The 14-year-old Battlefield franchise, made by Swedish developer DICE, has featured theaters of war ranging from World War II to Vietnam, from the far future to fictionalized present-day conflicts. Though most first person shooter titles in recent years — ahem, Call of Duty — have set their games increasingly further into the future, it seems that Battlefield has decided to move in the completely opposite direction: the Great War. That’s right, the next Battlefield game will not be participating in the sci-fi buzz with a sequel to Battlefield 2142 nor exploring a Cold War theme, as many in the gaming community postulated. Instead, it will be coming to the dirty trenches, desolate deserts, and dangerous skies of the First World War.
The bold move seems to have paid off. The reveal of Battlefield 1 is the most liked trailer on Youtube ever, including movies and television shows. Meanwhile, its main competitor, Call of Duty Infinite Warfare, is the most disliked trailer on Youtube ever. Talk about a story of contrasts, both in the type of war depicted (World War I versus near future) and in fan reception.
Although the series began with Battlefield 1942, which involved the Pacific and European theaters of World War II, DICE has not returned to the pre-Cold War era in any mainstream game since. This will be a huge deviation for the current franchise which has spent the last ten years dealing with mostly modern warfare. In games like Battlefield Bad Company 2, Battlefield 3, and Battlefield 4, individuality and freedom of choice have been emphasized in multiplayer. Also essential to recent Battlefield titles is a commitment to fast-paced gameplay and so-called “Battlefield moments” — basically when cool, unscripted, action-moviesque experiences occur. While games like Call of Duty equate fast-paced action to twitch gameplay, Battlefield accentuates the idea of large-scale and chaotic multiplayer sessions, with a cacophony of sound and overwhelming visuals as 64 players duke it out.
All this excitement still manages to maintain a level of plausibility. Sure, some extremely unrealistic moments can happen, like being hit by a tank shell and getting miraculously revived by a defibrillator, or jumping out of a burning helicopter at 100 feet, deploying a parachute and surviving. But for the most part, the maps, vehicles, character models, weapons, and in-game voicing contribute to a certain immersion that, while markedly different from real combat, at least seems fitting in an action movie. This near validity adds to the fun. It makes each firefight all the more consuming, each close call to death more intense, and each victory actually feels like a real feat. The thin line between enjoyability and realism is Battlefield’s home territory, but boy does it walk it well.
I’m worried that Battlefield 1 may fall too much on one side of that line, however. Though the reveal trailer was visually stunning, and chock full of insane stunts and action, it’s clear that the depiction of the Great War will be more than an over-the-top war film, and instead be an extremely unrealistic representation of what really happened. Most soldiers in World War I were equipped with bolt-action rifles, and only a limited amount of semi-automatic and automatic weapons were deployed to the front lines. Of course, if DICE had decided to make the bolt-action rifle the hallmark gun of the game, I’m sure that many casual players would abandon the game for something more in-line to present tastes — usually involving machine guns, rocket launchers, and lock-on missiles. Instead, the developers decided to go the relatively safe route, rather than doing what would have been a fairly bold move, in an industry that all too often sticks to what is tried and true. As always, there is a segmented class system where players can choose what kit to play with depending on desired abilities, tools, and weapons. Bolt-action rifles are a part of only four available load outs, with two of the others getting access to fully automatic guns which were, in real life, rarely used out of stationary emplacements.
Perhaps I’m sounding a bit too harsh on the new Battlefield game before we see significant gameplay. To be clear, I’m really looking forward to trying this game and seeing what they have done with the World War I setting. I’m particularly excited to explore the new— or should I say old— vehicles that can be used, the advanced melee system, and the wide swath of maps covering many theaters of the first global war. I’m just concerned that a large part of what makes Battlefield so great, it’s plausibility, will be lost in making the Great War seem like Rambo with mustard gas. I suppose that even if can’t quite suspend my disbelief, I’ll still be able to ride horses with a saber, operate naval bombardment from a dreadnought, and take down a zeppelin with a Sopwith Camel. I’m sure there will still be some fun to be had.