The long running Battlefield series is taking things back to the First World War, and deep in the trenches the horrors of combat are being recreated like never before.
The Battlefield games of late have struggled to deliver anything resembling a compelling narrative, which is what makes the campaign here such a refreshing surprise.
It’s divided into a number of different battles from entirely unique perspectives spread throughout the Great War. That allows for a wide ranging overview of the conflict, and also lets players dip in and out if they get stuck on a certain mission.
And these levels can be pretty challenging, thanks to the team's dedication to showing just how horrifying this all-out war was. In the prologue it’s understood that you simply won’t survive, playing a succession of men in the Harlem Hellfighters regiment, fighting to your last.
That’s a compelling way to start and the further ‘Stories’ include an American pilot in Friends in High Places, a Brit driver turned tank guy in Through Mud and Blood, a female Bedouin warrior in Nothing is Written, an Italian fighter in Avanti Savoia and an Anzac soldier on the beaches of Gallipoli in The Runner.
There are some terrific moments in these relatively short missions, with set pieces that are challenging and fun to run through while also introducing gameplay elements which will crop up in the multiplayer portion of the game.
They’re also surprisingly emotional at times, doubling down on the terrifying loss of this global conflict but balancing things out with touches of humour and more intimate drama. In some ways it's a shame we don’t get to spend more time with these characters but the shorter format ensures there’s no down time.
Really I can’t help but admire what DICE has done here, especially in a series which is more notable for it’s non-story driven content. These war stories manage to present interesting, and even little known, slices of history in a way that’s entertaining and informative - expect the structure to be repeated in the future.
The single player makes a good primer for the meat of what Battlefield 1 has to offer - multiplayer. And that’s because things are a little different this time around, mostly because of the World War 1 setting.
For a series which has been mostly modern for the last seven years, the era of bolt action and bayonets and biplanes adds an engaging new flavour. The pace is a little slower, the action that tiny bit more frantic when it comes, and the all out chaos very much befitting the setting.
For 2016, DICE has shaken things up with a couple of new modes. The full roster includes Team Deathmatch, War Pigeons, Rush, Dominations, Operations and Conquest.
Some of those names will be known to fans and they’re set up in the same way - from 12 v 12 team killing to the 64 player sprawl of Conquest. Each mode feels both familiar and fresh thanks to the new setting and weapons, and the considerably more intimate and close quarters nature of these battles.
War Pigeons is an amusing title and a fun new addition to this field of battle. A pigeon coop is randomly spawned on the map and each team tries to find it first. When they do, they must liberate a pigeon and get to a designated spot to send out a message. If you manage that - under fire remember - the enemy will get struck down with an impressive burst of artillery.
These matches are quick and mostly focused on all-out action, with the tide turning easily on claiming one of the flying rodents. The extra air of the ridiculous is also a pretty welcome feature.
The main new multiplayer mode for Battlefield 1 is Operations, and this might be the best addition in years. These engagements take their inspiration from some of the most vicious real-life battles of The Great War, and bring in a level of narrative and an epic scope which should make it a new fan favourite.
It works through a series of interconnected maps where certain objectives have to be met to progress. A dug in team has to defend while the other side goes on a desperate offensive, with multiple ‘over the top’ moments that will put your heart in your mouth time and again.
Death is frequent and unrelenting in Operations, offering up a glimpse at the fruitless mass murder which brought millions of young men to their fate 100 years ago. Like in real life, respawns are limited, and defenders must shoot and stab until the enemy has no more reserves.
It’s epic stuff, with the macro level battle scrawled in massive explosions, real time level destruction and gigantic event vehicles like blimps which scourge the sky with fire. But there’s always a focus on the micro as well, on how you can contribute by gaining that extra inch, squeezing off a bullet to a necessary enemy or ramming a grenade into an emplacement.
The Battlefield series has been having fun with vehicles for many years and goes all out for this latest entry. I can’t think of any other game where I could ride in horses and biplanes and feel both powerful and vulnerable in both.
Tank warfare is especially exhilarating because this is the dawn of that mechanised combat. Most of the vehicles are lumbering hulks, slow to turn and shockingly vulnerable to attack where their armour is weakest. It helps to make you feel always mere seconds from disaster, desperately repairing as another charge draws near.
My experience online so far has been smooth in terms of matchmaking. My multiplayer skills have waned a bit in recent years and early adopters are already finding their feet with the newly balanced weaponry. The matches can be a bit of a slog for newbies but the range of classes, scale of the levels and access to different challenges like air assaults means there’s a role for everyone. Just keep trying til something clicks.
The Great War was far from a beautiful event in human society, but DICE’s stylised take on the conflict is frequently stunning. The asset work in the single player campaign is always impressive, with the shifting sands of the desert and soaring planes in the sky all looking and feeling extremely cinematic.
Multiplayer is less tightly controlled but still impressive, while the scale adds up to some moments of pure spectacle. Add in the dynamic weather systems, which can change several times during a match, and you have the complete visual package.
Battlefield 1 was a gamble for EA and DICE, moving away from the popular modern and near future conflicts of its recent years and its chief rival. And it has really paid off, with a refreshing new setting that is more than merely cosmetic, changing everything from the nitty gritty of weapons, sounds and characters to the overall tone which is noticeably darker than previous entries.
Multiplayer is vast and epic and, most importantly, fun while the single player is something of a revelation in its drama and solid storytelling, though it’s over too soon. It’s a must for fans then and newcomers and lapsed players alike should make it their duty to try it out.