Battlefield 1, in case you had any doubt, is shaping up to be a fine video game, even if it's a very familiar one. EA afforded us the chance to play it before the publisher's E3 showcase, granting a quick 15-minute blast across the new map St. Quentin's Scar in Battlefield's trademark Conquest mode, with a full complement of 64 players. It's a very impressive-looking game, bringing a heightened level of physicality to the series as players burst through doors or seamlessly transition into vehicles, and a new level of destruction as whole villages are levelled through the course of a match.
In its pizazz and spectacle, Battlefield 1 is the very definition of a modern shooter - you can feel DICE being able to stretch its legs now it's no longer tied to the last generation as it was with Battlefield 4. But it's also a throwback to past games in the series, specifically Battlefield 1942 with its pared-back, more considered pace. And that, by the way, is very good news. It makes for a more approachable, more readable experience that doesn't forgo any of the spectacle that makes Battlefield such a treat.
If anything, those spectacular moments now have a bit more space to breathe: witness the airship come in to lend a losing team a hand towards the end of a match, and it's hard not to be awed by it all, even more so when it comes tumbling down under fire from a squadron of biplanes, smashing dynamically into a nearby village. I've only played one game for a scant 15 minutes, but I'm already ridiculously enthused. This has the potential to be the best Battlefield yet.
Following the hands-on, I caught up with Lars Gustavsson, creative director at DICE and a stalwart of the Battlefield series, to find out anything more I could about the new game.
Having just played it, this feels like a return to the more deliberate, slower pace of Battlefield 1942 after the more frenetic Battlefield 4.
Different levels or maps will provide different experiences. Overall we want to maintain the core Battlefield experience - it's also dependent on different game modes. What I really like about it is the analogue era. I love Battlefield 4 for everything it stands for - seeing it still going strong out there. The reference we have in the team is Formula 1 vs rally. They're both highly competitive sports to play and watch. Where Battlefield 4 is Formula 1, this is more rally.
Off-road and dirty and all that? I can see that. The campaign - you've not shown much of it so far, but you said it's more open-ended. DICE doesn't have a great reputation for Battlefield campaigns. I didn't get to play the last one because the save file kept deleting itself. What have you done to move away from DICE's not-so-solid reputation for campaigns?
As always, we work hard to create new experiences. When we step back to look what we wanted to do with the single-player campaign, it was really about chipping in with a more Battlefield experience into the formula. Battlefield stands for a variety of tools, player agency, allowing the player to find their own way of solving problems, a bit more open-world: a lot of these elements that create the Battlefield moments we often talk about. From the outside it might sound like a sales pitch, but the Battlefield moments are what we talk about when we go to the coffee machine after we've been playtesting.
These moments are what we started to think about that we wanted to create for the players. Out of that we created a campaign - we're providing more of that, providing different perspectives of the war and how it's less about the one-way battles of the second world war, it was a global war with lots of different interests, and providing more of a perspective on different characters and how it changed them, and how it changed the world.
Bad Company did a pretty good job in terms of providing more open-ended moments. Is that something you're looking to as well?
That's definitely been part of the inspiration. The team's doing a great job, and I'm super-excited about it. Just wait until we can put in your hands!
Regarding what I said before - I never got to finish Battlefield 4's campaign because the save file kept eating itself. The game released in a bit of a state, I think it's fair to say. What are you doing to get around that - and can you say, hand on heart, you won't have the messy release Battlefield 4 had?
I mean, what we're doing, we're doing our utmost to give a smooth launch and a great experience. Key learnings have led to processes and programmes... We've an open beta coming up, a public beta later this year, and for me, the biggest thing as a developer has been cooperation with the community, and the community test environment that's been live for some time in Battlefield 4 and Hardline. It means a lot of fixes, be it netcode or other fixes, that have gone into Hardline and 4 all go into Battlefield 1. We're doing our utmost for it to be a great launch.
So it won't be as bad as Battlefield 4, you can say that....
[A smile, then silence]
Haha, okay. You've got a new class system. How did you arrive at that?
For us, going to this era and finding the gameplay opportunities, we wanted to have distinct differences between classes, between weapons, so everything feels tuned and reinforces the rock, paper, scissors. On top of the shaping of different classes, we also introduced a few new classes - the tank and the pilot - and this was in order to provide a couple of things. As a tanker, you're part of your vehicle, and with that comes the opportunity of vehicle... Do I want to go into the single-seater DR1, or the twin-seater, or even the bomber with a three-man crew? Instead of us wanting to dictate the rules, more and more we want to enrich the sandbox. With the new classes comes the possibility of customising the vehicle before someone snatches it from you.
In terms of those classes: I think I've put over 100 hours into Battlefield 4 now, but I've never touched Recon, because the progression is so slow for basic things that it just doesn't seem worth it. How are you approaching progression for this - have you learnt from some of the criticisms levelled at Battlefield 4?
I mean, we constantly look at data from Battlefield 4 and Hardline. Battlefield 1 will come with a number of persistent systems for careers - it's a bit early to talk about it yet. As always, we have a lot of data on progression and so on, so we can always learn from previous games.
Are you going to have shortcut bundles as well, so people can pay to unlock things?
That's too early to talk about yet...
OK. The airship. I think that's something we can talk about. Describe to me how it works. How is it triggered?
It's a reinforcement tool. Here, today, we're showing Conquest with 64 players. With Conquest, as one team is falling behind by quite a lot, they will automatically get reinforced by the airship. It's dependent on what type of level you play - on some it's the dreadnaught, on others it might be an armoured train. It comes with a number of seats and player control - the intent is to give a last fighting chance to at least catch up and give a good tight battle. We want to make it as dynamic as possible - the airship, when you manage to bring it down, it's not scripted. That adds on top of the destruction, the weather, with these dynamic behemoths.
In Battlefield 4, you had this feature - I won't say the name because I don't like it - where big, scripted things happened in levels. Have you got that kind of thing again, those big key moments that happen in levels, or is it more organic this time?
[Laughs] We have focussed on the organic Battlefield. We will do dramatic impacts, like when the airship comes down on the village on St. Quentin's Scar - we want to have those more epic events in a more dynamic way. It can happen in any way - it's more focused on intuitive and general destruction with consistency. For me, I feel it's a much more dynamic toolbox when it comes to destruction.
In terms of the weather, is it kind of like Battlefield 4's Paracel Storm, or is it a bit more dynamic than that?
This is dynamic. We were inspired by Paracel Storm, and saw that people really liked it, but here we want it to be dynamic. We're still tweaking and tuning to get it right.
What kind of different weather conditions will there be?
Sunshine, rain, fog, it'll differ depending on the different environments we take you to. We wanted to make it feel relevant to the context you're in, from the more extreme to the, you know, different flavours and different terms to keep you on your toes.
Conquest is in there. What other modes are we going to see in Battlefield 1?
We've got Operations - it's the concept of depicting these frontlines that existed during the war. We're depicting a number of frontline across the war, and Kaiserschlact, I think it was 1918 when the Germans made a push, coming out of the trench lands and moving into the city. In Operations it's frontal mode, so there's an attacking team and a defending team, but it's more of a journey - it's a longer experience about, would you manage as an attacker to defeat them here? You'll then move into the city.
Is it a bit like Rush?
In a way, you could say it's a frontal mode. But there are a lot of things that change on a bigger scale. We want to portray these frontlines and the journey you embark on, and we want each location to feel unique and different - every time you step over a crest we want you to see something that'll hopefully make your jaw drop.
Are the maps bigger this time out, or denser and more detailed?
Well, as a whole we've been going for what plays best. Bigger for the sake of bigger hasn't been a mantra. It's what plays the best and what fits the mode best. The modes we've created, so far we're only talking about Conquest, Domination and Operations, but we let them shape the experience. In general I hope you see the density and the richness and the physical experience of it.
WW1 was known for what happened on the frontlines, but it was also known for what happened away from them. With that in mind, will the Commander mode from old Battlefields appear?
Commander won't appear, but we've been working with that template as a whole. We've been listening to what people loved about Commander and so on, and we've been pushing to work on the template. One thing we've spoken about is the social side and getting a squad together, teaming up and going on different servers and jumping between them. We'll talk more about the template as we move forward.
There have been questions about how suitable WW1 is for a game, with the perception is of it being a very nasty war. Are you sensitive about that?
To be brutally honest, 1942, the first demo we did we had some nasty surprises, as blue-eyed Swedes going out into the world and showing a game. From that we've always tried to create it in a respectful way - yes, it's a game about war, but it's a sandbox and the things you do in it that matter. So we've tried to keep it respectful. Yes, we have gas in there - for me as a designer, it's an area of denial, it changes conditions just like the fog does. From that perspective we want to portray it - in the end, Battlefield, it's such a strong game concept that we don't want to go into gore land.
You've been pretty good about diversity. There will be female soldiers.
We revealed the Bedouin female soldier you'll get to play as part of the campaign. For us, we wanted to stick to authenticity but also do it in a respectful way and an inclusive way, where we portray the different armies - not always as it was, but to portray the multitude of soldiers that fought within the different armies, showing this war in a modern way as part of what DICE believes and what Battlefield believes.
Can you choose a female soldier in multiplayer?
No, not in multiplayer. Just in single-player.
You're releasing close to Titanfall. I know they're two very different experiences, but they're two online shooters and people have to choose between them.
Standing and glancing and looking at it, it looks great. For me, that's the world we've always been living in. If you launch alongside the Christmas titles - Call of Duty's out there, if it's not them, it's Halo. That's the world you live in. It's like a runner - you need to focus on your track, if you look at the others you lose. We have something strong we believe in, and hopefully players will see that too.
I love what I played today, and I don't want to sound ungrateful. But... a lot of people still really love Bad Company. Is that ever going to come back at all?
If it was in my power, hell yeah! I honestly don't know at this point. It holds a spot in the hearts of all of us making it, and the community. When we did 1942, we were inspired by Kelly's Heroes, not taking ourselves too seriously. I don't think we do now, the crazy things we do. I'd love to visit the old gang again.
On that last point - what are the fictional touchstones for Battlefield 1?
We've been scanning every movie - there are movies out there, for a lot of it we've been watching a lot of movies that have it as a backdrop. That's been a big part of it - we want to lead with gameplay, and then see it as a backdrop, and the more we started digging we saw it was a good match with the vehicles, transforming thee villages into a ruined state. We've done a lot of research, and found out a lot about how this changed the world in so many ways. Empires fell. Teabags were invented. A lot of these things that changed the world and the perception of the world.
Is there going to be a level where we see the invention of the teabag?
Oh god I stepped into that one, didn't I? 'Lars promised teabagging.'