This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Battlefield 1.
Regular viewers will know that I have a bit of a wasp in my urethra about illogical sequel numbering. Mainly I worry that after the apocalyptic global conflict that will accompany the new American presidency the future scholars of gaming will be terribly confused. "We've found Battlefield 1, 2, 3, 4 and 1942. So by my count we're missing 1,938 episodes."
But there is a slim justification for the titling of Battlefield 1. Firstly it's sort of a play on words. Battlefield Won, you see. Congratulations, you have won a battlefield. Hope you like shell casings and entrails. And of course it's a clever reference to the game being set in World War 1. Which, in the runup to release, many pundits and players rightly thought could be just the kind of fresh thinking that would breathe new life into the genre.
For one thing, it'll mean that battles will be taking place in literal fields and the whole affair won't be infused by an inescapable air of dishonesty. And without the benefits of modern weaponry the gameplay would call for a wholly different, more thoughtful approach to - "What was that?" cries Battlefield 1. "Sorry, we were busy giving automatic machine guns to every motherfucker on the planet." Oh.
Well, World War 1 was a conflict without clear heroes or villains, just millions upon millions of young men being sent to tragic, pointless deaths in the name of nothing but an international game of political bum-bouncing, so there'll need to be a thoughtful, more morally complex approach to the storytelling. "What was that?" cries Battlefield 1 again. "Sorry, we were busy making a story campaign about rugged English-speaking fancyboys squinting heroically into the middle distance as they mow down dastardly jabbering Krauts by the hundreds." I wouldn't harp, but there's this whole bit in the introduction where an American and a German soldier lock gaze over a field strewn with bodies and both lower their weapons in recognition of their inner humanity that can never be erased by a system that sees them as naught but expendable cogs, and then five minutes later it's back to "Phwoar, massacring expendable cogs sure is fun, eh lads?"
Even if you're playing as the German side in the multiplayer the bloke on the briefing menu talks viz zat fery smug and evil German vay as ve vill punish zees stupid American cowboys for the ze glory of ze Kaiser mmmm. Battlefield 1, what on Earth was the bloody point in the setting change if you're just going to treat World War 1 like it's World War 2 but with slightly sillier hats? Anyway, the campaign is split into a number of short War Stories. Some very short indeed. So while we can enjoy a variety of highlights from multiple theatres of conflict, we've also got about eleven seconds to get attached enough to our temporary protagonists to give a shit.
The first one is about a British tank crew consisting of the traditional joke scenario of an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman, and begins a running theme in the war stories in that all of them could have been renamed "What the fuck happened to the backup?" We start off joining a big push against German forces alongside a load of other tanks and infantry, and then one seamless transition later our tank's trundling through a haunted forest by itself. Sarge, we did tell someone we were going this way, didn't we? And we didn't get the directions wrong and the rest of the British army aren't having a picnic in the Hundred Acre Wood next door?
While I appreciate the overall intention to focus on the personal struggles of the people caught up in the war, the arcs here are even more predictable than they are on the Champs Elysee. The rookie protagonist has to take charge, the commander gets wounded and sacrifices himself to destroy Germans who have taken to crawling all over the tank like Giger's Aliens. The asshole guy deserts but comes back to save the day and get redeemed, conveniently right after I've finished doing all the important murdering. So that episode defies expectations like a bowl of porridge. Next we play a cocky American pilot and aching great ponce who steals a plane but redeems himself the usual way, i.e. murders a whole bunch of Prussians. And this is the chapter where the dimestore novel heroics are at their most at odds with the overall tone of the enterprise, but it's alright, because at the end the protagonist goes "Psych! Unreliable narrator, bitch!" Which is one step up from 'it was all a dream' for creating a sense of "Hey viewer! We just wasted your fucking time!" Not that there aren't good unreliable narrator stories but Battlefield 1 is no One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, and I suspect used the device less out of high literary ambitions and more out of really liking consequence free violence.
The third story is about Italian war heroes, and as one might reasonably expect is the shortest of the campaigns, a ha ha ha. Then there's one about Gallipoli where an Australian war hero goes from treating his green young sidekick with naked hostility to surrogate father figure over the course of a sparrow fart. And finally the action moves to the middle East where Lawrence of Arabia and the Bedouin nomads are recast as Robin Hood and his Merry Men, complete with cartoonishly villainous Sheriff of Nottingham. So overall the whole campaign has a tone wavering madly between World at War documentary and Christmas Panto. Look, I'm not expecting a war game to have me sit in a wet hole getting trench foot for eight hours while composing sad poetry about man's inhumanity to man, emphasis is on 'game' after all, but don't pretend like you're giving us a serious history lesson in between the cathartic video game fun. It's like you threw a gin-soaked raunchy Christmas party in the Playboy mansion and then sat in the middle of it getting chin-strokey maudlin about the true message of Jesus Christ.
But the campaign intends to serve a purpose besides engaging storytelling, which is probably for the best - it is of course preparation for the multiplayer. We've done the standard shooter bit, some guerrilla warfare and some tank and plane piloting, and we've had to deal with blimps and an armoured train, all of which come up again in multiplayer, although sadly there's no rideable Lawrence of Arabia. ''
Now, I really am a lot less down on multiplayer than I used to be. I know it serves a purpose, it's important we know who's the best at this sort of thing in case the army invents an assault rifle shaped like an Xbox controller. But I still just can't fathom the appeal of Battlefield multiplayer, because I don't want to spend one third of my time getting shot at by people I can't see and the other two thirds with my face in the dirt hoping to be noticed by the medic standing two feet away working his underpants out of his bumcrack. And then after a while my team either wins or loses, which was nothing to do with my or any individual soldier's efforts and therefore as significant as the football results from the International Space Station. And then everyone goes "Ooh! GG! Look at how close the scores were!" The scores were close because we've been smashing random particles together for forty fucking minutes, of course they're going to average out with a sample that size.
Still, the multiplayer is where Battlefield 1 finally captures the true spirit of the first World War. Just imagine that every soldier whose life you briefly control and just as quickly squander had six months of training, a home to which they will never return, grieving parents and perhaps a puppy sitting pining on the doormat making noises like this (whine whine whine) YOU BASTARDS!
- Owes so much to so many: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- Shame that the Lawrence of Arabia chapter didn't include a cameo of Alec Guinness in comedy blackface
- Remember always the K/D ratios of the fallen