This review contains spoilers. TL:DR, it’s good go play it.
The Battlefield franchise is a venerable entry in the FPS genre, the first entry was Battlefield 1942 which released on Windows and OS X in 2002. The main focus has always been large online battles in large maps with vehicles and destructible terrain. Admittedly I’m unfamiliar with the franchise. My first experience with the series was Battlefield 2: Modern Combat on the PS2, followed quite a while later with Battlefield 3 on the PS3. I never got into it as much as I did the Call of Duty games of the time, which were my preferred online FPS as a teenager.
Battlefield 1 was released in late 2016 and is the fifteenth installment in the franchise. It marks a first for the series in that it takes place in World War One, compared to the entries before it which were modern, and the earlier titles which took place during World War Two, as was common. Not many games take place in World War One, largely because it’s hard to gamify. DICE got around this by simply making a World War One themed World War Two game. This isn’t the worst thing, but it’s far from accurate in terms of the guns you’ll use, and yes, there’s a power armour sequence. More on that below.
What I really liked about the older Medal of Honor games is how they feel like war movie games, which makes sense since MoH was Spielberg’s project originally, the way they play feels like an old war movie. One heroic but kinda generic dude mows down Nazi after Nazi complete with music swells, elaborate death animations and improbable sequences. Despite how much I love those games, despite their flaws (and there are a lot of flaws) they do have some issues. The extremely simplified nature of them makes the stories not amazingly interesting. Battlefield 1 feels like it’s a modernization of this concept in a lot of ways.
Gone are the generic American McJawlines that made up the rosters of MoH games past, replaced with a diverse roster of lesser told stories. The opening, Storm of Steel, has you play various members of the Harlem Hellfighters, The 369th Infantry Regiment, notably made up of a majority of African Americans and Puerto Rican Americans. This sequence is effective but let down somewhat by the bullet sponge flamethrower enemies, though to be fair these are likely there for balance reasons. Without them I could see players playing this for ages not realizing they’re meant to die. It’s a supposed to lose fight and acts as the bookends of the game, in that respect it’s very effective and good. A great opening.
The second story, Through Mud and Blood, follows a British tank crew tasked with punching through enemy lines, it goes about as well as one might expect for a game focused on the loss and futility of war as core concepts. It starts off fairly weak, but it improves a lot as it goes on. The gameplay, especially in the tank babysitting sections, can get grating but it’s mostly solid. After you push through the enemy lines you become stuck in the mud, and facing Germans rushing the tank Townsend orders a pigeon carrying orders for an artillery strike be sent out. The artillery hits almost directly on top of the tank, but through extreme luck it’s unscathed and carries on into the Bourlon Woods. This begins the tank babysitting section.
The tank babysitting is up there as one of the worst choices in the game. You come upon a forest where the fog is so thick you’re tasked by the commander, Townsend, with scouting ahead. You quickly find trouble and have to clear enemy camps. This isn’t a bad idea on paper, it provides a contrast to the power fantasy of being a tank in a World War 1 game nicely, but the execution is very eh. You can sneak through the camps but the stealth gameplay is lacking, and as soon as the shooting starts the tank Kool-Aid Mans its way onto the scene into the direct firing line of multiple field guns, so not only do you need to worry about yourself you also have to take care of the tank, which is extremely vulnerable. It would be far easier to just take the entire camp on solo.
After you clear the forest, mechanical problems force the tank to stop, thankfully the Germans ahead have salvaged British tanks that you can steal parts from. By this point you’ve lost two of the tank crew and are left with Townsend, McManus, and your player character Edwards. Townsend is injured, so it’s up to Edwards and McManus to infiltrate the village to salvage the spark plugs needed. McManus objects, viewing it as a suicide mission, and Edwards tells him to leave, he does. The village infiltration isn’t very hard. You find a silenced sniper rifle pretty early on and the enemy AI breaks when you use that. They’ll watch a friend’s head explode and calmly investigate the corpse while you line up the second shot. This is funny, granted, but it’s not amazingly immersive. Once you get the parts you head back to the tank with the help of a well placed horse, as you’re entering the tank you’re attacked from behind only to be saved by McManus, who had a change of heart and returned.
The tank continues on, coming across a railway station being used as a staging point by German forces planning to retake Cambrai. The crew heroically attack it, taking out multiple vehicles, and destroying the German forces that arrive to reinforce it. Black Bess is then immobilized by artillery and overrun by German infantry. Edwards and McManus are injured fighting the infantry and a mortally wounded Townsend sacrifices himself by igniting a gas leak in Black Bess, killing the German forces. Edwards and McManus limp along the road toward friendly lines. The subtitle then informs you that the war ended a month later.
This is my favourite story in a lot of ways. Thematically it’s extremely strong. Themes of sacrifice and courage are contrasted with the utter pointlessness of it. The performances of the actors and animators are amazing, Mark Bonnar as Townsend is especially amazing in his final scene. As obvious as it was that there wasn’t going to be a happy ending from the beginning I still hoped for one.
The second war story, Friends in High Places, is the weakest. You play American pilot Clyde Blackburn, for some reason. Blackburn cheats George Rackham, a British pilot, out of an experimental plane and poses as him on its test flight. Rackham’s gunner, Wilson, accompanies you as you go through a short tutorial. German fighters attack and you have to fight them off, once only one remains it flees, and you follow, finding a German fort full of munitions. Wilson photographs it and Blackburn convinces him to tell command about it and they launch an offensive to destroy it. This part is fairly simple, you have to take out the AA guns, fight fighters, and defend bombers. The hardest part about this is the fight controls, which I’ve never been a fan of but it’s not too bad. It’s fairly easy as long as you don’t crash into the ground like I did more than a few times while attacking the AA guns. After the fort is bombed enough it cuts to a cutscene where Blackburn does something stupid and crashes.
You then have to sneak, or shoot, through German lines and into No Man’s Land, where you find Wilson. Blackburn then nearly murders him with a plank of wood instead of helping him back to friendly lines and this is the point where I checked out. Blackburn is unsympathetic and unlikable. Wilson reveals that he knew Blackburn was a fraud all along and for some reason this makes Clyde, Paragon of Good Choices, decide to not murder someone that’s been nothing but nice to him. You then have to avoid British machine gun fire to make it to the friendly trenches while carrying Wilson. You make it and are (correctly) arrested for stealing a plane and impersonating Rackham. On the way to be court martialed the ship carrying you is attacked by German fighters and Rackham is unceremoniously killed, Blackburn convinces Wilson to make more poor choices and free him so they can steal another plane and go to fight the German aircraft. Upon doing so they discover bombers and zeppelins moving to attack London and engage them. When you get the zeppelin to low health Blackburn decides to fly close enough to a German AA gun that he can verbally taunt the guy shooting it while moving slowly next to it and gets shot down. Again, not a smart man. You crash into the zeppelin and fight your way across to the AA gun, which you take control of to shoot the other zeppelin and enemy fighters. The second zeppelin explodes and it turns out that fire hurts so Blackburn, Wilson, and the German that was on the AA gun, whom Wilson has been fighting this entire time, are forced to jump off. Blackburn survives this and climbs out of the River Thames, lays on the dock and narrates the ending, where he refers to himself as an unreliable narrator and suggests that none of this ever happened, which I wish was true.
Yeah I don’t like this, if you couldn’t tell. Wilson is the only other character in the war story and he’s treated terribly by the narrative, it isn’t even shown if he died or not. The missions are straight forward enough though, and aren’t unpleasant though.
Next up is Avanti Savoia, the infamous power armour part. You play Italian shock trooper Luca Vincenzo Cocchiola, who wears metal armour that acts as power armour. Once you get past the initial ‘oh come on’ factor of this it isn’t bad. It’s not great though, in part due to some technical issues that I’ll get to.
This is framed as a story being told by Luca to his daughter about how his twin brother, Matteo, died. Interestingly this did take something out of it. In Through Mud and Blood I knew how it’d end, it was inevitable, there would be no happy endings, but I hoped for one anyway. In this I didn’t have the same experience. It wasn’t a matter of ‘will it be okay?’, it’s ‘how will this go wrong?’
Luca fights through the enemy lines while Matteo fights on the fronts in the valley below, initially it’s successful, Luca pushes through the lines, destroys artillery, and achieves his objective. In an attempt to stop the Italian forces in the valley the defenders bomb the mountain, causing a landslide. Luca’s armour becomes damaged and he removes it to rush into the valley to find his brother, there he finds death and devastation, men so damaged by what they’ve seen that they just stare into space– or, wait, I think the AI just broke. Yeah this is where the technical issues come in. The AI just stopped. Enemies just stood around, except for one flamer enemy who torched me when I got close, killing me. When I respawned they worked again but not well. Some still seemed to have their AI disabled. I don’t know if this bug is common but it was pretty massively disruptive.
Pushing past that though, Luca fights his way through the front and into the German fort, eventually coming across his brother’s corpse. The closing subtitles explain The Lost Generation.
This is very short and not very good.
The fourth war story is The Runner. You play Frederic Bishop, an ANZAC at Gallipoli. He’s introduced to Jack Foster, his new charge who lied about his age to get into the army. Bishop spends much of the game doing things and risking his life to protect Foster. You first storm the beach to capture an enemy position, you’re successful but discover that Foster has followed you. Bishop berates him for his belief that war is glorious and Foster becomes sickened by the carnage.
The next day Bishop again volunteers for a mission to protect Foster, he delivers a message to HQ, and on his return is saved by Foster who shoots an Ottoman soldier. He’s then sent by British officer Whitehall to deliver another message to rear command, when he arrives he finds it deserted with a note explaining that a full retreat has been ordered and that the area will be shelled to cover retreat. He rushes back only to find that Foster volunteered to attack the fort and is missing. Whitehall tells him to ignore the retreat to go after Foster, however he’s clearly distressed that he just sent all those soldiers into friendly fire. He makes his way up to the fort and finds Foster along with the other soldiers hiding with wounded. He tells them that the shelling is imminent but Foster says that they won’t be able to make it with their wounded, so Bishop attacks the fort on his own to draw their attention, telling Foster to fire a flare once he’s clear so that Bishop can escape. In the process of this, Frederick is mortally wounded. He climbs to the battlements and watches for the flare, hoping that Foster has made it.
The flare is fired and the artillery follows shortly after. Frederick Bishop is killed.
The Ottomans won, many of the people who fought in the campaign went on to become leaders of the Republic of Turkey. For Turkey, Australia, and New Zealand, Gallipoli was formative in their national consciousness. It was the first time that Australian and New Zealand forces fought under their own flags.
There’s not a lot to say about this one honestly. It’s rather short, but it’s well done. It does a lot with very few characters, and they’re all good characters. Bishop’s death is effective, I wish they’d done more with Foster. He doesn’t have much character beyond being naive.
The fifth and final story is Nothing is Written, you play Zara Ghufran, a Bedouin rebel fighting the Ottomans in Arabia with T. E. Lawrence. An Ottoman train carrying important cargo derails in the desert, and Zara is tasked with getting that cargo. She succeeds and obtains the code book, but soldiers arrive, lead by Ottoman officer Tilkici. She’s saved by Lawrence and other rebels. They decide to interrogate Tilkici for information regarding the armoured train Canavar, and how to lure it into a trap.
They discover that to lure it they need to get three message capsules from three officers to send to it via pigeon. As Zara is sending the third she’s attacked by Tilkici, who escaped from Lawrence and knowing the location of the camp, has it attacked. He prepares to execute her but she kills him before he can. Zara meets with Lawrence, who escape the camp before it could be attacked. It turns out that this was all a waste, because the Canavar has to stop for supplies, leaving it vulnerable, and a plan is made to attack it when it does, trapping it by damaging it with explosives. You then fight the train using various field guns to shoot at it while it rains artillery and machine gun fire on you.
Zara and Lawrence move on to the Suez Canal to strike at targets there. The subtitle informs you that the British reneged on their promise of a free Arabia.
And that’s pretty much it. Overall the stories are very solid, the gameplay can get grating at times. The final sequence of Nothing is Written is especially frustrating, with the train firing instant death at you if it holds line of sight for long enough. Other than a few frustrating parts it’s somewhat easy. I played on medium difficulty. The AI is lacking, especially when you use long range silenced weapons. I noticed a few bugs but nothing overly bad.
The graphics are very impressive, my PS4 was pumping superheated air out the back the entire time I was playing. The environment design is very visually nice, but lacking in terms of layout. It’s mostly just generic lanes of progression with similar sets of enemies. That said the core gameplay loop and gamefeel are solid enough that this isn’t too bad.
I’d comment on the multiplayer but I got a PS4 copy, and I have to pay extra to play online, and frankly fuck that.
This review has mostly been me trying to get around my writers block for finishing my MoH review series with Vanguard. It has proven to be hard to write about, so look forward to that one up next!
I collect and review retro games.