There’s a new multiplayer mode in Battlefield 1 that revolves around the safeguarding of messenger birds. It’s called War Pigeons. Unfortunately, it’s not about armored pigeons with guns strapped to their backs. In this mode, two teams fight to the death, while attempting to claim and safely release an homing pigeon into the sky. It’s escort duty and flag capturing combined, and it’s supremely silly. Close combat, ragdoll explosions, mud, poison gas, and the violence of one of the bloodiest conflicts in history mix with pigeon babysitting. War Pigeons is a good summary of Battlefield 1 in general.
After the break, stop that pigeon!
Battlefield has always occupied that weird space between being a completely over-the-top goofball shooter series and being a serious military experience. Before Call of Duty became celebrity zombies and superpowers, military shooters all tried to balance multiplayer wackiness against respectful treatment of war. Sometimes this worked, and sometimes you got Battlefield: Hardline with its strange cops versus criminals tomfoolery. It’s tough to deliver thrills every fifteen seconds while being sensitive to history and good taste. Call of Duty gave up and went deeper into science fiction, while Battlefield gamely hung on to its semi-serious tone.
DICE and Electronic Arts wants players to feel the horror and humanity of World War 1, while still being a commercially popular shooter. That’s a lofty goal, and Battlefield misses the mark, but it is saved by its dangerously good multiplayer.
When Battlefield 1’s setting was revealed, people wondered how the developer would manage to make trench warfare exciting. How do you make trench foot or dysentery into a game people would want to play? You don’t. You avoid it entirely and show other, more palatable, parts of the war. Each self-contained single player campaign episode features a unique perspective on the ways the war changed humanity’s relationship with wholesale murder and destruction.
The prologue, a nasty slog from one disposable soldier to another, hinges on easy lethality and hellish confusion. It’s probably the closest Battlefield 1 comes to poetry. While never again equaling that harrowing introduction, the rest of the campaign sits squarely in that melodramatic blockbuster movie space. You’ll guide a mechanized death machine through a misty forest, take to the skies to thwart a bombing run on London, ride alongside T.E. Lawrence to stop an artillery locomotive, prepare for a doomed defense in the desert, and assault a mountain fortress in space marine power armor.
The Italian episode with it’s clanking armored suit is a bit weird, but it helps showcase one of the idiosyncrasies of the war as the world hadn’t quite quite left its pre-industrial technology behind. Horse cavalry charging at tanks. Canvas and leather against machine gun bullets. Wood-framed airplanes shooting at spotter blimps. Whistles and over-you-go into No Man’s Land.
It’s also an example of how DICE slyly introduces multiplayer concepts into the single player game. Here is how Elite Soldiers, a riff on Battlefront’s hero power-ups, work. Here is how tank-versus-tank contests play out. Here is how air-to-ground attacks go. Here is how you ride a horse. Here is how the armored train can mess your day up. These short bits work as tutorial experiences and as memorable set-pieces. A spoonful of bombast to help the medicine go down.
While the stories try to capture the grinding awful futility of a war started by mishap and diplomatic pig-headedness, the levels are peppered with Michael Bay-isms that betray the historical accuracy. The Italian Arditi, for example, are known for being insanely brave assault troops trained in hand-to-hand combat and explosive use, but the most memorable bit for them in the campaign is the aforementioned Iron Man armor scene. The Harlem Hellfighters are featured in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo and an unlockable codex entry. You put a Hellfighter on the cover of the game, and that’s all we get? The stories of World War 1 heroes like Henry Johnson are missed opportunities.
Speaking of mistakes, there’s nothing in the campaign from the Central Powers’ point of view, or even major players like Russia or France. Odd oversights for The Great War. Especially in a campaign that wants us to take it so seriously. The music swells and pithy text bookends each chapter. “More than 60 million soldiers fought in ‘The War to End All Wars'” Battlefield 1 says grimly, then plops you into a cacophony of trailer-worthy moments.
All of this tension between history and gameplay is relieved in multiplayer. Here there are pyrotechnic displays every few seconds. Superpowered flamethrower troops. Duelling bayonet charges. Cavalry bounding across the battlefield. Everyone has a semi-automatic firearm with optical sights. Zeppelins loom overhead like alien motherships until they explode and Hindenburg into the ground.
Every multiplayer lesson DICE has learned over the years is sharpened to a razor’s edge in Battlefield 1. War commodified as entertainment.
Player progression is a smart compromise between the dizzying jumble of upgrades Battlefield 4 gave players and the overly-streamlined approach in Battlefront. The same rifle, but with a better scope? Yes, sir! Be the right level and spend the in-game scrip for the upgrade! Level up and get more funny money to buy cool new toys. A bigger gun. A grander gadget. Every now and then, a slot machine box unlocks to keep the grind turning. (And if you don’t think EA won’t be offering those boxes for real money someday, take a look at Battlefield 4 for a preview of the future.) It’s just enough experience bar-filling and loot hoarding to keep you going, but not so much that it’s a slog.
The relationship between foot soldiers and vehicles is a hallmark of the Battlefield multiplayer, and here it is emphasized to an astounding degree. The ramshackle clatter of a tank can be sweet salvation or murderous terror depending on which side of the armor you’re seeing. Bombers rain destruction from the clouds, while fighter planes dart between them. All the while the interplay between soldier classes remains an important part of the game, and the ever-shifting rat race from last week’s community-preferred weapon to the next remains as strong as ever.
The Behemoths, slow-moving war machines of death like the zeppelin, battleship, or armored train, are obviously inspired by the Imperial Walkers from Battlefront, and why not have them? The spectacle and awesome firepower of these mega-weapons vastly outweighs any desire for verisimilitude. You’ll welcome them on your side, and curse them when the enemy has one. Watching a zeppelin’s fiery skeleton slowly crash into the ground is its own reward.
Operations, a new multi-stage multiplayer mode, brings the already tense Battlefield gameplay to new heights by creating a tug-of-war dynamic. Win for long enough and your side advances to a new sector on the map. Lose for long enough, and a Behemoth will show up to balance the scales, sometimes to a frustrating degree. At about an hour a game, it’s more of a commitment than the regular Battlefield contest, but the quickly changing fortunes of virtual war make it one the best multiplayer modes ever made.
Spawn. Run at the objective. Shoot. Die. Repeat. Squads trade lives and grenades in equal measure. It’s an exhausting and thrilling experience, made all the more engaging with the gorgeous production. The rattle of distant gunfire echoes off rubble. Mud crusts your rifle. Dynamic weather like rain or fog changes the flavor of maps in minutes. Dying in an explosion has never been more satisfying. All Quiet on the Western Front splashed with Wachowski effects and Dolby bass.
It’s all the thrills of war without the consequence. Minor inconvenience masquerading as poison gas. Mortar strikes are sound and fury signifying gameplay. More points over the next hill lads! There are no decades of struggle as the Lost Generation. This is war imagined by children during make-believe. A boy’s idea of heroism. Victory coming after a roller coaster ride instead of months-long stalemates while politicians blather. It’s a victory screen and a point tally. It is how warfare is sold to the public. A hyper-real color saturated blast of special effects and Pavlovian rewards.