Battlefield 1 is the most fun I’ve had with a Battlefield title since the original 1942, despite flaws that have dug themselves deep into the trenches of the franchise.
I wouldn’t be the first to quip that a truly accurate World War I experience would be an inescapable living hell, piled with the muddied corpses of your friends. A truly accurate Battlefield 1 would be miserable. Perhaps that’s why the “war to end all wars” hasn’t been tackled by many titles, and none so directly as DICE’s latest outing.
Yet Battlefield 1 is a curiously cheery affair, a colorful romp through a time that would become known as well for world-changing innovation as the abject suffering of the millions upon millions who lost their lives in a wasteland of mud, blood, and shrapnel.
While it’s taken navigational cues from the more recent Star Wars: Battlefront, this is every inch a Battlefield game. Everything you know is here, though it’s tucked away in slightly different places. It’s not a big adjustment, and almost entirely for the better; there are fewer menus through which to wade, and quicker ways to get at the action.
I started with the single player campaign — a now standard feature of recent Battlefield titles though reliably lackluster outside of the brilliant Bad Company spin-offs. This time around, that campaign is split into a half dozen vignettes that stretch across the Western hemisphere.
The self-contained stories are always interesting. One has you as the designated Driver of “Black Bess,” a temperamental piece of bleeding-edge technology that traces the fine line between potent yet inconsistent lethal force, and truly perilous mechanical liabilities. Another has you step into the boots of a wily card-sharp fighter pilot, stretching the limits of narrative believability with epic feats that may or may not be strictly true.
They’re all enjoyable, and never feel as if they’re overstaying their welcome. Unfortunately, some of the gameplay contained within can veer between on-rails constrictive, and so broad that it lacks almost any structure at all. The typical Battlefield HUD elements also cloud any potential immersion, with a smattering of on-screen waypoints, glowing soldier and objective outlines, and other visual cues that rob even the most intense moments of any sense of actually being there.
I can’t help but think that stripping most — if not all — of it away would have created an experience that may have lacked as much tutorial value, but might have felt a bit more authentic. I’m still not sure that DICE understands the mechanics of a good single player experience, but I’m also not entirely sure that it matters.
That’s because we all know why people buy Battlefield games, and so, obviously, do its creators. Multiplayer in Battlefield 1 is polished to a blinding sheen, as smooth, accessible, and varied as the series has ever seen. Beneath the sheer polish of its rich historic visuals beats the heart of a game we haven’t truly seen since Battlefield 1942 took us back to a slapstick version of this war’s inevitable sequel.
Assault, Medic, Support, and Scout classes are available immediately for play, alongside vehicle-specific roles that can be accessed from the base whenever an empty horse, tank, or plane is available. Special classes can be picked up on the field, similar to Battlefront’s “heroes.” It’s a dubious design choice — I have yet to meet a single person who preferred this power-up style feature — but with much less focus, it’s hardly the annoyance that it was in that galaxy far, far away.
Playing as a certain class will allow you to level up, unlock more advanced pieces of equipment for your loadout, and occasionally award battle chests to unlock rare weapons, items, and custom skins. If you’re a series veteran, you know the drill. Certain weapons are already emerging as fan favorites, no doubt future victims of balance patching. If you want to know exactly what your weapon’s strengths and weaknesses are, you can use the “soldier” submenu to examine concrete numerical statistics.
Maps are varied and well balanced, from frantic firefights deep in the jungle to the rolling dunes of a vast desert. Every situation is unique, and every scenario is interesting. Like everything else in the game, the map design is brimming with personality.
Buildings crumble and explode, while mechanized monstrosities clamber over trenches and soldiers alike. The weather will take sudden and violent turns for the worse, and mud will spatter on your weapons as you trudge through the downpour in search of your next objective.
Those weapons aren’t just interesting to look at, they’re also a joy to use. Rifles are accurate but slow, shotguns are devastating in claustrophobic jungle environments and building interiors, and machine guns are wildly inaccurate fire hoses of hot lead. All of them are rigorously detailed, and pack a satisfying punch suited to their respective role. Customization returns, adding another layer of personality to an arsenal that is already far more distinctive than anything the series has seen so far. It’s an especially welcome change from the numerous-but-samey armory in Battlefield 4.
The vehicles follow suit. Dogfighting in Battlefield 1 is as good as it’s ever been and makes a little more sense than it has in modern titles. Instead of supersonic jets careening in loops around skyscrapers, these agile little fighter planes and lumbering bombers feel right at home in the midst of the struggle. Anti-air weaponry is utterly devastating, and creates an almost perfect balance of dire risk and reward.
I’m a terrible shot, so I was also very pleased with the tactical variety available. While landing headshots on a dozen moving pixels on the horizon is a virtual impossibility for my lagging reflexes, I can judge the tactical efficiency of chlorine gas with the best of them.
Mortars, dynamite, mines, and anti-armor weapons are also well within my purview, and provided me with something compelling to do that wasn’t dashing between corpses in hopes of reviving them before my impatient allies skipped their death timers for a slightly quicker respawn.
Item utility makes for some of the best moments I experienced in the game. Smoke grenades blind, and chlorine gas is appropriately deadly if you don’t immediately equip your gas mask. Doing so will remove your ability to iron-sight your weapon, making combat within the haze of sickly yellow fog all the more frantic.
Aside from a typically shallow single-player experience, the two most notable flaws in Battlefield 1 aren’t anything new. Despite changing weather and beautiful design, the barrage of artificial on-screen noise still detracts from the conceit of taking part in a World War I conflict. It’s easier to mentally dismiss in a modern setting, but history could have really used a touch of restraint.
The second is a problem that is much more difficult to fix: It’s still a game in which individual skill very often feels like a drop in the ocean. Unless you’re playing on a tiny map in something like the small teams-focused Domination mode, it can be hard to find a role to play in the battle beyond joining the current checkpoint rush.
While roles are clearly defined, communication has never been a strong suit among anonymous teams. In a smaller game like Overwatch with single objectives, that’s not such a big deal. Across the rolling landscapes of a 64-player slugfest, the lack of cohesion stands out.
These are problems that have existed as long as competitive multiplayer has, and Battlefield’s inability to rectify them isn’t so much a mark against the game as a recurring disappointment in an otherwise wonderful experience.
At the end of the day, Battlefield 1 is easily one of the best experiences DICE has offered. It’s still Battlefield, but done just about as well as I think anyone could have expected. If you have any experience with the franchise, you know what you’re in for; Battlefield 1 isn’t a game-changer. It is, however, a solid entry in a unique setting, with tight gameplay as polished as anything in the genre.
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