Whenever your character dies in Battlefield 1, you see a memorial message with the character’s full name, birth year, and the year of death. It is a solemn reminder that real soldiers can’t be reborn and save the world like they do in so many video games. In the prologue, those soldiers don’t come back. And that creates a touching remembrance for the “lost generation” of World War I. Millions of fans will experience this kind of feeling when they play this first-person shooter from DICE and Electronic Arts when it debuts on October 21.
EA took a lot of risks going backward in time, when the trend for shooter games was to shift from modern war to science fiction, as Activision has done with Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare. EA took the risk of taking Battlefield in the direction of Grand Theft Auto with Battlefield Hardline, but Battlefield 1 has worked out far better, as DICE has produced a game that is worthy of the memory of The Great War, which claimed 17 million lives. It is less about being historically accurate, and more about re-creating the visceral feeling of being in the war.
In some ways, EA is forging a new subgenre within the larger shooter umbrella. And so it has to get this kind of game right, particularly for all of the constituencies including hardcore shooter fans and history buffs. I’m both of those, and I played through the campaign in the past couple of days and got my feet wet in multiplayer combat. I got a good sense of how DICE walked a tightrope when creating the title, which was in research for two years before it was greenlit.
“As always, it is a Battlefield game first,” said Aleksander Grøndal, senior producer at DICE in Sweden, in an interview with GamesBeat. “We make it as authentic as we can, but we make choices for the sake of fun when we have to. It’s not a documentary, but we found many interesting stories to tell.”
Rather than a continuous single-player campaign that focuses on one soldier, Battlefield 1 has five main “War Stories,” which cover a wide range of the experiences in World War I. They include the tank battle at Cambrai in France, the mountain warfare in the Italian Alps, the disastrous Gallipoli campaign in Turkey, the war in the air, and the desert battles of Lawrence of Arabia. You never get attached to any single soldier, but each War Story tries to tell a deep, personal story that makes you feel like you are in the middle of the horror of the world at war.
Editor’s note: This story has some spoilers, but we’ve tried to minimize them. Avoid the videos if you want to further minimize the spoilers. Check out our Reviews Vault for past game reviews.
What you’ll like
The combat is as intense as any modern war game
This game is about fighting. You move into the action immediately in the prologue, and you learn to keep your head down as the machine gun bullets zip past your head. You become shell shocked as the artillery shells crash all around you. You become dazed and move in slow motion when you are hit by a bullet. When you get into a duel with another tank, you have to make sure you blast that tank before it fires the last shell that penetrates your armor with a reverberating clang. In a dogfight above the battlefield, you have to go through all sorts of contortions in the air to stay on an enemy’s tail.
Battlefield 1 is an intense combat experience that will leave you breathless after you finish a battle. It has gruesome hand-to-hand fighting and stealth battles. If you miss a shot at the enemy in front of you, that may be the last mistake you make. As you charge into heavy fire to carry a message, you’ll feel like the messengers in the film Gallipoli trying to outrun bullets.
I enjoyed each one of the War Stories in the single-player experience. In Italy, my hands got numb firing a machine gun while enemies were bouncing their bullets off my armor. In Cambrai, I used the buildings to hide behind as I tried to ambush tanks moving down the streets. In the air battle, I fired rockets at the anti-aircraft guns trying to take out my bombers. In Arabia, I had to stay hidden inside a home as a squad of soldiers searched for me. And in Gallipoli, I rode a horse at high speed and trampled over the Turk defenders trying to bring me down. Each one of these combat experiences left me feeling jittery.
The focus on alternative stories yields surprises
Battlefield 1 is fictional, but it is based on real events. The U.S. really did field a regiment of African American soldiers. The 369th Infantry Regiment was known as the Harlem Hellfighters, an all-black unit that served alongside French soldiers. They were Americans, but they wore French uniforms and were treated no different from white soldiers, in contrast to discriminatory treatment in America. They fought bravely in several major battles, but they were largely unknown through much of history. They were forgotten because they weren’t part of the mainstream Western Front experience.
The War Story about Lawrence of Arabia, called Nothing Is Written, features a guerrilla warrior who is a woman. While Bedouin fighter Zara is a fictional character, she is based on real women who served in the Arab revolt against the Ottomans. And she’s a badass with a knife. At the close of the story, the game notes that Lawrence and the days of colonialism remain controversial.
“We wanted to challenge preconceptions and bring a greater diversity of story,” Grøndal said. “We wanted to explore more than the globe-trotting super soldier. The war was so much more than the Western Front. We knew quite early we wanted to tell personal stories, not about saving the world but how ordinary people behaved in extraordinary situations.”
I consider myself a history fan, but Battlefield 1 features a few stories about the war that I learned for the first time. The Germans really did try to bomb London in World War I, not just World War II. Giant armored trains did make several appearances during the war. The Italian Arditi did go into battle with armor in a place that looks very much like the Alps in the game. And the Germans fielded a number of captured British tanks, which kept on breaking down. After digging out these facts, the developers created gameplay situations around them that were fun for gamers. They took some creative liberties, particularly when the soldiers go off on their own, but each story had a kernel of truth.
The War Stories are personalized and moving
You never see strategy maps, generals, or politicians in Battlefield 1. You only experience the individual stories of soldiers. Battlefield 1 is not about the glorification of war or the joy of combat. It is a serious video game that is respectful of the soldier’s sacrifice. It can show victory against all odds, but also defeat and tragedy within the same story. When you are playing the hero of a particular War Story, you have no guarantee you will survive.
That is an ethic that has been consistent throughout the history of Battlefield, and it serves EA well in this game too. And when you lose a soldier, you feel the loss. Through that loss, you begin to feel like what that loss was like in the millions and why those who died and those who survived were all called The Lost Generation. It’s the same kind of storytelling that worked so well in Ken Burns’ documentary, The Great War.
The War Stories are meant to show just how varied the experience of the war was. You get to see what it’s like to fly a biplane in a sky full of enemies or get trapped behind enemy lines after being shot down. You can search through an Arab town for a commander to assassinate or walk through the fog into the trenches of the enemy. And you have to face down an armored soldier with a flamethrower, sometimes with nothing more than a pistol. These moments in the gameplay are memorable, as are the endings of each story of an individual soldier. You feel the fear, and you seize the opportunity to do something brave.
DICE captures the horrors of the war
The violence of Battlefield 1 is disturbing because you see so much of it. It is not on the scale of the bloody scenes in Saving Private Ryan, but you can see the huge price that soldiers paid when they were sent into losing situations. A veteran Australian soldier tells a young one to look back at the beachfront, where bodies are stuck on the wire and float in the ocean. In another scene, an Italian soldier searches through a battlefield of the dead to find his twin brother. When you crawl through No Man’s Land (the disputed ground between the front lines or trenches of two opposing armies), you see that the war isn’t at all what you thought it was when you were flying a plane above the battle. Rats move around in the dark, feeding on unseen flesh. DICE does its best to show us the horrors of the war by showing a single horror that befell a single individual. That has a lot of impact.
Destructible environments and dynamic weather make each experience unique
When you drive your British Mark V tank into the stony ruins of Cambrai, you can knock down walls or blast a two-story building to make it collapse on an artillery gun. If there’s no path past an obstacle, you can blast a hole in a stone wall and drive right through it.
The rain and fog and mud also change the way you play the same map. Fighting at night on foot in a village near Cambrai is scary, but in the daytime, when you are inside a big battle tank, you can wreak havoc in the town without fear of being challenged. When you look at the waves of the waters of the Dardanelles and see the smoke rising above the battleships, you feel like you are in the narrow straits.
The battlefields are also wide enough to allow you alternative paths. You don’t have to charge head on into a machine gun nest. You can move along a side path and come upon its flank. Battlefield 1 shows once again that the destructible environments and weather simulation of the Frostbite engine can deliver realism on a scale that is truly impressive.
When history clashes with fun, fun wins
This is as it should be. But it’s nice when history — and all the educational value it brings — lines up with the gameplay. Once in a while, it doesn’t. The soldiers with flamethrowers are particularly hard to kill in the game, as you have to get behind them and shoot their gas tanks. If you get close and take careful aim, their flames have a very long reach. So it was disconcerting to see multiple flamethrowers acting as guards in the Lawrence of Arabia War Story. I tried to stab one of them, and the knife wouldn’t penetrate the armor. So I had to run and figure out how to take them out with grenades or ambushes. But clearly, no commander would ever assign such high value assets to be on guard duty. Yet it makes for an added challenge and more fun in the game.
Yes, it’s a bit crazy to have battles on top of zepellins. But if it’s fun and makes you feel like you’re in danger, then what the hell.
Multiplayer adds new experiences
The multiplayer maps aren’t just retreads of the single-player campaign. Rather, they add new environments like the Battle of Mont Saint-Quentin, a setting in France which isn’t in the War Stories. You get a chance to fly planes or drive in tanks, snipe at soldiers or carry a flamethrower. That variety of experience helps you build an appreciation for the variety of the war, where they went into it riding horses and came out of it driving tanks.
I’ve fought in 64-person battles where the object is to conquer as many victory spots as possible. It’s not easy to stay alive when you’re fighting human opponents. With older weapons that use iron sights, the multiplayer combat moves at a slower pace. It also means there’s more hand-to-hand and short-range fighting. That means that it is easier to survive a bit longer, and if you stay with a squad, you can spawn where the squad is. You can also contribute to the cause by spotting enemy soldiers and vehicles, so that everyone can be aware of them and attack them.
The Codex captures more history
You don’t have to read the Codex entries that you unlock during the process of playing the game. But if you do, you’ll learn more of the back story behind the game. If that inspires a young player to read a book about World War I or watch a documentary, then EA has made a contribution to the cause of history, and it helps fulfill the plea of the soldiers, “Remember us.”
What you won’t like
The campaign is too short
Brevity is always good, but some of the mini-campaigns are too short. The African Americans in the 369th Infantry Regiment could be an interesting story, but they only make an appearance in the prologue of the game, which teaches you how to play. I would have appreciated a full War Story on them, but you never see them again after one battle. That’s a little sad, in part because EA chose to put an African American on the cover of the game. It’s not quite false advertising, but it’s pretty close.
I finished the whole game in a couple of days of playing, with maybe eight hours to cover the full set of War Stories. That was very short, coming off of the 35-hour single-story campaign of Mafia III. Sure, you get a lot more content with the nine multiplayer maps, but that kind of combat doesn’t give you the same sense of purpose that the War Stories do.
Each tale needs a longer story
Too often, the stories of the soldiers leave us hanging. They’re vignettes or snapshots, falling short of a full story that shows a character arc. Clyde Blackburn, an American who fakes his way into a British biplane, starts out unlikable and cocky. After a few air battles, he is more of a veteran, but he still seems pretty cocky and unlikable at the end. On average, the game noted, the lifespan of a pilot was just 17 days.
With such short stories that last for maybe three or four battles, you have little room for character development. It would have been a massive game if each War Story had eight battles, but the payoff would have come in greater emotional impact. Each story was well written, but each should also have had multiple acts in an entertaining narrative.
The fiction can be outlandish
During each of the war stories, I could always tell when the history lesson ended and the fictionalized fun began. When you find yourself crash landing your airplane on top of a German zeppelin and running along the top of it, you know you are in a video game. When a single British tank penetrates the German lines and goes on for miles without being detected, you know you are in a video game. When you are trying to take out a big armored train with field cannon, and you have to move from one cannon to the next before the train rains down a bombardment on it, you know you are in a video game. When you are wearing body armor and everybody is trying to shoot you and the bullets just bounce off, you know you are in a video game. When a single Australian soldier takes a fortress from an army of Turks, you know you are in a video game. The good thing for EA is that these moments when the fiction got outlandish were pretty fun. But I didn’t really need these over-the-top moments to enjoy Battlefield 1.
Trench warfare is missing some important details
In World War I, millions of soldiers fell to artillery barrages and ill-advised front assaults on trenches across the horrors of No Man’s Land. We never see the thunder of artillery that preceded tragic affairs like the Battle of the Somme, Verdun, Passchendaele, or Ypres. You don’t hear a roar preceding a charge into No Man’s Land. We don’t see soldiers cut down by machine gun fire or get stuck on the wire. We don’t see chemical warfare claiming the lives of those stuck in its green mist. And we don’t see the bodies piled up in the mud. DICE had the opportunity to show the madness of the War to End All Wars to a new generation of youths. And that feels like a missed opportunity. In its quest to show us something new about the war, EA sort of forgot to convey the mainstream horror of World War I. Perhaps that is best, but it feels like we could have learned another good lesson here.
Overall, I thought the whole game was very well done, balancing history, fun, and personalized stories set within epic battles. The game challenged my own preconceptions about World War I and taught me a few new things. I developed an appreciation for the diversity of the battles and the technological change from the beginning of the war to its end. Overall, I thought it did a wonderful job delivering something fresh. And that’s very hard to do in the shooter genre. The single-player game should be longer, but that’s not such a bad complaint. The developers made something that I couldn’t get enough of, and that’s a good thing.
Battlefield 1 debuts on October 21 on the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Microsoft Windows. The publisher supplied GamesBeat with a copy of the game on the Xbox One for the purpose of this review.