Battlefield 1 finally addresses the series' aircraft problem

I have always been the guy who queues for a plane or a helicopter in a Battlefield game. I know, I know. I'm sorry. I have spent a not-insubstantial amount of my gaming life hanging around on the aircraft carrier near Wake Island and the airstrips in Daqing Oilfields. I am very familiar with the helipad on Caspian Border.

I'm aware that I'm part of the problem, the airborne equivalent of the nomadic horde of teenage snipers that have squatted ineffectively in the distant foothills of Battlefield maps since time immemorial. In my defence, however, and perhaps also in defence of xXx_sn1p3rw0lf_1997, the Battlefield series has always been about living out particular fantasies in a sandbox of war.

Battlefield is at its best when these fantasies overlap. Deathmatch warriors fighting building-to-building provide a shooting gallery for snipers on a far-off hillside. Doomed pilots diving earthwards provide a dramatic, unscripted backdrop for players on the ground. Contrary motivations can produce a complementary experience when every individual part is tuned correctly.

That said, aircraft have proved to be a sticking point over the years. For every positive behaviour they encourage, there are plenty of negatives. Queuing for planes is one, as players hammer the E button to be the first to jump into a freshly-spawned jet (the needs of the team be damned.) Another is the creeping perception that aircraft are most useful as one-off disposable transports, helicopters picked up and abandoned mid-air to deposit assault teams behind enemy lines or snipers onto otherwise-inaccessible vantage points.

Battlefield 1 stands out because it represents a concerted effort by DICE to fix many of the series' long-standing problems, including these. As Phil notes in his review, the early 20th century setting improves Battlefield's gunplay because it slows things down, raises the skill ceiling, and places increased emphasis on the accuracy of each individual shot.

This is just as true for aircraft. Battlefield 1's biplanes, triplanes and rickety bombers fit maps of this scale far more comfortably than jets ever did, moving quickly but not too quickly, striking hard but rarely accurately. The absence of air-to-air missiles forces dramatic dogfights at close range, and the flimsiness of each plane puts them at risk from ground fire without needing to equip every infantryman with a stinger missile launcher.

This creates an aerial playspace that feels more open, more of the time without losing that vital connection to the war on the ground. Perhaps it goes without saying, but Battlefield 1 is far more like Battlefield 1942 in this regard. While helicopters earned their place in the modern Battlefields, jets were never intended to operate at the foreshortened ranges that those games imposed. Battlefield 1's wobbly airframes are far more at home.

The open-topped canopies of these early aircraft are an invitation to snipers, encouraging the kind of crazy skillshot montages that Battlefield has always inspired. But a more substantial damage simulation allows for other forms of system-driven spectacle: armour-piercing bullets might tear a hole in a bomber's wing, altering its flight model and causing it to clip the side of a windmill before exploding in a shower of burning canvas. 

A map to victory

Map knowledge is essential whether you're fighting on the ground or in the air. Check out James' map guide for essential advice tailored to each of Battlefield 1's 10 maps.

The repair system is another welcome addition, giving pilots the ability to patch up damaged or disabled aircraft in flight as long as they can sustain the repair action for an agonisingly long period of time without taking damage or altering their course. When your engine has failed and you're diving to your doom, finishing a repair just in time to pull up and return to the fight is a great feeling. And when it goes wrong, well, you've just given somebody else a brilliant-looking explosion to appreciate.

As with other vehicles, aircraft are now selected on the respawn menu when available. Certain capture points grant additional aircraft to your team, but the timing of each new aircraft is deliberately obscure: hanging around on the spawn screen is possible, but unreliable, and as such the old queuing issue feels much less pronounced. You're better off spawning on your squad and fighting while you wait—after all, the high lethality of ground combat means you're likely to be staring at the respawn screen again before too long.

The unreliable availability of aircraft when compared to other ways of getting to the frontline—horses, motorbikes, squad spawns—seems to have also discouraged players from picking them up and disposing them as often as they used to. After all, if you're looking to get to a perfect sniping spot then chances are half your squad is already there: you might as well just spawn on top of them and join in.

There are three kinds of aircraft—the bomber, attack plane and fighter—with the former performing an anti-ground role, the latter focusing on aircraft, and the middle one sitting… in the middle. Each has multiple unlockable variants tailored to specific roles, like a bomber with incendiary bombs or an attack plane with rockets designed to take down blimps.

If there's one area where Battlefield 1's implementation of aircraft struggles, it's in balancing these three archetypes. Out of the stock variants of each, the attack plane offers the most options. Its anti-ground machine guns are no slouch at taking down other planes, particularly when coupled with a powerful and highly mobile tail gun. Bombs give it power against infantry (particularly if your team knows where the spotting button is) and its third ability, spotting flares, allow it to be useful even when the map is ensconced in fog.

I've spent full games in attack planes with a friend, taking down enemy aircraft as they appear and bombing sniper positions in gaps between dogfights. By contrast, the bomber feels more like a time-limited killstreak reward: it's very powerful and it'll keep three of you happily occupied for as long as you can keep it in the air, but it can't adjust to suit the situation in the way that the attack plane can.

The stock fighter, meanwhile, is the weakest of the three. It relies on an instant-heal ability to survive encounters with the tailgunners on both attack planes and bombers, but feels rather toothless: you're much less of a threat to the planes you're chasing then they are to you, and while there's definitely skill to be demonstrated in taking on a bigger aircraft and succeeding, you're not offering too much to the rest of your team while you do it. Later upgrades allow you to skew your fighter towards anti-air and anti-ground roles (including picking up the attack plane's spotting flares) but it feels like the stock fighter should have some of this utility by default.

These issues are resolvable, however, and—more importantly—they're the right issues to have. Fixing the spawning system and giving aircraft more clearly defined roles makes them feel less like disposable novelties and more like a carefully-weighted part of the Battlefield ecosystem.

A tank is a blunt instrument: a powerhouse that puts your team in a dominant position until something big enough comes along to crack it. Planes, flown well, offer a solution to entrenched positions but aren't reliable enough that their counters need to be readily available. This feels much closer to the 'sweet spot' of Battlefield's complementary asymmetry, and that in turn feeds the fantasy that has had me queuing for aircraft for nigh-on fifteen years. Taking pressure off your team's ground forces with a well-judged strafing run, dipping your wings as you bank out of range of the exploding clouds of flak that chase you across the sky—that's what flying an aircraft in a Battlefield game should be about. Finally, it is.

Chris Thursten

Joining in 2011, Chris made his start with PC Gamer turning beautiful trees into magazines, first as a writer and later as deputy editor. Once PCG's reluctant MMO champion , his discovery of Dota 2 in 2012 led him to much darker, stranger places. In 2015, Chris became the editor of PC Gamer Pro, overseeing our online coverage of competitive gaming and esports. He left in 2017, and can be now found making games and recording the Crate & Crowbar podcast.