When the fog of war becomes a literal fog, the ears are the closest ally. Right now all I hear is the screaming, the gunfire and distant explosions, as the fog completely obscures my vision, and all I think to myself is, “100 years ago people experienced something just like this. This actually happened. “
Given the number of games based or loosely based around real historical conflicts, it seems strange to admit that I find one set in the midst of the first World War a tad disquieting.
Then again, it was a particularly horrible war: the horrendous conditions soldiers fought in, the inhumane use of gas, the sheer numbers of lives lost. And to the credit of its creators, Battlefield 1 feels chaotic, brutal and profoundly realised in its presentation of World War 1 without taking it to a place where it feels flippant. At least so far – there’s a lot more of the game to see.
In a 64-player Conquest battle in St Quentin’s Scar, I am marvelling at the ambition on display. Moving through the remains of an abandoned house, I stop to peer through a window to see distant tanks rumbling over hills and planes gliding through the sky in a dance of death.
The fog has now cleared but it looks like it might start soon; Battlefield 1’s weather system is dynamic this time and has the potential to totally screw up your strategy. Later, a zeppelin appears overhead before being brought down in a fiery wreck, levelling buildings and crushing soldiers of both sides in its wake.
It’s the sort of grand spectacle that tells you you’re playing Battlefield game, and yet getting this particular game off the ground was a lot of hard work. “The pitch has been lingering since 2008,” says Dice Creative Director Lars Gustavsson. Electronic Arts executive VP, Patrick Söderlund didn’t think a game based on trench warfare would be fun, while Gustavsson also explains that the lack of pop culture around the Great War was also a problem – it didn’t get its Saving Private Ryan or Where Eagles Dare.
After a lot of work, the team proved that a good Battlefield game set in the first World War could, and should, be done. Now, in a year where Call of Duty is moving into the distant future (and space), Dice is going back to the dawn of modern warfare.
I’ve only spent 15 minutes with Battlefield 1 so far, but I can already tell you that Söderlund was wrong to be concerned.
In the trenches
But while trench warfare does feature – as Gustavsson says, “You can’t make a game without it” – Battlefield 1 isn’t sticking too rigidly to the history books, taking artistic licence where needed. I ask Gustavsson why the team didn’t just create an alternate timeline. “I think we wanted to stick with it, probably because we wanted to make it hard for ourselves,” he jokes.
“We’ve tried to root in in real events. Real hardware, real tactics and so on, but in the end allow ourselves the freedom to take it through the filter of the Battlefield pillars to ensure it becomes a good gaming experience.”
This was a war that started on horseback and ended in tanks, and though EA has only given us a glimpse of the multiplayer so far, I’m curious about whether the game will stick to a timeline in the single player campaign.
“As a whole we’re not trying to do kind of chronological order as the main theme,” Gustavsson says. “It’s more the destinies and the different events that took place.”
However, the developments that took place during the course of the war will be presented in the game. Take tanks – the first British tanks were introduced in 1916, two years after the start of the war, and further developed to improve their mobility in rough terrains occurred in the war’s later years.
By the end of the war, the French and Germans had also developed their tanks, and it’s for this reason you’ll see a spectrum of armored vehicles in Battlefield 1.
“It was meant to help infantry push forward,” says Gustavsson, describing the first British tank, the Mk I. “Then other sides started to mimic it but came up with different solutions. Which means that if you look at tanks in the most recent games we’ve done, they all look the same – they’re boxes with a turret. But these [in World War 1] were all different. “
Battlefield games have traditionally had a rock, paper, scissors dynamic between air, sea and land vehicles, but Gustavsson says this will now apply within the tank vehicle class. “I think it adds more depth to the dynamics to it, and even more interesting choices for those who like driving tanks, but also for those who encounter them.”
Maybe you’ll choose the FT-17, a French tank with a rotating turret that’s super agile but also fragile; or perhaps the German A7V, with its forward facing gun and sturdy built is good for camping at bases.
And then there is the zeppelin, which can be controlled by several players. You’ll have spotted one meeting its fiery end in the Battlefield 1 trailer, and seeing one come down during play was a breathtaking experience. Just get out the way when it falls.
The Empires Strike Back
In some ways, the new game feels like a return to Battlefield 1942, the game that started it all. But I wonder if Dice could have made an impressive WW1 game back then, without the technology to create battles of this scale.
Pop culture might not have been so kind to it, but the Great War is one of history’s most interesting periods and a war that has so many lesser-known stories to tell.
“[In the Great War] there were so many empires with so many kind of different agendas, which makes it even more interesting to portray from a storytelling perspective,” says Gustavsson. “And that’s what we’re trying to do, so instead of sticking to ‘This was the war’, it’s rather ‘Here are some angles of the war, and how those got affected by the war.”
I finish off by talking to Gustavsson about sensitivity issues in dealing with a war that was particularly awful. Dice isn’t shying away from some of the Great War’s nastier aspects, such as mustard gas (which you can use as a weapon) but Gustavsson says there is a careful balance being struck to ensure the game is respectful, and that they are conscious to not “hide” the game behind gore.
“We just tried to find an angle we could do it and then tried to be as respectful as possible so it’s still not going over the line. There are so many stories to be told, Hopefully, in my opinion, it will also make people read up more on what happened, since I think a lot of people know tonnes about the Second World War and Vietnam but very little about this war and how it changed the world.
“Empires fell, new regimes came, women went into factories to start working. Tea bags, trench coats, zippers, a gazillion things we take for granted today that came out of this era.
“There’s so much to find out there and so much to learn, so hopefully we’ll spark some interest.”
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