War never changes, as the old adage goes, and that’s true to a certain extent, but the realities of conflict are constantly shifting. World War 1 saw a dramatic advancement of technology and military thinking, the likes of which had rarely occurred before and so very rarely since. From the introduction of aircraft, tanks, the decreasing relevance of hand to hand combat and cavalry, this was a period that redefined how wars were fought.
Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising just how familiar the Battlefield 1 closed alpha feels. Particularly in relation to previous entries in the series, there’s a lot of common ground and evolution from Battlefield 4, despite the setting stepping back a century. Movement has retained a high pace, perhaps even borrowing from Mirror’s Edge Catalyst in the way that you can shoulder charge through doors and mantle over a high wall in a matter of second, as though you were a lithe young free runner and not a soldier lumbered with carrying weapons, ammunition and supplies on your back. Similarly, you can now equip and throw a bandages at a friendly soldier, speeding up the role of the medic quite drastically.
However, in order to survive more than a few moments, Battlefield has always demanded that you be a slower, more considered player to do well, punishing those fools who rush in, but has also rewarded those with snappy reflexes of late, thanks to high rate of fire assault rifles and submachine guns. There’s a leaning towards bolt action rifles and semi-automatic rifles in Battlefield 1, but just as DICE love to remind us, this was the dawn of modern warfare and technological advances around this period did lead to the first submachine guns and light machine. It feels as though the lines are fudged here, particularly in the prevalence of certain weapons that were only introduced in the latter stages of the war and how useful they are in certain situations, but this is a videogame, after all.
Even so, I found myself drawn more toward the Scout class and its bolt action rifles as I played. Instead of giving players full customisation of weapons, DICE have created particular presets. So there’s a ‘trench rifle’ version of a gun that doesn’t feature a scope, for example. The Scout class’ guns are slower to fire, naturally, but they pack a punch, and two hits, roughly a second apart can take an enemy down. They can rule the open stretches of ground much better than the Medic’s semi-automatic rifles, but they’re at a disadvantage in closer quarters against the higher rate of fire weapons of the Assault and the LMGs of the Support.
Everyone is at a disadvantage when tanks roll in, though. Where the Engineer class was often the go-to for their ability to whip out an RPG and take on enemy armour, that has been taken away from players in BF1. Yes, there are ways to take on a tank – anti-tank grenades that as large bundles of explosives on a stick, armour piercing sniper rifle rounds, and the Assault class’ AT Rocket Gun that requires to to fire when prone – but they’re more difficult and riskier to take on than before. These were still very experimental vehicles, for one thing, with some tanks allowing for several passengers, all with machineguns to fire out of gaps in the armour. Though I’ve often felt like a mouse scurrying away from a cat in previous games, the feeling is more pronounced here.
Not so with the inherently fragile aircraft in the game. Even soldiers on foot can fire up into the sky and deal damage, so long as you take bullet drop into account and lead the target, and even a minor nibble that rips apart a wing can have a major impact on how a plane flies, meaning that the pilot has to deal with the plane constantly listing to the left for the rest of their flight. Two of the planes – the Attack Plane and the Bomber – let you indiscriminantly drop crude ordinance from above, with other players able to spawn in and mount machine guns, while the Fighter is best suited to countering those threats.
They’re nothing compared to the sheer destructive might of the behemoths, which appear to support the losing team. Depending on the map, it could be a battleship bombarding the map with artillery or it might be a Zeppelin airship. It’s not entirely clear, outside of that it appears on the losing side, how big a deficit there needs to be for it to be triggered, but the bigger the gap, the sooner it appears. There’s a certain allure to it, but it can also be a red herring for either side.
The Zeppelin feels similar to the AT-AT walkers that through the Walker Assault maps in Star Wars Battlefront, with such a commanding presence and the feeling of danger it provides. Yet it’s also a diversion, whether it’s seeing half a dozen soldiers spawn up in the sky to rain down fire with largely inaccurate machine guns and no longer directly participate in the fight on the ground, or for the defenders who might be tempted to sit on flak cannons and fire into the sky long enough to bring it crashing to the ground. Even as the pilot, it’s cumbersome to move around, and difficult to line up the massive shells that can drop and utterly destroy a building.
The destruction possible in Battlefield 1 is simply immense. Everything can be destroyed, whether it’s a grenade blowing out a wall or the Zeppelin levelling a building, or even just a tank shell making a deep and pronounced crater in the ground. Of course, there’s nothing quite like the spectacle of seeing a Zeppelin’s flaming carcass comes crashing to the ground, destroying everything beneath it. You have to wait for it, and you’re only given the opportunity to bring one down in a fairly one sided battle, but it’s worth the wait, and the way in which it can obliterate whatever it lands on, regardless of where that might be on the map. It’s a kiss goodbye to the so-called “Levolution” of Battlefield 4, as major scripted moments and set pieces are left behind in favour of more dynamic battles.
Because of that, Battlefield 1 can be a messy game. There’s a story told within the map design of St. Quentin’s Scar, with the German forces attacking from what were previously British tenches, with barrage balloons floating lazily in the air, the rows of artillery and the mountains of shells behind them. Parts of the small village have already been destroyed, but the battle that plays out in each match generally destroys the rest of it. Houses are brought down, windmills shattered, the rolling green hills pock marked with huge craters. Sometimes it’s a sunny day, other times it’s being lashed with rain, or you could be trying to deal with a fog that limits your view and mutes sounds. The weather effects are ostensibly dynamic, but I’ve never seen them shift mid-battle.
All of that is true in Conquest, with up to 64 players running around a large map, trying to control six points and reach the 200 point goal first – this mode would previously drain respawn tickets down to zero. The game looks absolutely gorgeous, whatever the weather, but there is a price to pay in the closed alpha. The game already runs at 900p on PS4 and 720p on XBO, but it’s currently unable to maintain its target 60 frames per second with even a minor amount of action on screen. Domination holds up much better and with practically flawless performance, but it features just 24 players on a smaller map in the village centre and the lack of vehicles lessening the destruction, but there’s plenty of time for further optimisation between now and launch.
Of course, there’s a lot to do between now and then. The alpha will have helped DICE to spot where things need optimisation and balancing – the Scout is perhaps a bit overpowered, planes feels ineffective against the Zeppelin, and you still see people using planes as a shortcut to getting to an objective on the other side of the map – but they’ve already got some solid foundations to build upon. The First World War makes for a surprisingly good fit for the Battlefield series’ mantra of all out warfare and vast destruction, and it shows how DICE are gradually adapting and changing their familiar series.
All that’s left is for them to show that they can create a competent single player campaign to go alongside it.