Release Date: October 21, 2016Platform: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, PCDeveloper: EA DICEPublisher: Electronic ArtsGenre: First-Person Shooter
According to Hollywood legend, director James Cameron walked into a pitch meeting with Brandywine Productions without a presentation in hand. Instead, he went to the room’s chalkboard, wrote the word “Alien” on it, put an “S” at the end, and then drew a line through the new letter in order to form “Alien$.” The film was greenlit for $18 million that same day.
It’s easy to imagine a similar pitch occurring at EA Studios prior to the development of the latest Battlefield game. Someone walked over to a chalkboard, wrote “Battlefield,” put a “1” after it, and just like that, you’ve got a sequel. Both are examples of a fairly obvious concept that’s primary purpose seems to be making money.
Both, however, prove that concept ultimately bows down to execution.
For the first time since the release of 2008’s Battlefield: Bad Company, this reviewer feels compelled to talk about a Battlefield game’s campaign mode before its multiplayer. As you may know, Battlefield 1 features a campaign comprised of five separate stories that occur across World War 1’s various theaters of war. One, for instance, sees you join a tank crew barreling across Europe. Another has you join up with Lawrence of Arabia. All feature a far more focused narrative than the most recent Battlefield titles offered.
Sadly, the mode is ultimately a negative example of concept bowing to execution. There’s no denying that Battlefield 1’s campaign is far greater than the one we typically get from the average multiplayer-focused title. Whereas those games are content with using their single-player experiences as a glorified tutorial, Battlefield 1 tries to delve into the humanity at the heart of war while also teaching us how to play the game.
Occasionally, the approach works and you experience some compelling new look at the first World War. More often than not, however, the intent of these missions falls victim to dry gameplay that reveals beyond any doubt that Battlefield is a multiplayer-first title. The enemy A.I. rarely serves as more than a bullet sponge, meaning that the Battlefield shooting mechanics meant to pit player against fellow player suddenly feel much more rigid. It feels awful to have to criticize this mode that is clearly much more than it needed to be, but the truth is that you could never justify recommending this game based on the strength of its campaign alone.
That being the case, the admirable intent behind the campaign doesn’t amount to much more than a particularly good tutorial for the multiplayer.
Although, it’s hard to say with sincerity that anything shy of Battlefield at its best can prepare you for this game’s multiplayer. Some people expressed concern over whether or not the franchise’s transition to WW I would really add anything significant to the multiplayer experience. Sure, the game now has horses, an emphasis on chemical warfare, and some older weapons, but is that what this franchise needs to feel fresh again?
As it turns out, that’s exactly what this franchise needed. Modern combat can work for a Battlefield game (see Battlefield 2), but as the franchise continued to advance in that direction, it started to accumulate a glut of underdeveloped concepts and necessities of its chosen era. Suddenly, Battlefield players were responsible for managing updates the size of RPG skill trees as well as an arsenal of the most advanced toys of modern war. Each game became an attempt to build upon what came before even if the final result was an increasingly unstable structure.
Battlefield 1 effectively chops away years’ worth of unnecessary additions and streamlines the core Battlefield experience. Nowhere is this more evident than in the weapon selection. Out are perfectly tuned instruments of warfare and in are weapons that actually suffer from tangible flaws. Some guns have tremendous range, but fire roughly a bullet a minute. Others are god-tier in the trenches, but will have you pulling out your pistol at distances greater than five feet. It’s a concept that every game in the series has played with, but the fact that many of these weapons historically carried these limitations and weren’t implemented as a means of game balance really does add genuine personality to every loadout.
That’s what we’re talking about when we talk about Battlefield 1’s multiplayer at its best. Personality. Every class and every piece of equipment draws you in to their particular playstyle. From the lonely scout sniping across the map hoping to remain unnoticed to the hulking flamethrower unit spreading fear and fire, there is something worth playing here for every chosen style. Even better, each class appears to be fairly well-balanced at the moment.
Well, except maybe vehicle classes. Battlefield 1 emphasizes choosing a class specifically designed for piloting and assisting vehicles, which is a pretty great idea. The problem is that several of the game’s maps don’t cater to tank, cavalry, and plane warfare. The vehicles themselves, meanwhile, aren’t quite the world beaters featured in previous installments. Planes, in particular, suffer from an inability to fire missiles and are often relegated to dogfights. Historically, this is pretty accurate, but it does limit the appeal of primarily focusing on vehicles on all but a few of the game’s levels.
Speaking of levels, the maps in Battlefield 1 are all fairly well-done if a bit lacking in instant classics. Many cater towards one particular style of play (such as the interior heavy Ballroom Blitz) and some lack the landmarks and standout strategies of Battlefield 4’s maps. Others like Fao Fotress (in which players get to siege and hold a castle) and the Battlefield: Vietnam-like Argonne Forest deservedly rank among the franchise’s best.
While the 64-player, capture the hill-style Conquest mode is still the default way to play these Battlefield maps, two new modes join Conquest, Deathmatch, and Rush in an effort to lend variety to the proceedings. The first is a play on capture the flag called War Pigeons in which players must capture and release pigeons spread throughout the map. It’s amusing, if a bit lacking in depth. The other mode, Operations, is basically a game of Rush played across multiple locations. It adds a bit of a story element to multiplayer matches and works incredibly well so long as you are able to endure 40+ minute matches on the regular.
Of course, Battlefield 1 is such a beautiful instrument of sheer chaos that you might not mind playing a few hour-long matches occasionally. Not since Battlefield: Bad Company 2 has a Battlefield game put so much effort into elements like environmental destruction that are meant to help you feel as if you’re truly engaging in an Earth-shattering military effort. Combine that with the game’s dynamic weather effects and the general insanity of combat during this time period, and suddenly, matches feel more organic than they have in years.
The same cannot be said of the game’s interface which is frustratingly unintuitive. Everything remotely related to class upgrades and statistical analysis is hidden behind a series of generic menus that attempt to present the information within as bluntly as possible, but often fail to encourage exploration. As class building and the exploration of that concept is a key component of the franchise, it feels like a little more work should have gone into improving this simple interface.
How much complaints such as this drag the game down for you is going to vary based on personal preference. Indeed, in the next few days, expect to hear a number of complaints from series fans and suddenly interested parties that say Battlefield 1 doesn’t re-invent the franchise, doesn’t explore its WW I setting enough, and generally doesn’t offer much that we haven’t seen before. These are all valid concerns.
What none of them convey, though, is that the thrill of Battlefield is most certainly back. For the first time in years, playing your average Battlefield match feels like an experience that no other game can quite replicate. There are certainly improvements to be made, but Battlefield 1 establishes new footing for the formerly fading franchise that ensures developer EA Dice will again be able to advance towards the future of video game warfare with the inevitable release of Battlefields.
Apologies to the editor. That last word is supposed to read Battlefield$.
Matthew Byrd is a staff writer.