Thursday, January 26, 2017

All Chaos on the Western Front: Battlefield 1

Battlefield 1, developed by DICE and published by Electronic Arts, was released in October 2016.

The Battlefield series of first-person shooters, developed by DICE and published by Electronic Arts, has almost always been defined by its commitment to realism – or, if not realism, at least verisimilitude. DICE is well-known for making games with impeccable sound design, visual effects, and environmental detail, even if the quality of the gameplay – from the historical scenarios of the Battlefield series to a certain galaxy far, far away – can sometimes waver. Few developers pour as much effort into recreating a “true” wartime experience, which aims to wholly immerse you in the chaos, excitement, and horror of war. And few titles achieve this more completely than last year’s Battlefield 1.

Hiding behind that inane title is the first game in the 15-year-old Battlefield series to be set during World War I. It isn’t surprising that DICE took so long to choose this setting, considering that the events and technology of the Great War don’t exactly suggest a thrilling gameplay experience. You could hardly sell millions of copies, as EA always aims to do, by advertising a “sit in a muddy hole and get trench foot before being shelled to death” simulator. So, naturally, Battlefield 1 takes the liberties you’d expect, by supercharging the depiction of First World War combat so that guns and vehicles are varied and powerful, action is ever-present, and player engagement is more likely. But, crucially, this is pretty much where the game’s exaggerations and historical liberties end – it’s really the first game in the series, and maybe one of the first triple-A shooters ever, to really bring home the human cost of one of the bloodiest wars in history. I can’t say I expected that.

The game’s intro shows some white text over a black screen, detailing some of the profoundly depressing statistics about this “war to end all wars” which, as the text points out, “ended nothing.” It then presents you with a grim warning that what you are about to experience is frontline combat, and that you are not expected to survive. (Right away, this is unusual: tutorials are typically the safest part of a gaming experience, when the devs remove the threat of death flying at you while you’re trying to figure out which button does what.) You’re thrust into the boots of one of the Harlem Hellfighters, a real-life infantry unit facing down waves of German soldiers in France during the twilight of the war – and though your shooter skills might be strong, it’s nearly impossible to survive the onslaught. When you die, the screen shifts to slow motion, and suddenly the name of the soldier you were controlling appears onscreen, along with the year of his birth, followed by the year 1918 – the year of his death. Then the camera zooms out to give you a moment of peaceful respite, high above the combat, before swooping back down into another soldier, so you can continue the fight. It’s an amazingly effective way of immersing you in the time period and setting, showcasing the gorgeously depicted chaos of the game, and most importantly, hitting you hard with the terribly wasteful reality of this historical event – all while doing the business of teaching you the controls. Now that’s a tutorial.

The rest of the single player campaign continues this impressive dedication to realism in the gameplay sequences it calls “War Stories.” Each one is comprised of several missions that focus on a particular soldier fighting in a different theatre of war, like a tank driver named Edwards ripped out of civilian life to fight through the Western Front, or an Italian member of the legendary Arditi searching for his twin brother during a battle in the Dolemites, or a Bedouin rebel working with Lawrence of Arabia himself to purge her homeland of the invading Ottomans. DICE draws on inspiration from recognizable cinematic and literary sources, cribbing as much from David Ayer as they do from Hemingway, in order to create resonant wartime tales that focus on a variety of likable (and doomed) characters. Lead writer Steven Hall does a fantastic job of bringing life, love, and loss to what any other triple-A shooter would consider faceless soldier archetypes, but a large part of the effectiveness of the campaign comes from more from its gameplay variety than from its writing. You’re never more connected to a game character than when you’re forced to struggle through a challenging, surprising situation with him or her, and Battlefield 1 keeps the surprises coming. I won’t spoil any of the juicier details, but suffice it to say that standing on the ground shooting a bolt-action rifle doesn’t even come close to expressing everything the game has to offer in terms of variety. Tank combat, aerial dogfighting, stealth missions, midnight desert raids on horseback, armoured offensives, trench-bound bayonet battles, you name it – DICE has read all the history books and mined them for as many compelling shooter scenarios as they possibly could. Depicted with their typically exacting level of visual and sonic polish, the campaign never fails to impress.

The multiplayer modes are where the Battlefield games truly make their money, however, and although these modes don’t appeal to me as much as the campaign does – I’m admittedly less than competitive at competitive shooters – I was still impressed by the polish and variety on offer in Battlefield 1’s multiplayer. From stalwart Conquest and Deathmatch modes where chaos rules the day to Rush and Domination modes that switch up the usual team objectives, it’s all fairly typical stuff – until you try out War Pigeons, which tasks you and your team with capturing a carrier pigeon and surviving long enough to attach a scrawled note to its leg before letting it fly, hoping that you or your team or, god forbid, the pigeon doesn’t get shot by the other team in the process. That’s just one example of the kind of surprising innovation that DICE has built into what might otherwise be a bog-standard suite of multiplayer modes, all of which are characterized by a mind-boggling frequency of awe-inspiring personal triumphs and failures. Every ten minutes of gameplay in Battlefield 1 contains at least one jaw-dropper; every hour could be cut up and assembled into an eye-popping reel of “Holy shit, did a zeppelin just crash into the building I was hiding in?” moments. It’s war on a scale never before seen in blockbuster shooters, and what’s most important about it to me is that the emotional scale is the largest and most strongly emphasized. Shooters, at their worst, are tone-deaf macho power fantasies that feel completely disconnected from reality, even as they get better at visually depicting it. The fantasy of Battlefield 1 is more in line with the great war stories of other media, whose strength is their ability to communicate the hope and love and fellowship that existed in the trenches of history’s most horrible conflicts. That’s an achievement – and a message – that shouldn’t go unnoticed by gamers, even as they’re having the time of their lives playing through it.

– Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.

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