One of my favourite bugs in Battlefield 4 - heck who knows, maybe it was a feature - was its stubborn insistence that I never see too far beyond the first mission of its campaign. Each and every time I logged off of a session, the save would be wiped no matter what precautions I took. Even as DICE moved to clean up the rest of the mess that surrounded the game's launch, that problem remained. Months after I'd bought the game, and after hours of enjoying its increasingly brilliant multiplayer, the single-player was still effectively unplayable. It's quite possible it was deliberate. Perhaps DICE was simply ashamed of another mediocre Battlefield campaign.
Battlefield 1, though, feels different. There's been an emphasis on the multiplayer in pre-release run-up - as there should be, given that's where Battlefield's heart will always be - but that shouldn't obscure a campaign that's genuinely interesting: an anthology of different tales from across the Great War that can be digested in any order you see fit. It's five 90-minute campaigns, effectively, each with a very different focus: playing alongside Lawrence of Arabia, going up against the Ottoman Empire in the deserts of the Middle East; storming the beaches of Gallipoli as an Anzac runner; taking to the skies over the western front as a plucky British pilot.
Before they unlock, there's a short prologue that's a stirring statement of intent - to tell you what makes it work so well would be to rob it of so much of its power - and it shows that DICE is keen to tackle the Great War with a little thought and care. Tonally, it's reassuring, managing to be respectful and a refreshing alternative to the amped-up heroics that typify other first-person shooter campaigns. It's a more muted brand of heroism that Battlefield 1 strives for, and judging from the first of those war stories - Through Mud and Blood, a snapshot of the final days of the war, following a tank crew as they push on to the French town of Cambrai - it manages to do so.
There are other promising signs in that mission, too. After the more linear run-and-gun theatrics of Battlefield 3 and 4's campaigns, the opening moments of Through Mud and Blood see you in charge of a tank taking capture points dotted around war-torn countryside, thundering through masonry and mortar fire. For the first time since Bad Company 2, here's a Battlefield campaign that understands why people play this series; the open-ended skirmishes, the multitude of vehicles and a sense of rolling mayhem.
That's not to say what DICE has managed here is spotless. After that rollicking introduction at the controls of a tank, there's a sudden play for pathos that's not quite earned: a mawkish, po-faced interlude that tries to tear at your emotions while letting you play as a pigeon. It's faintly absurd, though DICE's heart is clearly in the right place, as its campaign is at pains to provide something that deviates from the traditional first-person shooter template.
The grab-bag of play-types that follows suggests just as much. Straight after romping across the countryside in tanks, you're sent to scout a fog-shrouded forest, creeping across enemy encampments in a series of stealth-tinged encounters. That appetite for silently stalking soldiers is then spread across a small town where you're charged with collecting components to help fix up your tank. It's a pointedly open experience, if not exactly open-world, with players free to tackle the objectives in any order they like. Snipe from the hill that overlooks the town, for example, climbing a tower with the rifle you chance across slung across your back; crawl from cover to cover and take down each and every soldier, or maybe just go loud and take the town out in one noisy firefight. That's the theory, at least.
It's noble in intent, but flawed in execution. Battlefield's level designers have learnt how to craft enjoyably open play-spaces from the series' rich multiplayer past, but they've clearly suffered from not being able to inherit any expertise when it comes to enemy AI. The soldiers you come across in Battlefield 1's campaign are wilfully, aggressively stupid, often shattering any sense of stalking an enemy and instead offering themselves up blindly for slaughter. A small shame, given the effort that's gone in elsewhere - though when, at the level's climax, you face the aggressive challenge of taking down a small battalion of tanks, it's something of a relief to find they're happy to sit in place as you pound them with shells.
Whether those problems persist elsewhere in Battlefield 1's campaign remains to be seen, but you can't fault it for lacking ambition. It certainly seems more daring than the game's multiplayer, which feels like more of a sideways step than any meaningful progression after the frequently brilliant Battlefield 4. Operations, a new big-player-count mode that combines the shifting objectives of Rush with the scale of Conquest, is a welcome new wrinkle, but it can't hide the fact that some of the grand scope found in the last mainline Battlefield has been lost. Maps seem a little more cramped, vehicle variety has been diminished and the destructibility of the environment doesn't seem to have ramped up enough to make up for the omission of Battlefield 4's show-stopping scripted moments.
Perhaps, though, that disappointment comes from moving directly from a Battlefield 4 that's enjoyed years of healthy support and has morphed into an incredibly rich game. Or maybe it's the inevitability that the new era Battlefield finds itself in was always going to mean the series would lose as much as it gains. The sheer verticality of Siege of Shanghai, the mad expanse of Golmud Railway - they're all extremes of personality that are hard to find in Battlefield 1's first, relatively anonymous, cluster of maps.
Playing the game as intended over the next few days as its release rolls out, with squads of friends and in healthier doses, could well paint Battlefield 1 in a brighter light, though it's already clear this isn't going to be the revolution for the series some might be expecting. It's more Battlefield, for better and for worse, complete with many of the same pitfalls as well as the same pleasures. At least this time out, though, the campaign looks like it could well be worth playing.
This article is based on a press trip to DICE's offices in Stockholm. EA covered travel and accommodation costs.