Until I played the open beta for Battlefield 1 this week, I thought I was done with the series. And that was a pretty disappointing feeling, since I've played every game in it from 1942 all the way to Battlefield 4 — all in, I'm talking about thousands of hours spent capturing Wake Island, doing flips in helicopters, trolling teammates with vehicle stunts, and all kinds of other things you can only do and see in Battlefield games. But somewhere along the line, I got tired of Battlefield games — until this week when I jumped into the series' latest World War 1 arena. And that's because it finally has a heart.
Feelings are hard for some games
It's not just Battlefield that grew sour for me over the years, though. I grew up on shooters, but now they're created with the cadence and character of yearly Madden releases, which forces game developers to be more creative with gimmicks than core game features. The worst part of that trend has been the strategy of cutting games into tiny pieces that you have to "unlock" by putting ridiculous amounts of time or additional money into them. There were no unlocks in Battlefield 1942, for example — you just bought the game, jumped in, and experienced everything it had to offer. The only limitation was your decision making and curiosity. By the time Battlefield 4 rolled around, the game felt more like an item-unlocking simulator underwritten by the greedy tactics of free-to-play games. At one point EA let players pay $50 for an "ultimate shortcut bundle" which unlocks all of the game's weapons and upgrades, making the friendly accessibility of Battlefield 1942 seem like a distant memory.
But Battlefield 1 is a different story, and that's because it uses what made Star Wars Battlefront so successful. Battlefront, built on the bones of the Battlefield series, is one of my favorite shooters from this decade. When it was released, I said it was my favorite unofficial Battlefield game. It wasn't groundbreaking in its details — capture this point here, or kill this enemy over there — but it had a rare kind of magic that can't be imitated. Jumping into Darth Vader's suit or taking down AT-ATs on Hoth felt thrilling and momentous not just because the game was technically impressive, but because of its soul: the culmination of decades of feelings about familiar characters and stories that imbued the game with an unusual emotional force.
Battlefield 1 feels surprising, colorful, and unique in a market saturated by clones
Naturally, Battlefield 1 doesn't have years of rooting for Luke Skywalker and Han Solo behind it, but it does have a rich historical character unlike generic near-future shooter clones. It feels like you're taking part in something authentic, even though it's exceptionally weird and cartoonish at times. But that weirdness makes it feel special. I can't think of another game that lets you strafe horses in biplanes, wear steel armor while firing a machine gun from the hip, or blast enemies from an armored train — yet these are all things you can do in the same round of Battlefield 1, and this is just the beta. I can't wait to see what happens when massive zeppelins and other weird weapons of war are added to the mix.
It's like starring in your own action movie
Battlefield 1 is also easily as intuitive as Battlefront, which is a huge improvement over recent games in the series. The simplicity of Battlefront and early Battlefield games, enabled in part by the game's smooth user interface, felt present here — I didn't have to think about cycling through a million options before jumping into the fray, and the options that I did have were easy to find. (The game will have lots of unlocks, sure, but it didn't feel like much was missing from the starting experience.) There's definitely a feeling of refinement to the whole experience — almost like what you see is what you get as applied to game design. And what you see is spectacular.
Playing Battlefield is best when it feels like being in your own action movie, and that's what the entire Battlefield 1 beta feels like. It's one of the most dazzling video game spectacles I've ever experienced. I charged a town with my squad and watched enemy soldiers rip through my comrades, making my heart pound as I sought cover. I stormed the sky in a biplane, looping through arches and canyons, my machine gun tearing through the wings of enemy aircraft. I dropped a barrage of bombs on a fully-loaded enemy landship, watching it disappear in a spectacular boom that literally shook the walls in my apartment. Then, I stormed the field on horseback, cutting down foes with a sword before being wiped out by an ironclad beast. I wish I could go back in time a couple decades and tell the kid inside me, sitting cross-legged on the floor watching a VHS of Top Gun, that this would be the future of entertainment. It rules.
The first few matches flew by in an instant, and left me wanting a lot more — all because Battlefield's creators did something simple. They made a game that's a joy to play, not one designed to make me pay.