All Ghillied Up, No Russian, The Silent Cartographer. Levels such as these are iconic of the first person shooter genre thanks to a combination of wonderful design and narrative impact. Battlefield 1 has managed to produce not just one, but a series of incredibly crafted and powerful set-pieces capable of going toe-to-toe with any of them, as well as the best opening level since Medal of Honor Frontline’s “D-Day”. If this wasn’t enough, DICE has also built the best multiplayer combat experience of the current generation.
There was controversy surrounding Battlefield 1 for its return to The Great War. Concerns about whether or not such delicate subject matter could ever be given the treatment it deserves, especially in a video game, are justified. Whether or not EA and DICE achieve that will be determined by the individual, but I think they come as close as anybody to providing an incredibly powerful representation through what is an utterly brilliant campaign.
This is unquestionably the best shooter campaign we’ve seen in a decade. Not since Modern Warfare has there been a single-player experience that’s told such a great story, or more specifically, five.
Battlefield 1, rather than telling a single narrative, hosts five short stories following different soldiers in different parts of the world throughout the conflict. It plays out like a fantastic mini-series, each brilliantly voice-acted and believable, with screens of text contextualising each soldier’s situation as the prologue and epilogue.
What’s great about each story is they don’t try to portray heroes. These are simply the stories of war, of brave individuals doing incredible things. One story in particular leaves you questioning whether or not the lead character was even a hero at all. It’s utterly engrossing, and thankfully there isn’t a single “hoo-rah” to be heard.
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Through every chapter I’ve borne witness to the true horrors of war: bodies strewn across no man’s land, soldiers fleeing trenches on fire as a flamethrower guard clears a path for his allies, and trench rats running all around, creating the real sense of the conditions these men endured. The game will never force your attention to any one of these, but by noticing them myself each has much greater impact. It helps that the scene rendered before you is done so in such exquisite detail. Even on Xbox One it’s gorgeous, and comfortably one of the best-looking games on the console.
Once again it’s the little touches that really build the experience. Diving into a trench sees my gun covered in dirt, the screams of soldiers writhing in agony as I run up the battlefield, the mud of the disgusting trenches squelching underfoot. DICE has always been the best at sound design, and continues to show why in this World War 1 gameplay.
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Each story also has its own gameplay focus, with the first seeing you join a British crew driving a tank through France, including a segment deep behind enemy lines. In the second you’re an American pilot battling in the skies, the third an Italian heavily armoured soldier leading men up the mountains. Each offering’s unique approach keeps things interesting, and what makes the whole experience even better is that the formula is wrapped around the traditional structure of a Battlefield multiplayer match, further playing to DICE’s strengths.
Always tasked with completing a series of objectives, moving forward and driving the enemy lines back, just like a battle of Conquest, it makes everything so much fun to play. It’s quite clear that DICE has also taken stock of recent outings like Star Wars Battlefront, too. In Chapter Two, there’s a mission as a fighter pilot that feels directly taken from Battlefront’s Fighter Squadron mode with a World War 1 skin.
While on the subject of multiplayer, this is quite simply the best it’s ever been, and the best multiplayer shooter of this generation. DICE has always been known for its excellent large-scale warfare, but something about it being set in The Great War makes every single encounter matter that much more.
The map design is absolutely stunning, with so many landmark structures that are equally fun to explore and destroy. From the castles in the corner of Suez to the idyllic palace in Ballroom Blitz, every map has a standout piece of architecture, which will slowly but surely fall to pieces the longer the battle rages on.
The classic argument every year is: which is better, Call of Duty or Battlefield? This year both feel more different than ever, and the great thing about that is, while on the surface they are both shooters, the experiences couldn’t be more different. While Call of Duty is great at offering that instant gratification of spawn-shoot-kill-die-repeat, it cannot come close to matching the incredible storytelling found in Battlefield’s multiplayer.
There are so many moments that occur that you will feel must be scripted, simply because they’re so well designed. It’s almost like those moments in sport where “you had to be there” to understand. In Amiens, one of BF1’s more compact urban maps, I took up a spot in one of the blocks of flats and began shooting at enemies on one of the bridges, which housed one of the conquest flags. Safely ensconced behind the concrete wall, I was able to pop in and out of cover and kill five or six enemies – until a tank came along and shot down the entire side of the building.
Yes, there are some frustrations with this more chaotic format. The longer the map goes on, the more scattered allies and enemies become, meaning there’ll be times when you spawn and are instantly killed – or do what I did and spawn staring at an enemy tank. There’ll also be moments when you spend several minutes running from one flag to the next without firing a bullet, only to get shot in the back of the head. But these pale in comparison to those landmark battles which can also happen, making it all so worth it.
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There are also minor and infrequent performance niggles. Particularly when coming out of the pause menu, I experienced brief freezes and some screen-tearing, but nothing game-breaking.
Another sticking point is the campaign’s brevity. Because each story is so bloody good I didn’t want it to end. The move to create a series of isolated episodes was a great one, but the whole lot can be done in around six hours. And with five separate narratives, the conclusion of the fifth will lack that climactic moment that one would get from a single story. Hopefully we’ll see more episodes released post-launch, but that doesn’t excuse the brief experience that currently exists.
DICE has put together a superlative campaign experience. The decision to create a mini-series following multiple soldiers is brilliant, and something that other games should follow in the future, as there wasn’t a single moment of filler.
It’s just a shame that the word “mini” is so apt, with the whole campaign over all too soon. It’s testament to how good it is, though, that I simply want more of it – more stories, more acts of heroism, more incredible, heart-wrenching moments.
Long load screens, overbearing hints and other minor quibbles aside, this is undoubtedly the best campaign DICE has ever produced, and the best single-player war experience we’ve seen in almost a decade.
I really hope DICE spends much more time in World War 1, because it feels like there are many more stories waiting to be told.