Mud, Blood, and Shovel Bludgeonings – Thoughts on Battlefield 1

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A few weeks ago, I dropped a bushel of money on a brand spanking new computer to replace my old machine, a loyal beast who had sadly been outpaced by the demands of modern video games and was starting to get loud and rattley. As it happened, I got my new machine around Black Friday, which meant I ended up looking around at the deals on Steam and Origin. As it turned out, Battlefield 1, the new multiplayer shooter by EA DICE set during the First World War, had a price drop that made buying it a thinkable notion. I don’t play multiplayer shooters anymore, but I do enjoy seeing WWI depicted in video games, and I was entranced by the launch trailer, scored to that immortal soldier’s ballad, “Seven Nation Army (Glitch Mob Remix).”

Well, it turned out the game had a single-player campaign, and I had little common sense, so I bought it, and just this afternoon I spent six hours playing through the whole thing. As you can imagine, I had thoughts.

Overall, the single-player part of Battlefield 1 strikes me as something caught between two worlds. It’s a single-player campaign for a game that is more comfortable with multiplayer, and it’s simultaneously trying to be a rip-snorting adventure, a touching, respectful depiction of a terrible era, and a tutorial for the multiplayer, the real meat of the game. As you can imagine, things get muddled.

Mechanically speaking, the game doesn’t feel that good as a single-player shooter. Battlefield is a game built around character classes with specific loadouts and specific roles, and the translation to single-player isn’t that comfortable. Sure you can choose what guns to carry, but you’re always scurrying to weapons tents to rejigger your layout, which is always limited to two guns and two “devices.” The enemy AI is no great shakes either; they’re not that dynamic, but they can take bullets to the face like a champ. There were numerous parts where I was forgoing guns to just run around the battlefield and melee-kill my opponents to death, something that only worked because I set the game to “easy.” The game has a certain latitude in how you tackle some objectives, but it’ll yell at you if you wander out of bounds.

The game’s coverage of the war is…a little odd. Driven either by the desire to get out of the shadow of the Western Front or a fear that the game would never get a sequel, the single-player campaign is broken into six mini-stories, three on the Western Front, one in the Italian Alps, and two in the Middle East. There seems to be a reluctance on the part of the developers to have the players using unfamiliar, older weapons, so four of the six campaigns take place in 1918, when there’s submachine guns and prototype assault rifles aplenty. In a way, it takes the fun out of a new time period when most of the gunplay feels like it could have come from a WW2 shooter.

As for tone, the stories bounce all over the place. The prologue story, “Storm of Steel,” is the most harrowing, the game’s purest expression of “war is hell.” You’re dropped into the 369th American Infantry, the “Harlem Hellfighters,” during what is presumably the Second Battle of the Marne, and are told to simply hold the line. Naturally, you die in combat, over and over, only to rise again in a new body. It’s scripted to within an inch of its life, of course, but it does get across the meatgrinder aspect of the conflict in a particularly effective fashion.

The other stories, by contrast, aren’t quite as effective. The second Western Front story, “Through Mud and Blood,” has you as a British tank driver piloting a Mark V during the Battle of Cambrai. It’s a simple story of men coming together to become a crew, but there simply isn’t enough time to develop any real characters or arcs. The only thing it really does well is convey the sense of the tanks of that war as being more like ships of the land rather than elements of armored cavalry. “Friends in High Places” is a flyboy story that mostly stands out by having said flyboy be a horrendous dirtbag that is probably lying about his experiences even as you are playing them. The Italian story, “Avanti Savola!” is frankly ridiculous, with the story of an Italian commando looking for his missing brother being undercut by the spectacle of him doing so by marching up the side of a mountain in full plate armor wielding a machine gun like he just climbed out of Wolfenstein.

The most unique feature of this game, for me at any rate, has been its focus on the Middle Eastern campaigns. Gallipoli gets its time in “The Runner” with a pretty standard story of a old Aussie soldier looking out for a raw recruit. However, it was the final story, “Nothing is Written,” that really got me engaged in the game. You’re plonked into the role of Lawrence of Arabia’s Girl Friday, a Bedouin woman named Zara Ghufran, who does most of the heavy lifting in entrapping and destroying an Ottoman armored train that has been attacking settlements across the Arabian peninsula. For this last campaign, everything seemed to click. I had a clear goal, a protagonist and a side character I liked, and I enjoyed the gameplay of slipping into isolated desert settlements and going on stabbing sprees. The only downside was the appearance of the Malevolent Sexually Threatening Turkish Officer as a secondary antagonist, which I don’t think anyone really needed (and whose appearance might partially explain the fulsome tributes to the Turkish veterans of Gallipoli and the Republic of Turkey in the previous chapter.) Despite that, I enjoyed Zara’s adventure, and I kinda wish a whole game had been made about her instead.

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Zara Gufran, in the digital flesh.

Actually, while I’m here, I’ll also wish that they had included German and Russian stories too. The reasoning for the German one is obvious; after decades of moving down Germans, wouldn’t be nice to play as them, especially since this is the world war where they aren’t Nazis? As for the Russians, the timing of the game would make their inclusion difficult. By spring of 1918, they’re out of the war and the Russian Civil War is gearing up, which means that, ironically, even though you’d be playing as the Russians, you’d still be shooting other Russians. But just imagine some mythical game like the older Call of Dutys, but for WWI; you’d start off in 1914 as a Brit, a German, and a Russian, you’d fight your way through the years and some major battles, but just as the Brit and German campaigns wind down, the Russian one just keeps going, through the two Revolutions and the Civil War, until it’s 1925, you’re running anti-partisan operations in the Caucasus for the Cheka, and you’re trying reconcile the man you thought you were with the man you’ve become and the man the Party demands you be. It’d be a hell of a ride.

Despite the fun I had as Zara, I’m not sure if I’ll be playing any of Battlefield 1 again. On my new machine I already have my other two WWI-themed shooters installed: NecrovisioN, a silly thing full of vampires and demons that plays like the Polish version of Doom, and Iron Storm, an alternate-history romp that’s pretty much a spiritual successor to the original Half-Life. Neither of these games are very good, but I enjoyed them more than Battlefield 1.

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