Platforms: PC (tested), PS4, Xbox One
Developer: EA DICE
Release Date: Out now
It doesn't take long for Battlefield 1's single player campaign to grab me.
Its prologue is surprisingly bleak and moving. Enemy forces overrun with an obscene amount of firepower, and players are told up front they're not expected to survive. Each time they're cut down, that soldier's name and the years of their birth and death appear on screen.
Anyone expecting a big budget jingoistic military shooter is immediately going to be surprised, but then that's the par for Battlefield 1's campaign – it's surprising.
There's kind of a rhythm to each of the "War Stories" that comprise the campaign. They start with you in a position of power: in a tank, or clutching a water-cooled machine gun, clad head to toe in bulletproof metal plates, then slowly strip that power away.
The campaign won me over in its third level, when my battered and bruised tank crawled to a halt overlooking a sleepy village in mainland Europe. In the village were tanks – our tanks – which the Germans were refitting to serve their war effort. My mission was a simple one: get to the village under cover of darkness and make off with the four spark plugs needed to get our war machine running again. How I did this was up to me. I could blast my way through the village in a series of small skirmishes, or creep around under cover of darkness.
While talking about the game with a friend, he asked me if Battlefield 1 had any moments to rival Medal of Honor: Frontline's famous D-Day landing sequence. It does. In fact, it has several set pieces that rival both that, and many others from iconic shooters of the past.
If there's a weak link in the campaign, it's when the the player is forced to spend time piloting a plane, but otherwise it recalls some of the finer moments of Battlefield: Bad Company 1 – ditching the Call of Duty-aping shenanigans of the single player portions of more recent Battlefield titles. Instead, the game focuses on what makes Battlefield great: the whirring chaos of combined arms combat.
It's an interesting campaign, though marred by the fact you never play as the "baddies". I can't say every War Story grabbed me, but the moment to moment gameplay of each was tight, well-scripted and fun. These vignettes are tales of individual heroism and personal battles, often ending not with a bang but with a whimper, a personal arc completed as the war burns on.
It's big, quite dumb and genuinely very fun – if not exactly a realistic depiction of The Great War. There are also moments eye-rolling cliché as the game tries to drive home the personality of certain characters. "I am a lovable rogue" screams one character, "I am a reluctant hero" screams another. It's fine, and doesn't get in the way of just how good the campaign is, but definitely adds silliness to a game that otherwise treats a horrific period of human history with a fair amount of respect.
This tone is lost as soon as you switch to the multiplayer. This is the jingoistic shooter you were expecting, with all tropes we've come to expect of Battlefield: large-scale chaos, earth-juddering explosions and wayward plans piloted by people still trying to get to grips with the controls.
Battlefield 1's Operations mode offers multiplayer a little bit of story by stringing together a succession of match types and maps to recreate loosely-historically-accurate operations from World War 1. It's not much more than a diversion however, and I found I played each one once to see they offered before returning to the mainstays of series classics Conquest and Rush.
Battlefield 1's progression system is obtuse and muddy. Battlepacks return from Battlefield 4, but are this time dished out randomly at the end of rounds. Weapons are bought separately using a currency, War Bonds, which you get for levelling up. You can only seem to do this in game, too, so it took me a while to work out how to trade up from my starter medic rifle. You must also level up each class independently of your overall level, with the reward being the ability to buy more items and perks if you're that way inclined.
As ever EA DICE's maps are varied and packed with detail. There are cities, castles, deserts and jungles, given vibrancy by a procedural weather system that whips up a sandstorm or baths a jungle in a tropical storm. When this happens, it's the little details that make it work so well – the murky haze that makes targeting enemies near-impossible, or the raindrops beading on the butt of your weapon.
Although World War 1 didn't have as many recognisable weapons subsequent conflicts more commonly depicted in entertainment, DICE's recreations of what weapons there were handle uniquely and offer a variety to match most modern day or near-future-set shooters. You can tweak your weapons independently for better performance too, whether you set your scope for higher magnification or fiddle with the recoil pattern in the hope of making it easier to control.
The sound design is simply incredible . Set your games audio to the War Tapes setting and you'll experience some of the best gunfire and explosions in video games. DICE's work remains second-to-none. It's impossible to deny the craft of Battlefield 1. The campaign is thoughtful and effective, and the multiplayer is top notch, proving more than capable of convincing Battlefield Hardline players, or those hold outs sheltering in Battlefield 3 and 4, to make the jump.
Battlefield 1 is a bold reinvention of the Battlefield series, proving not only that DICE aren't afraid to move in brave new directions, but also that they have a genuine understanding of what makes a Battlefield game really tick. Series veterans will feel immediately at home in the multiplayer, while those scared by the online battlefields will find the campaign, while short, provides a great diversion and a good way to ease yourself into the chaotic world of Battlefield.