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“A house divided against itself cannot stand”, or so the old saying goes. Then again, ‘Honest Abe’ never stood in front of an M.C. Escher painting. With Battlefield 1, developer DICE has both endorsed and given lie to this century-old adage, creating the quintessential ‘game of two halves’. On the one hand we have the multiplayer suite, a rollicking good time buoyed by massive maps, plentiful options and some of the best damn destruction physics this side of a salted slug. Then we come to the single-player, and a campaign that’s every bit as engrossing as it is woefully insipid.
Let’s begin with the narrative, or rather narratives: six compact war stories — counting the prologue — that range from the ridiculous right on down to the sublime. Things start out promisingly enough, with a respectful nod to the men of the trenches, before rolling on quite literally to a breathtaking tank segment. I’ve mentioned elsewhere that the handling of these early moments was — to my mind, at least — absolutely note perfect. Mowing down helpless Jerries simply leaves a bad taste in the mouth, while the stoic camaraderie of your crew helps to humanise an otherwise senseless conflict.
Unfortunately, that’s where it all goes wrong, and not just for your new comrades. With Bess’s boys trapped inside an ambush and the situation looking grim, the commanding officer issues an order to call in the artillery, after which we’d presumably be blown to bits. I can only think that he meant to prevent the Jerries from seizing the machine: a tough but admirable decision that speaks to the great gallantry of the time. [Spoiler alert] That doesn’t happen. Oh, sure: the artillery rains down alright, taking with it every last one of the attackers, but Bess, along with her remaining boys all make it out unscathed.
It’s at this point that all notions of gritty realism fade out completely. Subsequent adventures are just that: adventures, with lone troopers facing down impossible odds and making it out alive. And yet, even where they do die, objectives — both strategic and sentimental — are comfortably achieved. Mind you, that’s not to say that there’s anything inherently wrong with honouring such brave and lucky men. Soldiers like Audie Murphy and Simo Hayha really did exist, as veritable one-man armies racking ’em up like Rambo.
The problem here however, comes with trying to tell a story that’s both grounded, respectful and full of high adventure. One moment we’re behind the eyes of three dying men, all breathing their last in succession, and the next we’re cosplaying as an Italian Ned Kelly, killing off endless waves of Jerry. It’s almost as though half the studio were pressing for a warts-and-all affair (short of typhoid fever and trench foot), while the rest simply saw this as an opportunity for an another action spectacular.
Rather than finding a tone and sticking with it, the game’s narrative moves all over, from the desolate to the downright silly. Walking tank man — check. Killer train that knows exactly where you are — also check. A Father figure who lays down his life to save a young ward. Czechoslovakia! Hang about. One of those things isn’t like the others.
None of that is to say that you can’t have a bit of fun, however, even in the midsts of a glum struggle. Why else would people tune in to Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead if awful situations couldn’t yield up the occasional good time. Take the game’s aerial campaign for instance, in which a debonair flyboy fakes his way into the proto-RAF. It’s a fun little aside, and one that manages to sidestep the issue of tone by cleverly calling attention to its unreliable narrator.
Sadly, it isn’t just the narrative that suffers from a prevailing sense of schizophrenia: so too does the gameplay, at least where the campaign is concerned. Admittedly, the game’s core mechanics remain just as solid as ever, though other issues soon appear to outweigh the fun. Enemies, who often seem to respawn ad nauseum, also possess an unerring knack for finding you. It’s an annoying quality at the best of times, but simply unforgivable when trying to orchestrate a clever night-time raid.
Planning to blow up four corners of a village to sow confusion among the enemy? Too bad: every Turk and German has the nose of a bloodhound. Or maybe you think all-out attack is the way to go. Well, good luck thinning out their numbers. Remember, this is a war known for its scale, running on consoles that can easily handle big numbers. Instead, Battlefield 1 all too often relies on the safe and samey routine of one vs. all, like this were an original Medal of Honor game, or any other shooter prior to 2005. Yet even then, it penalises you for trying to blast your way to an objective, meaning the best tactic here remains to run, grab stuff and then keep on running. Well, either that or to play the game as though it were the idiot cousin of MGS V, painstakingly tagging enemies, before shanking every last one of them.
Alternating between awkward hub levels and tightly linear shooting sprees, Battlefield 1 is a game that bears all the hallmarks of a title designed for multiplayer, its assets then stripped off and stitched together to form something of a story. These bite-sized narratives are both too short to elicit real sympathy, and much too long to be treated as glorified afterthoughts.
In a weird sort of way then, it’s Battlefield’s multiplayer that best exemplifies the horror of The Great War. Chaotic, where the campaign feels forced and linear, and also dehumanising — in so far that your avatar lives and dies for meagre gains, where ‘campaigners’ simply march on to victory. This is a game that like the generals of old lacks a strong and complete vision for success. Like the royal flying corps, its multiplayer portion simply soars, whilst the campaign below remains forever mired in the mud. To put a finer point on it: Battlefield 1 is a game at war with itself.