But it’s the exhilarating multiplayer that most strongly capitalizes on the potential of this old-school arsenal, bringing a number of subtle changes that keep the combat balanced and smart while still allowing for the hallmark chaos that makes Battlefield such a fantastic first-person shooter series.
The Battlefield series has not been known for the quality of its single-player in recent years, so Battlefield 1’s campaign is a nice change of pace. The way each story juggles charm and tragedy in equal measure helps humanize the war and the people that fought it with quiet, welcome restraint. Overly simplistic objectives hold it back from being the memorable saga it could be, but a strong sampling of some of Battlefield’s most defining elements — like objective capturing and vehicular warfare — make it, at the least, a worthy primer for multiplayer.
Rather than restricting itself to one time, place, and character, Battlefield 1’s vignette-style approach to single-player allows it to touch on under-explored theatres of war that made up the nightmarish global campaign of World War I. Its short prologue and five “war stories,” each lasting about 30 minutes to an hour, took me on a harrowing journey from the bleak, muddy fields of the Western front to the sun-baked deserts of North Africa. Because of the wide leaps in both geography and chronology, the campaign never delves too deeply into the political complexities of The Great War. But interesting storytelling prevents it from feeling superficial — these vignettes are more interested in telling the human stories of World War I than delivering a bombastic history lesson, and they do so with mostly effective power and grace.
Storm of Steel, the prologue mission, sets this up with a tragic honesty. You take on the role of several members of the US 369th Infantry, an all-black regiment known as the Harlem Hellfighters. I was happy to see the historic importance of these soldiers, mostly made up of African-American and Puerto Rican-American men, recognized so early on, but I would have preferred to see their rarely-told tale saved for a full, character-driven mission.
As you and your fellow Hellfighters desperately try to push back the incoming German forces, you’ll meet death time and time again, but it won’t necessarily be your fault. Sometimes death is awkwardly forced upon you if you end up surviving longer than the script expects, because death is part of the plan. At least it’s handled poignantly. While Storm of Steel effectively works as a way to introduce you to some Battlefield basics — how to shoot, reposition, and reload — its grim reminders of World War I’s overwhelming death toll establishes the tragic tone.
This is a sad campaign — perhaps not quite the horror game that the devastation of the Great War deserves, but still one that confidently forgoes the patriotic pomp and war fetishization seen in most modern military shooters. That’s not to say there isn’t excitement or heroism — there is. But Battlefield 1 manages to capture the grit and valor of battle without being disingenuous. Each war story is grand in its smallness.
It’s not that the story is bad, but Edwards is painfully bland, as is his mission. Capturing points along the way to Cambrai serves as an easy primer for one of Battlefield’s most popular multiplayer modes, Conquest, as well as a how-to on operating tanks, but offers little else in the way of storytelling opportunities.
Edwards makes a cliche leap from a rookie struggling to operate the clunky Mark V to a one-man army who ends up bearing the brunt of his tank unit’s mission: going on foot to scout out enemy encampments, battling enemy infantry and FT-17s while his tank, Black Bess, demands repair, and finally holding out against waves of enemy vehicles in a wrecked trainyard. Not that the slow heaviness of the tanks isn’t fun — that last section in the trainyard is actually the first mission’s high point.
It’s a thrilling battle that had me desperately weaving my clunky Mark V in and out of cover, hopping out to repair with a wrench (a quicker, but consequently riskier alternative to repairing from inside), and swerving around my opponents to get a better shot of their tanks’ less-armored rears.
But perhaps more disappointing than this first mission’s story is its bugginess, something that was thankfully absent from the rest of the campaign. My first time through, I spent 15 minutes running around an empty battleground attempting to trigger whatever event would move me on to the next scene.
Eventually I realized that an enemy tank had gotten stuck on a trench near the edge of the level, halting the mission’s script. Another segment where you control a carrier pigeon should have served as a thoughtful diversion from the horror of war, but thanks to the weird controls, camera, and collision (I clipped straight through a building), it was sadly comical.
At first, I thought this bird segment was meant as a way to teach you how to operate biplanes, but that comes later, in the much stronger second level, Friends in High Places, which excels in both gameplay and storytelling. It’s a level that’s full of high points — figuratively and literally. You spend most of your time in the air as a cocky American pilot who has infiltrated the British Royal Flying Corps for his own amusement, and the chance to fly the Bristol F2.A biplane fighter. Flying any of Battlefield 1’s biplanes, in single- and multiplayer, is a freeing experience. They cut through the air smooth as butter and control with ease and precision.
As the American troublemaker narrated his escapades with his unsuspecting British co-pilot, I tore through the sky shooting down German aces, leading them full-speed towards barrage blimps before pulling up and watching them crash, while still taking the time to swoop down and bomb the anti-aircraft trucks below.
But Friends in High Places is great even after you bring your biplane down from these exhilarating dogfights and crash land behind enemy lines. I played this on-foot section multiple ways, first stealthing my way through the trenches with satisfying melee-only kills, and then again going in guns-blazing. Each single-player level is large and relatively open enough to give you more than one option for confronting an obstacle, but still tight and focused enough to keep you on track without limiting your freedom. An approach like stealth is made viable by the ability to throw bullet casings to distract enemies, but also by poor AI that makes it extremely easy to just run from point to point undetected.
Each character is fighting for something much smaller than the war itself.
As for the guns-blazing approach: ammo is extremely limited but weapon crates are numerous, and you can always grab guns from fallen enemies, too. I found that playing this way was unsurprisingly the best. Battlefield isn’t really built for stealth, and getting the chance to experiment with a wealth of World War I-era weapons (like the newly invented submachine guns or the simple, but effective bolt-action rifles) and changing up my tactics depending on what I could salvage from enemy encampments was a more gratifying experience.
This brief, stealthy trudge through the trenches and then the muddy graveyard of downed Mark V tanks, bodies, mangled trees, and barbed wire that made up this No Man’s Land area was a haunting break from the epic dogfights preceding it, a transition that Battlefield 1 handles with grace. While most military shooters attempt to make some grand statement about war while making the horror of it a fun adventure, Battlefield 1 uses clever storytelling to maintain a balance.
Later levels preserve this balance in their own way. Your adventure as an elite Italian soldier braving an enemy fortress to save his brother is recounted with quiet sadness from father to daughter. In the last, and most pleasantly surprising level, you take on the role of a Bedouin rebel as she fights alongside Lawrence of Arabia for freedom from the Ottomans. Each character in each war story is fighting for something much smaller than the war itself, and that shines through most vignettes with a beautiful, sad power.
Overall, Battlefield 1’s single-player campaign is a decent series of adventures with a handful of memorable highlights, but serves mostly as a way to sample some of the vehicles, elite classes, and firearms you’ll be using in the much more interesting multiplayer.
Battlefield 1 stands out from its more recent predecessors thanks to its outstanding selection of World War 1 weapons. While Battlefield 4’s arsenal suffered a bit from having too many samey firearms and an overwhelming amount of attachments, Battlefield 1’s collection of SMGs, LMGs, rifles (semi-automatic and bolt action), carbines, and sidearms are distinct, varied, and customizable where it matters. The old-timey charm and weightiness of each one also lends a lot to the look and feel of its chaotic multiplayer.