Battlefield 1 is something special.
After spending the better part of the last decade on modern warfare in Battlefield 3 and 4, as well as the Bad Company spinoff series, DICE’s decision to leave familiar territory behind and set their next shooter in the Great War came as a surprise to many, but I’m beyond thrilled to report that it not only works, but feels like a huge step forward. Battlefield 1 not only manages to make the unusual time period it’s set in work to its advantage, but is easily the best entry in the series since Bad Company 2.
A huge part of what makes BF1 so successful is its “War Stories” campaign mode. Rather than attempting to tell an overarching narrative about the conflict, DICE has divided BF1’s story mode into six smaller vignettes that take place around the world and capture different aspects of combat in WWI. Nearly all of these are both thrilling to play, and tell compelling stories, thanks to some solid performances and serviceable, if often predictable, writing. From scallywag fighter pilots to courageous Italian infantrymen, the protagonists of each tale are all significantly different from one another, and have different tales to tell. Each story is told in a different way: some are overlayed with narration from your protagonist or another character, while others are communicated through gameplay and dialogue alone, but all of them have their own message about war, loss, and bravery. The only problem with the storytelling is some weird dissonance between the serious, respectful tone that the game often seems to be chasing after, and the nearly oppositional nature of gameplay. In its opening moments, Battlefield 1 establishes that these events are fairly recent, and acknowledges the death toll in a fairly somber way, and even goes as far as attempting to humanize both sides of the conflict in a cutscene, but within two chapters has turned to standard power fantasy gameplay that sees you mowing down hundreds of faceless enemies as a one-man army in 20th century power armor. It’s fun to play, but entirely dismissive of Germany and Austria-Hungary, who’s soldiers were just as young and naive as the Allies’. DICE seem skittish about telling a war story that isn’t entirely one-sided, even though this conflict wasn’t nearly as morally cut-and-dry as WWII.
The campaign is short but sweet, with a 4-5 hour runtime. Nearly every level features top-notch visuals and explosive set pieces, depicting massive, D-Day style beach landings, chaotic dogfights and bombing runs, and plentiful assaults on enemy-held forts and villages. Clearly built with the same tech used in last year’s Star Wars: Battlefront, all of the action carries on at a mostly solid 60fps, even on console, and unlike the infamously broken BF4, I’ve experienced a total of zero noticeable glitches or crashes in my twenty-plus hours with the final game. Some corners are cut to keep the action interesting- despite the heavy focus on trench warfare seen in the First World War, none of the campaign levels really portray this, instead focusing on the war in the air, desert and armored operations, and tiny conflicts in the Alps and Turkey that didn’t follow the same rules as most combat in the era. In a similar vein, there is also an absurd amount of automatic weaponry used in both singleplayer and multiplayer for a game set in WW1. I understand DICE’s concerns about alienating fans of previous games by completely eliminating machine guns, but I can’t help but wish that they’d gone all the way in their commitment to the setting in order to truly differentiate BF1’s gameplay from other shooters.
DICE seem skittish about telling a war story that isn’t entirely one-sided
Happily, this is where my criticism of Battlefield 1 ends. Despite my minor gripes with tonal and historical elements of the campaign, it’s still the best shooter campaign I’ve played in years bar none, and the multiplayer is even stronger. BF1 steps in an entirely new direction from the last few entries, but still maintains the core of what made them so exhilarating. The gunplay has been entirely refreshed: semi-automatic weapons play a much larger role, and accuracy/recoil are noticeably worse, so melee and close-quarters combat are more prominent. Melee combat is particularly compelling, as the introduction of bayonet charges make it a much more practical affair than the usual panicked stabbing that might occasionally net a kill in other Battlefield games. Not much has changed about the core structure of leveling up your class and character aside from some tweaks to battlepacks and the introduction of a weekly challenge system in the form of collectible medals, but the game around it certainly has. While most modes from classic Battlefield, such as Rush, Domination, Conquest, and TDM all remain intact, the brand new Operations mode is a huge highlight; an entirely new experience that quickly became my default way of playing BF1 multiplayer. Each of the four operations campaigns has its own theme and plot, which is explained via narration and cutscene between matches. It’s a very long-form mode, featuring battles that extend across multiple maps with two sides vying to claim total victory over one another. It’s basically 64-man Rush, with massive teams trying to attack and defend various objectives, moving from section to section across each map until the attackers are wiped out or every point is captured. Having so many players participate in assaults on just two or three objectives at a time is something rarely seen in Battlefield, and the completely insane, near-cinematic moments that can come out of the resulting chaos are well worth experiencing.
The crudeness of early 20th-century tech also means that vehicular combat has also been overhauled. Nearly every machine in Battlefield 1 is slower and weaker, and every tank, car, and plane uses analog weaponry instead of fancy lock-on systems and equippable special abilities. Vehicles still pose a threat, but now require a different set of skills to master, with an increased focus on leading targets and manually scoring direct hits instead of using flares, smoke, and guidance systems to mislead foes and lock onto targets. Air combat is probably the most changed, and the results are entirely for the better: dogfights are now a game of cat and mouse, where pilots struggle to get behind one another in order to deal damage and bring opponents down. The presence of multiple plane types helps keep things interesting, as you may now choose between three available models, each with unique pros and cons. Some even support tail gunners and other passengers, so despite the lack of helicopters in this iteration, there are still ways for squadmates to buddy up in the air.
[BF1 has] the best shooter campaign I’ve played in years bar none, and the multiplayer is even stronger
Also new are powerful one-off vehicles like the armored train and zepplin: massive, deadly, and tough to take out, these distinctly WW1-era machines show up in Conquest and the new Operations mode as a kind of equalizer for losing teams. They can be manned by multiple players at a time and help to balance out otherwise one-sided games, and add even more variables to what can happen each match. The zeppelin in particular is incredible, especially because of the verticality it adds to any game it shows up in. Whether you’re on board, firing mounted machine guns down onto the battlefield, or flying a fighter plane trying to take it down, it’s a lot of fun to interact with, and the colossal explosion that follows after its health finally ticks down to zero and it lands somewhere on the map is nothing short of awe-inspiring.
Actually, all of the destruction in BF1 is pretty terrific. The terribly-named-but-actually-kind-of-cool levolution system from Battlefield 4 is gone, but in its stead is a much more consistent dynamic destruction system, the likes of which haven’t been seen since Bad Company 2. It’s great to see it back, and it looks and works wonderfully. Is an enemy sniper giving your team trouble from the top of a particular building? Hop in a tank and make that building disappear for good. Importantly, destruction is less selective than it’s ever been in the series: with a couple of visually obvious exceptions (incredibly thick structures made of stone, for instance), every single wall, fence, tree, and building can be smashed to bits with ease. None of this would matter if the maps they were placed on weren’t good, but this is just one more way that BF1’s multiplayer really shines. Aside from looking better than any multiplayer game I’ve ever played, the maps in Battlefield 1 are also the best collection of vanilla maps to ever be included in a Battlefield game. Even Bad Company 2 (a game I still swear by) had a couple of duds in its rotation, but the design and aesthetics of every single one of BF1’s maps with the possible exception of a map set in the Suez Canal (which is fine, just not mindblowing) are some of the best the series has to offer, period. The addition of dynamic weather effects to each map also goes a long way toward making each round feel unique: there are various weather patterns that can roll in and impact the look and feel of each level, many of which can affect gameplay. One round, you might play a map during a bright, sunny afternoon, then in another that same environment could be soaked in rain, with slick surfaces, puddles, and rolling fog limiting players’ vision. It sounds like a small change, but along with the high level of destructibility and unpredictable presence power vehicles on each map, Battlefield multiplayer has never had more replay value.
I can’t stop thinking about Battlefield 1. It’s the kind of game that has me rushing to finish this review just so I can play more of it, even after dozens of hours of play. An incredibly strong campaign sets the high watermark for what single player Battlefield can accomplish, while a strong set of maps and modes, along with some foundational changes to the Battlefield formula, result in some of the best multiplayer I’ve played in years. BF1 accentuates everything I love about the franchise, and does so while making significant changes and delivering an experience that is both fresh and familiar all at once. Setting Battlefield in the war to end all wars was a bold choice, but one that pays off in spades, and makes Battlefield 1 the game to beat this holiday season.