When Battlefield 1942 was released in 2002 (yes, internet twenty-somethings that choose to measure their age by the release date of classic video games, it has been that long), there was nothing else like it. The biggest multiplayer shooters up until that point, such as Halo and Unreal Tournament, had emphasized a comparatively more intimate competitive experience. While this was partially due to their design intent, it was also a result of technological limitations that had dictated how many players could compete against each other on a single map.
Battlefield 1942 changed that almost overnight. Its biggest selling point was the fact that up to 64 players (two teams of 32) could wage war against each other in order to create the kind of large-scale World War II warfare that had previously been limited to the world of films. More importantly, it drew a blueprint for how competitive shooter games of that size should work. It was a blueprint that many other developers were quick to use for their own games.
Perhaps that’s why Battlefield’s legacy since the release of 1942 is somewhat open to interpretation. While many people cite either Battlefield 2 or Battlefield: Bad Company 2 as the franchise’s best, a sudden market oversaturation of the large-scale multiplayer shooter concept eventually made every subsequent Battlefield release feel comparatively less special. Battlefield 4‘s initial hype was cut down by technical issues, while 2015’s Battlefield Hardline flew about as low under the radar as a Battlefield title ever has. It was clear that something had to change.
In many ways, Battlefield 1 is that change. Its WWI setting represents both a new era for the franchise to tackle (aside from the superb fan mod Battlefield 1918) and a nostalgic return to a time period much closer to the franchise’s WWII roots. Developer EA DICE’s intent seems to be to attract long-time fans and newcomers alike to the series now that it has shed its modern-day skin in favor of a less explored era.
Considering how much of the pre-release hype for Battlefield 1 revolved around the game’s setting, it’s interesting to see how little that setting alters the core Battlefield experience.
To be clear, it doesn’t feel like DICE was interested in creating an authentic WWI game. They took quite a few historical liberties with the game’s equipment and weapons, especially as it concerns the prolific use of tanks (at least as they are utilized in the beta’s lone map). Tanks were introduced in WWI as a response to the stalemate of trench warfare, meaning that they were both fairly rare and somewhat mechanically unreliable. In Battlefield 1, however, they are about as prominent and capable as tanks from previous games in the series. This is an interesting choice considering that the game is relatively historically accurate as it concerns the importance of infantry during this time period, and there is only one class in the game that is inherently equipped to deal with tanks.
This is much more of a pulp take on WWI combat, which, to be honest, is probably preferable to an entirely accurate recreation, given the brutality and sloppiness that characterized the battles of that era. It also allows for the developers to play up certain elements of the time period sheerly for the entertainment value they have to offer. So far as the beta goes, the biggest example of that approach is the implementation of horses. Riding a horse into combat isn’t necessarily practical (especially if you are assaulting a fixed point), but picking off spare troops with your saber while artillery explodes all around you is an undeniably satisfying experience that no other Battlefield game has offered.
DICE has also taken Battlefield’s soft reboot as an excuse to make other alterations to the game that are not necessarily exclusive to WWI, but are welcome nonetheless. Enhanced dynamic weather is one of the most welcome additions to the franchise, even if it is only evidenced in the beta by a sweeping sandstorm that consumes the map and actually makes combat more challenging. It’s a tiny detail that helps the game achieve a meaningful personality that the series hasn’t always been blessed with in recent years.
It’s good that little touches such as that exist because, without them, Battlefield 1 would run the risk of distinguishing itself enough from previous games. The iconic Battlefield experience has always involved outfitting a specialized class with your chosen layout, dropping into Conquest mode (although, Battlefield 1 does offer multiple modes to choose from), trying your best to work within a very large team, and, ultimately, submitting to the sheer chaos of the battle and doing what you can to win.
The Battlefield 1 beta proved that the game will be focused on re-creating that same experience, and I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing. 2015’s Star Wars Battlefront was criticized, in part, due to the way it failed to significantly alter the classic Battlefield formula of massive multiplayer shooters. But whereas that game ultimately suffered because it failed to retain a lot of the unique elements that previous Battlefront games had introduced, Battlefield 1 seems to containnearly everything you might play a Battlefield game for, while repackaging the experience just enough to give the game a fighting chance of recapturing that magic feeling.
It’s too early to say whether or not Battlefield 1 will succeed in doing so, but it’s hard to deny that this recent beta has felt like the most significant Battlefield release since 64 souls braved the perils of 2002 connectivity issues to wage war against each other.