Having been to school in both the United States and New Zealand, I can tell you that World War One is a much bigger deal in New Zealand. While the United States only got involved in the war's final stretch, New Zealand was roped in much earlier, thanks to its status as a British colony. You don’t get through school in New Zealand without learning at least some aspects of the war inside out, and you don’t get through a year in New Zealand society without seeing tributes to the country’s service in the so-called Great War. Memorials are everywhere. Our national veterans’ holiday is devoted in large part to those of that war. We even have a type of cookie - the Anzac biscuit - named for the combined troops of Australia and New Zealand.
So when EA announced it was setting its next Battlefield game in World War One, it was kind of a big deal.
Battlefield 1 feels like two games mashed together: a single-player campaign trying its hardest to extract real drama from the war, and a multiplayer campaign drawing fun from it. It is a game engaged in conflict both in its fiction and in its purpose, recreating one of humanity’s most horrific and pointless wars and turning it into entertainment to be experienced in ten-minute doses. Its attempts at gravitas are undone by the inherent ridiculousness of online players riding on top of airplanes and pulling off trick shots. The classic, rousing Battlefield theme music feels inappropriate for a conflict characterised by obligation rather than purpose, war crimes rather than nobility, senseless slaughter rather than smart tactics. Developer DICE makes an effort at bemoaning 20th century warfare’s subjugation of humanity by industry and mechanisation in the campaign, but that’s undercut when those mechanical instruments - some of which are considered the stuff of war crimes today - get treated as cool, fun powerups in the multiplayer.
Eschewing a single narrative structure, Battlefield 1’s campaign is split into half a dozen “War Stories,” each following different characters (including a female character, believe it or not) in different parts of the war. Its introduction makes the most of that structure, only allowing players to play a character for a matter of minutes before killing them off. Death after death after death rains down, turning the act of respawning into a dramatic statement on the losses suffered in the war.
The rest of the campaign feels oddly old-school, like the early Calls of Duty or Medals of Honor, with each mission a combination of scripted spectacle and barebones enemy-killing. It’s all fairly standard stuff: you’ve got your tank missions, your airplane missions, your stealth missions, and so on. Some of them get oddly repetitive, as - for example - you're called to wipe out wave after wave of counterattacking forces, or go on a fetch quest for a slew of tank parts. But in between the repetition and objective markers lie stories full of drama and horror.
Parts of the campaign get very grim indeed, pelting the player with blood, mud, and rats in an attempt to do justice to the war’s legacy. Full of strong voice acting and animation (including a Robert Carlyle lookalike so uncanny the actor should sue), the campaigns do well to illustrate the variety of fronts in the Great War. The stories themselves would make solid war films if they weren’t so heavy on the schmaltz and derring-do - and if the shooting wasn’t quite so arcadey. DICE should be commended for making the campaign more than merely a tutorial for online matches, but it still can’t quite shake its connection to the multiplayer game.
I'll just have to ignore the fact that the ANZAC portion of the campaign, set at Gallipoli, is entirely Australia-centric and only mentions New Zealand in a derogatory offhand comment.
Battlefield 1’s multiplayer is at least very well-tuned, tactical, and involving. Thanks to its historical setting, antique weaponry, and deployment systems, it feels more like classic Battlefield than ever. Nostalgic fans may enjoy that, but to me it feels like a backward step after the innovations and gameplay enhancements brought about in the last decade of game development. Other than setting, the enhancements Battlefield 1 brings over Battlefield 1942, say, lie mostly in quality-of-life areas. Its UI is clean and usable, improving the squad and loadout systems in particular. Upon deaths and respawns, the camera lifts up to a strategic overview and swoops back down to first-person without any cuts or loading screens. Lengthy, multi-stage and multi-objective modes make matches feel even more fraught than before. When airplanes, zeppelins, tanks, giant destructible environments, and scores of troops get involved, the action becomes a truly epic struggle for dominance, punctuated by tense, exciting moments of combat. And if you’re into that sort of thing, you’re gonna love Battlefield 1. Based on my experience online, lot of people clearly do, and are very good at the game to boot.
But in playing the game, I found myself often wishing I was playing Star Wars: Battlefront. That game caught flak for being merely a simplified, Star Warsy version of Battlefield, but frankly, there’s an audience for that kind of game, and I’m part of it. I don’t think of World War One when I yearn to escape into a fun, actiony multiplayer romp. I don’t really think of any real-world conflict. Realism and historical context gets uncomfortable and discombobulating in a game designed for pure fun. Maybe that’s why I gravitate towards Battlefront, Destiny, Overwatch, and EA’s own sadly underplayed Titanfall games when it comes to online shooters. With those games, I can get all the action and adrenaline I crave, couched safely in fantasy. Maybe I'm fooling myself and I really just want an excuse to enjoy in-game violence. I don’t know. But the fantasies I want to fulfill aren’t found in the trenches.
A piece of text at the end of one of the campaign’s War Stories states that “the war to end all wars ended nothing.” Between Battlefield 1 passively making light of this war’s slaughter, and the wider world’s apparent lack of memory of the rise of fascism just afterwards, that line feels scarily accurate. Except today, we’re not naive about warfare because of unexpected technological growth. Rather, we’ve trivialised it as something that happened a hundred years ago - or when it happens today, does so on TV or online.
Or, you know. In a video game.