Battlefield 1 PC, PS4, Xbox One
We don’t often feel obliged to open a review by mentioning the game’s soundtrack, but Battlefield 1’ s stunning Hans Zimmer-esque orchestral compositions warrant unusual measures. Simultaneously forlorn, blusterous and rousing, they perfectly encapsulate the game’s bittersweet character as 64 players hoping for acts of heroism, a general good time and MVP rewards clatter headlong into at least some of the tragic realities of World War I (see Post Script). Battlefield 1’ s soundtrack will haunt you even when you’re not playing.
But that might not be much of the time, given how good the latest entry in DICE’s long-running series is. It’s so good, in fact, we were somewhat wrong-footed. After all, the past couple of entries have conditioned us to take low expectations into what will likely be a tiresome singleplayer trudge, attached to a multiplayer component that will need a good month or so of frantic patching before it’s worth even attempting to play online. While it looked like the pattern was set to repeat on launch day as many players found themselves unable to get online, for once it wasn’t a problem with EA’s servers, but instead down to a DDOS attack affecting a number of services, including PSN. After a few hours of frustrating Battlefield 4 launch PTSD, everything seemed unexpectedly stable.
At least players waiting for the servers to be revived could get stuck into Battlefield 1’ s singleplayer campaign. DICE has long struggled to create Battlefield protagonists who engender empathy (or even mild interest), but here the studio has assembled an abundance of fascinating, sympathetic individuals for its cast. Their stories are told over a series of short, unrelated vignettes – called War Stories, and each two to four missions long – that take place across the globe.
One chapter casts you as Danny Edwards, an inexperienced tanker assigned to a crew of now warweary veterans. Another sees you take on the role of cocky American chancer Clyde Blackburn as he lies and cheats his way into the Royal Flying Corps. One touching segment places you in the boots of Royal Italian Army soldier Luca Cocchiola as he searches for his twin brother, Matteo, whose regiment has gone missing after an airstrike. Nothing Is Written lets you play as Zara Ghufran, a rebel fighting alongside Thomas Edward Lawrence against the Ottoman Empire; in The Runner, you get to be grizzled Australian Frederick Bishop during the British Army’s landing at Gallipoli.
The diverse roles and locations allow DICE to continually hurl ideas at you as you switch between a variety of gameplay styles and set-pieces. Some work better than others – one enforced turret section nearly sours proceedings, and infrequent switches between finite and infinite enemies depending on the situation can sometimes leave you unsure of your priorities – but the overall result is a Battlefield campaign of unprecedented variety that doesn’t simply rely on cheap novelty and whose moments rarely feel undercooked.
They can feel a little rushed, however. The problem with telling so many stories in a single campaign is that few can breathe to the degree they deserve, resulting in a singleplayer component that comes across less like a consolidated campaign than it does a collection of DLC extras. It’s testament to DICE’s writers and designers that we want to spend more time in these characters’ worlds, but rather than a singleplayer campaign that outstays its welcome the studio has produced several that don’t stick around long enough. That’s not to say there isn’t lots to get your teeth stuck into overall. After completing a powerful opening prologue called Storm Of Steel, you’re free to tackle the War Stories in any order you please, even dipping in and out of the different chapters should you wish. And while the story arcs might feel curtailed, many of the missions within them are extensive. In a lurch toward the series’ multiplayer focus, they also teach you how to play the online modes, mixing in Conquest-style objective capturing, prolonged vehicular combat and associated field repair, and the same wide-open maps.
Another shift is how little shooting, comparatively, there is across the five War Stories. There are still many moments of thunderous chaos and violence, but you’ll spend a lot of time sneaking about under cover of darkness or sandstorm, or in one series of missions running through a raging battle. It’s a shift in approach that prevents Battlefield 1 falling into the repetitive rhythms of its recent predecessors. Stealth play is basic but effective – you can’t hide bodies, but you’re given plenty of leeway to silence even alerted enemies with all manner of grizzly melee kills before they can warn allies. Crucially, it doesn’t feel tacked on, and it also provides the opportunity to enjoy – or at least fully experience – the atmospheric, and often harrowing, incidental audio that brings battlefields to life.
One aspect Battlefield 1 does retain from its predecessors is unconvincing enemy AI. While your opponents’ behaviour is mostly serviceable – and rendered with some terrific animation – they oscillate between uncanny prescience and blind stupidity, which requires an adjustment of tactics on the fly – when, for example, a host of previously unaware snipers somehow manage to spot you simultaneously after you’ve spent several minutes painstakingly crawling up to a ridge through undergrowth and are yet to fire.
Still, that’s probably a good primer for your first few hours facing human opponents. But while the level of competition remains fierce, and matches are still populated by hip-firing 12-year-olds who somehow react before you apply even the lightest pressure to your
There are still many moments of chaos and violence, but you’ll spend a lot of time sneaking about under cover
ADS trigger, the overall pace is slightly more sedate than Battlefield 4’ s. This isn’t just good news for players beyond their 20s; it also encourages more strategic play, allows for more meaningful encounters and, mostly, increases the time spent between spawning and dying.
The low-tech weapons and vehicles are just rough enough around the edges to make using them well a challenge in itself without being limiting, and it ensures that Battlefield 1 doesn’t suffer from 4’ s endless list of samey guns – weapons here, even within the same class, are distinct and have their own personalities and foibles, making for far more characterful combat. You can also acquire specialist weapon kits in the field, which allow you to, for example, become an armoured sentry or don a helmet and grab a flamethrower.
The game’s reshuffled player classes further encourage distinctive roles. Snipers can use flares to reveal enemy positions; Medics can bring allies back from the brink multiple times; while Assault players are kitted out to disable vehicles but must rely on Support players, who can also repair vehicles, to restock ammo. The separate Tanker and Pilot classes, which you’ll take on if you choose to spawn in certain vehicles, mean that tanks and aircraft pose a much greater threat than they ever did before. Both can be repaired from within, or externally at greater risk, and are designed to stay in combat for much longer than previously.
DICE introduces two new game modes in the shape of War Pigeons and Operations. In the former, teams compete to grab messenger pigeons, which appear one at a time at locations across the map and must be held so that a message can be attached before release. In a smart touch, the message is written more quickly if you stand still, placing the onus on your teammates to defend your position. Operations is a more bombastic proposition, blending elements of Conquest and Rush in campaigns that span multiple missions and maps. It feels epic in scale and encourages teamwork as you attempt to defend or take capture points across large maps. But while DICE has placed it front and centre in Battlefield 1’ s menus, Conquest remains the best showcase of the series’ unique charms.
The mode’s predominantly more open spaces also allow the new Behemoth-class vehicles to stretch their legs. Whether it’s an armoured train, a Zeppelin laden with guns, or a long-range battleship, the behemoths are a terrifying prospect as they arrive in a match to provide support for whichever team is heavily trailing. Each Behemoth accommodates several players, with spaces available for a pilot/driver and a number of gun emplacements. The bombardment that follows often levels whatever is left standing of the battlefield. It also switches the opposing team’s focus to destroying their enemies’ new-found advantage. As well as visual spectacle, then, Behemoths help to even the odds in unbalanced matches by ensuring that a superior team always faces a real challenge in order to secure victory.
This attention to balance permeates through every aspect of Battlefield 1’ s multiplayer, from the intricate interplay of its weapons and vehicles to careful positioning of objectives to catalyse ebb and flow during combat. Infantry combat has been considerably improved as a result, and the more deliberate pace of battles, hardware with real character, and a moving singleplayer campaign ensure that Battlefield 1 is better than its predecessors in almost every way.