Video Games Review: Battlefield 1 (PC, 2016)

I hate Battlefield 1. I hate it in spite of its being lovingly made, gorgeous to look at and deeply respectful in the way it handles its subject matter. I hate it despite its decision to steep itself in a period of conflict so barbaric that video games have shied away from it almost altogether until now. I don’t hate it for any of these reasons. I hate it because it makes me so angry I forget how to speak.

This vein-popping apoplexy, however, isn’t necessarily on DICE. Let me explain.
I’m sure a few of you noticed in the headline that I reviewed this on PC and will likely be wondering how it ran on my mid-tier rig. The answer is “like a dream.” I’m running a GeForce GTX 770 on some steep settings and the game was running smooth as butter. I’m pulling 60fps out of a mid-tier machine and it isn’t even breaking a sweat. Super impressive.

While the game eschews the old webpage server browser of previous Battlefield titles in favour of actual in-game menus (thank god), it is still possible to access the server list. At the time of review it was populated only by DICE servers and it looked like custom games would be on the way soon. The netcode is solid and reliable. Battlefield 1 is a technical marvel. It’s without hitches in terms of running the thing. Clearly, Battlefield 4‘s explode-on-take-off launch window taught DICE a lot of stinging lessons and they’ve clearly been keen to avoid another such scenario. None of this is to suggest that the game is without its bugs and glitches, of course. It has its fair share, but I’ll come back to that later in the review.

Given that this is a Battlefield title, the number of people picking it up specifically for the campaign is likely minuscule. That may change in the future because Battlefield 1‘s campaign demands the player sit up and pay attention. Eschewing what has become the traditional shooter campaign (progressing through a series of levels with differing environments as the stakes climb ever upward before reaching a climactic, slow-motion finale that only requires a single bullet), Battlefield 1 divides its campaign into what it calls War Stories, six stand-alone adventures that cover each of World War 1’s various fronts. The first of these is the brutal tutorial mode that highlights the savagery and inhumanity of The Great War, but also introduces new players to their first real lesson about playing a Battlefield game: you will die a lot and it will always be unfair when you do.

Each of these episodes works quite well on their own. Australians will likely gravitate towards the naval assault on Gallipoli, a battle we still commemorate today. Rather than giving the role of the bullet-sponge hero, the mission sees you playing as real world captain Frederick Bishop (Peter O’Brien), a veteran charged with the safety of a new recruit. As the war rages around you, your job is much smaller and more immediate: keep that kid alive.

The same goes for the other missions on offer. Many of them play out in ways that are rote and predictable, some even go heavy on the Speilbergian schmaltz, but then you finish the level and the game throws up a black screen with white text that goes into detail about the real-world cost of each battle. It’s sobering in a way these kinds of games usually aren’t.

As a group, the War Stories are a bit up and down. My original thought was that they were little more than extended tutorials for each of the game’s major mechanics — the Americans in their planes, the British with their tanks, the Australians coming in by sea — but that’s not quite right. While these facets give each mission a flavour of their own, they sometimes go in directions you don’t expect. I jumped into the British tank campaign hoping to blow some stuff up after slogging up the cliffs of Gallipoli and they made me get out and walk alongside the tank as it trundled along through a forest full of people trying to destroy it. It’s up to you to creep up on enemy emplacements and deal with them before the tank arrives. I wasn’t looking for a stealth op, but that was what I got.

None of this is enough of a reason to warrant purchasing the game, though. They’re a neat diversion and a nice inverting of the campaign formula but there’s no real meat on those bones. Multiplayer is where the main course is and, unfortunately, the multiplayer is what makes me spit blood and teeth.

There’s a lot that I do like about Battlefield 1‘s multiplayer: I like the World War 1 setting a lot, I like its old-timey bolt-action rifles, I like its wildly-inaccurate machine guns, I like its maps and environments.

What I don’t like is the game’s extreme reliance on teamplay to gain any kind of success. This is as true of your squad as it is the whole 32-person team in the larger game modes. The thing is, you so rarely have the kind of communication or teamwork that you actually need. What you get are entire servers filled with vitriolic 11-year-olds that all want to play sniper. When you actually find yourself on a team with people who know what they are doing, the game is such a giddy endorphin rush that it makes you want to pass out.

The multiplayer component is broken up into six separate modes including the venerable Team Deathmatch, Rush (one team defends, the other has limited respawns and must plant bombs on control points), Domination (infantry-only point capture) and War Pigeons (capture pigeons and use them to open up artillery).

The game’s much-heralded new mode is Operations, but I found myself largely disappointed with it because, while it was described as this huge and sprawling thing, in practice it doesn’t feel large-scale at all. If anything, it’s the Rush gametype writ slightly larger. One team desperately defends their control points, while the other team surges forward trying to push and hold new ground. In fairness, it does feel very World War 1. There’s a meat-grinder mentality to it that is probably very accurate as well.

Conquest remains the mode du jour for Battlefield 1 and it’s the still the same mode you know and love. Giant maps, an absurd 64 players all going at each other in an effort to take and hold various capture points strewn about the massive landscapes.

The environments are varied, from Italian countryside to desert skirmishes, and they all have their own flavour and personality The Argonne Forest is an infantry-only map and sight lines are super limited which means everything is up close and personal. The desert map is wide and open which means if you aren’t being menaced by tanks and artillery that prowl the city’s outer limits then you’re definitely being shot by a sniper hiding in the dunes.

As is wearyingly obligatory by this point, there’s also an XP and unlock system in place. Leveling up gets you war bonds, the in-game currency that lets you buy new weapons and gear. Some class-specific weapons are locked off until high levels, even if their just permutations of weapons you already own. I can have Regular Gun at Level 3, but if I want it with a scope then I need to be Level 7. It feels much grindier than it needs to.

This unlock system goes hand-in-hand with Battlefield 1‘s brand new way of handling vehicle spawns. Rather than vehicles just popping up in your base on a respawn timer, you now have to tell the game you’d like to spawn as a vehicle driver (or pilot) which are now their own separate classes. But those have to be unlocked too. Lets say you’ve saved up and blown all your war bonds on a sweet vehicle upgrade and ooh boy, you are going mess people up with this thing. But wait, your entire team keeps taking up all the plane slots and pranging them directly into the ocean before you can respawn as a mega bomber and maybe actually do something to help them gain ground? Tough luck, friend. Your options are: play things you don’t want to play and hope there’s a slot open when you die or be a stopout and refuse to spawn until someone else gives up a slot. Forcing players to choose between An Unenjoyable And Unfulfilling Experience OR Being An Arsehole Until You Get What You Want isn’t the kind of design innovation I was looking for.

I understand why the system is the way that it is: they don’t want the age old trend of people camping vehicle spawns to continue and they’re trying to address it. That’s good! But there’s got to be a better way than this. How about: if someone’s K:D ratio isn’t measuring up, they can get votekicked out of the pilot seat so someone else gets a turn? All we needed was a bomber, guys. Nobody wanted to play the bomber. But I did. I could have been that guy, but you all wanted to have a fucking dogfight. This is why we keep losing.

All of the game’s classes have seen a bit of tweaking to better fit into their various roles. Assault is more about getting up close and doing terrible, terrible damage to enemy vehicles. Medics are useful at mid-range, keeping their distance as they scoot around trying to heal everyone and revive the fallen (healer supports are typically my go-to in team shooters but here I just feel overwhelmed because everybody dies so much). Supports will make sure everyone has the ammo they need while providing suppressing fire, but if anyone can keep themselves from being a lone wolf for a sec and cover the Support, they can throw down a mortar and then the party really begins. Scouts are more or less your snipers and seven games out of every ten you will join a match to find that your entire team has selected this class, refuse to change and never once actually attempt to take or protect objectives.

I will complain bitterly about gas grenades, which somehow manage to be the best and worst new addition to a Battlefield game in ages. They throw lethal fart stank all over the map that not only damage you but destroy your vision. Its possible to throw on a gas mask and stop the damage but now you cant use your iron sights, and can only shoot from the hip. Being on the throwing end of one of these grenades is great because the pandemonium they cause is its own reward. Being on the receiving end is brutal, especially when they’re being thrown by someone with a plan.

(They are also a great way to really annoy your 16 snipers who won’t change classes).

 

Vehicles are now more destructive than they’ve ever been previously. I feels like there’s no structure you can hide behind that can’t be shredded by a clanking, juddering mechanical monster. They’re not invincible by any stretch and, as is a longstanding Battlefield tradition, a useless player jumping in a tank and trundling into the waiting jaws of death is a great way to blow one of your rarest and most powerful assets

It’s this sort of thing more than anything else that shits me about Battlefield 1. It’s easier now than it has ever been for the trolls and the deadweight to ruin the experience for everyone else. Vehicles are powerful, but wasting their potential puts you at a huge disadvantage. A misplaced gas grenade will completely devastate your defenses. The trolls and the deadweight are not new, but there seems to be far greater range of ways for them to fuck me than there ever have been before. This could be a result of changes to the game that try to push your entire 32 person team into co-operating, or it could be that DICE just didn’t think things through.

The changes aren’t, by the nature, negative in any meaningful way. In fact, if you’re jumping in with a big group of friends the game can really sing because you suddenly have the co-ordination you need to succeed. Solo-queueing on the other hand is a nightmare. You’re extremely limited in your abilities as a single soldier and while squad objectives can give sense of purpose to you and your group of randos, your squad leader has to remember that they exist for them to work properly — and they frequently don’t. This is compounded by the lack of a Commander which means that any sort of unified, clear vision for how the battle will progress is entirely absent unless you get incredibly lucky. The theory is that you will just use mic chat, but because this is a AAA first person shooter franchise you will likely have muted it the moment you got the game because the chat is a toxic cesspool of racism, taunting and salt.

All of this pisses me off. So does the bug that locks your weapons out after you revive someone as a Medic. So do people who skip out of the death screen right away so you can’t revive them. So does the context sensitive “throw medkit/ammo” key that so far has worked correctly for me only three times. So does the fact that the damage indicator frequently points in entirely the wrong direction. So do those moments when the game spawns you right in front of an enemy for reasons passing understanding. And it all stacks up and it makes me want to break my keyboard in half. Why would I even bother playing this broke-ass game?

And then you find yourself in a match where your team actually pulls something together and none of the annoying parts matter anymore because everything works. Everything sings. It’s glorious. It’s the best. Even better, the enemy team has apparently lucked into a similar scenario and now you have two evenly matched teams advancing on each other and using every last mechanic the game has to scrape a win.

Perhaps I should amend my opening statement. I hate Battlefield 1 most of the time. It makes me furious and it disappoints me and it makes me literally push my keyboard back from me and stalk away from the computer. But then I’m back in a few hours and I get into one of those really great games and I remember why the hell this franchise has stuck around for so long.

Score: 7.5 out of 10
Highlights: Gorgeous; Surprisingly respectful of the era; When it’s great it sings
Lowlights: Doesn’t really fix anything you already hate about the franchise
Developer: DICE
Publisher: EA
Release Date: Out Now
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows PC

Reviewed on Windows PC.

David Smith

Games and technology editor, Dungeons and Dragons fanboy and your new best friend. You can reach me at david.smith@theaureview.com with news tips, pitches, press releases, invites, review content and more.