World War 1 was the dawn of all-out war, as DICE have reminded us at every possible opportunity, as each of the countries involved turned their industry over to furthering the war efforts. Advances in technology saw the battles take to the skies, while tanks rolled below, artillery thundered, and millions of soldiers gave their lives. And for what?
The game opens with a truly sublime prologue that captures the essence of what we’re taught in schools about the trench warfare of the Western Front. Death is there at every turn in this horrific hellhole. The soldiers in your care don’t stand a chance, but as you die, you don’t respawn at a checkpoint, you’re simply given a new soldier to fight as. It’s sensationalised, certainly, but DICE have delivered a powerful demonstration of what this war was.
The tone is quite different in the five distinct stories that follow. It’s a much more traditional shooter at these points, following a single character through a specific campaign or battle. Each is a fictional tale, but they lean heavily on real events, something that is emphasised by the way that each is bookended by text describing its place in history and what followed.
It’s enjoyable and pulls at the heartstrings on a number of occasions, but it’s often dragged down by the same flaws as the last few Battlefield campaigns. You’re generally given free reign to take an objective how you see fit, which helps the game feel like Battlefield, but in comparison to the prologue, I often felt like I was fighting on my own. Friendly AI would only spawn in as I reach the next major area, while enemy AI is particularly dimwitted – seriously, you’re going to charge my Mk. V tank with a machinegun? – relying on your own fallibility or weight of numbers to lead to your demise.
It’s a shame, because that prologue is one of the best things I’ve seen in a first person shooter over the last few years. Using the prologue as a template for other climactic moments could have underscored the desperation of this war and the fragility of human life, as dozens of soldier go up against an armoured train. There’s also the omission of letting you see the war from the side of the Central Powers in a war where there weren’t as clear cut good and bad guys as in WW2.
Battlefield 1 also makes some major advances on the multiplayer front, thanks to this new backdrop. The four classes have been rejigged, so that the Assault now takes on tank killing duties, while the Medic has once again been spun off into its own class. There’s fewer gun customisation options, and while there’s late war SMGs and LMGs everywhere everywhere, the Medic and Scout have semi-automatic and bolt action rifles, with everyone but snipers having to rely on iron sights.
There’s plenty common ground with Battlefield 4 in the gadgets and equipment. Support have access to mortars, Scouts have plenty of fun sniping tools (including heads on sticks and metal shields), and everyone has access to smoke and gas grenades from the off. The latter is a common annoyance, reducing visibility, forcing you to don a gas mask and preventing you from being able to aim down sights.
Vehicles are a rarer sight in general, with hulking tanks and fragile looking biplanes. Spawning into a vehicle – or on horseback – gives you bespoke classes, so no stealing planes just to get to your sniping spot. Tanks in particular can change the flow of a fight, as they often need players to make use of stationary weapons or get up close and personal with an Assault class and an awful lot of explosives.
They need coordination and persistence to take down quickly, and it hammers home that Battlefield is at its best when playing with friends. It definitely loses an awful lot when you’re not doing so, and even when joining a squad of others, it can be a lonely and scattershot experience. As before, squad leaders can hand out orders and you can spawn on teammates, but there’s rarely any real feeling of teamwork unless it’s with people that you know.
The aforementioned vehicles are nothing compared to the behemoths, though. Akin to the AT-AT walkers in Star Wars Battlefront, the airship, artillery train and battleship take minutes of concerted heavy weapons fire to take them down, and all the while, they can truly dominate the battle with heavy fire. The train is the most conditional of these, restricted as it is to a set of train-tracks, but even that can help to turn the tide of a battle. It’s because of this that it’s doled out when one side is significantly behind during Conquest, or when the attackers lose during Operations.
Operations is the big new game mode, taking Conquest and Rush and merging them together into something that’s bigger than anything that’s gone before. One side attacks, trying to capture and hold up to three separate control points in order to take a sector and move onto the next, but you have to do this half a dozen times in order to win a match, and each Operations campaign occurs across two or three maps, tied together in a loose story from WW1.
So the attackers have three battalions, or attempts to win a campaign, picking up from the sector that they couldn’t capture and pushing on with that map’s behemoth backing them up. With vehicles more limited in this mode and tending to be on the attacker’s side, taking down the behemoth can feel near impossible with only a few set gun emplacements that can easily be targeted. So there’s a potential slant towards the attackers in the mode’s balance – hopefully DICE will be as dedicated to this game as they were to Battlefield 4 – not to mention that draining effect that each hour long campaign can have when you have to defend or attack throughout.
By contrast, Rush itself has been left out in the cold, with few of the improvements to Operations being rolled back. You still have problems clearing out defenders from a captured area – all enemies are marked after a sector capture in Operations – and there’s some questionably close objective placement that can lead to a grim slog for attackers, when the same map in Operations just feels much better. With only 24 players, the maps can often feel too open and empty, so having the telegraph posts closer makes sense, but they just haven’t found the right balance at times.
These core game modes are joined by a few others, like the footsoldier-only Domination, Team Deathmatch and the surprisingly fun War Pigeons. It’s difficult not to hum “Stop the Pigeon“, as you hunt for pigeon coups to send back to HQ and call in artillery barrages. There’s glee when you manage it and despair when it’s shot out of the sky, but it’s a mad race and any semblance of tactical play goes out the window in this dumb, but fun mode. The same is true of the first of DICE’s temporary experiments, with the custom mode Fog of War shrouding the map in fog, removing the HUD and friendly markers, and sending you off into the woods with only a pistol and your gadgets.
Fog is just one of the possible weather effects that can roll in and change the atmosphere of the battle. It feels different when it’s chucking it down with rain, but fog and sand storms really limit how far you can see – snipers can still pick you out at a distance, sometimes. It’s a big part of what makes this game look so fantastic, but all of the maps look great.
It’s not as photorealistic a game as Star Wars Battlefront – that said, it seems that Endor is in France somewhere – but it’s gorgeous looking game. There’s the truly majestic Monte Grappa in the Alps, a handful of maps in the Middle East, the shelled ruins of Amiens, and on. There’s great variety in location that can be seen throughout, and you’ll actually notice that some of these maps have been used during the single player campaigns.
Operations mode is the standout addition to the multiplayer, bringing together the behemoths, the destruction, the hellish screams of people charging into the fight. I do wish that the single player had been able to push on and draw more from that excellent opening, but stepping back to the First World War helps to give Battlefield 1 a refreshing and invigorating veneer to the game, and it’s lost none of the series’ explosive gameplay in the process.
Versions tested: PC, Xbox One