Battlefield 1 proves that sometimes you have to step backward to move something forward.
Since 2010, EA and Battlefield developer DICE have seemed determined to take their multiplayer-driven large-scale shooter in the direction of its competitors. With Battlefield: Bad Company 2, the series embraced the progression and unlock system of more popular games. With Battlefield 3 and 4, the series structure resembled the systems and goals of its rival more and more, even as it tried to find the thing that would set it apart. As the console generation transitioned over, DICE struggled to find a happy balance in Battlefield 4 between the destruction Bad Company introduced and the big play spaces and high player counts the series started with.
Then, of course, DICE struggled to make the game actually work.
Subsequently, DICE took some extra time with Battlefield 1 and took it somewhere the series hasn’t been: World War I. And with that distance from modern warfare — rhetorical or otherwise — it seems the series has not only found something it’s been missing, it found stories worth telling.
Battlefield 1 feels like a move away from military shooter doctrine
For the first time in years, you can safely start a Battlefield game by venturing into the campaign. Battlefield 1’s campaign takes on the kind of importance the series hasn’t managed in the better part of a decade, and the result is a single-player component that doesn’t overstay its welcome or run out of ideas.
First, Battlefield 1 successfully threads a very delicate needle in its handling of a war that lacks even World War II’s “easy” dichotomy. Battlefield 1 brilliantly avoids the war shooter conceit of One Man’s Long Campaign. Hell, it avoids the single protagonist/storyline problem altogether, sidestepping the narrative difficulties of trying to stretch a story across six to eight hours. Instead, DICE has created a WWI anthology, telling largely unconnected stories about various men (and women) throughout the theaters of the Great War.
These stories are generally well-written and tonally varied. Some characters are desperately trying to survive, some are looking for redemption, and some are mounting a guerrilla resistance to centuries of occupation. There’s some quippy heroics at one or two points, which is nice, honestly, because Battlefield 1 is, more often than not, pretty dark. Any heroism on display is contextualized within a conflict that had little in the way of triumph.
Battlefield 1 navigates the tonal challenges of the awful human cost of WWI well, in part by not ignoring them. There’s a consistent acknowledgment of the abject terror and hopelessness that sat atop the people involved in the conflict on all sides, in part thanks to a grimly effective prologue. There’s also less explicit demonization of the “enemy” — something that feels like a real relief in the military shooter space, which seems hell-bent on giving players something they can feel good about shooting at.
This is a point worth making. Battlefield 1 feels like a move away from military shooter doctrine in plenty of ways. But the biggest departure is in how little shooting there can be, at least compared to the game’s contemporaries. The first real chapter, “Mud and Blood,” is often as much an exercise in stealth and avoidance as it is a combat shooter, if not more so — assuming you choose to play it that way.
Battlefield 1 clearly wants you to play it that way, with a presentation that emphasizes how overwhelmingly outnumbered you are as a tank driver guiding his crew through a pea-soup fog in a shell-blasted swamp. The second story places you in the cockpit as a fighter pilot, but after you’re shot down, you’ll have to make your way to, and then through, No Man’s Land, the machine gun-swept and mortar-blasted space between the German and British lines.
Sneaking in Battlefield 1 doesn’t feel like a bolted-on idea or concept. Instead, it’s a clearly developed set of mechanics that feels lifted directly from 2015’s Battlefield Hardline. This is good, because there’s a lot of moving around bigger spaces where shooting isn’t always a good idea.
This departure isn’t strictly limited to sneaking, either. Battlefield 1’s campaign features the kind of variety many other shooters only pay lip service to, introducing new concepts and staples in every mission. From tank pilot to fighter ace, from Italian shock trooper to Bedouin horseback resistance fighter, I was never bored, because I was never doing the same thing for long. Despite some fairly common Battlefield issues — namely, brain-dead enemy AI, and allies who, among other things, crashed their vehicles into me — Battlefield 1 feels … smart.
In part, this is because Battlefield 1 does something other games in the franchise have been strangely resistant to, as DICE folds major elements of multiplayer gameplay and systems into the game proper. This has two benefits: first, the aforementioned variety, and second, an education in how the multiplayer game works. Spotting, positioning, Conquest game mechanics, vehicles — they’re all there, and Battlefield is finally teaching people how to play it in a way that doesn’t feel desultory. I played a dozen hours of Battlefield 1’s multiplayer before I played the campaign, and I definitely felt like I understood the former better after I completed War Stories.
Battlefield 1’s campaign feels like a drawing back from the direct competition with Call of Duty that DICE and EA have seemed unhealthily fixated on since Battlefield 3 in 2011, and that’s to the game’s benefit in multiplayer as well.
The pace is slower in some regards than other shooters, for starters. Weapon dynamics in Battlefield 1 aren’t as much of a throwback as the setting might suggest — there are plenty of automatic options in addition to the semi-automatic and bolt-action weapons that seem appropriate for WWI. Regardless of whether this is historically accurate, it feels internally consistent, at least. Battlefield 1 is less twitch-oriented and more considered than other competitive FPS games.
Some Battlefield series issues remain. Since Battlefield 3 (and arguably even Battlefield: Bad Company 2), sniper weapons routinely get out of hand, and Battlefield 1 isn’t really any different in that regard. There are entirely too many unobstructed fields of fire in Battlefield 1’s enormous levels, and little apparent penalty to damage or efficacy from absolutely absurd distances. Battlefield is one of the few shooter franchises to implement bullet drop, but that factor hasn’t discouraged plenty of players from compensating without issue. And Battlefield’s uniquely effective pistols mean snipers are only at a disadvantage from medium range.
Those snipers can take over larger maps when vehicles aren’t available, which calls to mind Battlefield 1’s size conundrum. As in Battlefield 4, Battlefield 1’s larger Conquest maps are huge, which makes for a nice, big playground … until, that is, you need to run your ass across it to get to where things are happening. This is mitigated by vehicles, but they’re often in short supply, something I lamented as I spent what felt like ages — in reality, probably 30-40 seconds — running to combat from a spawn point that wasn’t a squadmate.
Battlefield 1 also makes yet more changes to the class system, primarily in the balance of power between infantry and vehicles. Now, medics get the medium-range weapons engineers used to have and, in addition to reviving downed teammates and healing injured players, they’re also responsible for vehicle repair. However, they have no offensive solutions for enemy vehicles; those have instead moved to the assault class. The assault class, meanwhile, doesn’t get ammo refills — that’s gone to the support class, which, I guess has replaced engineers, sort of — but it has the anti-vehicle weapons.
I’m not sure why DICE felt the need to rearrange its classes, but in practice, it’s mostly fine. Ground-based vehicles can present a real problem in a way that they haven’t in previous Battlefield games, but they can be dealt with.
More importantly, Battlefield 1 is the most fun I’ve had with a Battlefield game since Bad Company 2, my personal favorite in the franchise. The move away from “modern” combat has freed Battlefield 1 to feel different from previous games, to create a new ecosystem of weapon interactions and the balance of power. It’s all working extremely well, and what’s more, the level of destruction has been ramped back up to where it was years ago.
Buildings in Battlefield 1 are ripe for leveling, and tanks make short work of barriers and entrenchments. The dynamics between vehicles, emplacements and infantry are constantly shifting, and the physics-driven carnage is rife with emergent moments of “did you just see that?” This isn’t new. This is what Battlefield does. But a distancing from the expectations of a modern setting have resulted in a game that feels more uniquely itself.
Part of that identity is Conquest mode, where Battlefield 1 and its giant maps shine as usual. But the new Operations mode may also prove to have legs. The mode takes actual campaigns from WWI and strings them across multiple maps. One team plays the part of defender, whereas the attacker is given multiple chances to take a series of objectives, being reinforced when one attempt fails. The historical context given to each of these missions is particularly engaging, adding a narrative hook to matches that Battlefield has only alluded to previously with Rush mode.
Functionally, Operations feels like a cross between Conquest and Rush. Attackers must secure objectives to move the battle forward, and when they do, the defending team must fall back. In Operations, however, the objectives follow Conquest rules, leading to a much more aggressive back-and-forth between teams. It fixes many of my issues with Rush mode, which has increasingly felt at odds with the larger maps and player counts of Battlefield games after the mode was introduced in Bad Company 2, and it may even supplant Conquest as Battlefield 1’s flagship mode.
DICE has added another mode in an apparent lark, no pun intended, with War Pigeons. War Pigeons is sort of like single-flag CTF — or Oddball in the Halo games — save that the flag in this case is a messenger pigeon. A team must hold the pigeon for a certain amount of time to write firing coordinates on it, at which point they can let the pigeon go, which in turn calls down an artillery strike on the enemy forces. The wrinkle here is practical: The opponents, if they’re fast enough, can actually shoot the pigeon out of the air. The first team to hit three strikes wins the match.
I was skeptical, but the mode is a lot of fun, despite Battlefield’s difficulties with smaller player count match types (see the chaos and poor balance of Team Deathmatch). I just wonder if anyone is actually going to play it, or take advantage of the new custom game creation features added this go-round.
As with everything multiplayer-related, only time will tell, of course. However, EA and DICE are making one particularly obvious misstep, in my opinion — continuing their aggressive, userbase-fragmenting DLC plan. The studio has a lengthy schedule of new paid maps for the game, which will inevitably split players into camps of haves and have-nots.
Battlefield 1 succeeds far beyond expectations
Small issues aside, Battlefield 1 marks an impressive, risk-taking reinvention for the series. That the multiplayer is as good and distinctive as it is is less surprising than a campaign that takes a difficult setting and navigates it with skill and invention. The end result is a shooter that succeeded far beyond my expectations, and one that exists as the best, most complete Battlefield package since 2010.
Battlefield 1 was reviewed in part at an event held at DICE’s Los Angeles offices on Oct. 6-7. Multiplayer was tested on non-final PC servers, and as such, this review will remain provisional until such time as we’re further able to ascertain the game’s launch state. Battlefield 1’s campaign was played to completion on Xbox One using final “retail” download codes provided by EA. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy