Battlefield 1 review

At long last the developers of Battlefield have given up on aping Call of Duty for their recently “necessary” single-player campaigns. Now, with Battlefield 1, they’ve taken to aping Crysis instead. That may seem like a step backwards — not to mention an odd one, given that BF1 and Crysis are set at opposite eras of the military shooter genre.

If you haven’t played Crysis, or even a Far Cry game, I only mean that levels now allow you to tag and tackle crowds of enemies in open spaces from any angle — usually with a bevy of lethal options. Battlefield 1 is usually good enough to scatter munitions shacks through its stages, giving you access to sniper rifles, shotguns, dynamite, and any number of wackadoodle weapons to hit the enemy at any range.

It works, too, since the strings of mostly-open maps fit Battlefield’s massive multiplayer scale much better than a Call of Duty-inspired roller coaster ride.

In fact, Battlefield 1’s campaign is as much a tutorial for its 64-player skirmishes as anything. It’s split into six parts that, while numbered, can still be tackled in any order. Most carry a specific “theme” to teach you the basics of vehicle, aerial, and on-foot combat. At times, you’ll even need to sit and capture a point, a la the series’ signature “Conquest” mode — which is where you’ll likely spend much of your time with the multiplayer component.

It may not accurately reflect trench warfare, but it’s a damn sight more fun than the forgettable campaigns in Battlefield 3, 4, and the woefully misguided Hardline. Having missed both Battlefield: Bad Company and its sequel, this is the first single-player campaign in the series I’d recommend actually troubling yourself to play.

Which isn’t to say it’s perfect. BF1’s campaign, or “War Stories” as the vignettes are collectively called, doesn’t show the unique respect people say WWI in particular demands.

I don’t personally believe that this war, in particular, should be off-limits to games, while equally real conflicts from history and today are A-okay.Yet there is a message unique to WWI that Battlefield 1 could have delivered, if it tried — a story about how  mechanizing war devalued human life over time. That, as we developed machines meant to wipe out larger numbers of living, breathing beings, they became those numbers first, and people second. At least in the minds of those who paid for, and deployed those machines.

World War I ignited that kind of thinking, but Battlefield 1 doesn’t interrogate it.  Instead the game is like an angsty teen who’s angry at the world for perceived slights, but one that hasn’t figured out that “the world” isn’t an abstract force. It’s people, their choices, and policies. “The War to End All Wars” was awful, says Battlefield 1, but it’ll be damned if it’s going to blame anyone or anything for it. This culminates in a politically noncommittal wet fart of a parting message so blantantly terrified of stating an opinion that it’s almost too funny for me to stay mad at it.

Less forgivable is how the game fetishizes the mechanical monstrosities that made the first World War possible. The game climaxes with a battle against a seemingly unstoppable Death Train, while a minor villain spouts platitudes about how “progress,” or something will bulldoze the Middle East (this is the first, and only time the game brings up such a topic). By the time this moment of near-clarity rolls around, however, it’s already been overshadowed by hours spent in steampunk Iron Man armor.

At least the mechanized murder looks nice. Well, “nice.” Both the campaign and multiplayer maps use a striking blend of mud, blood, and ash that almost distracts from the fact that a single soldier just mowed down a hundred more Germans than the most successful artillery shell of the 20th century.

That last bit is unique to the campaign, of course. Battlefield 1’s multiplayer is still very much Battlefield multiplayer. Friendly drivers will leave you in the dust with half-filled tanks and planes. Meanwhile sniper rifles remain the be all, end all weapon of war — . Unless you fall into one of those camps, you’ll be lucky to even see your slayer before falling dead in a lovingly modeled ditch.

Dying, respawning, and catching a bullet for my trouble — while having no observable impact on a 25-minute match — felt oddly… “On-brand” in the WWI setup. Although it still doesn’t explain why “nearby medics,” with the ability to revive fallen teammates, only ever practice wind sprints on my cooling corpse…

The futility of playing without a reliable group of friends might be nothing new to Battlefield, but it feels more thematically appropriate here. That goes double for the new mode, called “Operations.” If you want your trench warfare fix (and who wouldn’t…?), this is Battlefield’s stab at something similar. These lengthy matches give attacking teams limited respawns and attempts to capture zones. It’s like Conquest, with the added tension of going “over the hill” again, and again, and again.

Operations are too one-sided in favor of the defenders — not to mention too much of a time commitment for all involved — to drag me away from standard Conquest for long. Yet they’re a good primer on the tweaked ranges at which you fight in Battlefield 1.

World War I or not, there’s no shortage of automatic weapons on Battlefield’s… battlefields. They’re just not the same mid-range people shredders from the series’ modern military installments.  Since Battlefield 1’s maps (at least in the pretty much standard, 64-player modes) are so open, there’s now an added focus on semi-automatic rifles when fighting at medium distance. These require slightly more thought, and time to set up shots than your standard bullet hose. It’s just enough of a handicap to let me at least know where I’m being hit from before I drop.

It’s a small distinction, but one that I like. I’ll never be good enough at Battlefield to effectively spot, counter, and imitate the series’ best snipers. Now I can at least trust that I won’t be hosed with bullets at every range. So long as I keep my distance, I can at least feel like I have a fighting chance. That alone makes this some of the most positive time I’ve spent with Battlefield multiplayer since Battlefield 2142 (I liked shooting myself out of heli-carrier cannons).

I’m less excited about the ways in which you unlock those nifty mid-range machines. More specifically, I don’t like how Battlefield 1 presents your progress through the multiplayer ranks.

Guns are bought with “war bonds” — currency you earn, I think, by leveling up. I say “I think,” because BF1 locks away most of that information behind a separate “companion app” for smartphones, and tablets. If data on how many war bonds you earn over time can be found in the game itself, it’s inconveniently buried. The overall effect is that the multiplayer looks clean, but surprisingly slight for a game that hangs its hat on large-scale combat.

There are worse problems for shooters to have, of course, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to plug my email address into another game-specific online profile, and opt out of yet another newsletter.

With that, and the only-nearly-great single-player campaign in mind, Battlefield 1 isn’t the whole, perfect package it often hints at being. It is a pretty good one of these games, though, without any of the performance reservations that plagued previous, numbered entries. Meanwhile, there are just enough concessions to a more casual player like me that I can see myself contributing to a 64-player fight. Even if, like the campaign’s stabs at reverence for its source material, it’s a very shallow one.

Verdict: Yes