TL; DR(eview) - Like Valiant Hearts before it, Battlefield 1 manages to find a set of interesting stories among a war that likely has hundreds of thousands that have been lost to time. The combat is slower and heavier than other shooters to better fit within the confines of the period, but still feels (mostly) great.
As someone who hasn’t played a Battlefield title since the original Battlefield 1942 (I’ve even still got the original disc), or really military shooters in general, I decided this season was a great time to dive back in head first. Having enjoyed Doom earlier this year, as well as a belated playthroughs of the latest Wolfenstein, its DLC, and Gears of War, I felt primed for this year’s abundance of Fall release shooters. Up first, a return to the series I hadn’t touched in over a decade.
Given the caveat that I (again) haven’t really played these types of military shooters in quite some time, my knowledge-base of the “story” these titles tend to provide is limited. Mostly straightforward wartime narratives for the historical shooters? Call of Duty started making waves by introducing (and then making cliché) the mid-game character death? But for the most part, story took a backseat to shooting mechanics and multiplayer. At least that’s the brunt of what I’ve seen (oh, and memes about pressing a button to pay your respects).
Rather that focus on an 8-10-hour campaign, Battlefield 1 instead chooses to focus on a series of smaller vignettes. Each of these “War Stories” focuses on a different cast of characters in a different campaign of World War I. As Ubisoft did with Valiant Hearts: The Great War, it would seem EA Dice realized it could mine multiple stories from the setting, perhaps to help compensate for the war being typically considered “slow” (by modern shooter gaming standards).
Each story focuses on a single player-controlled protagonist and a few supporting characters, with the exception of the tutorial/prologue. The introductory sequence instead tells you right up front that you are not intended to survive. It teaches you the basic mechanics of the game while a never-ending onslaught of enemy forces overwhelm you. When you are shot down, the character’s name appears alongside their birth and death years because you embody a new character. This cycle repeats a few times over the battlefield, introducing you to different soldier and vehicle types before ultimately ending with an artillery barrage and a cinematic moment where lone survivors from each side face off. The player is then set loose on their choice of the five other War Stories.
The War Stories themselves are somewhat more straightforward. A new driver is thrust into a tank battalion and has to earn the trust and camaraderie of his fellow soldiers. A con-man pilot lies and cheats his way into the war. An elite Italian soldier searches for his brother in the midst of a harrowing battle. A renowned Australian message-runner begrudgingly takes on a new charge. And, in reference to one of the more well-known characters of the war, a Bedouin woman and ally of T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) attempts to destroy a heavily armored train weapon that is wreaking havoc on her land.
The stories themselves felt a bit hit or miss, and sometimes too rushed to have the desired emotional impact. Even in recalling the five stories a couple days after completing the campaign and I was at a loss for remembering the Australian’s campaign, for example. But this approach allows for a more diverse range of audience appreciation. Somebody else might have loved the Australian character more than any of the other stories. My personal favorite was likely the Bedouin tale as I thought it had the most compelling story and the best variety of gameplay.
The combat in Battlefield felt labored. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Slower, weighty combat is certainly much more appropriate for the period. But after enjoying the faster-paced titles of Doom, Wolfenstein, and even Overwatch this year, I found the sluggish-by-comparison approach tougher to appreciate.
AI, at least on the normal difficulty setting, didn’t feel too difficult. When I was dying, it felt like it was mostly because I was headstrong and not paying attention to the battle around me. As it turns out, none of the characters you’re playing as are secretly Doomguy so you can’t really just run into battle headstrong and tear through your enemies claiming the occasional health boost. Battlefield 1 ground combat requires ducking behind cover to safety for a few seconds until your health is restored. As a norm of the genre that I just haven’t had as much exposure too, I found it harder to tell just how hurt and close to death I was. Sometimes it felt like I was a bullet sponge, while others it felt like I was only shot a couple times before the screen went grey.
Vehicle combat, on the other hand, put your in tanks and airplanes that required manual repair, holding a button in lieu of engaging in any other combat while the wrench icon filled up and restored a portion of the vehicle’s “health.” This was about the only thing I really enjoyed about the vehicles. The tank was extra slow and frustrating to maneuver, especially when navigating through the quaint, half-destroyed towns.
The plane might have overtaken Superman 64 as the most annoying flying I’ve ever experienced in a game. Up front, I didn’t bother exploring alternative control schemes. I said, “well this is what they gave me as the default so let me see what’s it’s like to just push through.” I don’t recall any other game where I’ve used the left stick as a throttle in any vehicle control scheme ever. So with that stick requiring you to push up or down to speed up or slow down, direction was moved to the right stick. And hey, it turns out, it’s pretty hard to rewire your brain after using the left stick to steer and right stick for camera controls. Most of my deaths were caused by inadvertently trying to use the throttle control to steer. And my stubbornness to stick it out is absolutely on me. But that is an incredibly frustrating and confusing choice for a default setting. Or at least it was for me. It that’s the standard in Battlefield games or was the control scheme in Battlefront, go ahead and disregard this paragraph I guess but it probably led the flying campaign to be my least favorite of the set as a result of how disassociated I felt from “normal” controls.
Battlefield 1 has some great elements, some less-than-great elements, and one really frustrating one. The decision to tell a variety of smaller self-contained stories helps Battlefield 1 stand out in a crowded shooter Fall. Characters arcs don’t need to sustain themselves over a 5-hour campaign so narratively, they are much more in-line with a brief war film or, taken together, a History Channel-like anthology. Each tale includes solid performances, even if none of them particularly wowed me.
The combat isn’t bad, but it is also restrained by the weapons and time period, even if slight liberties were taken. The exception being that the flight controls can go die in a fiery wreck. That gripe aside, the weight of the combat helps hammer home the weight of The Great War, and the first time the world saw destruction on such a large scale.