“More than 60 million soldiers fought in ‘The War to End All Wars’. It ended nothing.” This is how Battlefield 1 begins, bringing the human cost of the first truly global conflict into sharp focus almost immediately. And while you’re likely to spend much of your time running around enormous battle arenas wantonly gunning down other people with online names like xxL0neWulfxx, it’s a thought that’s likely to stay with while you play. Even though Battlefield 1 skews toward fun rather than realism whenever it gets the chance, it’s as much about the reflection on the real history of these battles and the people who fought in them as it is about the gleeful embrace of ridiculous virtual combat.
Its reverential tone manifests most significantly in War Stories – a handful of single-player missions exploring different perspectives of World War 1. Rather than telling a single, coherent narrative, it breaks missions into distinct chapters, each one following a single character across various theaters of war. You start out as a member of the Harlem Hellfighters in a prologue mission that’s really effective in selling the utter devastation the war caused. Once you finish that chapter, you’ll unlock five more that run the gamut from a tank operator on the Western Front to a pilot attempting to scam his way into the British air force, to following Lawrence of Arabia around the Middle East. Each chapter is varied and distinct, providing different combat scenarios based on the setting, and because single player is series of disconnected vignettes, you hop quickly from dogfights over the mountains to tank battles in the French countryside without it feeling forced or contrived.
Each campaign mission plays to Battlefield’s strengths by focusing on larger, free-form combat areas, often plopping you in the middle of a big map and asking you to find some important MacGuffin or take out a specific officer. There’s also a greater focus on stealth, as you’re often outmatched until you slink around and take out as many guards as you can before they spot you. There are some spectacles – including one visually impressive battle on top of a zeppelin – but those scripted, Battlefield 4-ish moments are rare.
The stories are interesting, intimate, and focus on real human struggles faced during the war, but they often feel slight. Stages rip maps and even capture points directly from multiplayer and enemy AI isn’t bright. I hit some weird bugs when I respawned a few times, even hard crashing once when I tried to reload to a previous checkpoint from the menu. And as much as I enjoyed the narratives these missions tell, I wished each one had a little more time to breathe. Each chapter is about an hour long, and just when you get invested, they’re over. Battlefield 1’s War Stories barely skim the surface of the history, but – to be fair – this is in-line with the game’s focus on fun over fastidious accuracy.
Multiplayer is still the core of the Battlefield experience, though, and it’s as good here as it’s ever been. There are, of course, the larger-scale modes like Conquest, which pits up to 64 players against each other on massive maps based on the Western Front, the Italian Alps, the Middle East, and other theaters of World War 1. Operations, which is new to Battlefield 1, strings together a handful of Conquest maps over multiple rounds and ties in bits of actual history to give you a better sense of the scale of the real battles these maps are based on.
This is where Battlefield 1 is at its best, where the chaos of war reaches its most unhinged as soldiers run to and fro across rolling hills, through trenches and bombed out bunkers, manning vehicles, calling artillery strikes, and more. I haven’t been a fan of similar modes in prior Battlefield games – especially the more modern ones – because they’ve been too chaotic, the weapons too precise due to the advancements in technology over the last hundred years of warfare. Battlefield 1’s weapons are more rudimentary, less precise, less reliable (in the sense that these are weapons built in the early 1900s, not in the sense that they’ll jam on you mid-combat), and it slows everything down just enough to give you a real fighting chance, to let you soak everything in.
Airplanes speed overhead fast enough for you to feel threatened, but not so fast that you miss them completely before they bomb you out of the sky. The zeppelins that appear on further rounds of Operations matches are very powerful against ground units if they’re positioned correctly, but they’re incredibly slow to manoeuvre. You’re still aiming with relatively ancient iron sights too, and their accuracy is more ‘close enough’ than ‘right on target’. Even the sniper rifle, as accurate as it is compared to the other weapons, is balanced by the fact that you have to manually chamber the next round after each shot. The crappier weaponry actually makes Battlefield 1’s large-scale combat feel much more personal and aggressive, and makes playing it far less frustrating than the absolute chaos of prior games.
You’ll also get the most out of Battlefield 1’s various classes here. You have your typical Assault class, loaded up with automatic rifles and anti-tank weaponry. Less aggressive, but no less important, classes include the Medic, who can revive and heal teammates, and the Support class, who keep their squad stocked with ammo and repair tanks. Lastly, there’s the Scout, who can snipe enemies from afar, or use a pistol to commit war crimes by launching mustard gas into the fray. Gas will kill friend and foe alike, but it won’t do it instantly – players can press a button to put their gas mask on, which will protect them from the deadly vapor while also preventing them from aiming down their weapons’ sights. In Operations and Conquests modes, each class has a specific purpose and are all equally valuable and capable on the battlefield.
Battlefield 1 handles vehicles a little differently, and it’s both a blessing and a curse. Rather than just putting a bunch of tanks and planes on each map, you essentially choose them like a class when you spawn – complete with their own personal weapon loadout – and each side only has a limited amount of vehicles to work with. This does wonders to prevent each match from being completely overloaded with ridiculously overpowered tanks, helping to provide a natural escalation of conflict over the course of a match. On the other hand, since they’re not appearing on the field in set intervals, it’s much more difficult to actually get your hands on one. It’s pretty easy to spawn into an available tank turret or co-pilot seat if they’re not currently occupied, but if you want to pilot them yourself, you have to hope they’re not completely gone by the time you can select one on the map and hop into it. You can also choose a cavalry class, which throws you on a horse and gives you a few guns and a sword to mow down the opposition with, but I was never really able to get the hang of using it without immediately getting shot off my saddle.
In addition to these classes, occasionally, elite equipment will appear on the map, which will transform you into a different class entirely. You can don suits of armor and wield a chain gun, or strap a deadly flamethrower to your back. You can’t rely on them, as they appear randomly throughout a match, but they do a good job of changing things up, and can tilt a battle a little more in your favor if you use them right.
While Operations and Conquest are the meat of Battlefield 1’s multiplayer, there are a few smaller modes if you’re looking for something a bit more intimate. Domination is smaller version of Conquest, which puts the capture-the-point mode on much more contained map. Rush is similar, but instead of holding a set of points, the attacking team must secure and blow up sets of telegraph posts across the map. Team Deathmatch is your standard ‘kill the opposing team for points’ mode, though you can revive your teammates to prevent the opposition from scoring. War Pigeons is one of Battlefield 1’s stranger modes, requiring teams to hold onto a carrier pigeon long enough to write a message and send it off to call in an artillery strike – and the opposing team can shoot it out of the sky once you send it if they’re quick enough.
The modes are fine, and offer a bit of a reprieve from longer Operations matches (which can last over an hour), but with smaller player counts and tighter maps, they lack some of the tactical depth of Battlefield 1’s larger game types. For instance, since people die so fast in Team Deathmatch and War Pigeons and their smaller maps lack vehicles, the Support class becomes all but useless.
When all’s said and done, when the matches end and the dust settles, you’ll see that large portions of the maps have transformed, their buildings pockmarked by blasts, their fortifications turned into piles of rubble. Even though bloody entertainment is at Battlefield 1’s heart, the post-game wasteland is a reminder of the toll that conflict takes on the people it consumes. Whether in single or multiplayer Battlefield 1 absolutely nails the historical sense of adventure and expectation before swiftly giving way to dread as the war takes a physical and mental toll on its participants. And this – as much as the intimate, brutal virtual warfare – is the game’s most impressive feat.
This game was reviewed on both Xbox One and PC.