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‘Battlefield 1’ Feels Both Familiar and Fresh in E3 Hands-On Demo

The biggest sensation in video games this year has been Battlefield 1 by a wide margin. The game with the top-rated trailer on YouTube was also one of the best experiences at E3 2016 and did a lot to rejuvenate my hope for the franchise.

As we descended upon the San Quentin Scar, my first impression of the game was of the classic Battlefield experience. The layout of the map, my assignment to a five-man squad, as well as the choices of roles and spawn points, were comfortably familiar. I am not the most serious franchise devotee by a wide margin, but I recognized the callbacks to concepts that have worked for a long time.

Still, my first reaction was to worry that I was dropping into nothing more than a reskin of Battlefield 4. Those fears were assuaged the moment I hit the ground. Though control mechanisms and navigation remain identical to the last numbered entry in the series, the similarities end there.

First of all, the weapons in Battlefield 1 are noticeably unrefined. Each World War I-era gun has much more kick and less precision than future evolutions. Adding weather effects and bullet drop to the mix creates a complexity in the mere shooting of another target that should provide challenge even for series veterans. Even so, it was never so much as to make hits feel random or out of my control. Players are forced to consider their shots and operate within the natural bounds of a weapon’s capabilities. The gunplay reminded me more of Red Orchestra: Rising Storm‘s unapologetic brutality than any modern warfare title.

Role selection wasn’t limited to doughboys in the dirt, however. This time around, you can choose specifically to spawn as a pilot or driver, alleviating the need to make a cursory choice and then a mad dash to your ideal ride when it spawns. It was an elegant solution that encouraged quick deployment and strategy adjustments on the fly, where dedicated drivers could pick up and escort their fellow troops in their tanks without the confusion of simultaneous loading with the guy behind the wheel. The change proved immediately effective, and both teams rushed toward the front in a rolling frenzy of primitive metal boxes, bristling with guns.

Each of those tanks were distinct. As the developers highlighted, each nation involved in World War I was still coming to terms with the development of new military technology, and each implemented those advancements in whatever ways seemed best to them. The result was a staggering variety of vehicles, each more visibly recognizable than anything outside of the iconic Rebel and Empire designs of Battlefront. Even having just begun my experience with the game, a few minutes was all it took to know who was piloting what at a quick glance.

That distinction of design runs through every part of the game, including the infantry weapons. In addition, axes and bayonets are more viable melee options than we’ve ever seen in a Battlefield title, throwing an element of shock and awe against the typically overwhelming power of mid-to-long range weapon. Without flawless precision, it’s much more dangerous to allow an enemy to charge into your front line with a heavy blade.

Planes swarmed the air, twisting and plummeting in dogfights that a supersonic jet could never emulate. There is a gritty chaos to the spinning hell of a biplane trying to fix a target for its onboard gunner that is unique to this era, and Battlefield 1 has a firm grip on that sense of barely-controlled aerial fury. By the time a fully-manned zeppelin made its debut late in the match, our Red Baron wannabes were more than ready to bring it down.

The weather turned during the match; from rain that beaded on our weapons to fog that obstructed long range visibility on the ground, each permutation forced an adjustment in approach to both attack and defense of the map’s tactical control points. Bayonets are even more frightening when they come bursting from within the cloak of a grey haze, and it’s much harder to identify a sniper when the rain is helping to conceal his movements. None of the effects were debilitating, but all were strong enough to force consideration.

Frankly, my biggest concern is that in the time between my play and release DICE could tone down the changes they’ve made to the core Battlefield experience. The best parts of the game were those that diverged furthest from what I expected, but in the past they’ve shown a propensity to back away from any changes that required long-time fans to adjust. The heavy recoil, complex accuracy considerations, and powerful weather effects were all vital to the tension and excitement of the match, and I’d hate to see any of those features blunted by those unwilling to adapt.

We were only allowed to play on one map during the demonstration, but DICE is promising a host of others in locations mostly never before depicted in a game. Amiens, France, and Monte Grappa’s Venetian Alps are among the promised battlefields — no pun intended — to appear in the final release, and we’ve still yet to see how Battlefield 1 will dip its toes into the infamous trench warfare of the era.

As always, there’s plenty more to come on Battlefield 1. Keep an eye out for further coverage of this and all of the post-E3 buzz on Breitbart/Tech.

Follow Nate Church @Get2Church on Twitter for the latest news in gaming and technology, and snarky opinions on both.

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