Back to Basics

I was skeptical about Battlefield 1.  Between Battlefield 4, Battlefield Hardline, and Battlefront, DICE and the Battlefield franchise were in rough shape.  DICE’s talk about going back to the roots of the series and starting over seemed like nothing more than the PR department’s justification of a silly name, and an attempt to distance the game from recent entries.  The alpha and beta were both barely playable, due to technical issues, and made some strange decisions about some of the franchise’s traditional mechanics.  Honestly, I really just wanted Battlefield 2143.  In the end however, Battlefield 1 was the game I never knew I wanted..

The Battlefield 1 campaign may be the best military shooter campaign in years.  The campaign is realistic, dark, and charged with emotion.  Instead of playing as a plucky young squad of quirky bucks tearing their way through enemy territory to single handedly topple an enemy invasion force or global terrorist network, the campaign is divided among several different protagonists in different theaters of war and self-contained narratives called War Stories.  This creates a narrative experience that’s less Michael Bay and more Steven Spielberg, as you see men and women fight and die to do their small part in the war effort.  Each of the different War Stories ecompasses several smaller missions as part of their narrative, and the focus of the gameplay changes between War Stories and missions.  The campaign is easy and a bit dull even on the hardest setting, and suffers from numerous bugs that make it impossible to progress without restarting objects or missions.  The storyline more than makes up for it, featuring truly cinematic storytelling without relying on cheap gimmicks.

The game is gorgeous.  It blends a photorealistic style with a bit of brightness and color.  It’s a new way to see World War 1.  While the urban environments have the traditional dark, dreary, grey scale we’ve seen in historical shooters, the rural environments are bright and colorful.  Weather changes the look and play style of the game.  A battle might become embroiled in thick fog, making it harder for snipers or bombers to find targets.  Rain can make it more difficult to see moving targets.

Battlefield 1 adds new details.  Treads and guns on tanks can be disabled by explosives.  Planes can have their wings, engines, flaps, and elevators damaged, making them more difficult to control.  Rounds and bullets can ricochet off armor.  The character will load the weapon differently if you change to a different ammunition type and if you switch to an empty weapon, it looks empty.  If you crawl through the mud, your weapons become covered in it.

Battlefield 1 returns the franchise to its technological roots.  The gadgets of recent Battlefields been stripped from the game with no invented historical allegory to take their place.  This means that you don’t have to worry about getting run over by UAVs, griefed by bomb disposal robots, or getting rolled by a sentient, automated, cyber tanks with self-healing capabilities.  The gadgets  are limited to grenades, guns, melee weapons, and a handful of different explosives.  If you’ve played Battlefield 1942 or Battlefield Vietnam, you’ll feel like you’re going home.  If one of the recent Battlefields was your first, there might be an adjustment period.

This historical period drastically changes the nature of Battlefield’s combat to become more personal and gritty.  Without helicopters, UAVs, remote explosives, and jihad jeeps, squads and teams have to work together to take down enemy armor.  Simultaneously, without AA weapons, countermeasures, radar, and magical self-repairing nanomachines, armor has to rely on team support for repairs or to avoid being swarmed by the enemy team.  Planes are slower and can be damaged by small arms fire and pilots have to properly time bombing runs without assisted targeting.  Instead of a commander or squad leader being able to call in bombings or artillery strikes, players can use the artillery guns in their kits or the stationary artillery guns littered throughout the map, which are actually much more dangerous to the random tank or player.

Player choice has been stripped down to its fundamentals.  The previous system of having dozens of redundant weapons with hundreds of redundant attachments unlocked through RNG, completing challenges, and leveling up, has been replaced with a simple currency system used to buy variants of the handful of weapons and gadgets available.

Each class starts with one or two primary weapon unlocks.  Players can unlock more weapons using the in game currency and as they level up.  Of the handful of core weapons each class has, the common variety is the close quarters “trench” variant, the long range and accurate “sniper” variant, and the middle of the road “factory” variant that can be customized with sights and weapon skins to suit the player’s needs.  Vehicles now offer uniform “kits” that change their purpose rather than individually selecting each part.  Battlepacks now only drop weapon skins, and Battlepacks themselves only drop with a random chance after the end of games.

Gadget selection still offers several play styles within classes so if you want to play a medic with a grenade rifle and no healing capabilities, you can.  A vehicle with an anti-tank kit plays drastically differently than the same vehicle with an anti-infantry kit.  It’s a double edged sword of improved, streamlined functionality with less customization, that is ultimately more favorable than the cluttered mess that Battlefield 4 had become by its final DLC and perhaps more balanced.

Battlefield 1 offers the classic game modes.  Conquest, rush, team deathmatch and domination are all available.  Rush has received a slight alteration: players can now call in mortar attacks using them that make it more difficult to for attackers to advance.  Conquest and Rush variants of each map aren’t simple reskins.  They look and play differently.  The map design blends Battlefield’s characteristic large, open maps, with close ranged urban battles and destruction.

DICE also created two new game modes.  War Pigeons, which I was unable to play because of a lack of servers, and the new star of the show, Operations.  The Operations game mode blends the mechanics of Rush and Conquest.  Like Rush, the game map is divided into zones with an attacking and defending team.  The attacking team has a limited ticket count and must capture two or more flags in each zone in order to progress.  Once all of the flags in a zone are captured, they can move up.  However, the defending team can at any point reclaim any flag they’ve lost in a zone.  This creates a really compelling back and forth between the two teams as each fight for the flags.  Each Operation, like War Stories, is actually comprised of a set of maps that share a theme or narrative with cutscenes between them in order to form a simple storyline.  Operations may become the new Battlefield mode.

Battlefield 1 is a return to form for DICE and a masterfully executed return to the fundamentals of the franchise.  While it may not serve the itch that a modern, high tech shooter like Battlefield 4 might, its fundamentals are well executed.  Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare modernized the AAA shooter, Battlefield 1 might pave the way for AAA military shooters to go back to the basics.