Battlefield 1 may be the best game I hate. It’s a well-crafted, beautiful, and surprisingly respectful first-person shooter with all of the usual Battlefield trappings, in an era of war that’s largely untouched by gaming, and it makes me so angry I fail at words. And most of that incoherent, gibbering, wordless rage isn’t DICE’s fault.
As this is one of the games I didn’t actually write a full tech review for, I should probably say that – much to my surprise – Battlefield 1 runs like a dream. A silky dream, slathered in lubricant, gliding between frames with no friction at all. This does not appear to be the average experience (I’ve seen a number of AMD users, in particular, having issues) but I can only speak to my own, on my i7-3820 / 16GB RAM / GeForce GTX 970. And my own is that it runs at a constant 60 FPS on Ultra settings. For what it’s worth, that’s a lot better than I expected.
It’s technically apt in plenty of other ways, too. There’s an actual server browser (although I haven’t found a way of setting up a server of my own yet; it seems to just be DICE servers, and custom games appear to be “coming soon”). The netcode appears to be excellent. All in all, I don’t have much in the way of technical complaints – which actually surprises me somewhat, after the hilarious clusterfuck that was the Battlefield 4 launch.
Battlefield 1 is far from bug-free, mind you, but we’ll get to that.
I don’t think anyone’s buying Battlefield 1 because of the campaign, but it actually deserves a bit of attention. Rather than taking the traditional route (in which you’re part of a SECRET INTERNATIONAL TASK FORCE who has to STOP THE KAISER’S SUPERWEAPON) it’s divided up into five “War Stories”, each of which focuses on individual characters across different fronts of the war.
Well, okay: there are actually six War Stories, but as the first is pretty much a tutorial level that’s more cinematic than anything, I don’t count that.
These War Stories work surprisingly well. You take part in the ill-fated naval assault on Gallipoli, for instance, but rather than being the commander in charge, or someone doing a critical mission that ensures the success (relatively speaking) of the events, you’re a veteran soldier charged with looking after a fresh recruit. The battle is going on around you, while you’re dealing with a smaller vignette within that battle.
This is true of most of the others. Most of them are predictable, yes; many of them are cheesy and a little schmaltzy. I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say that the gruff old soldier in Gallipoli takes the kid under his wing and starts to act as a mentor figure over the course of the three levels that make up that story, and you can almost certainly guess how it ends.
But then, after that, it also gives a bit of text about the real-life human cost of the battle, and that’s kind of sobering. It’s also kind of contradictory to have a game telling me about how war is hell and how thousands lost their lives, while simultaneously trying to make me enjoy a digital recreation of that exact war, but it’s not one that bothers me too much. This is an entertainment product first and foremost, and I actually appreciate the effort to follow up the fun with a bit of context.
The War Stories themselves are a mixed bag. Initially, I thought they’d each act as a tutorial for the various aspects of the game – Gallipoli would give the player some experience with naval combat, and there’d be one for planes, and one for tanks, and so on – but that’s not quite the case. They are varied in this sense, but even the War Story based around a tank crew has you get out of the tank and guide it through a forest on foot, dealing with outposts stuffed full of tank-wrecking field guns before it arrives. A bit more stealth than I’d like, but thankfully, getting spotted is never a hard failure condition.
The War Stories aren’t a good enough reason to pick up Battlefield 1, but they’re an entertaining diversion and a nice little addition. As ever, though, the meat is in the multiplayer, and gods help me the multiplayer infuriates me.
It mostly infuriates me in a good way. In a lot of ways, I actually prefer it to the modern-day Battlefield games; there’s something nice about having old semi-automatic rifles and hilariously inaccurate machine guns. I like the environments, a lot. I like World War I as a setting.
I don’t like that 50% of the time I’m not having a great deal of fun as a solo player because of how staggeringly reliant it is on teamplay, both within your squad and – in the larger game-modes – your entire 32-man team. You’d think this would impact the score more than it’s going to, but the truth is that then Battlefield 1 actually works and you wind up with a team that is not made up of whiny children, all of whom decide to play sniper, it’s so much bloody fun I forget about the many rubbish games I’ve had.
Multiplayer is split between six different modes, so chances are there’s something that’ll tickle your fancy. There’s Team Deathmatch (bleh), Rush (one team defends, the other has limited respawns and tries to plant bombs on control points), Domination (small-scale, infantry-only capture-and-hold), and War Pigeons (capture the pigeons, use them to unleash artillery). These four are pretty much the “side” modes. Yes, even War Pigeons. Yes, even though it’s pretty much a digital war version of Catch the Pigeon, complete with the occasional soldier who looks like Dick Dastardly.
The big new mode in this is Operations, though I’m mildly disappointed by this, as it doesn’t feel particularly big. In some respects it’s like a large-scale version of Rush, with one team desperately trying to defend control points (and then falling back to another two or three controls points on failure) while the other team attempts to push forward. It’s very fitting for World War I, and considering the meat-into-the-grinder mentality of it, it’s also probably fairly accurate. But it still feels a bit like a cross between Rush and a control point mode, albeit on a much bigger scale, and taking place across multiple maps.
So no, Conquest is still the go-to mode for me. This is as you remember it: huge maps (and they really do feel huge in Battlefield 1) with 64 players battling it out in an attempt to control the numerous points split across the sweeping terrain.
Environments range from French forests through the Italian countryside all the way to battles during the Arab Revolt, so there’s a good mish-mash of environments on offer, each of which have their own quirks. The Argonne Forest is infantry only and has very limited sight-lines, while the desert allows for giant rumbling machines of war, and the dunes don’t offer a great deal of cover from distant snipers.
As is obligatory, there is also an unlock system, which is the first area that makes me go “Hmm” in a vaguely unsatisfied tone. Whenever you level up, you earn the amazing digital currency of war bonds, which can be used to unlock new weapons and gadgets. Some of these things are also locked by your level in that respective class, however: while you might be able to purchase Basic Gun, you’ll probably need to level that class up once (a process that takes a fair while longer) to purchase Basic Gun With Scope. It’s not a huge issue as Basic Gun is usually fine, but if you really want a particular variant of that gun, it’s a bit of a pain that you need to wait awhile longer before it’s made available.
This also fits in quite horribly with one other new aspect of Battlefield 1. Rather than vehicles spawning in your base and you hop into them, you actually have to decide to spawn as a vehicle driver or pilot, with their own particular class… and yes, of course you have to unlock stuff for those classes too. Including, say, the tank that has a flamethrower on it. Spend all of your war bonds on that stuff, but your team keeps taking all of the plane slots and then crashing them into the sea before you can spawn as a mega bomber? Bad luck. You’ll either have to play another class and hope that when you die there’s a space for a vehicle, or piss off your teammates by refusing to spawn until there’s a vehicle free.
I don’t actually mind the new vehicle system too much (although, yes, having X slots free for planes and then seeing nobody spawn one of them as a bomber is really annoying when you need a bomber but they want to dogfight) but, uh, yeah. It has its issues.
Classes themselves have been reworked a bit to more concretely fit particular roles. Assault is all about close-range combat and being the one infantry class that can do more than tickle enemy vehicles, thanks to anti-tank grenades and an anti-tank rifle. Medics heal people, revive people, and do their best work at mid-range thanks to accurate semi-automatic and full-automatic rifles. Support keep you stocked with ammunition while laying down suppressive fire with LMGs, but if you fancy covering them instead, they can also plonk down a mortar to wreck entrenched enemies. Finally, Scouts are snipers, and you will occasionally get a game where literally half of your team picks this class and doesn’t bother going for objectives.
I’d also like to add a paragraph specifically aimed at gas grenades, which are simultaneously the best and worst additions to a Battlefield game in a long time. They clog up the battlefield with lethal fart clouds that don’t just hurt but horribly obscure your vision. You can just tap a button to put on your gas mask, completely making their damage irrelevant… but this prevents you from using the iron sights on your gun. They’re not the most immediately dangerous of grenades, but their destructive potential is obvious when you either throw them into enemy trenches (so you can still aim, but they can’t) or into a defended building, evening the odds considerably when you rush in guns blazing. Particularly if they have scouts and medics who really need those iron sights.
By and large, vehicles feel a lot more powerful than they ever did in previous Battlefield games: the environment is wonderfully destructive, and the poor bloody infantry don’t have many ways to defend themselves against these rumbling behemoths. On the other hand, vehicles certainly aren’t invincible, and an inept player grabbing a tank and wobbling off on their own just to get it destroyed is a really good way to waste one of the most powerful – and rare – tools that you have.
I suppose this is part of why Battlefield 1 pisses me off so much: it seems much, much easier for crap or trolling players to screw you over than it ever did in previous games. Vehicles are incredible, but people using them poorly can leave you at a huge disadvantage. Gas grenades dropped at the wrong time can fuck up a defense. This is always true of Battlefield games (15 snipers is not a new thing) but it seems much stronger here than before. That might just be me, but it feels more like a direct result of the changes to the game that force your team of 32 players to act more coherently.
Note that by and large these changes aren’t inherently negative, and they’re probably really good if you have a large group of friends to play with, or even a couple with whom you can form a squad. But as a solo player, you’re a lot more limited in what you can do, and while you have squad objectives (if you squad leader remembers they exist) the lack of a Commander means that some sort of unified vision for the battle is really rare unless you get lucky. Theoretically you could also use text or voice chat for this, but chances are you’re going to mute one or both of those immediately because this is a popular FPS franchise and so chat is basically toxic.
And all of this stuff frustrates me. So, too, does the bug that medic revives occasionally lock out your weapons unless you swap. And the damage indicator occasionally pointing in the wrong direction. And the times when the game spawns you directly in front of an enemy. And people immediately skipping out of the death screen as soon as they die, preventing you from reviving them, regardless of the fact that you’re a medic and you’re literally right behind them. And the occasional visual bugs in vehicles. And the way the context-sensitive “throw medkit/ammo to person” key is really terrible at working out context, and often doesn’t work. And the way the Spot function, marking enemies for your allies, feels incredibly useless. And… uh, yeah, most of this stuff should probably be addressed in some way.
But then you get into a game where your team somehow manages to come together, and all of these elements that are slightly annoying don’t matter at all because they work as intended, and it’s just fucking glorious. It’s even better if the enemy team somehow has the same thing, and it’s two evenly-matched forces battling it out for hard-fought supremacy, using every one of Battlefield 1‘s mechanics.
Like I said: Battlefield 1 might just be the best game I hate. It makes me angry and it makes me feel disappointed and it makes me throw up my hands in frustration… and then I leave, start playing again two hours later, and rediscover why this franchise was good enough to become a franchise.