Battlefield 1 is proof that sometimes you have to go backward to move forward. The latest entry in the series is an incremental evolution of the Battlefield large-scale FPS combat formula that gloriously captures the visceral brutality of a world gone mad. Battlefield 1’s World War I setting features (relatively time appropriate) new weapons and vehicles and also includes a surprisingly well-crafted single player campaign and new multiplayer mechanics. Yes, Battlefield 1 is beautiful and well optimized. Yes, the sound design is impressive and earthshaking. But does Battlefield 1 do enough to stand alone or does it feel like a retread in a new skin?
Battlefield 1’s single player campaign called “War Stories” is set squarely from the perspective of World War I’s Allied Powers. The campaign features six varied and self-contained narratives including a brief prelude that features the Harlem Hellfighters in the frontline desperately fighting back an advancing German army. You’re put in the shoes of a random soldier for a brief moment until your life is quickly snuffed out by enemy bullets, grenades, mustard gas or a flamethrower. The soldier’s name and years of birth and death pop up and you quickly jump to the perspective of another doomed soldier.
This introduction really captures the hopeless reality of warfare that the rest of the campaign strays a bit too far away from. After the introduction, you’ll control five separate soldiers each a unique part of the war effort. You’ll play a member of a tank crew in one segment, stealthily attack enemy strongholds under the leadership of Lawrence of Arabia in the next and run bombing missions for the Royal Airforce in another.
In one part of the campaign, you’re in an impenetrable suit of bulletproof armor wielding a machine gun like Arnold Schwarzenegger mowing down enemies, which slightly undermines the main point of the narrative. That weird tonal shift is a small gripe and the campaign features some stellar set pieces, tense vehicle warfare and ground combat set in open areas that provide different viable paths and strategies.
But of course the star of Battlefield 1 is the multiplayer and my how brightly it shines. New vehicles, weapons and abilities and the oft-unexplored setting of World War I, spanning the historical trenches, burnt out cities and desert outposts, help to foster experimentation with weapons and positioning. First the flashy: rickety tanks and biplanes, horses, bayonet charges, mustard gas and gas masks, more melee weapon options and gadgets that are unique to the period and are fun to experiment with. Then the Battlefield hallmark: class-based squad combat returns, but with a twist.
On top of the Assault, Medic, Scout and Support roles, Battlefield 1 also features pickups that allow players to swap into one of three powerful classes in the middle of battle. These are the Tank Hunter who is equipped with an anti-vehicle rifle, the heavily armored Sentry with a high capacity machine gun and the close range flamethrower wielding Flame Trooper. Though definitely very powerful in the right hands, a coordinated effort will take them down – or a lucky bayonet charge.
Multiplayer is largely objective based gameplay and my experience has been positive so far but your experience may vary depending on how or if your team even plays the objective. There are six multiplayer modes with varying player counts and vehicle access including old favorites like Conquest and Domination (large scale combat with or without vehicles both focused on capping and holding flags), Rush (hold or destroy telegraphs) and Team Deathmatch. New for this year are Operations and War Pigeons. In War Pigeons two teams fight to capture a randomly spawning pigeon. The team that captures it calls in an artillery strike on their enemy’s position. The highlight by far is Operations, a multiplayer mode spanning a series of two to three maps in a specific theater of war with attack/defense objectives similar to traditional Conquest. Part of the wonder of Operations (and Conquest) comes from Behemoths, which are huge floating airships, armored trains or seafaring battleships that enter the map on the side of the losing team. Though potential game changers, Behemoths are quite vulnerable due to their size and their lack of mobility make them easy to avoid.
Battlefield 1 launches with nine different maps. Keep in mind that post-launch support for Battlefield 1 includes four content packs that will bring new maps, weapons and factions. In my experience, paid maps tend to fracture the community so we’ll have to see how developer Dice handles players who stick with the vanilla version of the game.
I’m not in love with Battlefield 1’s change in its weapon unlock system. Specific weapons are tied to each class, which are Assault, Support, Medic and Scout. You’ll level up your overall rank by playing and ranking up in each class, up to 10, by performing in-game actions related to your role like spotting enemies as a Scout, or reviving downed players as a Medic. Weapons are unlocked for purchase after reaching that weapon’s specific rank. You then have to purchase weapons with Warbonds, in-game currency earned for leveling up your general rank. Ranking up also drops a Battlepack containing a random weapon skin for you to equip. That is a poor replacement for the deep weapon customization of past games and instead weapon modifications come pre-installed with different variants of weapons.
A trench version of a Scout rifle may forgo the long range scope of a marksman variant in favor of iron sights and a faster fire rate for example. So while it may look like a class has 16 or so weapons available, it’s actually just four or five different weapon with three to four variants per weapon. I can understand the decision because winning firefights do feel like they’re based on positioning and the optimum ranges for weapons instead of who has the best weapon unlocks but what I found addicting in Battlefield was always the promise of the next shiny attachment for my favorite weapon. It’s a shame because there definitely seems to be an even greater emphasis on infantry combat that’s largely in part due to slower vehicle respawn and repair times that have made tanks and planes less of a game changer than they once were when facing a coordinated team.
There are two very large quality of life issues in Battlefield 1. The first is you have to actually join a game to customize your loadouts and you have to spawn into a vehicle to actually customize it. Maddening. You can also customize your gear if you download an app on your smartphone but… no thanks. It often leads to matches where a portion of the team isn’t spawning because they’ve spent the beginning of the match staring at their customization menu. I also couldn’t quit between matches, meaning I had to either Alt+F4 or load into the next map to actually quit the game. But these issues aren’t large enough to sour the Battlefield 1 experience: the desperation of running for cover as planes make bombing runs overhead, the suspense of setting up an ambush for an approaching tank or the deep satisfaction of skewering a flame trooper on your bayonet.
As someone who played Battlefield 3 consistently and dabbled in the last few entries, Battlefield 1 is a culmination of the best of the rest in the franchise like a greatest hits album of ideas taken from past titles and transposed to WWI. It feels like Dice took the parts of Battlefield 4, Battlefield Hardline and Battlefront to make Battlefield’s Frankenstein’s monster and it works very well. Battlefield 1 is exciting and familiar; and it will be all too familiar for some. For those who are taken with the idea of World War I combat, or simply love Battlefield’s signature mix of frenetic infantry and vehicle-based warfare, Battlefield 1 is big and bold and worthy of your attention.