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Review: Beautiful Battlefield 1 gives the War to End All Wars its due respect

Daniel Howley
Technology Editor
“Battlefield 1” offers an engrossing campaign and fantastic multiplayer.

World War I was the “War to End All Wars.” But as EA’s “Battlefield 1” points out in its opening scenes, the conflict that spanned continents and killed millions ended nothing.

Available today for PS4, Xbox One and PC, “Battlefield 1” is a refreshing take on the military first-person shooter genre. The game puts you in the shoes of soldiers who, contrary to their protein shake-guzzling, testosterone-packed bro-y counterparts in other franchises, are genuinely terrified to be fighting in a war. In other words, they act like normal people.

And then there’s the game’s multiplayer, where up to 64 players fight across fully destructible maps complete with colossal zeppelins and pitched battles for inches of dirt.

“Battlefield” isn’t perfect though. There are still a handful of flaws. So should you look past them and sign up?

Life during wartime

Full disclosure: I’ve been a fan of the “Battlefield” franchise for some time. In fact, I’ve played nearly every entry in the series since “Battlefield 1942” first debuted in 2002, and like anyone who’s ever played a ”Battlefield” game, the one thing that kept getting me to sign up for another tour of duty was the series’ multiplayer.

That’s because solo campaigns always took a backseat. “1942” didn’t even have one when it launched and when full-on campaigns finally arrived around with “Battlefield: Bad Company,” they felt like cheap “Call of Duty” knock-offs. They just didn’t have that “Battlefield” feel.

“Battlefield 1,” however, is the first game in the series to create a genuinely emotional narrative. This isn’t a linear experience; instead of playing as a one-man army tearing through enemy lines, you play as multiple soldiers across the war’s various fronts ranging from France to the Middle East.

Trench warfare plays a huge part in “Battlefield 1”

The game’s opening minutes help set the stage for the kind of experience developer DICE was going for with the campaign. Instead of being dropped into an adrenaline packed action sequence, you simply die.

Get used to that, because you play as a handful of soldiers who — spoiler alert — don’t survive. With each death, the screen simply goes black except for the name of your soldier and the date of birth and death. It’s a powerful treatment; there was no black and white, good vs. evil to this conflict, no Nazis to use as faceless villains. These were human beings that fought and died, and the game does a marvelous job capturing the drama.

The game’s success in exploring the existential dread that accompanies being a soldier trapped in such a massive conflict is constantly on display throughout the campaign. Whether you’re a tank driver, pilot, or riding through the desert on horseback, you feel appropriately like a small cog in the war machine.

“Battlefield 1” shows the human cost of war.

The variety really brings it together. I love a good narrative arc, but being able to bounce between theaters of the war at my leisure made me less anxious to plow through Battlefield’s campaign and instead enjoy it for what it is.

It isn’t perfect, though. It’s pretty short as far as single player shooters go. You’ll easily roll through the entire story in a few play sessions. But the biggest issue is the game’s AI. In one of the first missions, you take on the role of a tank driver searching for spark plugs to repair his tank’s engine. Naturally, you have to sneak into a German-occupied town to get the spark plugs, because “Battlefield’s” God is a vengeful one who hates all of his children equally.

You’re essentially on your own at this point, so you have to play the mission stealthily. And while the stealth mechanics are fine, the way the enemy reacts to your presence is shoddy. I threw a lure to pull a German soldier off of his patrol and while he heard the sound of the lure hit the ground, he didn’t stray from his route to investigate. At times, the AI is so hopeless soldiers just stand there waiting for you to take pot shots at them.

The game largely masks these issues, though, through the sheer number of enemy combatants and how dangerously powerful their weapons feel. But it ruins the sense of immersion when the enemy soldier running you down won’t cross a creek to chase you.

Beauty in the face of war

Luckily, “Battlefield” makes up for its AI issues with its beauty. Powered by DICE’s Frostbite 2 graphics engine, which powered last year’s gorgeous “Star Wars: Battlefront,” “Battlefield 1” is a graphical marvel.

I played the game on both PC and PS4, and while the PC version is easily the more impressive option if you’ve got the graphics cranked up, the console version is packed with more than enough eye candy to leave you staring at your screen in awe. From bucolic farms and thick forests to crowded cities and desert outposts, the stages in “Battlefield 1” are simply amazing.

The destruction and beauty of “Battlefield 1”.

And like “Battlefront,” “Battlefield’s environments never feel empty. Long-distance dogfights darken the sky, while massive fires rage on the horizon and waves of soldiers pour over fields. The set pieces are enormous. “Battlefield 1 ” is an absolute beauty.

“Battlefield 1’s” scale is enormous

It wouldn’t be a “Battlefield” without fully destructible environments. This time around, though, DICE has dialed back the cartoonish destruction of previous entries for more realistic effects. Fire a tank shell at a windmill, for example, and debris will go flying, with bricks and wood planks tumbling to the ground as the smoke clears. It makes the whole experience feel that much more intense; no wall is safe from “Battlefield 1’s” impressive destruction.

Joining the fight

“Battlefield 1’s” campaign serves a secondary purpose beyond telling a handful of stories: it helps you learn to play the multiplayer game. Sure, you can skip the campaign entirely and dive right into an online battle against 63 other players, but digging into the single-player game teaches you about specific weapons or tactics that translate to well to multiplayer matches.

And let’s face it, multiplayer is the reason you’re interested in “Battlefield” in the first place.

“Battlefield 1’s” multiplayer is among the best.

So you’ll be happy to hear that “Battlefield 1’s” multiplayer experience is top-notch. I’ve played across both the PC and PS4 and haven’t noticed any server issues beyond the rare instance of slowdown that happens with any online game.

The usual class system found in other “Battlefield” games is back, but with a slight twist. There’s the Assault class, which is both anti-personnel and anti-vehicle; the Medic, which is, well, a medic; the Support class, which offers ammo and can repair damaged vehicles; and then the Sniper, for long-range damage.

The change is a bit jarring at first. In previous versions of “Battlefield,” Engineers fixed friendly vehicles and destroyed enemy ones. Support players threw down extra ammo, and the Assault class was all about running and gunning. It’s actually more interesting now that you’re forced to choose between either fixing your own team’s vehicles or destroying your foes’.

“Battlefield 1” is an online free-for-all.

To be honest, though, newcomers to the series won’t even notice the class changes. What’s more, the classes now feel far more well balanced (with the exception of the Sniper, which can still hit you from what feels like the other side of the planet.)

It’s the multiplayer game that truly shows off the size and scale of “Battlefield 1.” Maps are absolutely massive, filled with plenty of structure to enter or blow up. The fighting always feels frenetic, and every move you make could help turn the tide of the battle.

“Battlefield 1” includes a handful of multiplayer game modes, from standards like Capture the Flag and Team Deathmatch to newcomers like War Pigeons and Operations. War Pigeons sees teams attempting to capture messenger pigeons at the start of the match, which they must then carry to a safe spot to help call in artillery strikes against the opposing team. Operations, meanwhile, features massive frontline battles in which attacking teams must capture various control points to push deeper into enemy territories. These matches are easily the longest in the game and can last up to an hour depending on how well your team performs.

Part of what makes “Battlefield” unique in the military shooter genre is its inclusion of vehicles, and they’re well accounted for in “Battlefield 1.” You’ll drive an assortment of tanks, jeep, and planes, and while the vehicles are powerful, they never feel unstoppable. A few well-placed grenades or artillery rounds and that’s it. Some maps also allow you to call in support vehicles including armored trains and zeppelins. The first time you see the latter cross the skies above a map is completely ridiculous.

If you played the “Battlefield 1” beta, though, you’ve probably got one question: Are horses still immortal murder machines? Unfortunately, they kind of are. You can pour lead into a stallion and it won’t come down until its body is 95% bullets. One particularly durable pony shrugged off an artillery round I fired at it, giving its rider the opportunity to cut me down with his saber.

Pictured: an unstoppable killing machine. And a solider.

“Battlefield” also includes the ability to purchase new weapons skins and upgrades via war bonds, which you receive by leveling up through multiplayer games. But to purchase those weapons in the first place, you have to reach a certain in-game level. It’s a bit confusing and I wish DICE had done more to explain how these systems work in the multiplayer introduction.

A world at war

“Battlefield 1” is an impressive game that manages to blend a powerful single-player campaign with fantastic multiplayer. It’s a bit unfortunate that the thematic elements of the single-player game don’t carry over to the multiplayer experience, but delivering an emotional online game with a potent narrative while some dude named 420B0NGZ4LIFE tries to blow your head off is nearly impossible to begin with.

DICE has done a praiseworthy job giving The War to End All Wars and the soldiers who bravely fought in it the kind of respect they deserve, while also delivering an amazing multiplayer game. If you’re a fan of shooters, or games in general, you’ll want to enlist.

4 and half stars

What’s Hot: Refreshingly powerful narratives; gorgeous graphics; impressive scale and destructibility; incredibly addicting multiplayer

What’s Not: Shoddy AI; campaign clashes with free-for-all multiplayer, IMMORTAL HORSES!

Platforms reviewed: PC and PS4

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Email Daniel at dhowley@yahoo-inc.com; follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley.