Battlefield 1 (PS4) Review – Battlefield is back!
My fondest memory of war was, as a kid, sitting in front of what felt like a giant movie theatre screen in my uncle’s living room staring up at Tom Hanks on Omaha Beach, paralyzed, surrounded by death, destruction and chaos. And my uncle had this great surround sound system – you know, the one with actual speakers meticulously positioned at every corner of a space, so that you can get the right aural stimulation. Everything was just booming in my tiny ears. The soldiers trying to bark orders at each other over the screams, the exploding shells, and gunfire. And I distinctly remember how the shaky cam just added to the whole experience, like we were watching it through the eyes of some dude, who crouches down right in front of Tom Hanks and stares intently at him like “What you gon’ do now eh? What you gon’ do?”
Four years later, I’m staring at a far more modestly sized screen (a 17” CRT monitor) with shitty speakers you pick up from the bland everyman electronics shop you find in any mall, the 2.0 kind that has the fiddly knobs in front of one of the speakers to turn up or down volume, but the bass is so tiny because there’s no dedicated subwoofer. And I was trying to illicit the same experience from Battlefield 1942’s own version of the Omaha beach landing that I felt all those years ago watching Saving Private Ryan.
Back then video games had not yet reached the graphical fidelity (hold on guys, I know you’re here to read about Battlefield One, but there’s a point to all this) of movies or TV shows, so our minds had to fill in more of the gaps. But Battlefield 1942 didn’t need to hand craft or engineer an experience around the individual gamer, because the large scale sandbox environments, the access to a wide range of vehicles, and the 64 PLAYER CAP led to epic moments of war. It built a playground where people could live out their war fantasies. I could be in wartorn France, weaving in and out of quaint little houses in the countryside raped by the brutalities of war, or storming the beaches of Omaha beach pretending to be Tom Hanks or some other sorry soldier who had the unlucky job of showing up to work that very morning.
And dying! Dying in Battlefield 1942 was great! It was inconsequential. You died and respawned quickly enough, back at it. That was an important mechanic, from a design standpoint having a constant flow of people coming back to the fight made it seem like there were larger armies constantly battling it out then there really was. But more importantly, a respawn mechanic like the one in BF 1942 made dying enjoyable. Because war is brutal. And war is unfair. You can be dashing out of an amphibious vehicle only to get shot dead by a sniper before you can even get a chance to squeeze off one round. Dying in Battlefield made you embody the hopeless futility and dread those dying soldiers must have felt, sacrificing everything, dying so ungloriously.
It’s been awhile since a game made me feel all sorts of warm, fuzzy, and weird things about war. The recent Battlefield outings before BF One were cold and clinical, full of modern ways to ending soldiers’ lives that ironically removed the humanity from the process. A caveat, I’m only speaking from my experiences with the games – I have never ever fired a real gun, or served in the military. But actually my point is really FUCK THE GUNBROS OF CALL OF DUTY. They were the ones that caused Battlefield games to pivot, cranking up the speed and making it all about levelling up and getting more things and awards.
Which is why when I jumped into my first multiplayer game of Battlefield One over the weekend (after a brief DDOS attack), my face was frozen in a perpetual grin. A grin so wide it actually hurt. But not as much as how much my heart hurt from joy from being back in my happy place of war.
I stood at the edge of a garden, and watched as a beautifully crafted circa Victorian-era building get wrecked by biplanes swooping in and out dropping bombs, tanks rolling in kicking up mud and dirt, both British and German armies rushing headlong into each other. Soldiers barking orders at each other over the screams, the exploding shells and gunfire. What you gon’ do now eh, Jun? What you gon’ do?
I was sat in my living room staring up at a large plasma TV mounted on a wall, and although I don’t own a surround sound system, the TV’s own in-built audio output was sufficient enough to give my ears the aural pleasure it seeks. The joy from all those years ago came rushing back to me as I ran headlong into battle.
We have arrived in a new era of gaming where our minds no longer have to fill in the gaps because the graphical fidelity of the new Battlefield One, the eye-ball licking sheer goodness of it, makes war feel all too real. DICE must have made a deal with the Devil for their graphics engine.
But the best part of the Battlefield One experience was reminding myself that none of it is orchestrated. That what makes a Battlefield game so great is that there are actual people controlling each and every one of these soldiers running around shooting each other, driving the tanks, flying the biplanes, and bringing to life the Great War.
Now, I want to take a moment to mention that Battlefield One does have a singleplayer campaign – and it is far better, and more competent than a lot of the previous singleplayer offerings from Battlefield games. It even feels like watching one of those decent B-grade TV shows or movies about war, about the humans that sacrificed, survived, and died in them. It was a pleasant surprise to find a nugget of compelling emotion as a through line. But no one really plays Battlefield for its singleplayer bits. That’s like buying an electric scooter and only buzzing about in your backyard. No, you take that bad boy out onto the streets to annoy the fuck out of every pedestrian.
But coming back to the main point of why you play a Battlefield game. If you’re in it for a hyper-competitive mechanically excellent shooter, you’re not going to find it here. There are just way too many variables, too many ridiculous ways to die in a second or two after spawning without allowing for skillful counter-plays. And the people with the big bad guns from grinding long hours are always going to best the chilled dads or mums with kids on their laps trying to blow off some steam from a fucked up work week. But that’s okay. You play Battlefield games because you want to be saving Private Ryan.
(P/S: Actually I’m bullshitting, the real great reason why the respawn mechanic in Battlefield games works is because it keeps you always playing. And not in a Call of Duty or Overwatch “I’m back to the fray” type of way, but in an “I am an immortal spirit of war, and I will continually drive the glorious engine of death and destruction, no matter the body count” way.)