Rather than march into futuristic war zones, Battlefield 1 is taking its fight back to the fields of the Great War. David Cornish gets hands-on at E3
I am breathing heavily. Mud covers my boots, evidence of a hasty advance through the ploughed fields that surround the idyllic village of Travecy, France. Crouching down behind a stone wall, I survey my target – a small farm 200m away across a field.
A grenade rips through the tranquillity, showering me in dirt. Rifle fire tears the air. I spray a line of bullets in reply, dashing towards an outhouse. I’m closing on the door when a tank rolls through the farm’s gate, flattening a wall. There’s an explosion, darkness, then I’m surveying the same scene from the skies above.
I’m not dead – or rather, I was, but this is Battlefield 1. Rather than attempting to repeat my assault on foot, I’ve decided to respawn in the cockpit of a biplane, raining down fire on the conflict below. A player on the console beside me has taken up refuge in a mill tower, laying down cover with sniper fire. Elsewhere, someone vents their rage as their armoured car is taken out by a well-timed grenade.
There are 64 of us waging this war, crammed into EA Play’s demo area. Rather than squeezing into the packed LA Convention Centre for this year’s E3 event, EA has moved five minutes down the road, hoping to draw crowds away from the delights of the new Zelda and VR thrills of Resident Evil 7 to its own multiplayer hands-on with Battlefield 1 and the mech-filled Titanfall 2. The lengthy queue for this 20-minute taster would suggest it’s worked.
The Battlefield franchise began in 2002, set amid the grim events of 1942. Since then, the military shooter has moved forward through history, from Vietnam
to contemporary urban terrorist conflict, to future battles. So why did EA DICE return to 1914?
“Two guys at the DICE office have been passionate about the First World War for a really long time,” explains Daniel Berlin, lead designer on this latest military campaign. The duo made an impression when they illustrated the weaponry, vehicles and worldwide locations that would make up their dream game.
“At the beginning of the war, battles were fought with horses and swords. By the end it was tanks and planes. It was when the old world met the industrial. The innovation that took place makes for a unique game.”
The Battlefield series has always sought to go bigger with each entry, almost overwhelming players with the breadth of scenarios. This return to the dawn of large-scale warfare is no different: you’ll be able to take on opponents with pistols, shotguns, machine guns, automatic rifles, bolt-action files and melee weapons. “They look strange sometimes,” says Berlin. “Why would you put a magazine on top of the gun? Why isn’t that on the side? These were the first iterations of these weapons. They look otherworldly.”
There are six character types to choose from: on foot, there’s the varied skills of Assault, the healing abilities of the Medic, the clandestine Scout and heavy fire of Support class, while Pilots can take to the air and Tanker classes rule the roads. There’s a lot to get your head around.
“The mandate we had was that no battle should feel the same,” adds Berlin. “Every multiplayer match should feel unique.”
The destructive aspects of the game illustrate this: enter a house hoping to gain a rooftop advantage and you can blow the stairs away behind you. A vast zeppelin can be called in, showering devastation on the areas below. Should an anti-aircraft gun manage to ground the airship, its burning carcass creates more chaos to be negotiated. Every time we returned to the fray, be it as a Medic or Tanker, we found new shocks waiting to test our skills.
Having detailed the ugly delights of the game’s multiplayer, we turn to the question levelled at every video game based on history: can you make war entertaining?
“We need to be respectful in what we do,” says Berlin. “This is a game, an entertainment product – we don’t want this to be the History Channel, but we wanted to ground everything in authenticity.”
Researchers have delved into the archives to pull out ‘gameplay opportunities’ from little-known conflicts of the First World War. The game will feature untold stories, including those of a female Bedouin warrior. There are no sci-fi twists – just EA DICE’s take on one of the bloodiest moments in recent human history. All that’s left for the development team is a few tweaks before the game is stretched to breaking point by thousands of players in an open beta test later this year. “I’m confident,” assures Berlin. “We play this game every day. The room downstairs is full of people having a good time.”
The Battlefield 1 I played was relentless, mottled with tactics and combat choices. It was shockingly brutal and breathlessly fast. Horrific as it may sound, I’m looking forward to my trip back to the trenches.
Battlefield 1 is released on Xbox One, PC and PlayStation 4 on 21 October