The moment a zeppelin arrives in a multiplayer match of Battlefield 1 is an awe-inspiring sight. At least I'm told it is — I was too busy being run over by a tank built like an oversized steel shoebox to notice the vast airship appearing in the sky. The noise and spectacle of the Battlefield 1 battlefield rarely gave me time to look up and actually spot the off-white behemoth in the sky.
Once I had seen it, though, it became the focus for me and my team: 700 feet long and bristling with gun turrets, the zeppelin is Battlefield 1's weapon of mass destruction, capable of raining fire down on a map's various objectives. But its sheer size and slow speed also make it an easy target for anyone on the ground — or anyone sharing the same airspace. I unloaded with anti-aircraft weaponry as soon as the beast got in range, peppering its fabric hide with holes while comrades flying biplanes conducted chaotic strafing runs against its frame. Eventually, ragged, flaming, and sagging, the zeppelin came down, crashing to earth with an explosive thwump.
The fiery departure of a zeppelin is an impressive sight, but it's not just for show. Battlefield 1 is built around the same Frostbite engine as previous games in the series, making buildings, fortifications, and other artificial terrain completely destructible. When the zeppelin came down during my game, it took the top half of a windmill with it, also claiming the load-bearing walls of several farmhouses, the defenses around a gun emplacement, and the lives of several soldiers. It left a cigar-shaped patch of scorched earth, a stretch of open ground that meant death-by-sniper-bullet to anyone brave enough to run across it.
In this moment, Battlefield 1 was probably more accurate to World War I than in much of its freewheeling combat. That war was characterized by trench combat, the slow advance of battle lines as soldiers fought and died over inches of ground. But from what EA has shown so far, Battlefield 1 won't be casting players as a Tommy in a trench waiting months for the order to go over the top, instead giving us open combat in the fields of France, the Arabian deserts, and on the cliff passes of the Alps.
World War 1 mashed together old tech and new
These open-field fights might not be what you think of when you picture World War I, but in addition to the obvious — a trench combat simulator just wouldn't be very much fun — developer Dice has a vaguely legitimate historical reasoning. More so than any other major conflict, World War I mashed together old and new, allowing Dice to throw in horse assaults and bayonet charges alongside chemical warfare, the primordial versions of tanks and fighter planes, and sky-spanning zeppelins. Even the guns, primitive by modern standards, were serious advances on the rifles used during the wars of the 1800s. The game's weapons still feel a touch weaker than those found in the arsenal of its great rival, Call of Duty, but punchy sound design makes them sound both horribly powerful and historically accurate.
More modern technological advances mean Battlefield 1 can happily support 64 players in the same game, a number that makes its fights feel like battles in a real war. Without a lot of map experience, I found I was being shot from all angles, the muddy browns of enemy uniforms mingling with the muddy browns of the actual mud, and making constant use of the game's inbuilt spotting system key to surviving more than a few minutes. Players are incentivized to call out enemy targets whenever they do spot them, gaining point bonuses if a fellow player takes them out soon after — a prize increased if the person you assist is a squadmate.
So we get horses and shovels alongside zeppelins and biplanes
Battlefield 1's squads operate like self-contained units, automatically assigning players to a group when they join a game, and helping them coordinate to capture specific objectives. During my play session, my squad focused on capture point A, lying in wait as an enemy tank trundled toward us. We leapt out of cover, covering the machine with sticky grenades, and sprinting back to cover behind the rubble that once was a farmhouse. With the tank destroyed, I moved up to the top of the decapitated windmill, the high vantage point giving me nice sight lines across the wrecked town with which I could provide sniper cover to my buddies on the ground.
I'd barely set up my new sniper nest when somebody even higher up spotted me. An enemy biplane pilot made me the target of an annoyingly accurate strafing run, bullets clipping bricks from the walls around me and sending me back to the respawn screen again. Where Battlefield 3 and 4's jets gave pilots a scant few seconds to choose their targets before they screamed clear across the map and had to turn around again, Battlefield 1's biplanes are functionally sky scooters, puttering along at slow enough speeds that the pilots can lean out of the window and point out targets below. But these underpowered engines don't make the planes less enjoyable — instead, they give skilled pilots time to plan complex Red Baron-esque maneuvers, providing everyone on the ground an air show as the planes barrel roll and cartwheel through the sky.
The zeppelins, trench knives, and impossibly agile dogfights combine to give Battlefield 1 a sense of unreality despite its realistic setting, a result that makes it feel more palatable to play than to watch trailers for. As Call of Duty games move further into the sci-fi future and away from topics like terrorism on mass transit systems, EA seems to be trying to solve sensitivity issues with Battlefield 1 by setting it in a rebooted World War I from an alternate timeline, not the grim trudge of pointless death the actual "Great" War represented.