Available on: PC, PlayStation 4 & Xbox One.
Played on: PlayStation 4.
Battlefield is a series that has endured thanks to its multiplayer. Playing a Conquest match across a large map populated by vehicles and 63 other players can lead to some truly memorable moments, and Dice have used Battlefield’s multiplayer modes as they have evolved over the years to create virtual warfare on an unrivalled scale.
Yet, despite it’s competitive spectacle and aplomb, Battlefield has repeatedly struggled with its story-telling. The single-player campaigns have rarely amounted to anything more than an introduction to the well-tuned shooting mechanics and a means for Dice to show off the graphical prowess of their Frostbite engine. The saying “all style and no substance” could have been penned for Battlefield’s single-player campaigns. Only the Bad Company off-shoots, and in particular Bad Company 2, have managed to balance that classic Battlefield multiplayer with an interesting and worthwhile single-player narrative, with even last year’s cops and robbers themed Battlefield Hardline failing to make any kind of positive impact, despite its change in focus.
Enter Dice’s latest offering: Battlefield 1. Far from a reboot, this latest entry in the long-running first-person shooter series finds itself set some 100 years ago during World War I, a period of modern history mostly unexplored within the video game medium. World War I changed the shape of conflict as we know it, with a technological arms race seeing the development of devastating new weapons, vehicles and tactics aimed at providing a winning advantage with maximum causalities to the enemy. In other words, World War I is a setting that should be handled with care.
When playing the Battlefield 1 Beta a few months ago two alarm bells went off in my head. Firstly, whilst the multiplayer was fun, offering a slower more intense shooting experience thanks to the older weaponry that comes as part and parcel with the setting, it wasn’t fresh. It was still very much Battlefield – albeit with a different lick of paint – and I wasn’t convinced that that alone would be enough to warrant a full price release. Secondly, I was worried that the lack of context within the multiplayer modes, and Dice’s poor track record with single-player narratives, would do a great disservice to the World War I setting.
Those fears, fortunately, have not been realised, with Battlefield 1 offering the best package Dice have put out to market since Bad Company 2. The multiplayer is, as ever, tight and engaging, but more importantly the single-player is, for the most part, well thought out, respectful of the setting, and able to provide context to the endless bloodshed found within the multiplayer modes.
Battlefield 1’s single player consists of 5 separate stories (6 if you include the prologue) that can be played in any given order. Each War Story is designed to give players a flavour of Battlefield’s wider multiplayer offering, introducing tanks, planes, and holding points on the map much like the multiplayer’s Conquest mode. It’s all much more linear than Battlefield’s online modes of course, but nonetheless the single-player gameplay feels more open and interesting than previous iterations Dice have offered. The general lack of over-the-top bombast (it’s definitely still there, but less frequently) helps make the War Stories feel more true to life, and it’s hard not to feel something stirring in you at the end of each of them. It’s a shame that the enemy AI is so poor throughout though, as this ruins the immersive atmosphere Dice have worked so hard to create. Each War Story also has a tendency to paint your character as a hero, and whilst there’s no doubt these existed in The Great War (arguably all of the men who fought were heroic in their own way), it’s perhaps Dice’s main misstep; outside of the prologue you’re not made to feel like one of many. Each War Story also paints a very black and white picture of World War I, ignoring the complexities of the conflict and the human lives on both sides – again with the exception of the prologue.
The prologue itself is actually the perfect introduction to the single-player game and the template that Dice should have followed across each of War Story. It’s bleak, depressing, and dirty – it feels like war – and yet it ends with just a glimmer of the humanity that existed on both sides of the battlefield. It is, in my opinion, one of the best representations of war within a video game to date. Nonetheless, despite not reaching the lofty heights of the prologue, each War Story is enjoyable in its own way and they are all worth playing through as they represent one of Dice’s best single-player efforts in a long while.
People really come to Battlefield for its multiplayer, however, and rest assured it’s as good as ever (read: I’m still just as bad at it as ever). Conquest, Rush and Deathmatch modes return alongside new modes such as Operations and War Pigeons. Operations is probably the best of these, stretching the action across several maps and creating a longer, more intense multiplayer experience. Maps also range in size, with some catering for the 64 player carnage typical of Conquest, and others more suited to the smaller scale skirmishes of Domination. There’s a nice blend of locations on offer too, expanding on those found within the single-player stories, but nonetheless the additional maps inevitably offered by the season pass will be welcomed after a few rotations of the 10 included on the disc.
Battlefield 1’s multiplayer sees a return to the more wanton destructibility of Bad Company 2 as well. Buildings crumble and the landscape dynamically changes as intense battles with planes, tanks, mortars and toxic gas play out. It’s pleasing to see this organic destruction return to the Battlefield franchise proper, reminding players that being aware of your surroundings is vitally important. The multiplayer also introduces the behemoths witnessed in both Battlefield 1’s Alpha and Beta tests. The losing team can call in a zeppelin, an armoured train, or a battleship to assist them and turn the tide of battle. These behemoths are interesting additions that contribute significantly to the organic destruction of the maps, but the lack of variety caused by only having 3 different behemoths available adds to the fatigue that can quickly set in after a few map rotations. Battlefield 1 also borrows the idea of ‘hero pickups’ from last year’s Dice made Star Wars Battlefront. These elite class kits allow players to pick up powerful upgrades such as flamethrowers and tank busting rifle ammo, which adds an extra tactical element into Battlefield 1’s unfolding multiplayer drama.
There are problems with Battlefield 1’s multiplayer though, and these are often caused by the setting in and of itself. By basing itself within World War I, Battlefield has limited options to help players traverse the maps whilst also slowing the gameplay down overall and making it more intense. These things in turn are largely responsible for the map rotation becoming tiresome quite quickly. Unwieldy armoured cars and bikes are available, sluggish planes can take to the skies, and over-powered tanks and horses can also be used to get about, but the historic setting can’t help but make this much more of a chore than in previous Battlefield games. If vehicles aren’t available then sprinting is your only option, and with the weapons being slower and less precise than before, this means you need to get closer to the action. If you’re killed and then have to make that run again, it’s beyond frustrating. This naturally encourages sharpshooters and medics to fill up the map meaning vital assault and support classes go unused and feel underpowered. Overall, whilst these design choices reinforce Battlefield 1’s choice of time period, they also create less spectacle than is typically found within Battlefield’s multiplayer, whilst also causing balancing issues much worse than normal. Even with these niggles accounted for though, Battlefield 1’s multiplayer is still a fun and engaging competitive offering on an epic scale, and although it can’t match the emotional gravitas of the single-player, it manages to capture the chaos of war well enough.
From a technical point of view Battlefield 1 is very much a mixed bag, at least on PlayStation 4. Visually it’s a very impressive game for the most part and obviously having the option for 64 player multiplayer means you’re getting the full Battlefield flavour. Unfortunately the technology can’t always support that level of action at a sustained 60 frames per second. During the single-player stories performance hiccups are kept to a minimum, amounting to brief distractions that are often best categorised as ‘blink and you’ll miss them’ moments. In large scale multiplayer maps, where 64 players face-off and destruction reigns supreme, however, prolonged drops in performance are much more common. The engine doesn’t grind to a halt, or begin to emulate Microsoft’s PowerPoint, but the loss in responsiveness and smoothness is impossible to ignore and impacts the fluidity of Battlefield’s polished shooting mechanics; the weapons of the era change up the gameplay enough without the added complication of lengthy performance dips. The multiplayer is still very playable on PlayStation 4 though, but I do hope the general performance can be improved with future tweaks and patches from Dice. Perhaps sacrificing some graphical fidelity or reducing the player count in line with Star Wars Battlefront’s 40 player maximum would have led to a more solid multiplayer offering overall? My understanding is that the Xbox One version does this to some extent, sacrificing resolution for better performance. No doubt the right PC can ensure you get your cake and eat it too though.
Battlefield 1 is not without its flaws then, but taken as a whole it still offers arguably the best Battlefield package since Bad Company 2. A thought-provoking single-player section and a large scale multiplayer mode with a renewed focus on destructibility combine to make an enjoyable, but largely respectful take on one of the most horrific and tragic conflicts in modern history.
This makes it an even greater shame that Dice and EA’s marketing campaign for Battlefield 1 has so spectacularly failed to show similar levels of respect both pre- and post-launch.
Images from http://press.ea.com/products/p1512/battlefield-1