Battlefield 1 is the best game I’ve played in 2016. Its World War I setting has a lot to do with that: it’s a refreshing break away from the futuristic obsession that currently saturates the market. Developer DICE took a risk in making this game, and to say it’s hit a home run would be an understatement: I genuinely believe this is the best Battlefield game ever made. To have made a game set during this era, spread across so many different landscapes and with impressive gameplay variety, is testament to DICE’s insistence that this was the Battlefield game that they always wanted to make. It plays like a game made with a sensitive affection for the era and conflict, drowning in its own modesty yet strangely confident in the tales it wants to tell. Whether it’s within the narrative-driven confines of the campaign, or in the ruthless battlefields of multiplayer, Battlefield 1 shines as a meticulously-crafted shooter, hellbent on not only communicating the horrors of the Great War, but also on offering one of 2016’s most memorable experiences.
It kicks that off with a campaign that takes risks, shifting the burden of narrative away from one or two characters, placing it instead onto the horrors faced by those that entered into war. It’s a collective tale of war, told through multiple lenses. Cultural influences play a big part here, and through each of the campaign’s six tales — each broken up into between 1-5 missions — we see how the battle unfolds through different scenarios. There’s no underlying goal for the player, aside from simply “surviving”, which, as the game so terrifyingly tells you when you first start the campaign, probably isn’t going to happen. It’s a message that hits hard pretty early on as you move from soldier to soldier. Some, I imagine, will question the first mission’s lack of humanity, that it so mindlessly and swiftly changes the player’s perspective from one dead soldier to another as you slowly but pointlessly move your way towards the goal. I imagine the message will be lost: that war is real, and with it, the inevitability of death plagues the battlefield. When you invest in that battle, you commit your body, so there’s no stopping to think about the person next to you that’s lost their fight. Battlefield 1’s campaign will undoubtedly raise questions about the brutality of the Great War — and the complexity of war in general — but I found the message clear: when you invest in this game, you invest in the mission, and the horrors presented are meant to represent that message.
It’s the best Battlefield campaign I’ve ever played because of that. It takes risks, building emotion and purpose around each individual tale’s characters, and raising countless questions across multiple themes: friendship, camaraderie, conflict, life, death, honesty, humanity. Mainstream shooters touch on these themes often, but generally in the most shallow, materialistic of ways: they offer about as much character and narrative depth as a Michael Bay film. Battlefield 1, on the other hand, can be a true moral challenge. It presents alternatives to approach a mission, but the all-in-guns-blazing approach is just met with the same ol’ brute force we’ve come to expect from the genre. But it seems to have more meaning here, because in Battlefield 1, it genuinely feels like you’re in enemy territory, and not just in a virtual world made for you to go and blow shit up in. Some missions made me feel uncomfortable and frustrated. They made me rethink my approach, and think about how my character may have actually responded in real life. That goes a long to way to demonstrating just how much thought DICE has put into making Battlefield 1 more than just a multiplayer shooter.
There is some downtime, however: certain missions lack the creative purity that drives the character and their actions, namely a battle against an armored train in the Sinai Desert. The final battle lacks much in the way of thoughtful conflict, and is one of the campaign’s more forgettable moments. So Battlefield 1’s campaign certainly isn’t perfect, but downers like this are always either set up or followed by exhilarating battles, challenges, and thoughtful exchanges. I can’t be sure how historically accurate the linguistics of the dialogue are, but Battlefield 1’s campaign is a well-written, directed and designed outing. It also helps make Battlefield 1 the first Battlefield game that I’d recommend to people not otherwise interested in the multiplayer.
That’s a significant shift away from Battlefield 3’s and Battlefield 4’s campaigns. Both suffered from major narrative missteps, often getting lost in their own noise as they favoured explosiveness over meaning. Battlefield 1 didn’t have much of a choice in this regard: the setting is all too real, all too brutal, and all too controversial to not hone in on the emotional and moral challenges that soldiers faced during the conflict. There are also strong themes of personal sacrifice and redemption. We see seasoned veterans protect the young and inexperienced soldiers, despite having voiced concern about them being there in the first place. We see a lying, thieving gambler who, despite otherwise being a selfish narcissist, finds friendship in a vulnerable comrade. That’s just scratching the surface. If there’s one thing I dislike about Battlefield 1’s campaign, it’s that it ends each tale just as you come to appreciate and like each main character. Perhaps that’s the beauty of it: this is a war tale about individual feats, and what happens before or after these stories doesn’t matter. What we see are pivotal characters and moments, elements that define key swings against enemy forces.
Once I completed the campaign, I tried my hand at multiplayer. I thought to myself that if Battlefield 1’s multiplayer were to be as diverse and balanced as its campaign, it might be a Battlefield arena I could actually get into. To say I am terrible at Battlefield games would be an understatement, and while I am still bad in the competitive arena in this case, there’s a different vibe to the Battlefield 1 experience. Modes like Conquest remain the same fundamentally, pitting 64 players up against each other on massive maps across the Italian Alps, Middle East, Western Front, and other pivotal battle areas from the war. The change here is with the introduction of Operations, which ties together historical battles for some added context.
The campaign and multiplayer share a similar sense of chaos when out on the battlefield. This is a brutal game. It’s not like the all-out assault battles we know from Battlefield 4 and its predecessor. Battlefield 1’s combat feels real, like a true matter of life or death. Where this experience excels over its predecessors is that it feels less like a formality, and more like a true battle of tactics. The historical significance plays a part here, because the weapons are a fascinating blend of rough and refined. There are no long-range red-dot-sight scopes. No high-powered assault rifles. This makes a difference, because matches run at a slower pace, yet with a familiar, frantic sense of urgency that has defined the Battlefield experience for years. In my first few matches, I felt vulnerable, not because I lacked the skills as a player, but rather because I felt inadequate as a soldier. Battlefield 1 succeeds in making the battle feel terrifying.
There’s also a theme of scarcity that is common in all gameplay components. Ammunition is far and few between, even with support classes dropping packs for you. Sniper rifles are powerful, but reload after every shot, which led me to often losing track of just how many bullets I had available to me. Vehicles no longer spawn randomly, and are instead associated as classes that are chosen ahead of every spawn. This makes them less frequent and more a case of sheer luck, so don’t expect to get into a plane very often. This rarity also makes them incredibly valuable weapons of war, so make sure you actually know how to fly a plane before getting into one: don’t be that guy. I’m not a massive fan of that system, because I simply can’t find myself in control of a vehicle enough, but I appreciate the integration here, because it’s clear that it ties into the pacing and general progression of a match, particularly the longer Conquest matches.
There are some new modes here, as well as some unique custom-developed modes that DICE plans to introduce later on. The War Pigeon mode, in which players must take control of and protect the war pigeon carrier, is strange yet fitting, even if it lacks the tactical depth of Conquest or the Operations. Unfortunately, the base Battlefield experience still excels in Conquest (and Rush to a lesser extent), so if you’ve never been a fan of those modes, I’m not sure how best you can get out of this game what is intended. Team Deathmatch and Domination offer the basics, but again lack the tactical depth due to the smaller teams and shorter playing time. I get lost in these modes, even if the objective is clearer.
I certainly don’t proclaim to be a Battlefield pro, and playing on Xbox One, I almost feel inadequate next to those testing their skills out on PC. From what I can tell, however, Battlefield 1 is as brutal and as tactical a shooter as fans of the franchise have come to expect. The primary difference here is a shift towards brutality and scarcity, which can at times feel unbalanced next to the occasionally complex narrative urge of the campaign. I wouldn’t go as far as to suggest the multiplayer undermines what Battlefield 1‘s campaign achieves, but the two feel universes apart: while the natural sense of map progression and combat feel the same, the campaign made me feel something that no multiplayer mode can ever offer. That was always going to be a dilemma for DICE, and I feel that it’s a good dilemma to face.
The Final Verdict
Battlefield 1 is the shooter to own this year. Its campaign is a well-rounded and suitably crafted anthology of Great War tales. It will raise some questions about how it deals with war and conflict, but I’m confident that Battlefield 1 will stand the test of time as a respectful contributor to the discussion. It works so well on so many levels, presenting a multiplayer experience that, while at odds with the campaign’s messages on the horrors or war, will satisfy Battlefield purists and novices alike. Importantly, unlike Battlefield games before it, Battlefield 1 is worth owning for its campaign alone, with its added multiplayer depth there as an extra if you dare take the risk.
Battlefield 1 was reviewed on Xbox One with a copy of the game provided by EA for review purposes.