Battlefield 1 is not just a game. It’s brutal scripture, a sermon against the concept of warfare as something to be enjoyed and consumed. It’s a history lesson. It’s a sobering reminder of a war that almost no-one is left alive to remember.
There is not much about Battlefield’s single player campaign that you could call fun. It is bleak. It is gritty and raw, and does not sugar-coat the reality of the first World War to try and make it palatable for a wider audience. It is not something you can sit down and play through and not experience on a higher level than just clicking a mouse and tapping a keyboard.
There’s actually a huge disconnect between the single player and multiplayer campaigns. Multiplayer, for Battlefield veterans who know their squads and stacks and strats, hasn’t changed. It’s consumable. It’s fun, for a certain value of the word fun. Battlefield 1’s multiplayer is exactly what you expect competitive online team-based multi to be. It’s chaos, but fun chaos. But the single player campaign could not be more different.
The war stories, almost short enough that they could be vignettes, do not star a gun-toting BJ Blazkowicz. They don’t even have a star, really. The characters within are, by and large, profoundly normal — with no superhuman build or incredible skills, and with no great back story to speak of either. They’re just people, and when they die, they’re memorialised with a splash screen showing their name and years of birth and death and nothing more.
There hasn’t been a high-profile first-person shooter about the Great War before. There haven’t been many games about World War 1 at all. Where there are hundreds of games about World War 2, many of them good and some of them excellent, the first World War has mostly been represented in popular culture with sombre films like Gallipoli and books like All Quiet On The Western Front.
Battlefield 1 is a lot like Gallipoli, mixing occasional moments of levity with scenes of brutally powerful pain and destruction and personal loss. It’s a lot like All Quiet On The Western Front, because for all the power that you have as a player, you’re not invincible, and you’re not the only soldier fighting, and you’re just one individual whose death probably wouldn’t even be noted in a history book.
The characters, too, are diversely represented — Italian, Bedouin, female, African-American, Australian. There’s no play-the-Hollywood-hero whitewash. That makes their stories doubly interesting, because they haven’t been told in a game of Battlefield’s size and scope and broad appeal before. They’re not the usual stories you play in war games, and they’re intensely personal.
And in Battlefield 1’s war stories, the player doesn’t win. There’s no medal ceremony and kiss from a pretty girl for the player in the missions, most of which end with friends and comrades dead and dismembered on the battlefield, or cut down along the way — in a very self-aware, un-game-like nod to the fact that wars don’t play out like the movies say they do.
The cold open to the campaign is a front line battle. As you play through the mission, you’ll die. More than once. Each time as a different soldier, utterly disposable as an individual and valuable as a lesson precisely because of that fact. Your time as each lasts as long as you can stay alive against opposing forces, but it doesn’t trivialise these deaths, nor the destruction and brutal horror of the war.
I did not expect this from Battlefield 1. I expected waves of brittle enemies rushing to crash against the might of a single Herculean player, draped with guns and ammo and with the odds stacked squarely in his or her favour — a modern video game for fickle modern players. Playing through the game’s single player campaign was something I had planned as an escape from the real world over the weekend.
Instead, it’s a fight for survival. A nearly constant fight throughout each mission in each war story to stay alive, and to push forward against what is — a lot of the time — unwinnable opposition. Your comrades and fellow soldiers have an impact on your success, and you can watch them get cut down by gunfire, but at the same time you become invested in their lives and take responsibility for their deaths.
None of this is fun. It’s strange to think that Battlefield 1 is a multi-million-dollar title from EA Games, when the message that it intentionally carries is so honest and emotional. It’s not twee or forced or fleeting; it’s sombre, and powerful, and strangely enlightening. It almost feels like the multiplayer — which many Battlefield 1 buyers, the Battlefield faithful, will flock to without a thought for the campaign — was the price that DICE paid to tell those war stories.
I didn’t expect to feel emotions and interest and an investment on the level that I did when I played through Battlefield 1’s campaign. I’ve played dozens of World War shooters before, and beyond the Normandy beach landings in Medal of Honour: Allied Assault, nothing has come close to Battlefield 1 for evoking that sense of awe and disgust and upset that we should all feel when experiencing the stories of a war where 17 million people died.
I didn’t expect to be writing this about Battlefield 1. I expected a lot less — I actually expected a game. I didn’t expect history.