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