Battlefield remixes the formula for its move to WWI, resulting in a patchy but playable campaign and outstanding multiplayer.
Battlefield's best stories have always been found when there are some 63 others screaming mad by your side. Playing as the lone soldier holed up in the attic of a villa, wiping out an entire squad as they rush to take a capture point; manning the AA gun on a rocky island outlet and sending a fighter plane tumbling down into the rolling seas; or spotting the silhouette of a lone horseman appearing through the fog that has just crept upon a mortar-chewed village. These are tales worth retelling.
All the better when they're played out in fancy dress. Whether that's been the khaki slacks of the original 1942, the mecha keks of 2142 or the jungle fatigues it let you don for Vietnam, Battlefield's always been at its best when it's got a neat costume to hand. It's no surprise to see the series back on top of its game, then, with Battlefield 1, DICE's attempt to explore the relative No Man's Land of the First World War. It has even narrowed the gap between the superb multiplayer and the typically weak single-player, though the campaign still trips over itself in its attempts to appear respectful to what's perceived as difficult subject matter.
There are no great wars, of course, but The Great War stands as one of the grimmest of them all. The conflict that claimed some 38 million casualties as it engulfed the globe from 1914 to 1918 was a messy, morally murky affair that's said to have served as the foundation for modern warfare by those who fetishise military hardware. It certainly predicated the senselessness of so much combat that would follow, with innocents being sent out to slaughter by blundering politicians.
"War is nothing but organised murder," said Harry Patch, WWI's last surviving soldier, cutting through the heroics that have since entwined the mythology of modern war. Little wonder The Great War has been skipped over by video games for so many years, especially by those who have typically been keen to make heroes of us all.
Battlefield 1, DICE's first period piece since its Vietnam expansion for Bad Company 2, is at pains to do justice to The Great War in its story-led campaign, though it's often more clumsy than it is courageous. Hoping for some thoughtful meditation on the war in a mass-market first-person shooter was always erring towards optimism, yet Battlefield 1 comes so very close to delivering. A bold and brilliant prologue to the campaign sets up expectations that are all too quickly knocked down by a familiar mixture of explosive spectacle and treacly sentiment in the remaining five to six hours.
Five War Stories - short, self-contained campaigns that vary in length from 30 to 90 minutes apiece - can be tackled in any order, though the attempt to provide an assortment of takes on the conflict is negated by DICE's bizarre insistence on focussing entirely on the Allies' point of view (equally bizarre is the decision to relegate French and Russian troops to DLC for the multiplayer, though that's another issue entirely). This wasn't a war that could be reduced to mere good and evil, so why choose to paint it in such binary tones?
After the generic campaigns of the last two mainline Battlefields, here each mission benefits from DICE channelling the essence of the series into its campaign. Small, open areas allow you to tackle objectives in any order you see fit, taking capture points or searching an occupied town for parts to fix your sickly tank. It's a smart idea that's sadly let down by some atrocious enemy AI that's all too easily exploited, and that often makes for encounters that are simply daft.
Battlefield 1 shoots for sombre but can end up looking plain silly. One war story follows up the sensory assault of a tank raid with a sentimental playable pigeon interlude. Elsewhere, those pigeons are reused in a new multiplayer mode has 24 soldiers running at each other in a hectic, slapstick variant of Capture the Flag, those who've taken the pigeon trying to find peace in the chaos to scribble out a message before sending it skywards to score a point. It's absurd at both ends.
The campaign can't quite escape the first-person shooter tradition of the single soldier overcoming impossible odds, and while it makes an effort to tell more personal stories, they still end up as heroics spoken predominantly in the hollow and deafening boom of Michael Bay explosives. Still, for all that it lacks in depth, nuance and refinement, it makes up for it with mindless entertainment that's actually worth a play through - a sizeable improvement over DICE's last few single-player efforts.
It also provides one hell of a spectacle. Battlefield 1 is an exceptional-looking game, and DICE brings these theatres of war alive with an exquisite artistry and technical aplomb. There's atmosphere in the fog that rolls in, a tangible schlep to the mud your tank grinds through on the western front, and beauty in the rolling hills of Monte Grappa and the baked rockfaces of Sinai desert.
Many of the locations used in the campaign are seen again in multiplayer, where they make for some gorgeous and effective maps. Infantry-only map Argonne Forest looks like Endor has fallen on tough times, with three channels of trenches and pathways winding through a forest with a precarious bridge acting as a choke point in the centre. Rangier maps such as Fao Fortress provide long, luscious sight-lines (wonderful for taking in the scope of a match, painful when you're scoped by a sniper on the far end), with castles that can be sneaked up on by taking to the seas.
Despite the splendour, it's easy to feel the absence of some of the scale and variety offered by Battlefield 4 in the 10 maps initially on offer here. Perhaps it's because the fundamentals remain the same - Conquest and Rush are still the go-to modes, despite the headline addition of new mode Operations - while everything else feels reshuffled rather than fully revised. Vehicles play less of a part, while there's more of an emphasis on open space rather than interior encounters.
Both decisions make sense as part of Battlefield 1's new philosophy. This is a war conducted with very different tools, and the landscape has adapted to fit. Maps now embrace more natural features - the roll of a hill, or a rocky outcrop - to channel the action. Now that players are no longer running around with rocket launchers strapped to their backs, the chaos might well have dimmed, but DICE has atoned by pushing things further elsewhere. The destruction feels like it's finally back on a par with Bad Company 2, while mustard gas and mortar fire mix to make skirmishes filled with just the right amount of panic.
It makes for matches that are the measure of anything Battlefield has managed before. There's a natural evolution to maps, whether that's through the weather fronts that dynamically roll in, slicking trenches with rain or shrouding them in fog, or the way the landscape fundamentally changes over a 30-minute encounter. That windmill that provided vital cover at the start of the round is likely to be rubble by the end of it.
The hefty recoil and slow reload of a bolt-action rifle speaks to a Battlefield that's now more deliberate, slower paced and simpler than what's gone before. Customisation has been stripped back almost completely, while classes have been thoughtfully consolidated to provoke more open-ended play. Last year's Star Wars: Battlefront - itself weighed down by comparisons with Battlefield - seems to have had some impact here, not only in the elite classes littered around multiplayer maps that feel like analogues for Battlefront's Hero pick-ups, but also in the cotton wool that's been wrapped around the aerial combat. Battlefield's planes have always been a little unwieldy, though the numbness in the controls here feels like it's step too far in the other direction.Can a £300 PC match PlayStation 4 performance? Digital Foundry builds and tests its own budget build.
Otherwise, though, the change of pace works wonders for refreshing Battlefield, making it a more accommodating place for newcomers while inspiring memories of older classics for series veterans. Unlocks are now more logical and welcoming to starting players - no longer do you have to invest a dozen hours before having the means to revive other players as a medic or have a sniper as a scout. If the battles themselves have been slowed down, everything on the periphery has been sped up.
It's a shame the menus haven't sped up with everything else, and while the new front end that's shared across all contemporary Battlefield games is slick, enabling you to partner up with ease, it could do with being a little swifter. Performance online, while far from reaching the depths plumbed by Battlefield 4 at launch, is also subject to the occasional stutter and a handful of bugs that are yet to be ironed out. It wouldn't be Battlefield without them, really.
Those little ticks belie the fact this is a very familiar game given a fetching new outfit. This is the same old Battlefield in well-pressed slacks, a little more stately and a lot more composed than it's been in some time, with better manners to boot. The same old brilliant Battlefield, mind you, that's capable of generating grand stories far more captivating than it can tell itself. Battlefield 1 isn't quite the reinvention that some might have hoped for, then, but it's the finest Battlefield in years all the same.