Post Script

Why Bat­tle­field 1’s sen­si­tive han­dling of a har­row­ing con­flict doesn’t pre­clude play­ful­ness

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Bat­tle­field 1’ s sin­gle­player cam­paign is the se­ries’ best since Bad Com­pany 2. Which isn’t to say that the two games should be seated along­side each other. Ton­ally and struc­turally, this new game is just about as far as a Bat­tle­field cam­paign could get from BC2’ s Three Kings-in­spired, quip-sat­u­rated romp. There’s hero­ism and repar­tee along the way, sure, but it’s all tinged with a layer of som­bre poignancy that makes such mo­ments feel like nec­es­sary re­lief rather than unchecked flip­pancy.

While plenty of real-world wars have been ex­am­ined (or at least ap­pro­pri­ated) by games, DICE set it­self a steep chal­lenge when it chose to set the game dur­ing WWI. In­deed, a lot has been writ­ten ques­tion­ing the logic of build­ing a piece of fast-paced en­ter­tain­ment on what was ul­ti­mately an un­nec­es­sary stale­mate sat­u­rated by unchecked hu­man suf­fer­ing. And that sen­ti­ment was given greater mo­men­tum by the ar­guably in­ap­pro­pri­ate choice of music for its re­veal trailer – a rau­cous The Gl­itch Mob remix of The White Stripes’ Seven Na­tion Army.

The fin­ished game proves that DICE gave plenty of thought to the dif­fi­cult is­sues at the cen­tre of its set­ting, and its han­dling of the war is any­thing but in­sen­si­tive. This isn’t a dry lec­ture on the evils of war – shoot­ing other peo­ple in an FPS is still fun. But the stu­dio has man­aged to bal­ance that with a sober­ing ex­plo­ration of what WWI’s par­tic­i­pants, naively will­ing or oth­er­wise, went through. And never is DICE’s un­der­stand­ing of its re­spon­si­bil­ity more clear than in the cam­paign’s pro­logue, Storm Of Steel.

The mis­sion takes place on the front­line as a sur­rounded bat­tal­ion des­per­ately fights to hold the line. En­emy sol­diers pour through the wrecked ar­chi­tec­ture and charred trees ahead of you as shells rain down on your po­si­tion. De­spite your best ef­forts, you will even­tu­ally suc­cumb to the en­croach­ing en­emy and the cam­era pans back from your body be­fore the name of the fallen sol­dier, and the dates they were born and died, fade into view. Then you find your­self man­ning a mounted ma­chine gun cov­er­ing the same trenches in which you just died, be­fore a des­per­ate close-quar­ters strug­gle in a ru­ined church sees the se­quence re­peat. Another name, more dates. Next you switch to the po­si­tion of a tank gun­ner mov­ing to­wards the church in or­der to pro­vide backup which, in­evitably, is de­stroyed, tak­ing you with it. In the fi­nal stand, the pace picks up and you fight in the burn­ing waste­land of the front, switch­ing to a new sol­dier af­ter each death with ev­er­greater fre­quency. It’s ex­hil­a­rat­ing but upset­ting – ham­mer­ing home the con­flict’s fu­til­ity.

And it does so with­out de­mon­is­ing the op­pos­ing forces. Along with the Ger­mans who are try­ing to kill you in this open­ing sec­tion, you’ll also see other mem­bers of their ranks wan­der­ing dazed amid the chaos, or sit­ting sob­bing. It’s down to you whether to open fire any­way or stay your trig­ger fin­ger.

This care­fully bal­anced com­bi­na­tion of adren­a­line-rich ac­tion and so­cial con­science en­sures that the game never strays into ghoul­ish ter­ri­tory. Some of that is achieved by pay­ing close at­ten­tion to death, of course – for ex­am­ple, in the dis­turbingly con­vinc­ing an­i­ma­tions of gunned-down sol­diers, the un­flinch­ingly vi­o­lent melee kills, and the har­row­ing au­dio that ac­com­pa­nies en­coun­ters. But it’s han­dled on a more sub­tle level, too. Per­sonal sac­ri­fice, rather than in­di­vid­ual hero­ism, is at the fore­front of each story, and one pro­tag­o­nist’s moral worth is even brought into ques­tion en­tirely.

It doesn’t al­ways quite hit home. A wellinten­tioned se­quence in which you take con­trol of a mes­sen­ger pi­geon launched by a be­sieged tank crew comes off as sur­re­ally mawk­ish rather than mov­ing, and the re­stric­tive seg­ment ac­tu­ally saps a lit­tle of your con­cern for the crew in the mo­ment. We don’t of­ten wish that a cutscene was cho­sen in­stead of game­play, but in this in­stance the for­mer would have car­ried more emo­tional weight. But on the whole, Bat­tle­field’s re­spect for its sub­ject mat­ter is un­ques­tion­able.

Much of this is down to the cast of sym­pa­thetic char­ac­ters. Even with­out di­rect ex­pe­ri­ence, it’s dif­fi­cult not to em­pathise with a sol­dier wav­ing his twin brother off on a mis­sion. Or, for that mat­ter, an in­di­vid­ual who aban­dons a dy­ing man so that he might have a chance to es­cape from an oth­er­wise im­pos­si­ble sit­u­a­tion.

Per­haps an even greater achieve­ment, how­ever, is that DICE man­ages to avoid un­der­min­ing its care­fully pre­sented rev­er­ence when the doors are flung open for a mul­ti­player free-for-all. When planes de­lib­er­ately crash into tanks at the last minute, or a lucky shot catches an en­emy across an im­prob­a­ble dis­tance, those death an­i­ma­tions, upset­ting sound ef­fects and pro­found sense of strug­gling against over­pow­er­ing odds all re­main. And DICE has even wo­ven this ven­er­a­tion into its achieve­ments and col­lectibles – Codex En­tries, earned by per­form­ing cer­tain tasks or find­ing hid­den Field Man­u­als, will un­lock logs that pro­vide fur­ther, of­ten mourn­ful, in­sight into the events of the war.

Like Valiant Hearts be­fore it, Bat­tle­field tack­les its dif­fi­cult sub­ject mat­ter with an enor­mous amount of heart, and care­ful at­ten­tion to de­tail. It never tries to sim­u­late The Great War but it man­ages to weave in a dis­tilled sense of what these men and women went through. As such, it’s en­cour­ag­ing ev­i­dence that games can ef­fec­tively tackle big top­ics head on, with­out aban­don­ing their sense of fun.

The stu­dio has man­aged to bal­ance that fun with a sober­ing ex­plo­ration of what WWI’s par­tic­i­pants went through

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