Battlefield 1’s campaign is nothing like its recent predecessors. That’s why it works.
Imagine living in someone’s shadow for a decade, and you’ll get the gist of the Battlefield brand as of late. While more creatively ambitious, more technically impressive, and all around prettier than the Call of Duty series, the Battlefield video games have been its competitor’s perpetual runner-up. Battlefield’s publisher Electronic Arts and developer DICE have themselves to blame. They established and nurtured a team with a specialized talent for creating huge, destructible maps for players to explore in top-of-class multiplayer modes. But for single-player, each new Battlefield — and EA’s marketing division — seemed evermore infatuated with the design of the massively successful Call of Duty games, despite the series being Battlefield’s aesthetic opposite.
Where Battlefield was large and open, Call of Duty was compact and claustrophobic. Where Battlefield encouraged experimentation and destruction, Call of Duty locked players into cinematic scripted set pieces and static corridors. To be like Call of Duty, Battlefield’s creator had to play against its strengths; they did so willingly, for years. By 2013’s Battlefield 4, the franchise’s campaign was barely distinguishable from CoD. Other than a couple standout pieces that that underscore the franchise’s sense of scale, the bulk of the adventure follows a generic hero as he guns through hordes of enemies and tired action movie tropes, only to be interrupted by halfhearted cutscenes, insipid twists, and hawkish military lingo.
It’s not that Battlefield campaigns were especially bad, rather they failed to consistently exploit the skills of the creators. Battlefield 4’s campaign was a serviceable clone, but it wasn’t itself. Battlefield 1 is an unexpected about-face. The campaign flaunts a self-awareness that’s hitherto been absent, and with this newfound confidence it achieves an excellence largely absent from recent entries, and the first-person shooter genre as a whole.
The single-player isn’t one campaign, rather a handful of discrete stories, each featuring a hero with a different skillset. You can swap freely between vignettes, so that one moment you’ll be piloting a plane in a battle with a zeppelin, and the next, scouting the desert on horseback.
This emphasis on the game’s many vehicles — planes, tanks, horses — teaches the fundamentals of the multiplayer mode, where teams scrimmage in yawning valleys, mountains, villages, and castles with military craft zipping overheard or careening through the streets. But more importantly, an emphasis on vehicles demands the mini-campaigns return to the style of large, explorable play-spaces of early Battlefield games, before Call of Duty became the developer’s moving target.
Where recent Battlefield entries regularly plopped you in suffocating office complexes and tight urban alleyways, Battlefield 1’s firefights more often stretch across massive outdoor settings, like the trenches of European theater and the dunes of the Sinai Desert. Buildings exists largely as temporary cover. An early stage offers the player windmills from which to snipe enemy bivouacs, only for the large structures to come under attack, being brought down with the hero still inside. There are still linear missions involving a gruff man moving on a predetermined line, shooting people in the face at point-blank range, but they are the exception, not the rule.
The changes have added some depth to a generally tired genre. While extended sequences involving endless killing and cheesy heroics are common, but the best mini-campaigns use vehicles and distance to add variety to missions that would otherwise be one murder after the other. In one campaign, you learn the basic of flight by zipping above snow-covered mountains. In another, you sneak from enemy lines, across No Man’s Land.
And though it’s never outright acknowledged, the destructible environments speak to the cultural cost of the war. By the end of some sequences, entire villages and local landmarks are razed by mortars, heavy artillery, and tank treads. When my tank came across the beautiful architecture of a train station, I instinctively used the buildings as cover, only to remember my barriers represented people’s workplaces and homes. Ultra realistic graphics are not an obligation of video games, but in the case of Battlefield 1, they are a reminder that — for all of the spectacle — these battles are inspired by real and horrific events.
Battlefield 1 astutely focuses on the human cost of war, and the reduces time spent looking through a scope, further differentiating it from the competition. Though the series does often feel like it’s having it both ways: war isn’t fun — except when it is. I wrote earlier this month about how the ambitions of developers are revealing the limitations of the shooter genre. Kotaku’s Heather Alexandra wrote specifically about the disconnect between Battlefield 1’s single-player story and the multiplayer death count. This conversation will likely follow shooters as they strive to tell stories about humans, while encouraging you to kill thousands of them.
In recent years, some critics speculated that EA should remove single-player from the series altogether, that resources should be devoted to what the team does well, assuming that to be multiplayer. But in Battlefield 1 it’s clear that the team wasn’t simply good at designing multiplayer maps, rather their talents — for designing large space, vehicle combat, destruction — weren’t being applied to single-player properly until now.
It’s obvious to say the creators of Battlefield should have been directing their talents to single-player. But picture hundreds of different people, each with different interests and ambitions, attempting to make one video game that is its best self. That begins to capture the accomplishment of Battlefield 1, a video game constructed, in some fashion, by hundreds of different people spanning the globe. Its design flaunts rich ideas from a decades worth of rigorous development, but perhaps more importantly, abandons many of the bad habits and assumptions accumulated along the way. It knows when to borrow from its contemporaries to cover its weaknesses, and when to ignore trends to showcase its many unique strengths.
Imagine the future of Battlefield campaigns, free of the Call of Duty baggage. The developer has discovered itself at last. Now what?
Battlefield 1 is now available on PC, PS4, and Xbox One.