I remember my heart sinking a bit when it was announced that the latest Battlefield game would be set during World War One (WW1). There had been a number of online polls where players had put WW1 at the bottom of their favoured setting for the next Battlefield game, it seemed a rather archaic setting which didn't seem to sit well with Battlefield's traditionally fast paced combat, it was the centenary of the conflict and, being just old enough to have a grandfather who served in both wars, it seemed uncomfortably close to home. Battlefield games have a tradition of fast paced combat, being able to jump in and out of a wide range of vehicles and having a large number of weapons and customisations for them so trench warfare and having the game set in an era which saw machine guns, optics and vehicles such as the tank and combat aircraft being introduced didn't seem to fit very well. Luckily I was wrong.
World War One was a hugely dynamic conflict which saw a large number of nations fighting on a large variety of fronts. Yes, there was trench warfare but there was also combat in deserts, mountains, forests and at sea. New weapons such as the tank and combat aircraft saw combat on both sides as each side desperately sought to capture them from the enemy, put them to use or discover their secrets and create their own, improving on the original. The battles were bloody and the conditions atrocious, but the war was also interesting, personal, tragic.
Battlefield games (with the exception of the Bad Company series) aren't known for the quality of the stories of their single player campaign mode. While writing this review, I had to actually check some sources to remind me of what the plot of the campaigns in the previous two games, Battlefield 3 and Battlefield 4, as I had completely forgotten what happened! In those games, the single player campaign felt a bit of an afterthought, a kind of training mode which allowed players to get used to combat and try the games different weapons, getting them ready for the multiplayer section of the game. It was entertaining but incidental; the characters felt thin and had enough back story to make them just believable but there were instantly forgettable.
Fortunately Battlefield 1 takes a different approach. Rather than having a single campaign, the game has a number of "War Stories", groups of missions which follow the story of a character or group of characters somewhere in the war. The missions are typical Battlefield fayre, a mix of combat and stealth missions which seek to give players a taste of the weapons and equipment that the multiplayer game offers but it does something different too; it makes you care about the characters. Each story starts with a high quality video which introduces the characters and their place in the war, each one being a believable story, and further cut scenes between the missions help flesh the story out. They won't win any literary prizes but they make you care about the characters in a way which hasn't been seen in a video game since the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare series. It also handles each characters story with care, reminding you just enough that men fought and died in very similar circumstances. So yes, although this is entertainment, it's strangely poignant and treats the war in a way that previous video games haven't.
The main mode of Battlefield 1, just as with the other Battlefield games, is multiplayer. You play as one of four main classes of soldier; assault troops who specialise in mowing down troops and destroying vehicles, medics who treat the wounded, heavily armed support troops who resupply others and specialise in heavy weapons and scouts who act as the battlefield's snipers. New to Battlefield 1 are vehicle classes (soldiers who fight in tanks, aircraft on on horseback which you fight as if you start in one of these modes of transport and get separated from it) and specialist classes, powerful units which appear on the battlefield as equipment pick-ups on the battlefield. Each class has unique weapons and equipment and can be customised by playing as it for long enough to level that class up and then spending war bonds, which are earned by leveling up your character. This may sound a bit complex, and yes, it is more complex than previous Battlefield games, but it allows players to specialise in a specific class, if that suits their style of play, without getting too powerful too early on.
There are five game modes; Conquest, Domination, Rush and Team Deathmatch, all of which will be familiar to veteran players, and War Pigeons a new hold-the-objective style mode. Conquest and Domination see two opposing teams gaining points for killing enemy players and securing objectives which are portrayed as flags spaced around the map. The first team to reach the required number of points wins and the difference between Conquest and Domination is the latter mode has smaller teams and a lower points requirement. New to both modes is the deployment of a behemoth, a heavily armed and armoured train, zeppelin or ship which helps support the loosing team. This can be a blessing to the loosing team as well as a curse as although the behemoth provides some much needed extra firepower, each weapon on it must be manned by a member of the team which takes players off the battlefield and away from objectives.
Another familiar mode, Rush, involves players destroying or defending objectives across a map. The attackers have a limited number of troops, but gain more for every objective they destroy, and the defenders have unlimited troops but finite objectives to defend. The winners are the last team to run out of troops/objectives. In previous games the objectives were MCOM stations, piles of communications equipment, which had to be destroyed by planting a bomb on them and although the placing and defusing of bombs remains, the objectives have now been changed to telegraph stations which the defenders can use to call in artillery barrages on the enemy as long as they remain intact.
Team Deathmatch is a mode which will be familiar to players of most multiplayer first-person shooter games; two teams battle to gain more kills than the other team.
Lastly War Pigeons is similar to the Defuse game from previous Battlefield games. It's a fast paced game mode with small teams and smaller maps than other modes and sees both teams scrambling to locate and hold a carrier pigeon for long enough to attach a message to call for an artillery bombardment on the opposing team. The match is won when three pigeons have been released with their messages.
Multiplayer matches can be played either singly or as part of an "Operation"a new bundle of multiplayer matches played across connected maps in which you play as either a defender or attacker. Operations are based on real world battles and give players a more immersive experience as losses or gains on one map affect the next one.
Combat in multiplayer feels a little different from Battlefield 3 and Battlefield 4 in that there are less automatic weapons and the vehicles are slower but Battlefield veterans may well find the pace of play familiar as it's similar to Battlefield 1942 and Battlefield 1943. Environment destruction has been tweaked to the level that it's sufficient to allow the battlefield to change dramatically over time but still provide cover for infantry and the dramatic "Levelution" of Battlefield 4 has been toned down so that it still changes the battlefield but in a far more subtle way. Melee combat is far more visceral now with a wide range of close combat weapons which work far more effectually that previous games and the bayonet charge allows players with a bayonet fixed to their main weapon to close quickly on enemies at the expense of defensive cover and stealth. Although the land vehicles are slower, they are tough and well armed making them worthy opponents and, at the expense of movement, tank drivers can repair their vehicle without getting out of them. The combat aircraft are great fun to fly and the cavalry horse allows you to race around the battlefield, cutting down enemies with your sword or picking them off from a distance with the cavalry carbine which is hugely satisfying.
So where does it go wrong? I have only four minor complaints about the game; firstly, after the War Stories campaign takes such pains to deal with the human element of the war, the multiplayer seems to completely ignore it, almost delighting in the carnage and meaning that they clash starkly. Secondly, although the game has very few bugs (Battlefield 4 was almost unplayable at launch due to the large number of issues) there are times when shots don't seem to connect or the damage your character takes seems unusually high. Thirdly, the loading times for matches seem extremely long and fourthly, there is no commander mode. Commander mode has allowed one player to direct the course of the battle from a map, telling squads of soldiers where to attack and sending in artillery barrages and it's a pity that it's missing as it was good fun and I was quite looking forward to playing a portly, moustached general directing the battle from a map covered in tiny flags from my chateau behind the lines.
Battlefield 1 is an unusual beast. It's a great combat game which gently reminds players about the war it portrays and the lives of the people who fought in it without preaching to them. Yes, the War Stories and the game's introduction takes great pains to make the link, even going so far as showing you the name of the character you've just got killed and the years they were born and died but it doesn't feel to heavy handed. The game looks beautiful and features a wide range of soldier models including ethnic groups which have been traditionally ignored in video games. The sound is very good and the music orchestral and expansive (and yes, the original Battlefield theme is back - something that Battlefield veterans have been mourning since Battlefield 1942). If you're looking for a game which involves a little more than just running around and shooting other players then Battlefield 1 will be a welcome addition to any game collection.