Battlefield 1 – Final Review

Battlefield 1 is terribly bleak tonally, its themes characterized by a certain unflinching maturity; difficult subjects are not skirted but are instead embraced – narratively, the title is a masterwork. In terms of construction, it is comprised of five distinct “war stories,” each one being totally unique, featuring different protagonists and secondary characters, showing a certain innovation, ambition. Despite this construction, which is seemingly prone to fragmentation, the stories never feel lazily stitched together; despite the difference in characters, objectives, and themes, one beautiful, complete, cohesive whole is ultimately achieved. The ambition is singular, while the emphasis on The Great War is wholly unique – World War II titles are particularly ubiquitous, though this era is oft neglected, and the game is accordingly afforded the opportunity to forge a distinct identity, the title filling a certain void, communicating stories which absolutely must be told, but stories which are very often ignored, underdeveloped – the setting, then, is beautiful, complementing the narrative’s ambitious qualities. Additionally, the narrative is highly character driven, the protagonists diverse and universally compelling, each possessive of distinct fears, distinct ambitions – some thirst for glory, others seek merely to survive in a hellish landscape, death and mutilation a common occurrence. One undercurrent, though, is the youthfulness of these characters, some eagerly entering into combat on account of their ignorance, unable to predict the hardship and strife waiting for them on the battlefield. This youthfulness, this innocence, only heightens their compelling attributes. Their motivations for enlisting are also diverse – some fight for the mentioned glory, others enlist merely out of duty to defend their country. But whatever are their precise motivations, these protagonists are on the battlefield or in the sky, are situated in a perilous, damning position – therein lies the game’s maturity, this embracing of the visceral and the dark, punctuated only occasionally by the hopeful.

These central characters must be considered further. One such character is a pilot, that particular branch of service being especially alluring, aviation characterized by thrilling attributes. The newness of airplanes, also, only bolsters that allure. Given this allure, the protagonist, Blackburn, actually engages in deception to enter into the pilot’s seat – here are further displays of a thirst for glory, a thirst for thrills and excitement, excitement perhaps what Blackburn expected out of the war – the hardship he meets with was likely shocking, totally unexpected. And yet, he does meet with that hardship, a hardship he was woefully unprepared for, a hardship he is forced to grapple with, his mission ultimately ending in a mixture of triumph and sorrow, reflecting narrative complexity. His missions, meanwhile, are heavily centered around vehicle gameplay, and while high in the skies, zooming about this way and that, firing at opposing planes, dodging their own gunfire, the allure attached to flying is expertly communicated – it is easy to see why precisely Blackburn would enlist, why precisely he would lie to enlist. Reflecting this emphasis upon vehicular gameplay, one campaign sees the controlling of a tank operator, these mission threads marking a complete departure from those missions which transpire in the skies. The tank, being as novel as the airplane, is prone to malfunction, unable to navigate through all terrains – caution must be embraced. With its temperamental nature, repairs are frequent, seeing the protagonist flee from the safety of the vehicle to set about repairing it with the appropriate tool. While not the profoundest of threads, the camaraderie which exists between the player character and those others in the tank who contribute to its continued functioning is immensely compelling – in such close proximity to one another, in situations of constant danger, they are morphed into a band of brothers.

While those prior two campaigns are characterized largely by vehicular gameplay, some infantry combat is present – Blackburn does leave his plane, does fire rifles, does partake of the fiercest, less glamorous facets of warfare. The other three stories, though, are characterized almost exclusively by infantry gameplay. While they are perhaps less novel, from a storytelling perspective they are equally compelling. One such campaign occurs in the Italian Alps; of an especially visceral sort, it is engrossing, distressing at times. The player character here is a shock trooper, leading the charge adorned in a heavy suit of armor, meant to deal sharp blows to the opposition, so that his less-armored allies can advance, themselves. Wearing this thick armor, seemingly he is immortal, impervious to damage. But while this sequence expertly serves as a power fantasy, still he is mortal, still he can collapse to protracted gunfire, communicating the fact that the horrors of war can affect anyone, can destroy and totally break anyone. From a narrative standpoint, this campaign is relayed as an afterthought, the protagonist musing upon his time in combat many years after the fact. It is a clever construction, especially when considering the newfound wisdom the man has, being many years detached from his plucky youthfulness. Haunting him more than anything else is the loss of his brother in the war. While his brother’s death was do in no ways to his own inaction, still a pervasive sense of guilt persists – he cannot leave the War behind him, still tortured by the events which occurred therein. It is a logical haunting – leading the charge, it follows he slaughtered man after man; having such bloody hands would no doubt be a distressing affair – here were men, men with dreams and families, but men which ultimately die a pointless death. Indeed, the opening mission here is characterized by total carnage, an absurd amount of death transpiring. Many appeals to pathos are made, and many of those appeals are successfully achieved. As the thread ends, the protagonist goes to descend from his quarters, a loving family awaiting him below, eager to celebrate his latest birthday, completely unawares of the terrible burden that he bears.      

The remaining two campaigns are of a decidedly different sort, owing to the nature of the protagonists’ identities, one figure being a female, the other an older, more cynical and jaded male, very detached from the youthfulness characterizing all of the game’s other protagonists. The female figure, Zara, is instantly notable based on her sex; for the longest, women were considered as incompatible with combat, a perception which persists in some fashion even to the present day. With her efforts – with her successes – Zara proves this perception as being a false one; she is endowed with as much strength as any other soldier, perhaps even surpasses them in some ways, only to her predilection for secrecy and stealth. Navigating the vast Arabian desert, her story is like a literal odyssey. Pairing together her gender with her ethnicity as Arabian results in a character wholly novel, and accordingly very compelling – no other protagonist is like Zara, and that is a truly remarkable achievement. Her lands being encroached upon by the powerful Ottoman Empire, she has ample reason to resist, to fight. And so she does fight, meeting with repeated successes despite seemingly insurmountable odds – mainly a guerrilla fighter, and accordingly often alone, still she bests soldier after soldier. The Arabian desert she navigates, meanwhile, morphs into a character in its own right, is immensely enjoyable to explore with its open-ended nature; atmospheric and moody, a sense of place is expertly captured here. In an interesting break, her campaign features an actual historical figure – Lawrence of Arabia. While not of the deserts, himself, he shows a certain empathy for the plight of the Arabians, equally resistant to the oppressions inflicted upon them by the Ottomans. While but a secondary character, his charm is abundant and infectious, his character modelling very well done. With his assistance, Zara’s campaign ultimately ends in triumph – bleakness is eschewed to an extent, despite the men slaughtered on the path to that triumph, the excesses of sorrow.  

The final protagonist, older and more disillusioned than Zara, Blackburn, or the other two protagonists, exists as a radical departure – grizzled and gruff, here is no youthful pluckiness. Long enrolled in the service, making many invaluable contributions even before the outbreak of The Great War, he has amassed a rather illustrious reputation, idolized and respected by all; he is fabled for his exploits and courage, but those exploits no doubt wrought within him a certain pain, a certain torment – he bears a heavy burden, internally grappling with the deaths he has inflicted. Given the narrative’s love of contrast, he is juxtaposed by a younger solider, a new recruit, whose idealization of this character is immense, dramatic; still inexperienced and unused to the horrors of war, he is like a foil to Bishop, the protagonist. Given his inexperience, Bishop becomes as a mentor, taking the boy soldier under his wing, attempting to guide him and direct his progress, tempering his pluckiness by communicating the terrible reality of the situation. This figure, even, enlists specifically to assist Bishop, this enlistment conveying the immense respect with which Bishop is regarded. Given his internal complexities, Bishop likely regards this respect with disdain – here is no striving for glory, but here instead is a figure frustrated by glories attained in the past. As with Blackburn the pilot, this new enlistee lied about his age, that deceit again revolving around his admiration for Bishop, this recruit perhaps desirous of replicating his superior’s impressive feats, desirous of a certain heroism, reflecting common perceptions of the war, at least by those not versed in combat, not witness to death and turmoil. The dichotomy between the pair is very intense and effective, resulting in a very grounded, human, and even believable tale, Bishop eventually occupying an almost fatherlike role, gradually growing to possess a certain affection for the boy, desperate to spare him of the hardship he so naively sought. This melodrama results in some of the most narratively engrossing moments in all of the war stories; it is remarkable.

Were the gameplay systems underpinning this narrative basic or uninspired, none of these narrative strengths would matter. Fortunately, this is not so. Central to enjoyability in any FPS title are the guns the player is permitted to wield, and, owing to the World War I setting, the guns available to the player are rarely seen in other titles – the developers were permitted to indulge in creativity, including some well-known though rarely seen weapons, while also featuring more obscure armaments; potentials for imagination are absolutely seized upon. In terms of weapon modelling, all guns possess great attention to detail, while gunplay makes strides towards achieving a certain realism, must observable in the frequent bullet drop which is most prominent when firing upon enemies some considerable distance away. This bullet drop morphs sniping into a highly enjoyable affair, and some scenarios even incentivize such forms of combat, height advantages provided the player, permitting full view of distant enemies, which can be tagged for easier tracking. In some instances, though, such an approach is not viable – open combat is a frequent occurrence. But whether sniping or wilding a shotgun, the guns are universally fantastic, feeling punchy and weighty, some possessing considerable recoil which can make them difficult to shoot, or to shoot unthinkingly – recoil must be compensated for, and this need is most observable when wielding automatic weapons, fairly rare given the setting, though still showing some presence within the arsenal. The recoil balances the fire rate, and balance generally is excellently achieved. Booming sound design, meanwhile, heightens the joys of combat, some heavier rifles almost thunderous when fired. Bolt action rifles are especially enjoyable to wield, as a certain skill-based component characterizes their usage – understandably slow to fire, that slow fire rate is compensated by immense damage. Given the size of the arsenal, then, a sort of strategic component arises – wielding one gun over another can fundamentally alter the gameplay experience, resulting in continued gameplay freshness. Ammunition can be fairly scarce, imparting a pervasive sense of tension; with this diversity, with this tension, with this skill-based dimension, gameplay generally and gunplay specifically soar.             

The weapons, while satisfying to shoot, are often unneeded for success, with a very robust stealth system in place. The mechanics are expected, the game adhering closely to the tropes of the genre – line of sight is of greatest importance, though sound production plays an equally vital role in determining detection or continued evasion; sprinting recklessly results in swift detection, standing in an enemy’s view for even the briefest of moments alerts the enemy. Nothing here is particularly novel, though the execution is perfect, and stealth is very satisfying, a fair few freedoms afforded the player – crouch walking lessens sound production, unaware enemies are vulnerable to a takedown animation, while a commanding sense of verticality, coupled with great freedom of movement, lessens chances of being spotted by an enemy. The takedown animations are frequently visceral, while a plethora of melee weapons are acquirable. While they do not alter the stealth systems, each weapon has a unique animation, reflecting the game’s pervasive attention to detail; shovels, maces, combat knives – all have a presence, and all can be brutally effective. Also useful in stealth are certain silenced weapons; devastating to use, greatly increasing the viability of stealth, they are balanced by their mostly anomalous nature, while their ammunition is scarce. But actually wielding one of these weapons, with an ample supply of ammunition, is immensely empowering, only heightening player flexibilities. The vacillation of bombastic open-combat and more methodical stealth sequences again contributes to gameplay freshness, which is bolstered further by the frequent, protracted vehicle sections, whether manning a tank in one war story, or an airplane in the other. With these three central pillars – open combat, stealth, and vehicular warfare – the game never falls prey to repetition, while a consistently brisk pacing is maintained. The mentioned freedom of movement can be exhilarating, many objects scalable, the map design supporting this locomotion, made all the more engaging by excellent animation quality, communicating the protagonists’ gracefulness.

The presentation is universally fantastic, the environments abounding in diversity, communicating the wide-ranging nature of the conflict; the vast Arabian deserts are explored one moment, cloudy, untamed blue skies the next. The draw distance is traditionally very long, while the environments themselves are large, this immense scope most observable when occupying a position of elevation – ascending some towering watch station as Zara, peering out over the endless sands, is an almost humbling experience, as are the flying missions, whole cities visible far below, like a war-torn, devastated London, thick plumes of smoke extending upwards. Here is something indefinably beautiful, the city’s majestic architecture surrounded on all sides by desolation, communicating the damning nature of warfare, in this instance placing the citizens’ lives in danger, all for naught. But hopefulness persists – the skies are filled with conflict, certainly, while smoke and fire exist below, but many buildings still stand, damaged somewhat though staying, reflecting mankind’s resiliency. Snowy mountains are flown through in the flying tutorial, while Bishop’s tale unfolds in Gallipoli, a very urban environment, grounded and intense, seemingly steaming with heat, oppressive, while the Ottoman architecture looms on all sides. Blackburn, plane crashed, is forced to navigate the trenches, this environment being the greatest communicator of war’s damning effects, being highly visceral, bodies sprawled out on the ground, gunfire and explosions setting the mood, pestilential rats scurrying this way and that. Edwards, the tank operator, is briefly forced to leave that sanctuary, navigating through bogs thick with fog, while the Alps campaign is characterized by majestic mountains and an overall green lushness. Collectively, many great achievements are met in this world design, abounding in diversity and supported by excellent technical systems – lighting is frequently beautiful, while texture quality is superb. The vast geographic distancing existing between some of these locations – London is far removed from the Arabian desert – illustrates the true nature of this conflict, namely its global dimensions; this sense of scale is magnificent.   

Very rare are the game’s failings, but those which do arise stem largely from the vehicular gameplay. Initial frustrations are abundant when learning to fly, the controls being both difficult to learn and even more difficult to master. They are not necessarily unintuitive, but they are abounding in complexities. Once some semblance of mastery is achieved, however, the flying sequences mark some of the most exhilarating moments in the entire campaign; the learning curve is indeed immense, but it can eventually be overcome. Various speeds can be adopted, slower speeds employed frequently for easier maneuverability, though when travelling at this slower pace, the plane is often made vulnerable – a certain security accompanies speed, even as maneuverability is greatly lessened; knowing when to accelerate, when to decelerate, is ultimately crucial to success in these sequences. Positioning is key, too. At lower elevations protection is ample, though the player runs the risk of environmental collision, which is often disastrous, even as the plane can be repaired in real time, though this action brings overall speed almost to a halt. These flying sequences, then, are rather divisive. Initially, they are a constant cause of frustration, though by the end game that frustration is largely displaced by great enjoyability. So engrossing to these systems become, a protraction of Blackburn’s story would be met with great eagerness.  

Something similar could be said of the tank gameplay, which requires great tactics and great strategy if success is to be achieved. Knowing when to fire the mounted machinegun, when to rely upon more explosive weaponry, is a constant concern – enter into an engagement depleted of explosive ammunition, and overall success is difficult to obtain, while knowing when precisely to move and when to maneuver is another concern. Infantry, mainly, is easily dispatched, being completely unthreatening; given the ease with which they are dispatched, further inklings of a power fantasy arise. But the tank is not indestructible; field guns and other high caliber weapons pose an immense, tangible threat, meaning their destruction must be prioritized – here are further illustrations for the dire need of planning, tactical considerations. Enemy armored tanks are perhaps the most devastating of threats, capable of obliterating Blackburn and his squadmates’ tank with ease. Flanking and redirection are greatly encouraged, but this is made difficult by the tank’s overall low speed, its slight options for maneuverability; navigating through muddy areas, which are very abundant, all but cripple the tank; here, the designers were striving for realism, and while in all other facets of the design they succeeded in attaining this realism, here are relative failings, this lack of tank mobility lessening the joys of the vehicle gameplay; just as with the flying, these sequences are personally quite divisive. The tank can be exited at will, can be repaired externally and at a far faster rate, but this freedom does not fully compensate for the other failings which characterize this gameplay. So: tactics and strategy are required, but it is oftentimes difficult to totally execute those tactics, that strategy. It is more exciting in the late game, though frustration persists.

As an experience, in many ways Battlefield 1 surpasses all other games belonging to the FPS genre, actually communicating many poignant messages in addition to featuring excellent gunplay and map design; war, sorrow, loss, pain, violence – all of these things receive admirable emphasis, as the narrative focuses on the pointlessness of that violence, the destructive nature of that war; the game displays considerable ambitions, which are expertly realized. While not long in length, easily completable in six or seven hours, the game can be occasionally distressing to play, owing to the mature nature of the themes, the graphic portrayals of violence. But even while the game is emotionally draining, its gameplay is highly engrossing, bolstering narrative strengths; these twin pillars, gameplay and story, are both firm, supporting the game in equal measure, while the title’s greatest uniqueness stems from its setting, typically woefully neglected. A certain respectfulness exists, the designers showing awareness towards all the sacrifices these soldiers made. And yet, despite this respectfulness, the game largely manages to eschew abundant sentimentality, that avoidance itself an achievement, many war media – video games or otherwise – committing that mistake, actively embracing sentimentality; the game is never sappy, though still it is sincere, heartfelt. Upon completion of the five principal campaigns, a brief cinematic is viewable, the developers again showing their passion and their respect, linking together the disparate stories into one cohesive whole. The greatest failing of the title, though, actually has nothing directly do to with the title itself, its mechanics. Given the almost episodic structuring of the campaign, the title is abounding in potential for DLC; more stories could be told, in different regions and with different protagonists, building upon the mechanics and narrative already present. But it is not to be, perhaps reflecting industry trends; the game released several years ago now, and while the multiplayer was supported extensively, the single player has long been neglected, and will forever be neglected. This is a grave offense, but such is the state of things. As a game, then, Battlefield 1 was personally very resonant, building upon the conventions of the FPS genre, all the while crafting a world and narrative which are totally unique – it is a resounding achievement.             

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