The umpteenth entry in the Battlefield series, but the first to be set in World War I, Battlefield 1 proves that the setting of a first-person war game ultimately means very little. Whether it’s 1942 or 2142, EA DICE never forgets that war is, first and foremost, a form of hell, and it’s the narrative focus of a story, rather than its physical location, that provides meaningful context.
Die-hard fans of the series can rest easy knowing that the developer’s formula not only survives the transition to the Great War, but flourishes there. The comparative lack of military technology hasn’t reduced the tactics available to players; it’s merely made them more desperately intimate. For example, whereas modern warfare allows for immediate, impersonal drone strikes, Battlefield 1’s artillery has to be signaled by carrier pigeon. After flying one of those innocent birds through a sky streaked with tracer fire in the game’s single-player campaign, players might even think twice before shooting down an opponent’s messenger in the War Pigeons multiplayer mode. Whereas tanks in a modern simulator seem all but unstoppable, their power in Battlefield 1 is balanced by their sluggish movement and unreliable engines.
Instead of following a squad of soldiers through a specific narrative, Battlefield 1 uses the single-player War Stories mode to focus on the precarious situations that arose out of such battlefield vulnerabilities, like the way a young engineer must put his life on the line in order to repair his squadron’s tank, which keeps getting mired in something as mundane as mud, or the way in which an air ace who has just taken out a munitions depot from the sky must now carry his co-pilot to safety through the dangerous no man’s land between fronts. At one point, players are given the opportunity to control an essentially bulletproof shocktrooper, but that’s only to provide a contrast for the subsequent level in which, post-avalanche, he must continue to advance through the mountainside trenches without any armor.
From the 1915 beach assault on Gallipoli to the 1918 guerilla war within Mesopotamia, these unconnected vignettes live up to Battlefield 1’s grim introduction: “The war is the world and the world is the war, but behind every gunsight is a human being.” A military shooter cannot help but trivialize actual combat (death is nothing more than a forced 10-second break before players respawn as a new character on the battlefield), but Battlefield 1 does its best to hauntingly remind players of each combatant.
The game’s prologue, like the opening of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, is relentlessly effective, demonstrating firsthand what it means by the narration “This is frontline combat. You are not expected to survive.” Stepping into the shoes of one of the black soldiers proudly serving in the U.S. 369th Infantry Regiment, also known as the “Harlem Hellfighters,” players futilely attempt to hold the line against a never-ending stream of German soldiers. Even the most skillful soldiers will be overrun, perhaps by one of the nastier elite, flamethrower-wielding armored troopers—at which point the screen goes black, listing that character’s name and dates of birth and death.
Because Battlefield 1 is still a game, that death isn’t a permanent one, and players immediately resume fighting, but as combatants progressively further back on the collapsing front, first as a member of the 369th manning a stationary turret, then as one in a tank, and so on, showcasing not just the hopeless horrors of war, but the variety of modes through which players will be able to engage it. The player has full control of each character, but not their fate, and so while they can run from the frontline and hide in the woods, gawk at the sight of a burning zeppelin streaking over the horizon like a meteor, or stand steadfast beside their allies against an indefatigable foe, that senselessness of war sticks out, even in a gamified setting.
Each War Story offers a completely different perspective on the war, from the wearisome recollections of a grizzled Australian commander desperate to keep his idealistic, hero-worshipping aide alive, no matter the sacrifice, to the woes of a mountaineering member of the Italian Arditi trying to reach his brother’s infantry unit. But with the exception of an American’s roguish narrative embellishments, they do carry an authenticity rarely expressed within war-themed games, especially in the choice to follow a female bedouin who, in the service of T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia), carries out stealthy guerrilla warfare against the Ottoman Empire.
By contrast, the multiplayer modes—which range from small-scale 12-on-12 Team Deathmatches to epic and multi-front Operations that involve up to 64 simultaneous players—make up for their lack of personality with awe-inspiring spectacle. Instead of seeing the name of their downed combatant, players instead zoom out to a deployment screen that well-illustrates the chaos of the battle, dozens of blips fading in and out of existence in the shadows of tide-turning behemoths (like the airship or armored train).
Here, character stories play second fiddle to reenactments of actual campaigns, such as the 1918 Kaiserschlacht, which, should the French fail to repel Germany’s advance through the open fields of Peronne, results in the last-ditch urban defense of Amiens. Teams must adapt to the various terrains, quickly swapping between the four central “classes” depending on whether they’re attempting to defend artillery along the Adriatic Coast or seizing objectives in the ruined towns found in the Sinai Desert.
If there’s any flaw to these hectic battles it’s that the elite roles—flying a plane, driving a tank, or charging sabre-first on horseback—are a first-come, first-serve affair, serving to make a lopsided battle even more hopeless. Then again, maybe that’s exactly the sort of war that Battlefield 1 wants to portray.