26 November, 2016

Review – Battlefield 1

For all its twisting and cheery-picking of the First World War, Battlefield 1 got one thing right; love can bloom on a battlefield, though not in the way Hideo Kojima envisaged. We explore Battlefield’s take on the so called War to End All Wars.

Review – Battlefield 1 banner

Battlefield 1

On other wars, at other times, we’ve learnt to accept videogames without question. There’s wars videogame will have little to no interest in; if America didn’t partake, don’t expect big budget studios to explore it any time soon. There are exceptions; Vietnam will likely remain largely off-limits for a long while to come. We accept that videogames can handle World War II for instance, knowing that they will plot a course well wide of any German or non-Allied perspectives, as well as the atrocities and war crimes committed by both side. For such subjects aren’t videogame sexy, they can’t be rectified by a gunshot, the only response the player may make. Wolfenstein: The New Order would protest this in part, but it too required the safety net of sci-fi before such horrors could be broached.
And so the conversation surrounding Battlefield 1 was mired by doubt – the collective hate of Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare couldn’t quite mask it. How will developer Dice portray the grind of trench warfare, how will they make it fun? How will they make the relatively primitive guns fun to shoot? And how will they keep it respectful?

They made it fun in the way any game does any war, by avoiding the proverbial landmines, by populating the game with reliably functioning tanks and automatic guns, by avoiding trench warfare almost entirely. Though respectful isn’t the term I would use, Battlefield 1 makes the bold decision of show the war through human eyes, though only ones peering from beneath Entente flags.

Review – Battlefield 1 tank

There is one exception, a beautiful moment, one truth ignored by so many representations of war, regardless of form or subject. But it was just that, a moment, an acknowledgement, promptly forgotten.  The tutorial sees the player killed many times, it’s how one progresses; each time the player jumps inside another body; at one point I knelt totally exposed on a flat of mud and managed to pick off a few German soldiers before succumbing to a billowing gout of flame – Battlefield 1’s flamethrowers are suitable dreadful. The tutorial sequence ends with an artillery barrage, slaughtering both sides. Two soldiers survive, one German and one African America, they rise from the meadow of corpses and bring their guns to bear on one another. Then they see it, the humanity, their perfect equality, their equal right to live. In that moment there are no sides, no nations, no duty, only two young men neither ready to neither kill nor be killed.

It is beautiful, truly, an instant of naked compassion, a glimpse at an all too often forgotten truth of war. In that sequence, more so than any of the campaign’s war stories, Battlefield 1 reminds the player that all are people, it breaks the ‘us’ and ‘them’,  that all lives are equally deserved and worth living. It’s more than commendable, its outstanding, a beautiful message delivered simply and succinctly.

And then the moment is over, for past that point, at least so far as the single player is concerned, the Germans, the Austro-Hungarians, the Ottomans, they’re all the bad guys, objects of evil, fit for slaughter and nought more. 

Review – Battlefield 1 flametrooper

The single player campaign is a series of mini  campaigns, war stories, each following a different soldier; an Italian Arditi storm trooper, an Australian message runner, and so forth. This format allows distinctly human stories to be told, different concepts and fronts to be explored, without being forced into a larger narrative. A variety of narrative and framing techniques are used throughout the campaigns; in one, the player character has grown older, he recounts a battle to his daughter, playing down the odds you the player face, and hiding the horror of the slaughter. Not surprisingly, the stories that engage in such techniques, were the ones I found most interesting; driving a tank is cool, but I aside from liking cars I can’t tell you a thing about tank driver Edwards, or the rest of his crew.
Despite the wild changes in setting, mechanics, and objectives, all the war stories peddle the same wholesale slaughter of ineffectual AI, all of whom fight for the Central Powers. This undermines the narrative’s efforts, whoever the player maybe, they are always a veritable god of war, killing droves. Nor does it make for interesting gameplay; even with stealth mechanics thrown in to change the pace, the combat of the campaign remains numbingly mediocre.

Review – Battlefield 1 trench

But of course, war is the domain of armies, friends fighting shoulder to shoulder with strangers, and in such wars as this one, they may herald from any country, speak any language. In this way I suppose the multiplayer captures some part of the first world war, there’s also a lot of death, and the frequent eruption of horrifying violence, whether seen up close, down in the mud, or from the pitted sponsor of a Mark I.

Building upon the strengths of the recent Frostbite shooters, most evidently the design of Star Wars: Battlefront (2015), Battlefield 1’s movement and shooting is fluid, appropriately weighty, but not sluggish. Likewise, the user interface, both the in-combat display and load out customisation screens are eminently useable. Previous Battlefield titles have, on console, struggled in both regards – I played the PlayStation 4. With its relative mastery of these essentials, Battlefield 1 has become more than a big, manic multiplayer experience, indeed a great multiplayer shooter, easily the peer of Call of Duty and Halo.

Operations are the headline mode, a scaled up version of the classic rolling objective gamemode Rush, which is still present and excellent. Operations are groups of maps, framed with narration, portraying real operations from the war. The teams remain static throughout an operation; should the attacking side capture all the objective and win, both teams move on to the next map. If the defenders continue to hold the map, the attackers will try again, with a little extra fire support.

Review – Battlefield 1 arditi

In typical Battlefield fashion, tanks are all too powerful, until you take the helm. So too does the aerial combat awe, but only from a distance. Less typical are the horses, whose riders are as likely to pull off a devastating hit and run on an unsuspecting squad, as they are to fall into the murderous confines of a trench. Just like the single player, multiplayer is filled with enough rare armaments and equipment to make veteran historians turn in their graves.

Review – Battlefield 1 4/5 goodThe ambition and direction of Battlefield 1’s single player must be commended, even if it too pitted ‘us good guys’ against, ‘them’, the faceless horde, and all too often fell back on the combat scenario of one soldier turning back the tide alone. I’d wager that not even the most skilled player could offset a poor team in multiplayer however, so vast are the distances fought across and through. Battlefield 1’s multiplayer boasts a quiet sharpness, a fitness of mechanics, a flow of movement and action that the series has always lacked. Feet dry, machine gun mounted, Battlefield 1 holds the high ground with confidence, in face of the on rush of shooters, so numerous this year.

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