‘Battlefield 1’ Is Fantastic, but Not Because of the History
Don’t skip the excellent single player campaign in this year’s multiplayer blockbuster
by MATTHEW GAULT
Battlefield 1 is almost a masterpiece. During my time with the game, I’ve been a casualty at the Battle of Mont Saint-Quentin, held the line with the Harlem Hellfighters, searched for the dead as an armored Arditi and campaigned with Lawrence of Arabia. It’s action packed, horrifying and polished.
And it’s all about World War I, the war pop culture forgot. From the chaotic, mustard gas filled multiplayer to the uneven, epic and touching stories of the single player campaign, Battlefield 1 is best big budget video game shooter since 2005’s Call of Duty 2.
Developers DICE somehow managed to capture the look and feel of the Great War, teach some history and make it fun all at the same time. It’s a startling achievement that revitalizes an old shooter franchise and ensures people will be playing Battlefield 1 for years.
When I was a kid, The History Channel aired endless documentaries about Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. History classes skimmed over World War I in an hour but lingered on World War II for months.
By the time I was a teenager, the black uniforms of the Schutzstaffel were pop culture cliches. Indiana Jones beat up Nazis, Mecha-Hitler stalked the halls of Wolfenstein 3D, and practically every other video game asked players to storm the beaches of Normandy, raid Kehlsteinhaus or defend Stalingrad.
It’s easy to see why. America’s involvement in World War II is intrinsic to its cultural identity, and the reasons for fighting it are relatively simple to understand. The Nazis were obvious villains who wore skulls on their hats and industrialized human slaughter.
America rode in on its shining horse, saved Europe from itself and ended a horrifying war with a more horrifying weapon.
That’s a highly reductionist and U.S.-centric way to explain the conflict, to put it mildly. But World War I’s lack of a straightforward good vs. evil narrative helps explain why American culture — with its enormous appetite and influence on global entertainment — hasn’t taken to it.
The Great War always loomed in the back of my consciousness. It was the prequel implied by the title of The History Channel’s favorite subject. Its generation wasn’t the Greatest, but The Lost. The photos were in black and white, the stories were horrible and no could explain why it started.
Battlefield 1 is the first big budget entertainment product to tackle the Great War and it does an incredible job. As players progress, they unlock codices — basically, brief paragraphs giving context and explanation to the war.
Kill 10 players with gas grenades and unlock the horrifying history of the weapon. Achieve victory at Mont Saint-Quentin and learn the story of the battle … if you want to.
DICE makes the history lessons optional and focuses on the action and the soldiers. Which is smart. It also avoids attempts to give the War to End All Wars a simple black-and-white narrative, which is smarter. The game doesn’t even touch on the complicated politics of the conflict.
People don’t play video games to learn about Serbian military secret societies, Austrian Archdukes or entangling alliances. Instead, DICE crafted a single player campaign around short vignettes it calls War Stories.
Each War Story takes place in a different part of the world, and focuses on an individual soldier. The short stories take an hour or so to play, and determined players can finish off the campaign in about six hours.
There’s no overarching narrative, as the game simply drops you into different parts of the war across the globe. The first, “Storm of Steel,” tasks players with joining the 369th Infantry Regiment — a.k.a. the Harlem Hellfighters, the first African-American regiment to fight in World War I — to defend a French town from a German assault.
It’s harrowing and establishes Battlefield 1 as something different — and better — than its competitors.
Players enter “Storm of Steel” with no explanation of how to play the game and no instructions beyond “defend the area.” It’s chaos. Mortar rounds explode in the air. Screams mingle with the sound of gunfire. Tanks slog through mud, crushing men under their treads. German soldiers cower behind rubble, rocking back and forth and muttering to themselves.
I watched one German soldier wander the battlefield, his gun dragging behind him as he looked around, never drawing his weapon. A fellow Hellfighter walked up and put a bullet in him at point blank range.
Just when I’d gotten the feel of the game, understood where the Germans were coming from and figured out how to crouch … I died. The game zoomed out, displaying my soldier’s name, his date of birth and date of death. Then it dropped me into another soldier on another part of the battlefield.
On and on it went. Fight, die, repeat.
It’s a brutal opener to the game’s story mode, one that attempts to capture the horrors of battles such as Verdun without forcing the player to live through months of endless combat. It works, but the mechanism also contains my one complaint about Battlefield 1’s single player campaign.
During “Storm of Steel” and through the rest of the game, an unnamed Harlem Hellfighter narrates the action. He’s got a few lines before every other War Story. But who is he? What’s his name and why is he important? For that matter, who were the (in reality, fascinating) Harlem Hellfighters?
I wanted just a little more from each story.
The rest of the stories are equally short and sweet. Players will guide a Mark V landship across enemy territory, take to the skies as an American rogue posing as a British officer, search for a wounded brother in the mountains of Italy, run across the Ottoman Empire during the disastrous Gallipoli campaign and battle a war train alongside T.E. Lawrence.
Each battle ends with a few lines from the developers explaining some of the concepts and themes they explored in the particular War Story, but the exposition never quite does the history justice. An extra half an hour or so added to each mission would give players a better feel for World War I.
I felt this the strongest during “Nothing is Written,” the game’s brief foray into the Middle East and the myth of Lawrence of Arabia. Zora Ghufran, the chapter’s protagonist, is a Bedouin woman helping Lawrence fight the Ottomans. She’s angry, bent on revenge and fascinating.
But DICE does a poor job of explaining why she wants revenge, who Lawrence was and why a British officer is helping the Arabs. It reduces the entire conflict to a line about it being a squabble over oil. Which is an oversimplification.
That’s the great problem with talking about World War I and attempting to reduce it down to a simple narrative.
It comes across as trite.
Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast took 20 hours to cover the Great War and he still feels he left too much out. Battlefield 1 is much the same. It’s a wonderful game packed with content. The multiplayer alone is fantastic and easily worth 100 hours of gameplay.
Despite that, it feels like the developers left so much on the cutting room floor. Where are the French and Russians? Perhaps they’ll arrive in an upcoming DLC, but we’ll see.
The game puts players in the boots of the British and Americans, and avoids protagonists from the Central Powers altogether — but stops short of making them villains. The game just implies they are because they’re always the antagonists.
It’s frustrating, but only because Battlefield 1 is so good. In a video game market where so many single player campaigns overstay their welcome — I’m looking at you, Call of Duty — that’s as rare and magical as it is frustrating.