While a vast swath of the industry have embraced increasingly more futuristic settings, DICE, creators of Battlefield 1, has instead turned its attention to the past. The result is a shooter that’s just as brutal and relentless as the conflict that serves as its grim inspiration.
To that end, the trench warfare of World War One doesn’t just make for a brand new setting, but a prism through which its long-time Swedish developer has rediscovered all the elements that made its past works so well received.
There are the open-ended levels that defined Battlefield’s DNA in its earliest days on PC that give agency and creativity rather than funnelling you down a set-piece laden corridor and a greater sense of freedom that we haven’t that stems from the return of the destructible scenery first seen in the much-loved Bad Company games.
In the course of the game there are times you’ll need to blast through barbed wire barricades and cottage walls alike when manning a tank or have your chosen sniper nest reduced to rubble by enemy cannon. It’s a feature that forces you to treat cover less as a permanent lifeline and more like a dynamic tactic.
These elements give you freedom, but they also reinforce an unrelenting sense of danger that pervades every mode and facet of Battlefield 1.
From the madness of a multiplayer map to the chaos of its single-player component, death looms around every corner, a constant reminder of the sacrifice that typified the War to End All Wars and a poignant statement about the stakes of war.
Its prologue presents this grim but all-too-real sentiment from the outset, placing you in unwinnable gunfights as the German war machine overwhelms you again, again and again. It’s somber, a sobering reminder of what war – real war, not some futuristic space battle – is like.
So, rather than being forced to swallow another dull, fist-bumping bro-fest a la Battlefield 4, we’re instead treated to a campaign that plays to the strengths of its new period, allowing for a single-player experience that’s both entertaining and – dare we say it – essential.
Opposed to following a single protagonist, DICE instead opts for a series of War Stories that tell the tales of men and women from the many fronts of the Great War.
Breaking it into contrasting chunks does the single-player mode wonders, offering six mini campaigns that never feel dull or repetitive. Fighting through mud and blood and in Mark V tank feels relentlessly exciting as you duel with cannon and machine gun fire, leaping out to repair your mechanical beast as it comes under fire. As does taking to the skies in a Bristol F2 Fighter, pummeling zeppelins and chasing down bi-planes.
Sure, the campaign has its fair share of overly explosive vehicular moments, but it never forgets its meant to be an on-the-ground shooter first and foremost. Whether you’re sneaking through the trenches behind enemy lines or assaulting Hungarian troops in a Modern Warfare 3-style set of body armour, Battlefield 1 is constantly offering up different scenarios never never feel stale or overly predictable.
But everything isn’t quite perfect here. There’s quite a bit of stealth, especially in the first half of the anthology, and it proves one of the few areas the game falls down.
Melee kills are now quiet, rather than completely silent, in an attempt to give its virtual battleground a deeper realism. However, this new distinction ultimately alerts any nearby enemy whenever you thwack a shovel into the shoulder of an unsuspecting enemy.
Before you’ve had enough time to wonder whether a garden tool should really be that deadly, you’re soon forced to hide as each successive ‘quiet’ kill alerts another foe. It doesn’t break the game, but it does undermine these sections unnecessarily.
Tanks for the multiplayer memories
So with War Stories triumphantly banishing the curse of single-player, how does Battlefield 1 fare in multiplayer, the component that’s made the series one of the most creative theatres of war in gaming? Well, for a start it isn’t broken, which is already a step up from the catastrophe that was Battlefield 4’s first few months back in 2013.
That shift away from the ubiquitous modern setting and its all too same-y weapons transforms online multiplayer, with everything from trench guns to single-shot rifles creating a rock, paper, scissors template that makes every firefight feel brutal and intense.
Gadgets also help complement the classes, with the Medics defib swapped out for a retro syringe, while the introduction of mustard gas stops anyone not carrying a gas mask from aiming down their sights.
Map-wise, Battlefield 1 isn’t the dramatic step forwards we were hoping for, with most maps feeling far less enjoyable when truncated down for the likes of Team Deathmatch. The urban destruction of Amiens, with its ruined buildings and tight alleyways, makes for one of the few settings where CQC feels genuinely rewarding. Of course, this being a Battlefield game, it’s in large-scale warfare that its latest incarnation of multiplayer finds its highest gear.
In Conquest mode, the classic large-scale calling card the series is known for, those maps feel far more organic with the likes of the sand-swept Fao Fortress and Sinai Desert filled with enough points of elevation and cover to make both vehicular and on-foot combat feel dangerous from the off.
Sure, base spawn points are still placed too far from the natural epicenters of action, forcing you to hightail it should you fail to spawn in a tank or on horseback, but the recycle rate on vehicles is relatively fast so it’s far from the issue it was in previous Battlefields.
Those over-the-top, mid-match ‘levolutions’ have thankfully been dropped, taking the emphasis away from a largely aesthetic and allowing matches to develop based purely on player agency and creativity. It’s an important change that proves showing set-pieces have no place in an online experience such as Battlefield 1.
And let’s not forget just how mechanically beautiful Battlefield 1 is. Sure, the game doesn’t always hit the solid 60fps in multiplayer that it does in War Stories, but you can see all the graphical improvements the studio made with Star Wars Battlefront glittering here in WW1. Mud glistens along the trenches while explosions bloom with a mesmerising blur of colour – it’s a grim point of history to recreate, but it’s one DICE pulls off with artistic grace.
Verdict: Play it now
Three years and a balked spin-off later, Battlefield returns to full form, no longer concerned with competing with its biggest rival. The shift to a historical setting rejuvenates a series that was stagnating in its modern military form, transforming its single-player component into an essential element that stands as one of the best solo shooter modes we’ve seen in years.
Underneath the new guns and gadgets, the same Battlefield DNA remains, giving long-serving players all the familiarity they could want. For new players or those that had grown bored with the same old, same old, the roster of vehicles, guns, gadgets and tweaks to the template have given Battlefield a new lease of life. Much like its work with Star Wars Battlefront, DICE has proved its vision of a shooter is the near perfect combination of past and future.
Battlefield 1 was reviewed on PS4.
TechRadar's review system scores games as 'Don't Play It', 'Play It' and 'Play It Now', the last of which is the highest score we can give. A 'Play It' score suggests a solid game with some flaws, but the written review will reveal the exact justifications.