Oh it’s so lovely to be back in wartime France. There’s something reassuringly familiar about the stomping grounds of Battlefield 1’s closed alpha, and the St. Quentin Scar map that’s at the heart of it all: in those gentle French hills torn violently apart and in that bucolic village that’s soon reduced to rubble there’s something of Call of Duty 2’s Carentan, and even if the clock’s been wound back a few decades it’s a little reminder of an era of first-person shooters that was thought lost.
There’s something of the past generation of Battlefield games too, of course – DICE’s decision to the first world war is a step into relatively unexplored territory, but it also feels like a step back into the slower, more considered skirmishes of Battlefield 1942, albeit with a slightly steampunk, more brutal edge. Syringes to revive teammates, shovels to smash enemies around the head with and so much mud, steel and brickwork colliding into one noisy mess. Everything feels more analogue after the digital worlds of Battlefield 3 and 4, and playing Battlefield 1 is like getting reacquainted with a lovingly restored antique. Everything that’s old is new again.
It feels more human, too, the sense of weight and of your own body heightened. You can mantle higher objects now, hurling yourself up and over walls. It’s hardly Mirror’s Edge, but it’s a much more physical take on the first-person shooter than we’ve seen elsewhere. Slam through that door, heave yourself through the heavy gunner’s door of a tank or simply hear the wet thud as you’re felled into the sloppy mud by a distant marksman.
Battlefield 1 has a wistful nostalgia to it all, and it’s not just in its depiction of a war from a different age. Some of that nostalgia’s for things as recent as 2006’s Battlefield 2142, the blimps that appear to assist a faltering team calling back to the Titans that once ruled the skies of DICE’s sci-fi outing, or for 2010’s Bad Company 2. Six years and two mainline games later and the brilliant destructibility of what’s rightly considered a high watermark for the series is only now being matched. There’s no need for the map-altering, pre-scripted gimmicks of Battlefield 4 – those awe-inspiring moments now happen more organically. A barn that’s housing a squad crumbles; a blimp comes tumbling down. Or, in a neat new twist, a weather front comes rolling in – fog obscures your vision, or a rainstorm obscures those deep blue skies and slicks everything in damp grey. It feels fantastic.
DICE has done well to cherrypick all that was great about Battlefields past – and with such a rich history there’s an awful lot to choose from – while ditching some of the more obnoxious elements of the more recent games. It should be a winning formula, helped along by a front-end that’s slicker and more user-friendly than what’s gone before. By rights, this really should be the best Battlefield of them all.
And it may well prove to be, but it feels like there’s some work still to be done. Scouts seem overpowered, especially in the more open plains of St. Quentin Scar in its Conquest configuration – as a foot soldier it’s almost impossible to go twenty paces without being downed by one. Then there’s the issue of St. Quentin Scar itself, a fairly bland map that’s hardly challenging Battlefield’s finest – it feels much smaller than the expanses of Battlefield 4, yet it’s also strangely anonymous. Maybe it’s all that destructibility robbing it of any meaningful architecture – tactics can feel redundant in a town that so readily crumbles, while the landscape itself offers little in the way of natural cover.
Maybe, though, it’s just nostalgia getting the better of me, and when playing what feels like a compendium of so much that’s been good about Battlefield in the past that all I want to do is kick back and enjoy a more classic map. Bring me Wake Island, basically, and all will be good with the world. Before then, though, there’s enough in this small taster to reassure returning Battlefield players, and to justify a small amount of the hype around the game. If DICE keeps on the right track, this could be a very special Battlefield indeed.