‘Battlefield 1’ (Xbox One) review: War stories

A short but charged campaign mode preps you for full-out war in ‘Battlefield 1’

In recent years, the “Battlefield” franchise has expanded what it considers a battlefield.

“Battlefield Hardline” and “Battlefield 4” veered away from major escalations (think world wars) and became decidedly more high tech. In effect, the series became smaller endeavors between the forces of good and evil and more chaotic firefights with so many weapons you’d forget the names of your favorites.

“Battlefield 1,” however, the latest release in EA DICE’s long-running series, has had enough of police chases and sci-fi-inspired gadgetry. In fact, we’re transported back to World War I — the war to end all wars, with its devastating effect on modern warfare detailed in striking clarity. This time around, our feet are planted firmly on the ground of realism (well, mostly) and our weaponry is simplistic in its effectiveness. And while the six-hour campaign mode serves as a glorified tutorial for the expansive multiplayer modes, its startlingly personal takes on particular moments in World War I raise a mighty existential question: We know this war ended nothing (hence why it’s called the First World War), but will humanity ever stop warring?

In its step backward while also moving the genre forward, “Battlefield 1” opens with a one of the game’s most spectacular sequences, one in which you cannot win. You first take command of a black solider, a member of the Harlem Hellfighters, who finds himself surrounded by the furious chaos of war. But you won’t command him for long; the entire point of this opening chapter, titled “Storm of Steel,” serves as a reminder of how many soldiers died in the ravages of that battlefield. You’re warned from the beginning that you’re not meant to survive; after multiple title cards pop up marking the deaths of those you control, it’s a bit of an understated warning.

But that won’t stop you from trying to survive. Maybe it’s the stunning environment that you’re in, with bodies and blood and bullets all around you in both muted grays and startling reds. Maybe it’s the fact that you’re so much more aware of the carnage that you’re causing because your weapon is so much more personal. No drones, no missiles, just firearms from decades past that were hardly effective to use. Either way, it’s a crushing entry into the rest of the game’s single-player missions.

The remaining War Stories, as they are called, take place with different controllable characters in different times and locations during World War I. Each offers a personal viewpoint of the battle, whether you’re controlling tanks, fighter planes or an assassin. While you don’t control any particular character for more than an hour or so, you are given plenty of opportunity to connect, to want to succeed in whatever way you can, knowing that most probably won’t survive the onslaught they face.

A particular highlight from the single-player campaign comes when you control a less-than-reputable man, Clyde Blackburn, a pilot who swindles and lies his way into fighting in the skies over Europe. Your mission to defeat the enemy pilots over the snow-covered Alps or an easily recognizable London is simple enough, but it’s exhilarating, and your desire to make Blackburn a hero won’t be denied.

Yes, the campaign is rather short. Like I said earlier, it really just serves as a primer for how to play the multiplayer modes (it was rather odd to have to capture the point in a single-player mission), but that’s acceptable because the missions themselves were a great deal of fun. One note: The checkpoint system is brutal. I found myself having to replay long stretches of certain segments because you’re expected to complete them all at once. It’s not my fault I was able to defeat two waves of fighter jets just to be blown out of the sky during the third! Sigh …

But let’s get to the multiplayer aspects, shall we? The main draw of most “Battlefield” games stems from what it offers for online play. In “Battlefield 1,” we get a lot of what we’ve gotten before, but a few modes stand out.

The Operations mode is fantastic; it takes course across five battlefields during which war occurs in a straight match over multiple maps. No matter the map (which can change at round’s end), your goal is static: If you’re attacking, you need to keep on the offensive, moving ever forward; if you’re defending, you must stop that advance. The length of each match allows for countless variations of how to proceed.

Now let’s talk about War Pigeons. Yes, that’s the name of the mode. In the single-player, one mission had you actually controlling a carrier pigeon with important information. In the multiplayer mode, you don’t control the bird anymore, but you’re either charged with protecting that little creature or shooting it out of the sky. (Technically, your goal is to have the pigeon get to its destination, which will result in an aerial bombardment of your enemies, but that’s just really secondary.)

One other highlight: While Conquest mode will be familiar to “Battlefield” fans, the additions of major vehicles is a nice touch, especially since their spawns tend to favor the side that’s losing at that particular moment. It’s an exciting game-changer.

I did notice some graphical hiccups during the course of the single-player, including frame rate and draw distance issues and some rather long load times. However, with everything that was happening on the screen, the first two are pretty forgivable. (Not so much the load times, but I can’t always get what I want, I suppose.)

In the end, “Battlefield 1” surprised me with its faithful recreation and powerful stories stemming from a war that many thought, perhaps naively, would be the last of its kind. The entry is a solid, exciting addition to the popular franchise, giving you both a memorable campaign while maintaining its high-caliber multiplayer modes. If striking realism to both people and weaponry is what you’re looking for, “Battlefield 1” will sate that need. But don’t be surprised if you find yourself contemplating the horrors of war while you’re trying to shoot down that stupid pigeon.

Four “Wow, that was depressing” stars out of five.

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