I am not much of a computer gamer these days, but since it was first announced I have known that I would need to try out Battlefield One. It has the distinction of being pretty much the only game produced by a major high-budget studio set in World War One. Fair disclosure; I did have a chance to meet a bunch of the developers at DICE LA, and they are great folks. If you watch the game credits, you will see my name there.
So, what is the game? On the surface it looks like World War One, but at its heart it is a reincarnation of the Battlefield series of games, and continues all of their core mechanics and premises. This is not a combat simulation, it is an arcade game. Whether you think that is fantastic of terrible depends entirely on what you are looking for. If you want a game where you get to mow down waves of the enemy with WWI-looking guns, you will enjoy BF1. If you enjoy a frenetically-paced multiplayer free-for-all, you will enjoy BF1. If you want a game that tries to recreate the experience of World War One, you will find BF1 to be a terrible disappointment.
The single-player campaign in BF1 is split into 5 sections, and the first full one makes the nature of the gameplay immediately and blindingly clear. In it, you are an Italian Arditi fighting in the mountains against Austro-Hungarian forces. Props to the BF1 team for actually recognizing this largely forgotten theater of the war…but they can both 90% right in that way and yet also 100% wrong. Because you fight this section outfitted in a suit of heavy plate armor that makes you for all practical purposes bulletproof, while firing an MG08/15 from the hip, with 1000 rounds at your disposal. You literally stomp up a mountainside clanking and hosing down waves of bad guys. The armor is of course modeled on the German trench armor, but the invulnerability it offers is pure fantasy. The enemy Austro-Hungarian troops are armed with a roughly equal mixture of belt-fed submachine guns, Madsen LMGs, and M95 Steyr bolt action rifles. Plus a handful of guys with flamethrowers, who are inexplicably extra tough to kill.
Later campaigns include one where you are the driver of a British tank, one where you are a pilot, and one where you are an Arabian tribeswoman fighting for T.E. Lawrence. These all have equally fantastical elements, including acting as a guide walking in front of your tank in a foggy forest pockmarked with German outposts, hand to hand combat on the top of a Zeppelin (seriously, running around on the top of the thing), and fighting swarms of Ottoman FT-17 light tanks in the Arabian desert. The entire German air corps consists of bright red Fokker Dr1 Dreideckers. There are more A7V tanks in the game than were produced in total in the entire war, just about. And so on.
When it comes to weapons specifically, the models are excellent, and yet completely wrong. They are rendered with excellent attention to detail, and the animations are spot on for loading and firing. But when any element didn’t fit well enough into the fast-paced gaming model, it was discarded. So none of the weapons have sights that look correct. At the very least, everything is made far more open, so you don’t have any obstruction of your view when looking through them. In the worst case, British Lattey Galilean sights have been twisted into de facto red dot sights on everything from the MP18 to the SMLE. The Lewis is fitted with a ZF12 optic from a German Maxim. The SMLE in sniper setup has a schutzen front grip and a Warney & Swasey scope mounted over the chamber.
While it is true that there are actually a couple proper bolt action rifles in the game (G98, Steyr M95, SMLE, plus the Russian Winchester M95 lever action), they have been typecast into the “sniper rifle” role of the Battlefield game franchise. They are thus more lethal than anything else in the game, and have this balanced by carrying very limited ammunition. I never found myself with more than 12 or 15 rounds of ammunition for any of them, as more would make them unfair. Funny, really, that they can somehow become unfairly good in a game where the vast majority of people carry machine guns.
World War One was an utterly inhuman juggernaut of mindless death and destruction, exactly the opposite of a game that allows one to play a hero singlehandedly conquering the enemy. Looking back, it is obviously just silly to have expected that a game in a major popular franchise like Battlefield would have been made as anything but the other games that came before it. This could never have been a realistic depiction of World War One, because the vast majority of today’s video game market is not interested in such a thing. For those who are, the one option available is Verdun (which may not be perfect, but is far, far better). Or, for those who want something that focuses on the actual tactics of small-scale combat, insanely immersive games like Onward are just now really starting to become an option.