I'm in the charred ruins of what was once a building. Enemy soldiers pour through windows and doors. I take plenty out, but more keep coming. Deadly jets of fire almost finish me off, but, with help from my few remaining squad mates, I'm able to bring down the heavily armoured flame trooper. Even as I do, more soldiers arrive. We're being overrun. Finally, inevitably, I'm killed. The screen shows a brief memorial card, and then we're off: onto the next doomed soul.
This is the opener to Battlefield 1's singleplayer. Rather than a linear campaign, BF1's 'War Stories' are an anthology collection of heroism, adversity and, in many cases, death. The introductory episode sets the tone, offering small snapshots of harrowing brutality as soldiers around the battlefield meet their untimely ends. It's an effective enough way to hint at the sheer volume of senseless killing across World War 1.
Prologue aside, I only play one of the five main War Stories. And, while that leaves plenty of unknowns, this short preview is probably the most enjoyable experience I've had with a Battlefield game's singleplayer. That's not really saying much—the series has not, traditionally, excelled at crafting meaningful singleplayer campaigns. Here, though, by making each story standalone, DICE is able to dial in on a particular idea, letting it play out across multiple chapters. It also avoids the problem of needing a sole hero able to singlehandedly win the war.
The second episode I play is Through Mud And Blood—available tomorrow as part of the 'Play First Trial' going out to Origin Access subscribers. Set in 1918, before the British assault on Cambrai, I control the driver of a tank crew that find themselves trapped and alone behind enemy lines. The first chapter is traditional tank stuff: providing support to infantry by taking out gun emplacements and helping capture sectors.
Things become more interesting by the second chapter, as, with our crew stranded and alone, I'm forced to scout ahead, clearing a path through the fog-laden forest for our tank to roll through. This is what the anthology format brings. For this crew, the tank isn't something to be used and discarded. It's their job in the war, and their best chance of survival in this situation—a machine that must be fixed and repaired, yes, but also an anthropomorphised totem with whims and preferences. The crew's relationship to "Big Bess" is the most interesting part of the story.
The best chapter tasks me with finding new spark plugs. It's not the most exciting mission objective, but leads to a cool stealth section through an open, occupied town. Climbing up a windmill, I find a sniper's perch complete with silenced rifle. After taking out the soldiers patrolling the town square, I move in, crouch walking between cover to sneak up behind the remaining stragglers. Finding the first plug—seemingly there's only one per area, for arbitrary mission design reasons—I move on, finding another spot to scout out the area below. It's classic stealth, and satisfying to pull off. At least until the final section, when I'm spotted by a flame trooper and have a full scale firefight with the remaining soldiers.
My one major complaint is the pacing. Each chapter offers a separate style of play: the tank assault bit, or the stealth bit. And, with the exception of the town infiltration, each chapter slightly overstays its welcome. As it is, you learn, understand and perfect the mechanics at work, and then do it all again once more for good measure. It's a shame, because the final encounter of each chapter is inevitably the most challenging and, as such, often the most satisfying, but it tended to occur just as I was tiring of the repetition.
Hopefully it's a problem specific to Through Mud And Blood, and not the War Stories as a whole. Because ultimately, it feels as if DICE has hit upon a nice balance in their approach to World War 1 fiction—telling action stories that feel neither cheap and exploitative nor overly serious and dour. It's corny at times, but the dialogue, staging and atmosphere hit upon beats that remind me of the better World War 2 games of the early-2000s. As tired as everyone became of World War 2 at the time, it's been nearly a decade since Call of Duty 4 and the subsequent industry-wide shift to modern conflict. I'm ready to return to the past. And even though there are tonal similarities, World War 1 allows DICE to show new stories that aren't repeats of the early Medal of Honors and Call of Dutys.
Battlefield 1 still predominantly feels like a multiplayer game. But I'm looking forward to playing the rest of the singleplayer experiences DICE has crafted. That's not something I've ever said about a Battlefield game before.