The latest game in the Battlefield series recently came out. They named it ‘Battlefield 1’ due to it being set in WW1. A new and interesting setting for a mainstream shooter, or at least it could have been.
The game has received overall praise for the daring feat of making a game based on WW1 and somehow still making it fun, while also depicting the horrors of the war and paying respects the those who fought. I’m left wondering if everyone’s talking about the same game.
The first point I feel I should make about this game is that there appears to only have been the barest amount of effort put into making this game actually feel like it is set in WW1. It’s fair enough to say that the developers didn’t aim to make a realistic historical game, but then maybe their approach while making and advertising it should have reflected that. On top of this, it pretty much plays like it is exactly the same game as the last game made by DICE, and every other Battlefield game of the last 5 years despite them all having varying settings, from modern war, police vs criminals, and even Star Wars! All of these games are all practically exactly the same once you get down to playing them, and just seem to have a different coat of paint. Even then the user interface and HUD look remarkably similar, all with minimalist modern design that adds no theme to the experience, but I suppose it is functional if nothing else.
My major sticking point with the game is related to what I just said about it not feeling like a WW1 game. The weapons that are present in the game, and the use of them, means it might as well just be another game set around the present day. The most obvious point to make here is the ridiculous prevalence of automatic weapons in the game. It was apparent to me from the first time I saw a trailer for the game that this would happen. They were so scared that people would dismiss their game for being too boring if they so much as dared to have a few less bullets flying about the place. Their thinking behind this was made clear when lead designer Danny Berlin said “There’s this common misconception that WWI was just muskets or something, but it wasn’t. The freedom we have is massive” . So it seems they were so focused on giving their players freedom to play however they would like, that they didn’t stop to think that it would be the interesting limitations that players would try to work around in ways that may have actually happened during the war. The best example of this is the use of melee weapons in trench warfare. When the game was announced a big feature they boasted about was their new and improved system for melee combat in the game, with things like bayonets, trench clubs, entrenching tools and improvised knuckle-dusters being an interesting part about the war that could be explored. However, now that the game has been out a little while, I’ve seen no remarks about the melee combat in this game, and really it doesn’t matter if they have a cool newly fleshed out system for it, people aren’t going to use it much if they have easy access to as many machine pistols, submachine guns, and automatic rifles as they could ever want. This being something that the soldiers on the Western front didn’t have in any abundance, or at all up until the end of the war. By giving in to the expectations of the mass market they have directly compromised a feature of the game that could have been fun, interesting, and historically authentic.
Coming from their desperate need to squeeze in as many weapons as they could into the game, whether they be present in anything more than a handful of trial runs, or even at all, another problem with the game comes up. The fact that the vast majority of it is set at the end of the war, with 4 out of the 6 ‘war stories’ of the singleplayer campaign being set in 1918, and another in late 1917. This is most probably because they needed to set the game in a time when they can at least keep a vague appearance of being accurate with their use of weapons. It also helps them have a large portion of the game be from an American perspective, because of course we can’t play as a French soldier at all, for some reason. Considering the fact that most of the game doesn’t specify the date and exact location, it is clear that they didn’t place most of these to make use any particular interesting events. Before the game came out, there was mention of the war being a great setting for the game due to the way the war changed over time, and the way the war was shaped by new inventions and innovations of warfare. So then the game is released, with the vast majority of it being set in the final stages of the war, and none of these changes are explored. They had so much potential to introduce new parts of the story and game mechanics as the war progressed. From the beginning where commanders were failing to keep up with the use of new weapons and devise strategies for them, right up to the end when most armies were hardly recognizable in their appearance, structure and methods when compared to the start of the war.
I’ll finish my complaining about the game with the one piece of it that I would give as the perfect example of how much of a failure of a WW1 game it is. One of the ‘War Stories’ is set in Italy in 1918 and the player takes the role of one of a regiment known as The Arditi, who were a unit of storm troops adopted by the Italian Army in 1917. They were named ‘Arditi’ which roughly translates to ‘the daring ones’ due to their tactics for assaulting enemy positions and breaking defenses to make way for the main infantry. The game has you take part in such a mission, but instead of you using the real tactics and equipment of the Arditi, where they assaulted positions supported by artillery and machinegun fire, attacked with grenades, caused panic and confusion, then came in close to attack in hand-to-hand fighting, you are instead shown your character donning a full suit of head to toe body armour, and lifting a heavy German MG-08 machinegun. You then proceed to charge uphill at the enemy lines, spraying your machinegun with ease and accuracy, shrugging off rifle shots at close range and mortar shells exploding in your face. All the while this mission is framed by narration from the character you are playing, speaking some years after to his daughter with sorrow and reverence in his voice about how he lost his brother in that battle. The horrors of war. The whole thing comes off as a mockery.
While armour such as this was used in the war, it was not very effective against direct shots, and proved to be too heavy and restricting to movement, and was therefore very rare if used at all. lifting a machinegun of this type and carrying it around alone for any length of time would be a feat in itself, and sometimes the lighter machineguns were fired from the hip, but again only in very rare cases, and it was not at all practical or easy to do so.
To me it seems that EA, the publisher of the game and the rest of the Battlefield series, are yet again doing what they do best. They take in the best and most talented development studios with popular franchises, and then either proceed to encroach further on their creative decisions until they are in full control, directing the developers to continuously produce financially safe and soulless games, or simply shut them down, removing their IP with them. It is clear that this is the case with DICE now, as the interesting and creative choices they could have made in Battlefield 1 were rejected, and the game was only approved for development once the execs were shown that the game would be sufficiently similar to the standard formula that they knew to be viable.
They’ve already killed off many other companies in the past such as Bullfrog in 2001 (Dungeon Keeper), Westwood in 2003 (Command & Conquer) Pandemic in 2009 (Star Wars: Battlefront), Maxis in 2015 (SimCity, Sims). Now EA’s biggest devs; DICE and BioWare look like they are dying a slow death with the games they have released in the past 5 years.