After too many years of high-tech weapons, police chases, and sci-fi gadgets, DICE knows better than most developers that what it takes to make a great first-person war shooter is two-fold: the exhilaration a player experiences when they survive an unstoppable onslaught, and how, in those same moments, one can consider the countless lives lost. Battlefield 1, as the name implies, is set during World War I, which was dubbed “the war to end all wars”. That war, of course, ended nothing, but Battlefield 1 feels like the beginning of something that might just change the face of shooters for the better.
An Incredible, Hard Fought Campaign
Battlefield 1’s single-player campaign begins with an African-American soldier, a member of the Harlem Hellfighters, amidst both chaos and confinement: a battlefield and a medical ward. The next few minutes of this chapter entitled, “Storm of Steel” focuses on just how many soldiers perished. A title card marks each death. The first is Ted Marshall: born 1894, died 1918. The opening credits inform us that we are not expected to survive. In just seconds that much is obvious.
Maybe it was because of the older, less reliable weaponry or maybe it’s that every “Jerry” I took down looked back at me with a cold, lifeless face, but this is the first shooter in quite some time that willed me to survive, while at the same time never let me forget all the soldiers I had killed. This is a long way from the addictive, mindless carnage I enjoyed while visiting Mars in Bethesda’s sleeper of the year, the Doom reboot.
Over the course of about eight hours on Normal, Battlefield 1's campaign is presented as five “War Stories” (plus the aforementioned Storm intro). The first level "Through Mud and Blood" perfectly encapsulates the vibe of Battlefield 1; you play a former chauffeur named Edwards, who ends up driving a British Mk. V Tank aka “Old Bess”. We are told via a title card that these tanks were incredibly powerful, but also extremely unreliable.
These four missions have players driving the tank, getting out on foot to scout for supplies, and even controlling a carrier pigeon. At each step, we view Edwards as a soldier not comfortable in his own skin. Unlike in so many forgettable shooters, Edwards is never just a generic floating rifle, even if that is all we see most of the time.
I’ve never been a fan of driving sections in shooters. Typically, these are mere distractions, a way to break up the monotony of too much gunfire. But here, with a tiny bit of info such as “this tank might break down at any second”, I was extremely nervous while Bess lumbered behind enemy lines. I was also not happy to mercilessly shoot down German soldiers from the all too comfy safety of my metal coffin. Compare this to the icy “that’s a kill” vibe that accompanied the drone strike in Modern Warfare. Both are effective at showing the coldness of war, yet Battlefield 1’s tank moment goes further by having the fallen men get run over by Bess if Edwards doesn’t have the room to go around them.
The gameplay isnt necessarily revolutionary, but I really appreciated the way Battlefield 1 employs the tagging of an enemy combatant by either using binoculars or pointing by holding down R1/RB. Even an old standby like tossing a shell casing to lure a guard by hitting the start button works quite well. While the realist in me thinks these types of features might seem like a stretch – given the early 20th-century era tech (unless Edwards has the best memory ever)—I can’t deny these tiny additions helped immerse me even further.
There are some fantastic missions including the flight-oriented levels where we play a scoundrel of a man named Clyde Blackburn, a perfect counterpoint to Edwards’ tank scenarios. Its aerial dogfights will have you soaring above the clouds, taking in the majesty of the Alps as well as the central London cityscape. “The Runner” chapter had me aiding the legendary Lawrence of Arabia in a desert raid to thwart a naval invasion of the Ottoman Empire, something that I remember vividly. Every lead character winds up as memorable as the sections themselves, which is saying a lot.
Each one of these stories is accompanied by excellent narration that sets the tone as we go from a map of the world and then quickly zoom in on a specific area. Five chapters totaling seventeen levels might sound like too little, but the variety in these missions is superb. I look forward to replaying the entire campaign.
Great Operations and Fun with Pigeons
By far the coolest new multiplayer mode is Operations. Over the course of five battlefields, war is waged in a continuous match across multiple maps. The map can change at the end of the round, but the objectives stay the same; attackers keep pushing forward while defenders try to stop such an advance. You can play as either an Allied or Central Power, sent in to fight for your nation. In theory, this isn’t that complicated but the execution of such long matches proved to be endless in variations. It plays out like a much bigger version of Conquest.
For Battlefield vets, Conquest mode is pretty much same as it’s always been with the added bonus of big vehicles arriving on the map at unexpected times. The timing is important and as a result can change the tide of a match, which in a room full of players is beyond exciting.
Domination is like a mini-version of Conquest, centered on the infantry in very close quarters. Flag capture (or hold) is still priority number one, but the time limit is way shorter than in Conquest. War Pigeons is a fun idea, though unlike in the single-player campaign you do not get to actually control the bird. The goal is to get the bird a message at a randomized station and then let it loose so it can fly off, sending your location to supporting artillery who can then deploy a bombardment against your foes. If, however, you are on the other side, your goal is to stop that from happening at all costs, including shooting down the poor birds.
Rush is a mode somewhat similar to War Pigeons but centered on telegraphs, which means no shooting down of birds. For my taste, War Pigeons was the best new Quickmatch of the series. There are also the usual Team Deathmatches that were a fun way to highlight the different classes and weapons that Battlefield 1 has to offer. I tended to like being a Scout since I am more a sniper guy.
Throughout all the multiplayer modes is the voice of a confident, British female announcer who tells of progress or peril at every moment. Nothing bummed me out more than hearing her exclaim, “We have lost objective butter!” Man, I just can’t make that gal happy.
Battlefield 1 isn’t just a great addition to the series, it arrives as a thunderous explosion that will impact the military shooter space for many years to come. A memorable single player campaign in an FPS is a rarity, and it delivers that without compromise. Operations is an instant classic for multiplayer lovers, while the other modes will keep you invested, supported by fantastic gameplay. Visually breathtaking and fun to play, DICE has delivered an instant classic that has raised the bar.
Xbox One code provided by publisher. Also available on PS4 and PC.