“Preparing all-out war,” says the starting screen as Battlefield 1 loads up. It’s not kidding.
When Electronic Arts launched the trailer for its first world war shooter, fans were delighted to see the series, not only returning to its historical roots, but heading even further back than the original start point: 1942. This heavily viewed slab of cacophonous action promised an epic war story of destruction and gritty combat; and judging by the closed alpha test – an early version of the St Quentin’s Scar map available only to a select few players – the game will deliver.
After several days on the mostly stable 64-player servers, here’s what we’ve learned about the Battlefield 1 experience so far.
1. The battlefield is a truly dynamic landscape
While previous titles in the series have toyed with highly controlled scenic destruction via Dice’s awkwardly titled “levolution” system, Battlefield 1 presents us with a landscape that can drastically change throughout the course of a match. Buildings collapse, vast craters are blown into the earth and walls are smashed to dust by artillery and tanks. While this looks spectacular, it also has a huge affect on the tactical game. As the environment levels out, sight lines become longer, given advantage to snipers; while craters provide handy cover areas for advancing infantry. Added to this are the weather effects, with fog especially changing the whole feel of the combat, drawing engagement distances much tighter.
This is important as St Quentin’s Scar is not, in itself, the most inspiring map. A great slab of French countryside dotted with farm buildings, it has a little village at its centre, and areas of sodden no man’s land around the edges, complete with trenches and sprawling lines of barbed wire. Topographically, there are few of the enforced choke points that classic Battlefield maps exploit, although at the far right there’s an elevated capture point that provides some exciting stand-offs. This is a battlefield that relies on its own mid-match transformations – and they usually deliver.
2. Vehicular combat has more tactical depth
Tanks have changed considerably since the last title, and the closed alpha offers three specific classes. The light tanks are fast and highly mobile, operating almost like the jeeps in Battlefield 1942. The main turret also has a 360-degree shooting angle, allowing you to easily take out enemies, whether they’re lurking on the upper floor of a nearby windmill or running out in the open. The armour is basic, though, so these vehicles can be taken out fairly easily with an anti-tank grenades or rocket gun.
The heavy tank feels more familiar, resembling the armoured vehicles from previous titles. You’ll need a few teammates onboard manning the side guns, as the main turret can only shoot forwards, making it vulnerable to flanking. Then there’s the gargantuan land tank, which is heavily armoured, and can pretty much smash through anything, providing a satisfying sense of destructive power – though it has no defence if the enemy manage to get directly behind it.
Planes are similarly split into three classes: scouts, fighters and bombers, which work in a broadly similar way. Each vehicle, then, has its strengths and weaknesses and it’s necessary to approach capture points in very different ways depending on what you’re driving.
3. The weapons are the same ... but different
With its first world war setting, Battlefield promised the opportunity to use weapons and gadgets that most players won’t have experienced before. In practice though, the demarcations are very familiar: you have assault rifles, shotguns, SMGs, light machine guns and sniper rifles, and if you’ve played Battlefield 1942 you’ll immediately recognise some of the quirks of historical firearms.
But the best specific weapons are already emerging. If you’re playing the assault class, you’ll want the MP1918, the best SMG currently available. It has a high fire rate so can take nearby enemies down very quickly – though the magazine is small so regular reloads are vital. The best sniper rifle seems to be the Sharpshooter variant of the SMLE MKIII bolt action, which can take down targets in the medium to long range. If you want to be slightly more aggressive, and closer to the action, the carbine variant is perfect for medium range. For the medic, we’ve found that the Mondragon DMR rifle is the strongest option, and quite possibly one of the best medium-range guns in the game. It’s a semi-automatic, powerful and accurate.
The new selection of gadgets are fun. The AT Rocket gun is an early take on the RPG, which can efficiently remove both tanks and buildings from the environment. Gas grenades are also incredibly effective, especially if you’re carrying a shotgun: when you throw one, everyone in the vicinity has to put on a gas mask and fire from the hip fire (you can’t aim down sights with your gas mask equipped), so you have a short-term tactical advantage.
More subtlities are likely to emerge when the full armoury is available, but the alpha is already suggesting a really nuanced design approach.
4. Behemoths can really change the game
One of the most intriguing new additions to Battlefield 1 are the behemoth vehicles, which the game spawns in near the end of a match to help the losing side. In the alpha we get the opportunity to pilot the giant airship which is the only one that’s been announced so far. And it turns out these things really can completely turn the battle in the losing team’s favour. Its bombs can effectively level an objective point making it incredibly difficult for the winning team to take or maintain control of the area, thereby creating the opportunity for the losing side to regain a foothold in the game. It also changes the focus of the winning side, which obviously now has to concentrate on destroying the airship, spawning fighter planes, and getting infantry to the anti-aircraft guns dotted around the landscape. Again, it’s all about orchestrating these big strategic changes that alter the flow and direction of the game.
5. This is a game of epic player-made moments
Running on the latest version of Dice’s Frostbite engine, Battlefield 1 looks both astonishingly authentic and almost beautifully cinematic. From the painted shop signs in the village at the centre of the map, to the drifting smoke and burning embers in the shell-battered east, the game combines clever scenic detail with excellent physical effects.
But it’s seeing all of this in motion, during combat, that makes Battlefield 1 such an engrossing theatre of war. So far, we’ve dived into shell craters to avoid surging tanks, we’ve joined impromptu raiding parties of a dozen players, sprinting toward enemy-held farm buildings, we’ve watched a burning airship collapse on to the tower from which a sniper was about to take a fatal shot. This has the potential to be a game of real drama and emergent narrative excitement. Goodness knows we’ve seen a lot of military shooters since Battlefield 1942, and the genre was really getting tired. The moral qualms will continue, of course, but it seems this journey back to the beginnings of mechanised combat could well and truly wake things up for this battered genre.
This article was written by Keith Stuart and Ben Perkin, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 13th July 2016 11.13 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010