Evidently, DICE does not believe in resting on one’s laurels. The pioneers who brought us the undisputed king of epic-scale sixty-four player battles in Battlefield 4 already had their sights on something higher, and are finally able to reveal the game they had been wanting to make for years: Battlefield 1. The “reboot” in sequel numbering is symbolic of a return to the root of all-out warfare in what history would call World War I. DICE invited players to help beta test their latest build of the nearly finished title, which features just one battle in the Sinai Desert. At a glance it seems like a narrow slice of the game to preview, but the resulting mayhem feels anything but small, and is shaping out to be the best in the series to date.
Keeping the familiar
More than any other modern wartime themed shooter, the Battlefield family is distinguished by a specific feel , one that starts with a common foundation. Squad up with five friends and choose between one of four iconic supporting roles, control heavy armor and dominate objectives to win. DICE did not meddle with its successful formula much at all here. The four classes to choose and develop over time include the close quarters anti-armor Assault class, a field Medic, passive defense and ammunition lugging Support and the sharpshooting Scout. Individual performance is secondary to successfully coordinating capture and defense of key locations and mitigating enemy heavy armor while keeping your own running. It’s no accident this will feel familiar right away to returning players.
Raising the stakes
Unlike the near-present day battles in the hypothetical clash between US, Russia and China in Battlefield 4, Battlefield 1 is a trip back to the earliest conflicts of WWI nearly a century prior. The changes are far from cosmetic. Gone are the signs of hyper technology in every aspect of game play, including effective visible range, how spotting enemies is communicated between allies, and nearly every other aspect of the UI. Other changes come from improved game engine, like dramatic weather effects and ultra-realistic detailed environments. Everything from weapons, vehicles and uniforms and even dynamic dialog is historically accurate. Marksman rifles excepted, nearly all of the fighting takes place at much closer range than ever before, including the most terrifying trench and tight quarter troop to armor fights I’ve ever played in a game. Even the sounds the soldiers make in reaction to a threat – like a live grenade or soldier charging with a bayonet – is downright frighteningly intense. Even more so is the inevitable gas attack. Every troop carries a gas mask – a startlingly authentic and claustrophobic recreation of what you might see and hear – your own labored breathing, mostly, as you struggle to make out friend or foe in the dense smoke through dirty lenses.
Among my favorite improvements and additions are the classic WWI dog fighters and bombers. Battlefield already had the best air combat outside a dedicated flight combat sim (and still better than most of those), but the historically accurate planes in Battlefield 1 are one of the most genuinely breathtaking additions to the game, and are a dream to pilot. To be quite honest, I feel that a lot of the jets in prior Battlefield titles were silly and Helicopters, well, that’s something else, but here I feel like a kid again imagining the dog fights of legend including those of the Red Baron himself.
Mixing things up
Borrowing a theme from an unlikely source – Star Wars Battlefront – special weapon crates scattered around the map offer much more of an upgrade than map-specific weapons in prior Battlefield titles. So far in beta I’ve seen a plated armor heavy machine gunner, an anti-tank rifle and the shock trooper style flame thrower. Teaser trailers and other alpha footage suggest there are other of these “elite classes”, each which turn your soldier into a much tougher than usual threat that can turn the tide of a close fight. Also available is cavalry, which can either be chosen prior to spawn or by hopping on a loose horse in mid fight, offering valuable speed and vital saber reach in melee quarters. A well timed charge can close the gap with marksman, a squad mate in dire need, or to an enemy trench. A skilled rider is a serious threat, a welcome dynamic on either side of the barbed wire.
The game changer
In the second half of the game of conquest one team will take control of a vehicle of unprecedented size and power – in the battle in Sinai Desert it is a massive, densely armored train loaded to the brim with heavy guns. Other pre-release footage shows a colossal zeppelin-style gunship entering the fray on a different map. Even if it fails to turn the tide of a one-sided fight, its appearance is certain to make an impact and can make a huge difference in a tight match. This escalation late in the fight further underscores overall improvements to the flow of battle and sense of urgency when the score is too close to call.
Blowing everything up
Another hallmark of the Battlefield series is environment destructability. Battlefield 4 had an uneven mix of nearly static maps and ones where some or most buildings could be destroyed, as well as some amazingly catastrophic map-changing destruction – the collapse of Shanghai Tower among the most notable from the previous in the series. From the beta and other footage, Battlefield 1 is a step forward in overall general destruction, including realistic cratering from explosions and bombs that create dynamic cover. Nearly every structure and object I found was vulnerable to explosions, including some portions of the landscape like the giant stone archway so many marksmen traverse. The buildings in the village sustain heavy damage under fire from tanks or other artillery until they are reduced to rubble. Seeing great clouds of sand and individual sandbags rain down where a wall of cover once stood before a bombing run left measurably deep holes is an experience no video footage can really do justice to. I was blown away by how visceral it felt.
If I didn’t make it clear already, I have really enjoyed beta and think it will be a huge success at launch. I do however see there are bugs yet to fix, and some further thought needed to balance the four classes in their roles. Scouts as long range marksmen are super effective and very easy to play even for the inexperienced. I believe a sniper should have some challenge or aspect to limit domination seen in beta, and require some sort of real skill to play well. As it stands, you could win a reasonable number of fights with mostly scouts on your team, which for team balance just sounds… wrong. At the moment there is almost no reason to play Support as they have next to no anti-armor capability and an effective range similar to Assault; the latter of which has the only useful close range anti-tank ordinance. Furthermore, since ammo refills prior to the coveted ammo crate are also available from cavalry and some vehicles, it further limits the importance of having Support in your squad. I’ve read that at launch that Support players may get a mortar of some sort, which may help answer both of the prior observations as it could help make sniper nests a little less effective at asserting unanswerable deadly threat to a large area. Sure, tanks, cavalry and counter sniping (sigh, MORE snipers) are valid responses to a sniper flush enemy team, but as it stands playing on or against a team with three-quarters Scouts doesn’t feel like a strategy, it feels like… imbalance.
Melee combat needs finishing touches – it is really squishy at the moment in determining who in a face to face combat comes out on top, making a lot of melee feel random rather than calculated. Horse melee is supposed to be dominant against foot troops (don’t break this) but at the moment it has unexpectedly long reach from certain angles, leading to deaths from riders who didn’t seem to be close at all. A tweak here and there could go a long way, as well as routine fixes for graphical oddities like backpacks that appear to swing like lassos (super strange to witness… why are you swinging that like that??) and floating objects left untouched by explosions. Some of these are just funny, but most look plain unfinished. None were game breaking.
Above all, it’s clear DICE still has the magic touch. Much like Battlefield 4 before it, Battlefield 1 will emerge at the head of the pack in true next-generation gaming when it is released later in October and maintain the high bar at least as long as its predecessor did. There seems to be quite a bit of the game they have kept under wraps this time, I think I’ve only seen real footage from two or three maps and almost nothing from the single player story – but what they’ve shown is really second to none. I look forward to discovering what else they have in store soon.