With World War II being so ubiquitous in the first-person shooter space, Battlefield 1’s announcement was exciting. While World War I isn’t a foreign concept to the industry, World War II took precedent because its more advanced weaponry and tactics served as a better basis for mainstream action. This would lead to rapid stagnation. After all, there are only so many times I can experience different interpretations of D-Day before wanting something new. It’s here where I thought Battlefield 1 could have led the charge into a new era of AAA World War 1 shooters.
Five years later, it remains my most disappointing Battlefield installment. In spite of the community’s vitriol over Battlefield 5’s marketing campaign and the mixed community reception to Battlefield 4, no game in the series feels like a bigger missed opportunity than Battlefield 1.
Not one to fawn over in-engine trailers that don’t represent gameplay, the announcement didn’t catch my eye because of the trailer itself. It was it’s World War I setting that left my mind racing with possibilities. Coming off the heels of still playing Battlefield 4 regularly, I was excited because of the implications this could carry for the gameplay experience.
Comparing the major AAA FPS franchises, Battlefield and Call of Duty have always felt different on a fundamental level. Even if you stripped out the differences in map design, game modes, and destruction, the approach to gunplay caters to different audiences. Call of Duty has typically favored arcade-like responsiveness while Battlefield opted for a hybrid between realism and arcade snappiness. It was never gunning for an Arma-like experience, but it was decidedly more intense than Call of Duty.
With World War I, Battlefield had the leeway to lean harder on the realism, forging a new identity for the series. Less advanced weaponry that took longer to reload with less maneuverability in the heat of combat? I was salivating at the thought of Battlefield 1 showing what AAA shooters could be. I wanted every encounter to feel meaningful. World War I was the “war to end war”, but Battlefield 1 squandered the potential to capitalize on this intensity with its misappropriated push toward further mainstream appeal.
Battlefield 1 started strong with an impactful introductory campaign level that set the stage for a series of war stories. Placed in the center of a huge conflict, players die and assume control of other soldiers on the battlefield like clockwork until its conclusion.
The skirmish’s scale set a bar for the kind of warfare that influenced the war’s naming convention. It truly felt like the entirety of human society was on the verge of collapse…until you get to the actual war stories and this gravitas disappears.
To be fair, there is merit to examining the war through the perspective of individuals as a part of a greater whole. It can lead to a more complete conceptualization of the war’s magnitude when implemented properly. Unfortunately, with a six hour campaign featuring five stories from different perspectives, you’re not spending enough time with these characters to get attached.
Major portions of the war such as the Gallipoli campaign are represented, but they’re mere footnotes in an experience that expects its audience to identify with the characters first and foremost. This approach detaches players from the war’s intensity as the plight of the individual you probably don’t care about takes precedent over the long-term significance of whatever is happening in the war at that point in time. Battlefield 5 would wind up adopting the same structure for its campaign, but it was more successful there. By taking place in a fictionalized retelling of the overrepresented second world war, its personal approach felt more justified.
At the end of the day, single-player is a blip on the radar compared to the multiplayer experience. It would be easy to dismiss the campaign’s semi-experimental approach, were it not for its fumbling of the underlying gameplay. Make no mistake: Battlefield 1’s gunplay is more than competent. If you’re in it just to have fun killing people, you’re going to be well-served. However, that gunplay doesn’t fit the tone set by the marketing and the campaign’s opening.
So many elements feed into the feel of a shooter that most don’t think about:
- Recoil/bullet spread
- Visual cues
- Sound design
- AI behavior
The list goes on. The way a shooter feels is the culmination of so many minor elements that contribute to its feedback loop—elements which feel less direct than other genres. That isn’t to say these things don’t matter to other games—in fact, they absolutely do—it’s just that their feel is less contingent upon them. Facets such as sound design and AI behavior enhance an action game, but they don’t make or break it. An action game is most reliant on the complexity and elegance of its combat. How deep is it? Are its systems convoluted? If the combat itself doesn’t work, nothing else can salvage it. By contrast, a shooter is almost entirely informed by these disparate elements because there isn’t mechanical density to the act of shooting to the same degree as forming combos in an action game or crafting strategies in a turn-based RPG.
These factors can be manipulated for different effects depending on what suits the experience. There is more than one valid conception of what makes a shooter satisfying. Different combinations of these elements evoke different moods while still retaining feedback that satisfies the player in different ways. It’s why a game like Doom Eternal can feel good in a different way from Metro Exodus which in turn feels good in a different way from any Battlefield game.
It’s why 2019’s Modern Warfare was such a paradigm shift over prior titles. In terms of weapon recoil and bullet spread, very little actually changed. Much of that game’s extra oomph stemmed from its overhauled animations and sound design. It is the poster-child for how much of an impact these seemingly innocuous aspects of design have on the end-user experience. In retrospect, the state of Battlefield 1‘s gameplay stings even more in a post-Modern Warfare 2019 world.
Where Battlefield 1 Went Wrong
Battlefield 1 is a satisfying shooter, but its setting feels inconsequential. World War 1 is treated as set-dressing rather than the basis for the game design. In non-clinical terms, Battlefield 1 is just another Battlefield in a World War 1 skin. Who cares if I’m running around with an MP 18 Trench gun or whatever…I might as well be using any semi-auto from Call of Duty 4 and beyond like an M4. The MP 18 weighed over 11 pounds when fully loaded. An M4, on the other hand, is just under eight pounds. Despite this disparity, Battlefield 1’s weapons feel as light as any Battlefield or Call of Duty entry.
Beyond the weapon handling itself, there are a few other points of contention. Battlefield 1 added the ability to open doors as you sprinted through them, but it feels mismanaged. There is no sense of inertia or weight to this feature. In fact, doing so actually offers what feels like a mini-speed boost. That door should be a barrier that slows players down or makes them stumble—something to add a consequence. Battlefield 5 would continue this weightlessness when running through doors to its detriment.
In other respects, however, Battlefield 5 reigned in some of Battlefield 1’s misdirected design decisions. Sprinting from a prone position is practically instantaneous in Battlefield 1 whereas Battlefield 5 slows players down as they transition from the prone state to standing up before moving into the full sprint—yet another example of consequence that doesn’t exist in Battlefield 1.
Particle systems are another major facet of the experience. Battlefield 4’s close-quarters engagements could become a blur as smoke and debris filled the air, making it next to impossible to assess situations at times. It added a layer of tension that’s missing from Battlefield 1. I don’t fear any close-quarters firefights because I have so much visibility. The particle system is toned down significantly in Battlefield 1, making engagements feel more like minor distractions than noteworthy events. Imagine the lobby scene in The Matrix without all that debris filling the screen.
The impact is lost without the indications that something happened within that space. Battlefield 5 found somewhat of a middle-ground. Gunfire didn’t have much of an impact on visibility, but explosions from tanks and grenades still left an impression with smoke filling the air for a decent amount of time.
There’s also the case of suppressive fire. Beyond features like its levolution, suppression played a role in making Battlefield 4 matches feel significant. The screen blur from bullets fired in your general direction instilled a legitimate sense of panic as you scrambled for a spot to gain your bearings. You never felt safe. Battlefield 1 is missing this sense of dread. Some of these elements could be annoying to some players, but they’re what contributed to Battlefield feeling like…a battlefield. The act of shooting in Battlefield 1 feels good, but not in the right ways. It detaches me from the experience that could have been.
Battlefield 1: In Conclusion
Battlefield 1 is fine, but it feels so misplaced in its direction. More than any other entry, Battlefield 1 should have been the game to double-down on the franchise’s slower pacing. Dice pulled the complete opposite, crafting perhaps the most arcade-like, fast-paced Battlefield game to date set to a backdrop that does nothing to inform its game design. Even Battlefield Hardline, for all its botched execution, had interesting ideas informed by its setting.
In the grand scheme of things, Battlefield 1 is akin to the Call of Duty 4 of the franchise. Maybe it didn’t put the series on the map, but there’s a clear sense of it gunning for a broader appeal than any prior installment. In the end, that is Battlefield 1’s failing. It’s a World War 1 shooter that was too afraid of being a World War I shooter.