With Overwatch going strong, yet another Call of Duty on the way and Titanfall 2 preparing to show Playstation owners just what they missed first time around, fans of First Person Shooters will have plenty to keep them busy this Winter.  But while all of these titles have their appeal, it’s Battlefield 1 that really grabbed my attention back in May and is most likely to be going on my Christmas list.  And after spending around 15 hours with the Beta so far, here are here are my initial impressions.

The code’s still not perfect

It’s not the sexiest place to start but for me it’s probably one of the most important.  When Battlefield 4 launched on what were brand new “next gen” consoles, it was basically a hot mess.  Players expecting epic 64 on 64 battles were more likely to find server issues, kick outs and problems with chat and the party system.  It didn’t help that the consoles were new and (certainly in the case of the Xbox One) some of the system software had gone backwards but the game itself was essentially broken.  And it’s the reason I haven’t bought a multiplayer game at launch since.

So why all this pre-amble and what about Battlefield 1?  Well, the point is that I’m probably more cautious that most so – while a lot of my experience with the Beta was rock solid – I’m not exactly reassured.   On launch day it was pretty awful, with server trouble, kick outs and glitches a go-go.  Since then I’ve had very little problem during play but am still experiencing a surprising number of issues for a game that launches is just over a month.

None of these are that major – I’ve been kicked out about twice since Thursday (on a very solid connection) and otherwise it’s been weird text formatting or, most commonly, glitches in the in game menu and respawn processes.  I can’t imagine how complicated a launch like this would be and, yes, it’s a beta so you can argue this is exactly what it’s there for.   But it still makes me nervous given the history I, and many others, have with the series.  And it’s a real shame, because the rest of the beta is simply wonderful.

Battlefield’s version of WW1 looks and sounds fantastic

Battlefield 1 is on track to be a beautiful, beautiful game.  It looked incredible in screenshots but seeing it in action with all the sand, explosions and particle effects is an absolute joy to behold.  And it sounds fantastic too.  Turn up the home cinema or whack in some earphones and you’ll be surrounded by a cacophony of noise – horses galloping past you, wind howling around your ears a bullets flying towards (or, in my case, usually into) you with terrifying frequency.  If this is what it looks and sounds like on console I can only imagine what you get from a high-end PC.

Battlefield 4 was no slouch to look at itself, but nostalgia tends to give older titles a mental “HD remaster” as well as the traditional rose-tinting.  It was Star Wars Battlefront that really raised the stakes in both graphics and sound and it seems like Battlefield 1 has continued to build on that work – what it loses in AT-ATs and licensed score it gains from being grounded in reality.  Because it’s more than just gloss, that quality also gives the game a sense of authenticity that feels much needed.  Quite rightly, the chaos can be disorientating and overwhelming at times – giving just a tiny insight into what it must have felt like for the soldiers (even, of course, without any of the fear and genuine terror they must have experienced).  There is also something weirdly touching about having checkpoints called “Apples”, “Butter” and similar – reminding us that this was an era before NATO and betraying a certain simplicity and tragic innocence.  Well, that’s how I felt anyway – plenty of people on the EA forums seem to think it just sounds stupid.  It’s all about opinions apparently.  Hmmm.

Maps and modes

Ok map.  Look, as much as I’d love EA to give away the whole game for free – I do understand that the developers have bills to pay and that games companies are not idiots.  So, what we got was both Conquest and Rush game modes on just the Sinai Desert map.  While it would be great to try out something else, the Sinai Desert is HUGE and features some pretty good variety with urban, ruin, canyon and more open areas.  Being so open, there are plenty of places where it’s not good to be an infantry soldier – my most common experience early on was getting sniped from afar or mown down vehicles or fixed positions.  However, given that a) it’s WW1 and b) you’re not playing as Private Wolverine that’s pretty believable and has the benefit of making you think more tactically or joining comrades in a tank.

The map also demonstrates just how much effect that destruction (let’s never say “levolution” again, dammit) and weather will have on gameplay in the final game – the weather particularly helping in those open areas by providing a degree of cover that wasn’t there before.  Sandstorms blow in, buildings and sometimes bridges crumble – it keeps the map fresh and makes sure that each team needs to think on their feet rather than stick to tried and tested tactics.  But while Conquest was really fun, a few too many of my games people ended up centered around the town area (checkpoints B/C/D) wasting large parts of the map and reducing the variety on offer.  I’m also not fully convinced about the armoured train (this map’s “behemoth”, meant to be a game changer) or its impact but I like the idea and understand it’s been scaled back for the beta.  Time will tell I guess.

On the other hand, I actually found myself playing Rush more and more on this map and finding it the more enjoyable experience over my extended play time.  Sure, it lacks some of the dynamic elements from Conquest but, by moving the teams through the map, Rush has the benefit of providing good variety and requiring teams to mix up their tactics even more.  There was a real sense of progression for the attackers as you advanced to the town and a corresponding “last stand” feel for defenders at the same point in the game.   Based on previous Battlefields, the formula of Rush can get stale quicker than some other game modes so it will be interesting to see if this carries on the more I play.  Whatever happens, I expect the main game to keep me pretty well occupied based on the Beta.

Gameplay that’s simply brilliant

Of course, plenty has been and probably will be written about the ethics of making a game set during the Great War though I’ll leave that debate for another place and time.   But from a purely gaming perspective, the Beta suggests that it was a brilliant decision to go back to WW1.  It has enabled DICE to create a stripped back experience free of the gadgets and gimmicks of most recent First Person Shooters.  It also feel fresh, years having passed since Medal or Honor (yes, I know, it’s their spelling ok?), the early Call of Duty games and the heyday of the “historical shooter”.

And I mention these games, all set in or around WW2 but taking a liberal approach to realism, as it feels like DICE have allowed themselves plenty of artistic licence to create a fast-paced, exciting game.  I’m not a WW1 expert but movement, shooting and reload times have clearly been designed for fun rather than period accuracy and that’s just fine by me – if you want that then something like Verdun might be your best bet.   Similarly, although much of the build-up has been about WW1 being a pivotal moment in warfare – with soldiers wielding swords on horseback legitimately appearing alongside tanks etc – the Battlefield 1 version of this situation feels much more balanced than I expect it went down in reality.  Although it’s pretty risky, here it is possible for an infantryman to take on a tank, to go a single rider to charge into a camp and go to town on them, It’s that familiar Battlefield gameplay – a rock/scissor/paper game that’s a mixture of chaos, lone-wolfery, teamwork, destruction and epic unscripted moments as you and your teammates charge across the map.   And it’s just as good as ever.

So bring on October or, in my case, just a few weeks later.  See you on the Battlefield.

How about you?  Did you manage to play the Beta?  Agree or disagree?  Let us know your thoughts and comments below.

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