If filmmaker Michael Bay — known for over-the-top films such as the Transformers series — were to decide to make a film about World War I, and if he chose to rely on comic books as his research materials, the result would be very much like Electronic Arts’ newly released video game Battlefield 1.
This latest entry in the popular series — somewhat confusing given the “1” in its moniker — moves the action from recent modern settings to the Great War, taking the action back in time 100 years.
The intent was to provide slower-moving vehicles, including lumbering tanks and biplanes, rather than the latest 21st-century attack helicopters and fast-moving armored personnel carriers. Moreover EA DICE, which developed the game, suggested that Battlefield 1 should include bolt action rifles and melee weapons to accurately depict the combat of World War I.
The game plays much like a traditional Battlefield title, meaning there is much chaos and confusion. Machine guns are so omnipresent, however, that it hardly feels as though this is actually set during the First World War.
In other words, those seeking a game that approximates such films as All Quiet on the Western Front or Paths of Glory aren’t likely to find it in Battlefield 1, which is closer to what an Expendables film might look like if the characters had to rely on antiquated technology. This isn’t to say that it makes for a bad game.
Far from it in fact, because Battlefield 1 does everything the series has done since it first stormed onto the PC with Battlefield 1942 15 years ago. It is big, bombastic, chaotic — and for gamers who prefer action-packed intensity over historical accuracy, this one delivers many times over.
Campaign for One
As with many first-person shooters, this is really two games in one — or one game with two very distinct modes. Battlefield 1 includes a single-player campaign that allows the player to take part in key engagements around Europe and the Middle East.
Unlike such titles as Medal of Honor or Call of Duty — which originally were set in World War II — the campaign isn’t presented in a linear order. Nor should players expect absolute victory.
World War I didn’t culminate with the defeat of one side, of course, but rather ended suddenly with an armistice that came as something of a surprise to both sides.
Players can jump into five unique “War Stories” after a brief introduction that serves as the game’s tutorial.
This lends to the game an experience similar to that of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, exposing players to different facets of the war. It should be stressed that each of these is told via a different persona, rather than through a single character’s experiences.
In total, there are 15 individual missions that offer real variety in settings — from the mud-soaked trenches of the Western Front in France to the Alpine passes in Italy, to the Arabian Deserts with a fictionalized T.E. Lawrence.
This being a Battlefield game, players won’t take part in combat entirely on foot. The game allows players to command a British MkV tank in France, pilot a Sopwith Camel biplane, and even ride a horse in the desert.
There are a number of twists thrown in — notably that in the desert campaign, the player controls not Lawrence or another British advisor, but rather a Bedouin fighter who happens to be a young woman. Such a thing would have been unlikely in the real conflict.
However, since this part of the story is told by Lawrence — who in real life made up as much as he actually accomplished — it is a narrative liberty that works on some level.
A bigger issue with this game is that rarely do the campaigns feel much like anything out of World War I, a conflict remembered largely for static trench lines and often futile attacks across no man’s land.
The missions lack any “going over the top” style attacks and instead play out in the same linear manner as most shooters. This is where perhaps the biggest opportunity is lost with Battlefield 1, and why it only bares a passing resemblance to the historical conflict.
Another problem with the campaign is that the developers felt the need to try to honor those who fought — something no game that is so cinematic in nature can pull off. In the introductory tutorial, it is noted that millions of soldiers on all sides were killed, and players are reminded “you are not expected to survive.”
Though heavy-handed, this should serve to remind players of how futile the war was — but the message is kind of lost, given that one can respawn at the last checkpoint. In other words, the developers tried to show some respect for the conflict but really missed the point, considering that the millions who actually fell didn’t get another chance.
One of Millions
The other game mode is the online multiplayer experience, which is actually even less like the actual combat of World War I than the single player mode. The game developers strived to include every possible weapon available to the soldiers, but instead of bolt-action rifles — which were the primary weapon for the vast majority of soldiers in the conflict in real life — automatic weapons, including the rarely used sub-machine guns, are readily available.
Just as with the single-player campaign, the multiplayer version of Battlefield 1 feels less like a World War I simulation and more like the latest really bombastic shooter.
It is very much a game for fans of the series who favor the “run and gun” approach, and those for whom realism always has given way to gameplay mechanics. One does wonder why the designers didn’t opt for an alternative history steampunk setting instead. That certainly could have allowed for the grandiloquent combat and yet captured the look and visuals of the war.
Battlefield 1 allows up to 64 players to take part in the squad-based combat that has been a staple of the series. It includes locations around the world in its nine maps and six modes. These include the usual conquest, domination, operations, rush and team death match, along with a new mode called “war pigeons” that requires players to secure pigeons to use in artillery strikes.
In multiplayer mode, players can participate both as the Allied and Central Powers, whereas the single player campaign is playable only as the Allied forces. There are eight distinct classes that include the usual assault team and medic, but add pilots and tankers that have specific vehicle advantages.
There is also a cavalry option, that allows players to spawn directly on a horse. Each class has unique advantages and weapons — which does allow for more variety in the gameplay.
The Scenes of War
Where Battlefield 1 really shines is in its use of the Frostbite graphics engine, which makes the war look as close to hell on earth as anyone would ever want to get. At times it is a little too much in terms of explosions and fires — but again, this is where the comparison to a Michael Bay film is most apt.
The developers went all out to capture the look of the period vehicles and small arms, which are highly detailed. The same is true of their sounds. These features really do add to the experience, which is why a few nitpicks must be mentioned.
I’m as much a history buff as gamer, and I’ve studied and written about the uniforms and equipment. In these respects, the game comes up a bit short. It isn’t so much that the uniforms are entirely inaccurate — no one expects complete accuracy in a game — but rather that everything is so off that it can hurt the level of immersion into the experience.
Just as game lacks the expected trenches, these small details further raise the question of why World War I was chosen as a setting.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment isn’t Battlefield 1’s lack of World War I authenticity, but rather that it hasn’t really brought anything new to the series. The first title, Battlefield 1942, introduced controllable vehicles and large-scale multiplayer gaming. Since then, the developers have added squad-based play, destructible environments and new multiplayer options.
Although it looks fantastic, Battlefield 1, really hasn’t advanced the genre. Still, there should be enough for fans of the series who want something different while keeping more of the same.
The Battlefield series isn’t a perfect retelling of World War I, but if you can look past the historical inaccuracies, it is intense mayhem that can be addictively fun — provided you can accept that “you are not expected to survive.”