World War One is dangerous ground to tread upon in video games. Even ignoring the historical significance of the event--as difficult as that is to do--it's a tough ask. Tanks--a staple of Battlefield's triangle of armour, infantry and air--were invented midway through The Great War. A decade and a half before World War One, planes were still mostly theory, and yet this is a game where three people can sit in the same flying machine, firing guns and dropping bombs. The reality is Battlefield One takes liberties with history.
And they have to. It's difficult to determine who 'the bad guys' were in World War One. We know who 'our' enemies were, and we know who 'won', but 38 million people died in combat that took place across Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, and it can be difficult to create a narrative which pits those people against one another for entertainment.
And instead of trying to wrestle with that concept, instead of blanket assigning fault, Battlefield One treats the war and its combatants with respect. Its singleplayer campaign is told from the eyes of the victors, which naturally makes the countries and empires that 'lost' the antagonists. But even inside of that framework Battlefield One emphasises the historical significance of the event.
The singleplayer campaign deviates from the norm, providing a half dozen vignettes to tell multiple stories about World War One from multiple points of view. It opens in spectacular fashion, as mud and blood fly around through the trenches of an amalgam battleground. Each time you die, you switch perspective and become someone else. It's a brilliant technique which takes you across the entire battlefield (although as mentioned before, it keeps its perspective on the side of the victors). From there they tell stories about Italian rapscallions, cocky pilots, snooty well-to-do tank crewsmen and Lawrence of Arabia.
There is also a mission set in the Gallipoli campaign, starring two Australian runners. And playing through it, I started to feel something close to patriotism, to borrow a phrase from James O'Connor
I'm an Australian, and this site is called AusGamers, so let's take a deeper look at The Runner. DICE doesn't have the best track record at telling stories, right? They tend to create excuses for gameplay more than they do tell narratives. Without the guts to do anything as eye-opening as Infinity Ward's Modern Warfare 1 and 2, or the drive to step outside the boundaries the way Treyarch did, BF3 and BF4's campaigns felt like Call of Duty clones (exceptionally pretty ones, mind you). It's a lack of humour, generally. Battlefield 3 and 4, dealing with the serious topic of war, was so afraid of cracking a smile that you were forced to take the campaign at face value--and it was plainly obvious that they'd created a generic modern combat shooter.
The Runner mission in Battlefield One does well to avoid this issue. It has humour throughout it, from the casual coarse language of the protagonist (who might say 'Fuck' more than every other character in the game combined) to the crack about Kiwis, while still telling a story which resonates heavily with the Australian notion of our role in the Gallipoli campaign.
Clearly it takes a number of cues from the 1981 Weir film (it's called The Runner, after all) but even then it shifts the narrative in a way which I think is spectacularly appropriate. While there's no shortage of cursing the 'fuckin' poms', English High Command isn't specifically characterised as a rampaging group of incompetents. Instead, it paints a picture of a group of men who are forced to make bad decisions thanks to situations beyond their control, and it tells a story of the heroism generated from ordinary men doing extraordinary things to help their mates and get home alive.
And at the end, it tells it in a way which doesn't try to fuck with history. Spoiler:At the end of the mission, you, the Aussie digger in your slouch hat, on a suicide mission to give your mate a chance to live, die. Because at the end of the Gallipoli campaign, the Ottoman Empire won. Gallipoli wasn't a victory for the British Empire, and so it's not a victory for the protagonist, or you the player.
And yes, it's told from the perspective of an Australian, ignoring that many, many more French and British soldiers died on the Northern Beaches of the Dardanelles than Anzacs combined. But when the short piece ends, it illuminates why. It explains how critical Gallipoli was for a nation which was only actually 13 years old when World War One began. How essential it was to the creation of the country Turkey as well. More than 150,000 men died at Gallipoli, and Battlefield One doesn't try to handwave any of that away.
Millions died in World War One, and Battlefield One isn't trying to tell all of their stories. But through humour, surprisingly culturally appropriate storytelling and an adherence to the facts, Battlefield One does a great service to a war many know very little about. For the first time since Bad Company 2 I feel like DICE has made a campaign worth playing.
In a lot of ways, what they're doing is generating interest in World War One. And it's one of the most fascinating periods in human history, and worthy of a significant amount of reflection. As I mentioned, tanks did not exist before this war. Combat in the sky involved dropping explosives from hot air balloons. Chemical Warfare was deployed en masse
, demonstrating not just a gross contempt for human life but a mastery over chemistry which wasn't present prior to that fateful day in 1915.
DICE has turned the lens onto the birth of modern warfare as we know it, and they did it in a way which is soberly respectful. I don't think that means we'll see a wave of similar media--they're not heralding the dawn of a wave of World War One shooters--but they did justice to the setting in a way few games do. And that's not to ignore the efforts of titles like Valiant Hearts--just to acknowledge that DICE portrayed WWI well.
Battlefield One's multiplayer is a tale of two modes. Operations is the newest mode in the Battlefield series, and it feels like a brilliant move. Up to 64 players join forces to compete in an asymmetrical mode which is part Rush, part Conquest. Attackers need to capture flags staggered across the massive maps of BF1, and defenders need to stop them. When all flags in a zone are captured and held, the line is shifted and the attack continues in a new zone. If the attackers manage to gain control of an entire map, the game shifts to a new map--based inside the same theatre of war--and the conflict continues with the same sides. If the defenders manage to stop the attackers and bleed away their lives (or tickets), the attackers are forced to start over from the last point captured, except now they have one of Battlefield One's Behemoths--a Blimp, Armoured Train or Destroyer designed to swing the tide of battle--to back them up. If the Defenders stop the attackers three times, they win.
What's fantastic about Operations is that it delivers a real sense of momentum. Rush is usually three, maybe four objectives as you careen across a map--Operations take place over many zones in a single map, which means your new objective is never that much farther away. As a defender every zone feels like a last ditch attempt, and the odds definitely feel like they're on the attackers' side--especially when the behemoth shows up.
You also get an excuse to explore the entire map, which isn't something you often do in Battlefield. If you play conquest the way I do, you'll probably pick a few highly defensible flags and rotate between them as necessary to guarantee your side's victory. If there are 5 flags on a map and you and your squad are locking down three of them, the other two probably don't matter. Even in the Battlefield One Open Beta I found myself rotating between points B, C and D (flag B is flag E in the full game, for some reason), ignoring the others except when utterly necessary.
In Operations, however, you spend enough time in each slice of the map that you learn to love parts you might not have noticed previously. Conflict around the central point at C on Argonne Forest is hectic and exciting, and the team that holds it will typically win--meaning in Conquest mode it's the site of a lot of fighting. Thanks to the zones in Operations, you learn the many different paths available in that particular slice of the level, which allows you to do some very sneaky stuff as you push forward. The same goes at flag A, however, which you probably won't spend much time at on Conquest Argonne--and the depth of the map is better for it as well.
In Battlefield Bad Company 2, where maps hosted both Rush and Conquest modes, Conquest was better as a result of the level designers creating with both destruction and Rush in mind. Flags provided players with more options for ingress, creating more conflict and buoying what were otherwise frankly sub-par conquest maps.
In Battlefield One, maps appear to have been designed with both Conquest and Operations in mind from the beginning, and as a result Operations is a net positive--each slice of a map is capable of supporting an entire game on its own (which is necessary because defenders might hold out on a single zone for an entire set of attacker tickets).
Operations has a few issues, however. For example, when the attackers successfully capture a zone, the defenders remaining are highlighted on their HUDs and the attackers get a free shot at killing them which the defenders retreat. This isn't a problem--it's a solid way to retrieve tickets as an attacker, and it further adds to the momentum. But when the attackers run out of tickets, the game just ends. Every time, it just ends and the game declares victory or defeat. It's odd, because it creates a scenario where the attackers can tell when their defeat is imminent. If the defenders are contesting a flag in a zone while your tickets dwindle below 5, I'm afraid to tell you that you've lost the round. What would be better is if when the tickets dropped to zero, the attackers weren't able to spawn any longer. That's what tickets represent, right? Respawns for players. And yes it might be vaguely tedious for 30 seconds if you were forced to wait for your last few teammates to die out--but if they manage to secure the zone, your victory would be that much sweeter. DICE is so concerned with the individual experience that they shy away from those heroic moments Battlefield games used to be all about. I have extremely fond memories of sneaking into the Airfield on Wake Island and stealth capping it when my team had no options to spawn. But that won't happen in Battlefield One--on Conquest there are uncappable spawns, and in Operations the game straight up ends the moment you run out of tickets. It's just a weird inconsistency--even if the attackers were marked on the HUD (the way defenders are after a zone capture) it would still be better than an abrupt ending.
Another problem with Operations is the decision to force matchmaking only on the mode. There is a server browser in Battlefield One (thank god), but it only applies to Conquest and four other modes that don't belong in Battlefield games (actually War Pigeons can stay). Operations is stuck with matchmaking only, and it's clear that DICE just don't understand what a matchmaking system needs.
Star Wars Battlefront demonstrated that pretty well. You're forced to blindly matchmake into an Operation, unable to determine whether there are any games with slots free, whether anyone is actually playing that mode and/or that map at the time--you hit the button, and if you're like me trying to play since Early Enlister Access began, you're probably joining an empty server on your own. DICE just needs to look at how other games do MM. Show us an estimated wait time. Show us the total population of players in our region and what percentage is playing that map and mode. And then, when you've shown us all these things, throw all of that away and show us a god damn server browser featuring the mode and map we want to play because I don't care if I don't join a game at the start of a round, I just want to play.
I've already talked about Conquest quite a bit, primarily in reference to how Operations makes it better. The fact of the matter is, Battlefield One has some of the best Conquest maps in years. It stars one of my flat out favourite maps since Battlefield 1942. It has some stinkers as well--I'd prefer it if Suez didn't feature in any Conquest map rotation anywhere--but by and large it's a fantastic mode full of perpetual conflict.
If you don't know what Conquest is, think Domination writ large. If you don't know what Domination is, think multiple King of the Hill objectives over a massive scale map. If you don't know what King of the Hill is, welcome to the year 2016, just-now-thawed caveman. In Conquest you and your teammates compete to capture as many as seven flag areas. In Battlefield One's version of Conquest, you gain a point roughly every second for each flag area you hold--and you gain a point for each kill your team gets. Kills only count if the player isn't revived, which means medics are important and if a medic is nearby you should let them get you back up, but apart from that it's a race to 1000.
It's not really how I'd like Conquest to work, to be honest--it's a reversal of the traditional Ticket system (which counted down, ala
Attackers in Operations)--but it's started to grow on me. When both teams reach around 950 points, the tension begins to grow and I've been noticing even in public servers players will delay respawning as long as they can to give medics a chance to deny the point. Losing two squads in a last ditch attempt to capture a point can straight up cost you the game--but capping the flag and killing two squads of theirs can be similarly momentous.
Making kills count towards the score mean it's just a reversal of direction for the concept--which makes the change basically meaningless, in my opinion. It doesn't further encourage teamwork the way restricting the score to objectives only did, but it's also an essentially hollow change which makes Conquest work identical to the way it always has--so I'm OK with it.
The biggest changes to teamwork are on an individual level anyway. Even simplistic teamwork will see you and your squad mates head to the top of the scoreboard, which means that once everyone has worked this out the coordination will be brilliant. I've played Medic a lot, because I'm all about getting my teammates back on their feet, but like no Battlefield before I feel I could pick almost any class and I'd be just as useful to my team. Multiple times I've seethed at running out of ammo, so at my next respawn I become a Support and I can keep everyone resupplied. Tanks are a nightmare to deal with, but if I switch to an Assault class kit and get some help from teammates, they'll go down like the cheesy sacks of shit they are. Also there is the Scout kit, for when you main Widowmaker but your parents banned you from Overwatch.
And while Suez is a bad map for Conquest--it's too flat, too open, too prone to sniper horseshit--there are some stunning layouts in Battlefield One. My favourite is Amiens, a brilliant urban scene full of tight corners and windows to shoot from (and at). It's heavily reminiscent of Berlin, one of my favourite maps of all time, except it has destructibility and dynamic weather. Fog lying thick in Amiens makes for some extremely spooky firefights.
Other maps like Fao Fortress, St Quentin's Scar and Empire's Edge are other highlights--brilliant design creating a degree of symmetry out of decidedly asymmetrical layouts. That's the beauty of Conquest as a mode, because the area of conflict--the flag capture area--creates balance even if the map itself isn't perfectly balanced.
If there is anything else which needs pointing out, it's the way collisions work in Frostbite games. They're not good. Ever since Battlefield 3 DICE's games have struggled to handle collisions, and it's probably at its worst in Battlefield One. Planes collide nose-first with the ground but keep flying sometimes, but sometimes a bike will explode after the slightest contact with a friendly tank. This is coming from a series which, in Battlefield 2, boasted the ability to allow surface to air missiles to fly through the open doors of a helicopter. It doesn't stop there, either. The melee system is worse than ever--too many times I have slipped past my target when bayonet charging, or I have found myself in a situation where I should have executed an enemy and stolen their dogtags only to stab the air pointlessly.
It's odd that collisions are so iffy, because Battlefield One is otherwise the best looking game out right now. It looks better than every other shooter on the market, while supporting 64 simultaneous players, but it looks extremely silly when a plane bounces off the ground and then rolls around empty (because its savvy pilot bailed out). It should be priority number one at DICE, but seeing how it has continued to be an issue since the very beginning of their use of Frostbite as an engine, and seeing how it is getting worse as time passes it might be too deep a problem with the engine to fix. Which is a shame.
The things I've complained about with Battlefield One--collision detection, Suez as a map, people who play Scout, matchmaking--these are all ignorable issues. And the fact of the matter is that DICE has created one of the flat-out best multiplayer games in years. And with 60hz servers from the get-go and no noticeable issues with hit detection, it has clearly learned from Battlefield 4's launch. The campaign is worth checking out, Operations delivers clear forward thinking for Battlefield as a series in a way I think Rush never really did, and the maps are absolutely spectacular. Battlefield One is utterly brilliant.
EA provided flights and accommodation to a review event in LA. After extensive playtime on the live servers, we have decided the score will remain 9.4/10.