The timing of the next part of DICE's incredibly popular multiplayer war series could not have been better. The first seeds of what would become Battlefield 1 were sown back in 2008, we were told visiting the Stockholm offices. Then they were busy with Battlefield: Bad Company, which seems like a small eternity ago. It's hardly an exaggeration to say that a lot has happened in the games industry since then. Modern Warfare was all that mattered as Call of Duty 4 had been released a year prior and the next three Battlefield sequels would follow suite, along with the likes of Medal of Honor and Homefront (and others), and the market would slowly but surely saturate.
The most popular solution to this dwindling interest in contemporary warfare was to bring the action to the future. Games like Titanfall followed Halo and took the first successful steps into the science fiction era of multiplayer shooters which today we find ourselves in, and it was not long before giants such as Call of Duty latched on. Battles fought with the M16, M1 Abrams tanks and USAS-12s suddenly felt as old as Chevy Chase. Now it was all about jetpacks, particle lasers and rather extraordinary ways to move around the battlefield.
However, history begins to repeat itself and the masses began to quickly turn their backs on futuristic warfare and started looking for something different once again. The amazing reactions to the reveal trailer for Battlefield 1 was an indication that DICE were onto something. World War I, The Great War, was the perfect setting for their next big Battlefield game. Having loved the series since the original and with the feeling that Battlefield 4 didn't quite live up to its predecessors, we were also of the opinion that this was the correction direction to take. In hindsight, Battlefield 4 felt like a comfortable and "easy" sequel to Battlefield 3.
With this game DICE rewinds the clock by nearly a century. Everything has a wonderful analog feel and something that constantly came to mind during our time with the game's multiplayer was that it felt like a "Best of Battlefield". You can spot elements of the best parts of almost every title in there, and when it's at its best it feels better than ever.
The weapons are among the best feeling guns we've ever had the pleasure of firing in a virtual environment. The models themselves are lovingly reproduced, and we found ourselves sticking to the semi-automatic rifles that you have to reload bullet by bullet - simply because we loved the reload animation. The fact that we often got shot dead during this animation didn't really matter. The recoil feels convincing, and it feels like these guns generally require more skill to use properly, which goes a long way to capturing that sense of a more primitive era in terms of the technology.
Attachments have been kept to a minimum here, this instead of cramming the game with thirteen different scopes, silencers, bottom-mounted grenade launchers and other things that just run the risk of ruining the balance. Here there's a handful optics that can be slapped on the guns, the choice of using a bayonet or not, and skins (which all feel appropriate). Don't expect any neon coloured shotguns. The reduced number of additional things to think about is exactly what we've wanted for years and it helps bring the mechanics to the forefront.
The audio is, as expected, ridiculously well crafted (news that will come as no surprise to anyone that is familiar with previous Battlefield titles). The acoustics, the engines, and the various weapons, they all sound amazing. This especially came to mind on Montegrappa as we used an anti-aircraft gun against an enemy fighter between two rock walls. Playing Battlefield 1 without a good pair of headphones or surround system is a great disservice to the game.
Another aspect that has been improved is the user interface that is both prettier, cleaner and more user friendly than previously. One of our favourite additions in this regard is how we can now see the flag capture areas on the mini map, making it easy to see where you can stand and get ready to counterattack without having to go too far away from the flag you're trying to conquer. Even the spawn screen feels really well constructed as it now is a 3D representation of the battlefield rather than a static map, which lets you jump back into the fray with a good sense of where you need to go. The hit markers also do a good job of communicating what happens to the player, where a small marker indicates less damage and a red marker signalling a successful kill.
In Battlefield 4 we felt DICE was having a difficult time designing levels that worked equally well with all the game modes. There are, after all, a fairly wide range of modes, so it may not be an easy task. However, we feel they've done a better job here. Sure, there are levels that are better suited to some modes - Argonne Forest, for example, quickly become a favourite in Domination, while Montegrappa felt better in Conquest as opposed to Rush - but we did not encounter a case like Battlefield 4's Operation Locker, which was a chaotic disaster in Rush and perfect for Team Deathmatch.
We really enjoyed the maps in Battlefield 1, but there were two in particular that stood out. The first is Amiens, an urban map based on a French town with the same name. It reminded us of Seine Crossing, with plenty of small, narrow streets and a large bridge in the middle connected to a larger town square. It really gave a sense of war with burning and collapsed buildings. Our other favourite is called Argonne Forest, and it is the best-looking forest level we've seen in a game since Endor in Star Wars Battlefront.
Impressively enough, all of the problems we had with the beta version vanished in the final product. Bugs like the game freezing for a minute as soon as you wanted to access the pause menu was rectified, and both Medic and Support classes have been made far more effective. For Medics, it has been made easier to see when someone on your team needs to be revived as a clear icon pops up over their body as soon as they die, while in the beta you had to manually ask for help. Support class has in turn gained access to a wrench that can repair vehicles, which makes it a great class for groups that like to roll around in armoured vehicles.
To fly in Battlefield 1 is a lot more fun than it's ever been and it's also thanks to the choice of era. You see, at the beginning of the 1900s there were no nifty weapon systems like heat-seeking missiles, and in Battlefield 1 you can actually do well as a pilot, unlike its predecessors in which you couldn't be in the air for longer than ten seconds before seven opponents began locking on to you with rocket launchers. Should someone want to get rid of you, they can certainly do it the old fashioned way; with a stationary anti-air gun, or with a plane of their own. This also results in more enjoyable dogfighting.
Classic modes like Conquest, Rush, Domination and Team Deathmatch return, and in particular the first two feel just as good as usual. Unlike the beta version, kills now counts towards the score in Conquest, making it easier to contribute to the team's chances to win no matter what type of player you are. In Rush a system that allows for random placement of radio stations has been implemented, so they are not always located in the same places (although, of course, they always stick to a certain area).
Among the new modes, we find the rather extraordinary War Pigeon, which is based on the fact that the soldiers during the First World War had to rely on carrier pigeons to get vital messages delivered to their commanding officers. It's a smaller scale mode, where a pigeon randomly spawns on the map and then both teams must take control of it. When a player has picked up the pigeon a message needs to be written, which is represented by a meter on the screen, and this is done faster if the player is standing still - which makes it vital for the rest of the team to put up a proper defence quickly and efficiently. When the message is written the dove needs to be released - and then the opponents gets a small window of opportunity in which to shoot it down. If they succeed, the process begins again and if the dove escapes, the team who released it scores a point.
It's a hectic (and festive) mode, and it's bizarre to hear a lady repeatedly say that a pigeon, of all things, has been picked up or dropped, but this is more to be seen as a side dish. It's in the new Operations mode that people will spend most time in. This is a mix of the two signature modes, Conquest and Rush, where one team attacks and the other defends. At the beginning of the game the players are presented with a narrative summary of what the upcoming battle is about and what is at stake.
Much like in Rush, attackers will have to take control of two objectives but instead of radio stations to destroy there are two flags that need to be taken over and held at the same time. If successful they go on to the next phase of the game where two new (or three, or one) flags will need to be taken. It is of course the defender's job to ensure that does not happen and if they succeed, the attackers get another chance (this time with support in the shape of a behemoth). These matches are not over after only one map, though, but continue on to a new one that carries on the ongoing narrative, and if the attackers have burned all their extra chances on the first level, they must take the next one without any mistakes. These matches naturally tend to be a bit longer than other modes, and that's kind of the charm. It feels like a major battle where the stakes are real.
The graphics are, as expected, superb. The Frostbite engine delivers visual brilliance as usual. We love how the weapon models are covered in mud when we lie and crawl in the muddy trenches with enemy fire whizzing over our heads, and how artillery explosions makes it scary to even take a peek. For a second, we forget that we're playing a game and started to worry about whether the mud on the weapon would render our rifle useless, and it occurs to us how ridiculously impressive these graphics are - on both PC and consoles - at 60 frames per second, on huge battlefields with 64 players.
Weather effects are not only visually compelling, they actually do their part to force players to adapt and change the way they play. Take the dust storm that occasionally rolls in over the desert map Sinai Desert as an example; when the storm has engulfed the playing field, you can't see much further than a few meters in front of you, and to fly planes or be an effective sniper is almost impossible. We're compelled to be extra careful and keep track of our immediate vicinity. A similar effect was seen on the Italian coastal map, Empire's Edge, where a thick fog can cover the map like a blanket.
We can hardly wait until the game is released properly so the rest of the world can begin to fill the servers, as the game is quite brilliant in multiplayer. But then, we have also a campaign to cover and it was here that we expected things to take a turn to the worse. We never thought DICE would succeed in bringing the Battlefield experience to a solo campaign. So we were utterly surprised as we began to play the Battlefield 1 campaign and were met with a surprisingly well directed and well told story.
Or five stories, rather. DICE has gone with a slightly different approach with the campaign this time, and instead of following a lonely protagonist who is the best tank driver, pilot and sniper all wrapped in one, instead we get to follow different people with different personalities and backgrounds, and see them play through some different situations. We find ourselves actually caring about what happens to the (mostly young) people as the game's "War Stories" unfold.
We do feel that some of the missions are somewhat drawn out, though. And it's a pity that many of the campaign's levels recycle multiplayer maps, but if it was something that really caught us off guard it was how well crafted the campaign was. For the first time it feels like we're taking part in a story that DICE actually wants to tell, while in the previous games the campaign always came across as an afterthought, and something brought out of necessity rather than desire.
From a gameplay perspective DICE has done a much better job of getting the campaign to feel like a Battlefield game. Gone are narrow corridors, replaced here with open battlefields. There is also opportunity to play strategically and stealthily, where you can make your way up to a lookout tower to mark enemies and points of interest - not unlike how it was handled in Crysis or Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.
Everything comes across as respectfully done and no nation is necessarily painted as the bad guys here, but the game clearly shows that even the enemy forces you're mowing down with a stationary machine gun are people. You see soldiers break down on the battlefield, and we get an uneasy feeling like no other Battlefield games has managed to give us. It even feels like part history lesson, and the music is at times amazingly beautiful.
On the whole the small complaints we have with the Battlefield 1 right now are just that: small complaints, nitpicking. There are a few bugs that annoyed us (when you manage to shoot down the large airship there may be some debris stuck in the air, and the mantling animations are not entirely consistent), but there's nothing that really overshadows the brilliance on show elsewhere. At the end of the day, we haven't been this excited for a Battlefield game in a long time, and this is exactly what the series needed.