Battlefield 1 Reaches for the Human Element but Misses the Mark

Shooters have always been tricky beast, especially when it comes to a single player campaign story. I can think of multiple situations I’ve been in now that range from fighting aliens on a massive ring structure, to slugging it out through the cities of Europe. With these stories, it seems that each game is trying to bring something special while delivering a decent campaign for the player experience. While some of these campaigns often hit a chord in me, others not so much. Which brings me to Battlefield 1 and the campaign it is delivering.

The Battlefield 1 single player experience is thoroughly enjoyable. It’s fresh while hearkening back to war shooters past (look at all WWII shooters). Some have even gone to say Battlefield 1 is just a WWII game reskinned, which might be one of the reasons I liked it so much. It’s being a nerd for history that ultimately lead me down a path of realizing how much games like this miss their mark. Sticking to my guns, though (pardon the pun), I want to talk how after making it through Battlefield 1 campaign I walked away with not so much shine in my eyes.

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That shine in my eyes.

My spark for war had left me because Battlefield 1 was presenting the one thing that it was trying not to do: make war glamorous, which it is not. I partly blame Dan Carlin for this (not actually his fault). For anyone who doesn’t know him, he has a wonderful podcast called Hardcore History. Listening to Dan recount the Great War made me realize Battlefield 1 would never succeed in what it was presenting. War is just too horrific. Thus, gamers are given standard shooters, which is probably a good thing. The ESRB would probably have to come up with another letter rating for what was being presented. The series in which Dan Carlin talks the Great War is appropriately titled “Blueprint for Armageddon,” because Armageddon it was. Listen specifically to the third episode in the series and it’s easy to understand just why Battlefield 1 will never truly deliver on the human element they so desperately reached for. The things that happened in the Great War are nightmare fuel.

The first glaringly obvious thing about the Battlefield 1 campaign is every story takes place in the last half of the war, aside from one, which takes place during spring 1915. Now this makes sense from a gaming perspective; most of your modern technology was coming out at the end of the war and just a few years before that it was still mainly trench warfare. Hell, it was the beginning of trench warfare. Having a shooter taking place in a stationary position the whole campaign would be a poor design choice, while also horrific if accurately portraying the war. The weapons would be downright frustrating if accurately portrayed, not only consistently breaking all the time, but having only enough ammo for all but half the soldiers (makes those bayonets look a little different, yeah?).

What did stick out to me was how much of a shooter skin it maintained. I felt as if I played the hero every time. While at certain points, a sense of dread and urgency would creep up, it would eventually fade, because I knew I would come out on top. There was never a real sense of peril, let alone strife. The horrors of war don’t seem like horrors at all, just loud explosions and dumbed-down NPCs falling around me. Even the opening of the campaign which tries to capture the humanity of war by jumping from soldier to soldier, prominently displaying their name and life lived, still felt hollow. How can you bring a human element to a game when you barely spend any time with the people presented? I understand an atrocious number of people gave their lives to this war, but Battlefield 1 for all its subtext still can’t convey this.

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Explosions, just another day.

Warning: spoilers ahead.

It was when I finally got to a specific part in “Blue Print for Armageddon” that solidified this feeling. Dan Carlin was finally talking about something that is portrayed in the game. The British launching their naval attack against the Ottoman empire. I feverishly began making comparisons, and when I was done, Battlefield 1 was just another shooter.

The story in game is titled The Runner, I found myself in the shoes of one, Freddrick Bishop, an Anzac taking the beach front of Gallipoli (the D-Day of WWI) who has a rather green soldier under his belt. The young soldier is eager to make a name for himself, coming all this way having heard/read tails of Bishop’s exploits, not realizing the horrors of war. When it come times to storm the beach, that’s exactly what you do. All, said and done it took me less than half an hour. Listening to Dan Carlin recount this, it took twenty minutes for one soldier to watch another soldier die because of how he’d been shot and they had barely just made landfall. Chew on that for a second. This is why Battlefield 1 will never be able to convey just what the Great War was all about; this human element they are so desperately reaching for. It’s a game and thus it will always be a game. I can say for certainty that if they made a game accurately portraying the hell soldiers had to go through, I would most certainly not like it.

Battlefield 1 is left to portray the war to the best of its abilities, while also being responsible with its audience. It’s nice that they give subtext explaining what the player is participating in and what it meant to the war. It’s the game itself though that holds it back. For it will always be a shooter; fast paced, guns blazing, unbelievably lucky circumstances. At the end of the same mission, I stormed a castle the Ottomans occupied, in a one-man army fashion, and this is where it really losses me. I guarantee if I had been Bishop storming the Ottoman fortress at the end of the level I would have been face down in the dirt before I could even cross the threshold. When I can consistently regenerate health, respawn and have an unlimited supply of bullets/guns at my disposal, these same tasks don’t seem as daunting, nor as human.

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Oh, and a tank.

As previously mentioned at the beginning of this piece, I enjoyed Battlefield 1. It’s what they presented I was ultimately let down by. It shows that maybe the reasons some shooters are just so fun is because they take us to places that are totally alien. To list a few favorites: Half Life 2, Halo, Doom (2016), Destiny and the list goes on. In all those games, I’m playing in totally foreign environments. Things so out of this realm I can happily participate in the theater presented.

Presenting something that had a lasting impact on people emotionally and physically, while also changing the world forever, is a daunting task. I appreciate that Battlefield 1 did what it did, I just don’t think having a shooter try and portray that level of humanity always works. I felt more emotion from the ending of Half-Life 2 episode 2 than I did with any of Battlefield 1. At the end of the day I will play the stories that are more fiction than non-fiction. And, when I do play Battlefield 1 it will be for the multiplayer, because it’s just fun to slug it out sometimes.