Battlefield 1's new trailer for its single-player mode promises a story of brotherhood, betrayal, and big explosions, set against the backdrop of World War I. But that's not the only story developer DICE wants to tell with its upcoming shooter, senior producer Aleks Grondal tells me. "A lot of the secret sauce in this franchise lies with stories that people create," Grondal says, referring to the Battlefield games' multiplayer modes.
Unlike the scripted story you'd expect to get from single-player, Grondal says these "secret-sauce" stories "come from events that people didn't necessarily plan to happen," moments of improvised or impromptu glory that you'll immediately want to text your friends about. Key to these personal stories is Battlefield 1's Frostbite engine: the frame on which its battlefields are built, and the technology that allows them to come crumbling down as players trade sniper shots and tank shells back and forth.
"Too much destruction makes it unplayable"
DICE's last five Battlefield games have featured Frostbite-enabled building destruction, but players apparently wanted even more. "We knew that people were asking for more destruction," Grondal says, confirming that DICE listened to their pleas and tried to elaborate on them. "We want to keep it a little bit over the top, a little bit easier than it is in real life," he says, describing the explosive removal of a wall or the demolition of an in-game structure. "It's such a cool moment, and it does impact the play and the visuals of the map, so I think that we should be more generous with how flimsy [buildings] are than perhaps they would be in real life."
"Destruction helps create individual stories," Grondal says. "It facilitates the kind of action that players enjoy so much, that makes them upload videos, tell people 'Oh I blew a hole in the roof and there was a tank below me, but I blew it up with dynamite.'" But while he says that DICE wants to make sure that "objectively, there are more destructible things," the studio has to draw a line somewhere. "If you allow too much [destruction], it just becomes unplayable, no longer fun," he says. "We have to leave some bits behind for the game's sake."
How do you make trench warfare fun?
A blasted-flat battlefield might not be much fun to play on, but it's what comes to mind when I think about the horrors of World War I, with trees and buildings scrubbed from existence by constant artillery barrages and soldiers stuck shivering in trenches. How does DICE take us to World War I and make it fun? By keeping a light touch on history, Grondal says. "It's about the game first — that's the important thing, we always need to make a Battlefield game first," he explains. "The accuracy comes after."
That's not to say a measure of historical accuracy isn't important, though. "We have taken some creative liberties because we think it adds more fun," Grondal says, "but all the things you see are inspired by their real counterparts: locations and events that actually took place." The game's water-cooled machine guns, its open battlegrounds in Africa and the Alps, its armored train — usable in its beta — all actually existed. There are even trenches. "We do need to represent trench warfare, and we do have it in the game," Grondal says. "But we put a little Battlefield twist on it so it doesn't play out exactly as it did."
Grondal says he hopes these references to reality will get players interested in the actual war itself. "To tell the whole story of World War I would probably be a little bit too complex," he says, and he's right — if historians still can't pin down all the causes of the First World War, how could a mass-market video game? But although Battlefield 1 won't be your own personal history tutor, Grondal says DICE will give relevant context, a process the new single-player trailer will be done with relatable characters on the ground in some of World War I's major war zones.
It's not clear yet who exactly you'll be playing in that single-player mode, but you'll have a choice of one of four classes in Battlefield 1's multiplayer: assault, medic, support, and scout. Grondal explains how DICE fine-tunes these archetypes. "We're trying to give each class a range that it's best at. The assault class is best at taking out vehicles but the drawback is that he has to be close, while the medic has a bit more range, allowing him to run up and heal his teammates without having to be exactly on the frontlines. The support class plays further back, and the scout even further."
Series stalwarts who got to sample each of these classes during Battlefield 1's beta will have noticed that the new game's classes felt more rigid and specialized than those found in recent Battlefield games. Grondal says this was a conscious shift for DICE's new shooter. "The classes in Battlefield 4 shared a lot of the same weapons and were efficient at all ranges," he explains. "I wouldn't say it was the wrong choice for Battlefield 4, but we looked at it for Battlefield 1 and said we either skip classes altogether, or make them stronger. We decided to make it more Battlefield, and make the classes count."
That means that Battlefield 1's soldiers have to choose their fights carefully. I lost track of the times during the game's beta that I found myself face-to-track with a tank, only to remember I was playing as a medic, and could only slap the behemoth with bandages. I'm not the only one who kept losing fights with tanks during the beta — message boards echoed with player grumbles — so I ask Grondal if DICE is going to reduce their effectiveness in the final game.
"We know things were wonky in the beta."
"There are balance tweaks we have to make. We knew that things were a bit wonky in the beta, but we really wanted to get some feedback on it. Also the fact that this map was open didn't help: we knew that tanks were powerful but this open map emphasized their power." Grondal says the armored vehicles would have had a different feel on a different map, but won't commit to defanging them completely. "Tanks should be powerful, they should be a thing you're afraid of," he says. "In previous Battlefields they became something everyone would just swarm in on and hammer down, perhaps a little too easily."
Grondal picks out the single-seater light tank as a target of DICE's recalibrations, but notes that multi-seater craft like the landship require effective teamwork to use, something the studio is trying to push in Battlefield 1. "We feel like there's more teamplay components," he says, with the heavy tank, armored train, and bomber all requiring multi-person crews to turn them into truly deadly killing machines.
That's fair: huge moving metal boxes bristling with guns and packed with soldiers should be powerful, should be something you run away from. It's that panic, that fight-or-flight, that split-second decision that might have you pulling victory from the jaws of defeat, and coming away with another one of those Battlefield stories.
Battlefield 1 is out on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One on October 21st.