlefield series. Likewise, as most First Person Shooters seem Hell bent on disappearing into the distant future (in order to give players an interesting(/increasingly daft) arsenal of futuristic weapons and gizmos), Dice’s decision to leap backwards a century – to a time when even electricity was relatively novel – seemed somewhat anathema, and possibly even quite risky.
Finally, on a slightly more personal note, as a former student of Politics and International Relations (and a fairly left wing one at that) I could happily bang on for days about WW1, about the injustice and absurdity of it all, so I was genuinely a bit worried that Battlefield 1 – were it to adopt an unthinkingly gung-ho, jingoistic approach – might just end up pissing me right off. Whilst I appreciate most people don’t leap into an FPS environment for nuanced, historically accurate treatise on, say, the legitimacy of conflict, or the abuse of power within the context of anachronistic and outdated systems, it was still a concern for me, and it would’ve been hard to enjoy the game if I was constantly rolling my eyes, or screaming at my telly because the game had fundamentally misrepresented certain aspects of events. That’s a bit sad, obviously, but true nonetheless!
Anyways, if your eyes haven’t glazed over already, that’s a fairly long winded way of saying that Battlefield 1 had to walk a fair few lines – and really rather adeptly – for some people to consider it a success, and yet another set of lines for others to buy into what it was offering. Basically; a lot of potential to get at least some stuff wrong.
The good news is – in terms of the Single Player campaign anyways – they mostly get most stuff right. Or at least not horribly wrong, anyway. Battlefield 1 makes some decent decisions, and that allows it to work on various levels fairly successfully. Most successfully, I think, Battlefield 1 solves the ‘endless trench Warfare’ thing in a way which also quite cleverly augments the NARRATIVE opportunities thing; namely, they’ve opted for a ‘different chapters from different perspectives and in different theatres’ device.
As such, you’ll not spend your time as just one soldier, but instead play through different, shorter chapters as different people, and in very different scenarios. In fact, this element very much reminded me of the aforementioned Valiant Hearts, and whilst this is a very different game, it had a similar narrative approach. For me, it didn’t quite reach the emotional zeniths of Valiant Hearts, but there were still genuinely poignant moments, and that was especially commendable in a game of this type, I thought.
Even more commendably, I felt like Battlefield 1 was indeed quite sympathetic, nuanced and sensitive in its dealing with the conflict. I mean, there was still a lot of encouragement to shoot the shit out of people, obviously, but I also found there was a degree of restraint and emotional intelligence in the game – and precisely because Battlefield 1 was prepared to deal with shades of grey, didn’t just overly glorify war, it was, I think, a much better experience because of that. In a similar vein, the fact that we’re shown different perspectives (i.e. different Nationalities) works well in the context of this being a World War, but also manages to avoid the whole ‘square-jawed GI Joe singlehandedly saving the world’ thing that can be quite annoying in games of this type. All things considered, Battlefield 1 is genuinely pretty good, narratively speaking, and has demonstrated that it is indeed possible to deliver the action of First Person Shooters whilst still telling interesting, sympathetic and nuanced stories.
In terms of actual GAMEPLAY, the different chapters thing allows Battlefield 1 to provide a reasonable amount of variety, and for me at least, I think that worked quite well – for a few reasons. Given the relative brevity of the chapters, and given they’re actually self-contained stories in different locations, I never really found myself getting bored of the endless wave of enemies/checkpoint/another wave of enemies blueprint that has become a hallmark of the FPS genre over the years. Obviously there’s still an element of that (in some chapters), but I think most people will be surprised at how little there is, and in fact, if there’s one overarching characteristic of Battlefield 1 it’s actually stealth – believe it or not. I’ll come back to that in a bit, but for now…. Colour me surprised!
Anyways, back to the variety. There’s a chapter involving (mostly) Tank Warfare, a chapter focusing on (mostly) aerial shenanigans, a chapter that I’d tentatively label the espionage/sabotage one, another featuring a naval element (although it’s mostly tangential), and really only one where you’re truly running and gunning. The first two are quite good fun, and once you get used to the tank and plane, it’s likely you’ll really enjoy them. I’ve a history of being bad with tanks and downright fucking atrocious with any kind of flying but actually, after a bit of practice, I really, really liked them both, the plane stuff especially. Even though it initially very much looked like it would be a controller through the TV type deal, once I’d got the hang of it (and dicked around with the ‘invert axis’ settings) it rapidly became my favourite chapter. Given you can access and (re)play the chapters in any order, I think this decision by EA/Dice elevates the Single Player aspect of Battlefield beyond what it could have been, and I certainly see myself returning to the campaign many times over.
To be sure, all the chapters (even the vehicular based ones) contrive to throw you into good old fashioned, boots-on-the-ground scenarios, but even they’re tactically quite open – ostensibly at least. There’s actually not that much of the pushing foward through narrow gameplay corridors that defines FPS campaigns, and most levels are large, open, and allow you to approach them with a reasonable degree of choice. As I’ve mentioned, you’re actively encouraged to adopt a stealthy approach more often than not (particularly if you’re after collecting some of the codex/challenges in the game) but, if you don’t want to, or if things just go horribly wrong (*raises hand*), you can go in all guns blazing as and when. There’s also a fair amount of weaponry to play around with too, and even though it’s not “advanced”, you’ll still find yourself with a variety of implements to get your killing done with. Perhaps I’m getting old, but honestly, I quite enjoyed not being forced to randomly get to grips with some stupid space laser in the middle of a level, and was more than happy dealing with regular old guns and whatnot.
Finally, in terms of GRAPHICS, AUDIO and PRODUCTION, Battlefield 1 is really rather great. As you’d possibly expect from a big budget, Triple A game, everything is suitably bombastic and polished. It’s not perfect (I’ve seen a bit of stuttering and glitching), but it’s generally pretty damn good. There are times when facial animation is really very close to HD quality live-action, and much of the game is sweeping, majestic and cinematic in its execution. Playing on my PS4, with surround sound speakers turned up to 11, Battlefield 1 was often jaw-droppingly epic, breathtakingly big and, as a result, was an incredibly immersive experience from start to finish. Whether you’re creeping through dark, muddy trenches, or performing tight aerial turns against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains, Battlefield 1 is exceptional in its size, scope and execution. Or, to put it another way: it looks, sounds and feels reeeeeaaaally fucking great! Of course games don’t have to be ultra-realistic to work as games, but in this particular context, I think it makes Battlefield quite spectacular, and it certainly helps that it is realistic and graphically rather superb.
In CONCLUSION, there’s a lot to like about Battlefield 1, and those concerns some of us had turned out to have been a challenge EA/Dice both embraced, and ultimately overcame, with skill and aplomb. The awesome responsibility of dealing with a real conflict – involving real people – was definitely a thing, but this is a game that benefits from having been made my people who recognised and accepted that very thing. Dice have created a game that not only works as a game, but that also takes its responsibilities in the narrative department seriously, and that was a pleasant surprise – at least for me. As much as I do enjoy shooters, it’s hard to argue that they haven’t become a bit same-y over the last few years – and even increasingly dumb, if we’re being honest – and as such, Battlefield 1 should be respected for bucking that particular trend. The campaign’s not overly long, for sure, but it’s decidedly more fulfilling than a lot of what FPS’s are (laughingly) calling Single Player Campaigns these days, and it’s certainly enjoyable and interesting.
I was quite sceptical going into Battlefield 1, perhaps even actively looking for reasons to dislike it, but it won me over regardless, and that’s quite the achievement. If you’re not a fan of First Person Shooters, this might just be one that you could enjoy, and if you are a fan, it’s possible you might even find Battlefield 1 refreshing in a way you wouldn’t necessarily have expected. It won’t please all of the people, all of the time, but it is a solid effort at pleasing most – even this geeky, pedantic former International Relations student – and that, I think, is a fairly solid endorsement.