Happy Battlefield 1 review embargo day! Our full, scored review won't be published until we've had a chance to test the full game on live servers. Until then, here's our review-in-progress, based on a two-day review event held at DICE, plus full access to the singleplayer campaign and the Play First Trial's multiplayer.
I'll admit to being surprised when DICE announced that Battlefield 1 would be set during World War 1. Also that the 10th Battlefield game – excluding free-to-play and console exclusive releases – was to be called Battlefield 1. But, while I've still not made my peace with the name, the setting makes a big difference – arguably for the better.
Yes, this is familiar territory for the series. Battlefield 1, like its predecessors, is an objective-based team multiplayer game, pitting up to 64 players across two armies in a battle across sandbox maps. At its best, it's chaotic and surprising. Infantry sprint across the land, tanks roll ominously through streets, and, overhead, planes attempt to out manoeuvre each other, the loser crashing violently to the ground. It's loud, complex and exciting.
Importantly, though, the period slows the pace. Set in the early-20th Century, the technology of the era is notably more basic than even World War 2 – let alone the modern era. The weapons feel less effective. Not necessarily less lethal, but each has more obvious strengths and weaknesses. A sniper's bullet will still do the job, but every rifle available to the scout class is bolt action. If your first shot isn't a kill, you waste precious seconds refilling the chamber while your target is finding cover.
For me, it's a change for the better. If I'm under fire, I appreciate the chance to get away. If I'm sniping, I'm too enamoured with the satisfaction of using a bolt action rifle to mind that I'm working harder for each kill. Once again, DICE's sound design is extraordinary. The sense of power implied by each weapon's audio and animations makes most guns a pleasure to use. I predominantly play medic, and the selection of semi-automatic rifles feel gratifyingly hefty, even as I struggle against their kick.
There's less class customisation. Customisation is extremely limited, with many of Battlefield 4's extensive options no longer available. The benefit is that each role has a stronger identity, and often excels at a different range. And even within those categories, it's possible to tailor for specific playstyles. The assault class can wield shotguns, for the up-close-and-personal touch, or submachine guns to dominate the short-mid range. The LMG of the support class is great for laying down suppressing fire, but some models have great hip-fire accuracy for a more mobile loadout. The armoury may not be as large, but you're still rewarded for finding the right gun for how you want to play.
Perhaps the most notable change is the lack of RPGs, creating a very different feel in the way infantry deal with tanks – or landships, as they're called here. Armoured units are particularly lethal, especially if each gun is manned. And while the assault class has access to a variety of tools to destroy them, drivers are able to repair their vehicle while driving it. A careful driver – rarely seen on an online server – can prove a significant threat.
The upshot is that vehicles don't feel as big a part of Battlefield 1, and many of the Conquest maps seem smaller as a result. It reflects what seems to be a shift in design philosophy that, ultimately, asks what you want in a Battlefield. If it's the full-scale, multi-discipline warfare, that doesn't feel as prominent as in Battlefield 4. Rather, the focus of Battlefield 1 seems to be more on infantry combat. Tanks, planes, horses and 'behemoths' adding to the excitement, but never feeling like consistent part of the action.
Planes are the weaker aspect of Battlefield 1's vehicle selection. They can be effective, but the controls are a bit simplistic – reminding me of Battlefront's arcade experience. That wasn't so bad in the sci-fi setting, but here, in a more realistic context, doesn't really work. Planes also do some weird stuff. In one of the singleplayer missions, I clipped some anti-air trucks while flying a bit too low to the ground. Rather than (justifiably) exploding, I came to a complete stop – the game dialogue chattering away as if nothing was amiss. By increasing my speed, I was eventually able to unstick myself from the floor, heading back into the air with nary a hint that I should definitely be dead.
I'll go into the modes in more detail in the full review, although expect Conquest and Rush to dominate the in-game server browser (that's right: no more Battlelog). The main addition for Battlefield 1, however, is Operations. This lives in a separate tab, outside of the server browser, with a matchmaking system designed so you don't join an in-progress round. It plays like a mix of Rush and Conquest, but on a bigger scale. The attacking team must capture sectors, each divided into two or three flags. The defending team must whittle down the enemy respawn ticker. Attackers must capture all sectors, in sequence, across multiple maps. If they fail they use up one of their three attempts, but, on each subsequent attempt, spawn with a 'behemoth' – massive, deadly vehicles that are different based on the map currently in play.
The point, I assume, is to show the progression of a World War military campaign as one team pushes forward a front. That doesn't really come across – the separate maps don't really feel connected enough. But, as a multiplayer event, it works well. Each Operation is lengthy – potentially stretching over an hour with balanced enough teams. And the structure enables the sort of clutch plays and heroism that characterises great Battlefield moments. I need more time with the mode before I can really judge the balance, but it's a promising diversion – even if the length stops it from becoming the mode I spend most of my time with.
The singleplayer campaign is rarely the draw of any Battlefield, but, for once, it's well worth your time. Battlefield 1's 'War Stories' are an anthology of singleplayer missions, each three or four chapters long, set in different locations and with different protagonists. The structure gives DICE the room to play around with the narrative format. The prologue switches between multiple protagonists, showing the impossible odds they face across the breadth of a single battle. Elsewhere, we meet, among others, a roguish American pilot, a British tank driver, and Lawrence of Arabia.
Each of the War Stories looks at different aspect of World War 1 – be it the skies, the trenches, or the Alps. Each also gives DICE an opportunity to create varied scenarios. In one, you'll be crawling through no man's land in an effective, albeit linear, atmospheric sequence. In another, you're in a large desert map, tasked with infiltrating three checkpoints in whatever order you like. It's memorable stuff. And while almost all of the stories are over-the-top and heroic, even at times fantastical, I don't think that lessens the impact any. You'll not spend too long in singleplayer – it's around 5-6 hours – but it's a fine addition, adding some directed drama and spectacle that offers a worthy experience away from the multiplayer action.
So far, performance has been good. Admittedly, I'm using a GTX 1070, and it's held steady at 80-ish frames-per-second at 2560x1440 – even as buildings collapse and airships fall burning to the ground. In addition to the earlier plane issue, I've noticed a couple of minor bugs over around 25 hour of play, usually when being revived. In one, I was stuck in a endless reloading animation, fixed when I swapped guns. In another, I kept going prone unprompted, fixed when I died and respawned. These, and other minor occurrences, are pretty rare – most games have played out without problems. I'll need to test on a more modest machine, but I'm hopeful that this'll prove much more stable than Battlefield 4 at launch.
Overall, I'm enjoying Battlefield 1. It's not a huge departure for the series, despite the period, but it is meaningfully distinct from Battlefield 4. That may disappoint those who simply want progression that mirrors the jump from Battlefield 3 to 4 – more guns, more features and new maps. But I think there's a reason that DICE is planning to integrate Battlefields 1, 4 and Hardline through a single launcher: all are just different enough that, in parallel, they create a Battlefield ecosystem. Whether you can handle that much Battlefield or not, Battlefield 1 is a fine take on the formula.