From the first few minutes of gameplay, it’s clear that Battlefield 1 is a special game. The gameplay and controls are reassuringly familiar, but the tone, equipment and environments you’ll fight through are very different. After years at the cutting-edge of warfare, Battlefield returns to the difficult years of World War I, and it tackles the stuttering emergence of modern warfare with an incredibly crafted campaign mode. Alongside that, Battlefield 1 also features one of the best multiplayer modes I’ve played in a while, although it arguably forces gamers into a moral and ethical no man’s land.
Although Battlefield isn’t really known for its campaign mode, this year’s shooter offers one the best story modes since the heady days of Battlefield: Bad Company 2. Seconds after booting up the game, you’re thrown a gun and thrust into the action – and what follows is a chillingly, memorable experience.
WWI was the world’s first bitter taste of “modern” warfare, and Battlefield 1 treats the new style of warfare that soldiers encountered in 1914 with respect. As you try to figure out your bearings in those first chaotic minutes, you’re overwhelmed by the screen of machine-gun fire, the whistle of artillery, and the stark greyness and desolation of the ruins around you. The frantic feeling of war is front and centre, and as the Germans begin to emerge from the fog, you can almost feel the panic.
World War I saw horses facing tanks, and swords facing machine guns – and DICE really captures the transitional, mismatched feel of the war. When riding in a tank, for example, you really feel like you’re in a modern machine against outdated enemies, and mowing through them with the machine gun seems unfair. At the same time, lining up targets through the tank’s sights is awkward and unwieldy, reminding you that these weapons are experimental and cutting-edge, but not quite refined yet.
DICE has nailed a feeling of dread throughout the game, but it does scale and perspective well too, and that’s partly down to the way the campaign is organised. DICE has split the single player gameplay into different War Stories, and these fragments help you piece together a bigger picture. These mini-episodes give you a sense of the scale of the war, and the top-down way they’re displayed makes them feel connected.
The game always makes you feel like part of a much larger conflict, and sequences such as one where you take control of a pigeon – flying from your stranded tank to your command post – let you look down and take in the bigger, devastating picture. It’s bleak, stunning and unnervingly peaceful, but it also gives you an idea of your position and role in the fight.
Great graphics, bad AI
It’s hard to ignore just how achingly beautiful Battlefield 1 is, because throughout the game you get to travel to some incredible-looking environments. Whether you’re flying over the skies of London in a biplane, galloping through the desert or creeping around in French fog, Battlefield 1 brings those locations to life stunning detail. It’s without doubt one of the best-looking games I’ve played.
However, and somewhat annoyingly, that presentation is sometimes let down by terrible AI, and the occasional bit of repetitive gameplay. There’s far more stealth than you’d expect in this game, which would be fine if the AI was sophisticated – but it’s not. Outwitting the cards isn’t rewarding because it’s repetitive and simple; you’ll find the same trick works over and over again on multiple guards. Put in video-game terms, the stealth sections are more Pac-Man than Metal Gear Solid.
The AI acts pretty strangely during battles, too. In World War I, tanks were a feared, formidable force. Imagine my surprise, then, when German soldiers began to charge at my tank armed with pistols and rifles. Although it’s not a huge issue, Battlefield 1 does so much so well that glitches like these shatter the game’s otherwise immersive feel.
As you’d expect, Battlefield 1 offers detailed, immersive multiplayer experiences. The nine maps currently on offer are sprawling and immersive, and DICE has thrown in all the modes you’d expect from a shooter – including a new Operations mode. At the same time, it’s clear DICE has learnt lessons from Star Wars Battlefront, and you’ll find certain achievements and unlock mechanics have been carried over.
In terms of gameplay, Battlefield is near-perfect in multiplayer. No gun feels overpowered, while everything else feels incredibly robust and fluid. After just one round, you’ll find climbing, jumping and strafing second-nature – and you’ll be at ease in vehicles too. You can play this game for hours at a time, and there’s enough unlockable content and DLCs down the road to keep you going for months.
However, I have one uncomfortable issue with the multiplayer experience. After playing the sombre campaign, switching to multiplayer feels less respectful, and war-glorifying. Mowing down soldiers earns you points; killing enemies over and over again gets you kills; and getting promoted after you frag someone to kingdom come is a pretty common situation. In the campaign mode, seeing a building blow up and enemies die would be an important story beat – in multiplayer mode, it nets you a cool 450 XP.
I’m not sure what else DICE could have done in this respect, because that’s exactly what you’d expect from a multiplayer mode in 2016. Obviously there’s a need to give players points and reward them for their skill – and that’s totally fine. But moving from the chilling campaign mode to being teabagged just feels a bit wrong. If DICE hadn’t done such a good job with the campaign mode, or the subject matter was slightly different, it really wouldn’t be an issue.
Despite that almost inevitable juxtaposition, Battlefield 1 is an incredible game. In some respects, it’s a gaming experience that charts one of the most confusing, tragic wars in history – and in others it’s a polished multiplayer game that will have you hankering for more kills. While those two aspects don’t sit too comfortably together, independently they result in the best Battlefield game in a while, and probably the best shooting game this year.