Personality goes a long way.
It’s a phrase usually attributed to things that are…shall we say, less than visually appealing.
This does not describe Battlefield 1. In fact, Battlefield 1 is gorgeous.
But, the phrase is no less apt. Because of the many things Battlefield 1 has going for it, it’s the game’s personality that sets it apart.
Let’s look at the prologue, a ten-minute taster not only for the gameplay on offer in the single player campaign, but also for the atmosphere you’ll be experiencing throughout.
After a brief cut scene, you’re greeted with an ominous message:
“What follows is frontline combat. You are not expected to survive.”
And then you spawn. An infantryman, gun in hand. You have only a scant moment to take in the scene: the sun piercing through the cloud-filled sky; the desolate, crater-pocked landscape of ruined buildings and gnarled, blackened trees. Then the enemy appears.
The German troops’ advance is relentless, their hail of bullets fizzing all around, glancing off cold stone. Thudding into flesh.
Panic fills the air, screams of ‘Hold the line!’ ringing out repeatedly. The enemy is yards away, now. You fire your machinegun, taking down targets right and left. But there’s no end to the onslaught. You cower behind a stone door-jamb as the deafening explosion of a Stielhandgranate shakes the ground just feet away. Dirt lands all around. Your breath is quick and shallow.
Your machinegun is empty; the Germans now surround your position. After a second you emerge, pistol in hand. You tag one, two, three more enemies, then take a hit that sends your vision into a confusing blur. Two more German soldiers fall before the final bullet smacks into your body and you collapse face first onto the forsaken French mud.
Then, an epitaph:
There’s no time to take in the significance of this death though, as within seconds you’re inhabiting the body of another soldier, this time behind a fixed machine gun overlooking a complex of trenches. But within minutes, the position is overrun. And death, once again, comes swiftly.
Again you find yourself on the battlefield, this time within the thin iron shell of a tank. The rumble of the wheels and the shouts of the crew are nothing compared to the deafening crack as the main gun fires, rattling your very bones.
But again, you perish. And again. And again, until finally, the battle draws to a close with the poignant moment of two opposing soldiers facing off across the war-torn, body strewn battlefield.
If you haven’t gathered, it’s pretty intense. And it’s all surprisingly well handled, dealing with the futility and sheer magnitude of loss of life with a sensitivity you wouldn’t expect from a shooter. But most of all, what grabs and doesn’t let go, is just the feel. It feels authentic. It feels tangible.
It feels like war.
Of course, this is a Battlefield game, and veteran developers DICE have provided the usual complement of features: Impeccable gameplay mechanics. Tons of fun vehicles to throw around with your friends. A detailed progression system that rewards play with all the available classes.
But it’s the scene setting, that sense of place, that’s the real hero here, and every technological advance DICE have brought to the table is in service of this, the ace Battlefield 1 has up its sleeve.
It’s tough to overstate the graphical prowess of this game. The Frostbite engine has never looked so polished, and has certainly never been employed to such devastatingly realistic effect. Majestic alpine vistas, vast stolid castles, and battered French farmlands are all convincingly depicted, rendered in the sort of incredible detail never before seen in a multiplayer game, and rivaling some of the best graphical renditions of real-world scenery ever.
But perhaps even more impressive than the visuals is the incredible sound design. Throw on a pair of decent headphones, and suddenly you’re right in the midst of the battle. The sound of artillery shells resonates like distant thunder, scaling perfectly according to your distance from the blasts. The beleaguered shouts of your comrades echo across leafy valleys, and near-miss gunfire twangs off rocks as it whistles past your ear.
The weapon design, too, is notable. Each firearm looks and feels solid, substantial, and endearingly imperfect -- some have a fearsome kick, some take an age to reload, some are just plain clumsy -- but mastering each piece’s little foibles is all part of the fun.
It’s a million miles from the arsenals found in recent shooters, where contemporary and futuristic weapons are smooth, refined, and brutally effective…not to mention tremendously boring.
This comparison holds true for the rest of the game, too. It feels refreshing to return to the 20th century in Battlefield 1. Refreshing, yet comfortable too, because it’s a distinctive setting you can’t help but feel invested in, because it feels real in a way that a sci-fi based game, the type that have dominated the shooter genre for the last few years, simply cannot. The stories being told in Battlefield 1 are fictionalized, only based on the events in the First World War, but they nonetheless feel substantial because there is a very definite human connection.
If you look at the narratives of the last few Battlefield outings (and most of the Call of Duty games of recent times) you’ll find there is a definite leaning towards Hollywood blockbuster-type storytelling. This leads to a level of disconnection -- the mass fatalities you inflict as the protagonist have little impact -- just like in a typical big-budget summer movie. The near future setting of recent Call of Duty titles takes this disconnection a step further by introducing robots as enemies. Taking down an endless parade of soulless machines sure doesn’t help a player feel invested. Battlefield 1 attempts to go some way to addressing this disconnect by introducing the player to the detailed world they inhabit, and for the most part succeeds.
It’s not that contemporary and future-set shooters lack attention to detail: You only have to look through the in-game database in Call Of Duty: Black Ops 3 to see how much thought and effort the developers have put into building a believable world from the ground up. But when it comes to making a player feel invested and a part of the world around them, a wholly fabricated world simply cannot compete with the ready made authenticity of actual history.
And Battlefield 1 has bags of this authenticity, and even if liberties have been taken with the weapons, the vehicles, and the overall kineticism of a notoriously attritional war. Because DICE, rather than getting caught up in the details, have concentrated on creating an entertaining game that feels just right. And with that feel comes a genuine personality that just makes you want to spend more time with the game.
And for Battlefield 1, personality is everything.