Battlefield 1 Review: The Great War(game)

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Here’s a fact that seems to get lost in nearly every single military shooter made these days: people die in war.

It’s sounds daft to say it, but games seldom count the very human cost of conflict. To players, death is just an inconvenience solved by a loading slot or a save checkpoint or the ability to run around a corner and hide until the globules of blood on the HUD fade.

As such, military shooter narratives very rarely take a hard, unblinking look at what staring death in the face must feel like; the sheer terror when the Reaper looks as if he’s approaching and the numbing resignation that follows keeping him at bay for another twenty-four hours.

Battlefield 1 Review: Plot

Battlefield 1 is surprising for two reasons. First, it tackles this mind-set head on with a story that neither romanticises the World War I backdrop it’s set in, nor juices it up with gung-ho bravado. It treats its subject matter with the utmost respect and populates it with believable characters that don’t fall into the trap of becoming archetypes or super-humans.

Second, it tells some great stories – and this is a game made by DICE. EA’s FPS frontline developer isn’t really known for great stories and anyone who disagrees with this should just play the Mirror’s Edge games again. And then the last two Battlefields. And then Battlefield: Bad Company 2. The preceding list of games aren’t terrible by a long shot but did anyone really care about their narratives beyond their ability to string action set-pieces together?

Even when stacked up against the likes of the Gears Of War and Call Of Duty franchises, the plots that drive DICE’s games’ action struggle for attention. Next to the likes of BioShock, Brütal Legend or The Last Of Us, DICE’s games’ stories aren’t even worth mentioning.

Battlefield 1 Review: Campaign

Battlefield 1 changes all this; rather than plonk players into the boots of a protagonist who’s a one-man-slaughterhouse, DICE’s WWI shooter splits its campaign’s narrative into five strands (six if you count the prologue) all headed up protagonists who, while sharing the same agenda (beat the Germans), are as far apart in background, culture and personality as one can get with a long distance flight.

This isn’t a story about how the USA won World War I on its own. Battlefield 1 spreads its narrative net wide, reminding – or informing – players that the ‘war to end all wars’ was fought on myriad battlefields and involved combatants from around the world.

Furthermore, DICE gifts players a pretty varied set of tasks and mechanics in each strand of Battlefield 1’s campaign. In one story, they’re sneaking through pea-soup fog scouting out the terrain ahead of a tank – which they’ll be called upon to fix should it take too many hits. In another they’re dogfighting in a biplane above London. Next, they find themselves on horseback or storming a beach, battling enemy combatants dug in on seaside trenches.

Battlefield 1 Review: Multiplayer

As is the case with most FPS packages, the campaign missions have a tangential goal to just telling a gripping yarn – or in this case, a series of them. They’re also geared toward familiarising players with the game’s weapons, vehicles and mechanics before they hurl them into the online multiplayer mode.

Battlefield 1 takes some cues from its predecessors that keep everything true to the series roots. The maps are wide open spaces in which players sometimes find themselves searching for a gunfight and the avatars are all class-based; Medic does what it says on the tin, Scout is this game’s sniper class, Assault is the class to choose if you’re after run-‘n-gun action and Support sacrifice an offensive-weapons tool-set for a heavy machine-gun.

The game also tweaks some of the series’ best known features. Vehicles are now spawn-classes (Tanker, Pilot and Cavalry) and the online mode also takes a leaf out of Star Wars: Battlefront’s playbook by introducing Elite pick-ups, which are special weapons such as the rather nasty flamethrower.

Battlefield 1 Review: Multiplayer Matches

The online mode sees the return of Team Deathmatch, Rush, Domination, Conquest and Capture The Flag (or in this case, the pigeon) match types. Veterans will know what to expect from each match in terms of their objective and each class allows them to approach an online fragfest with a fresh approach.

The new showcase for the Battlefield franchise – and it works so well with the World War I setting – is the Operations match type. The only downside it has is that once players get stuck into it, they may never bother playing Rush again unless they’re hard up for time.

Operations works as an expanded version of Rush, underpinned by a narrative that alludes to historical events from the war. Players attack or defend patches of territory, pushing each other back across a map or ceding territory to enemies. Matches can outlast an hour’s worth of time and each ending delivers a voice over that ponders how the outcome of each Operations match may have affected the war,  had it happened in real life. It’s a smart and engrossing match if you have the time to dedicate to it.

The action is pretty standard fare – which is amazing when one consider the game’s arsenal is nearly 100 years old. Yes, there are issues – snipers are still ridiculously overpowered and can hit you from stupidly long distances (and the cruddy reload times on their bolt-action rifles isn’t the balance redress DICE thinks it is) – but the multiplayer is infectiously fun throughout.

Battlefield 1 Review: Verdict

DICE deserves more than a few bows for Battlefield 1. By throwing its military shooter franchise into the past, the Swedish developer has made it feel fresher than ever before. Packaged with a respectful, engrossing and fun single-campaign and a multiplayer mode that is likely to keep players hooked long into the night, Battlefield 1 is easily the best military FPS of 2016 and makes a very convincing case to be considered this year’s best shooter.

  • Battlefield 1 was reviewed on an Xbox One. A retail copy was supplied by the publisher.