Battlefield 1 is shaping up to be a return to form for DICE, the EA-owned development studio behind the famous first-person-shooter series. After handing the franchise keys to Visceral Games for Battlefield Hardline, the studio is back at the helm, and returning to historical warfare with its first game set in World War I. The announcement was met with mostly positive reactions, especially in the face of Activision's continued focus on jetpacks and other future tech with the Call of Duty series.
I'm not a massive fan of either of the big FPS franchises. I don't look down on Call of Duty or Battlefield games: They're expertly crafted multiplayer experiences that millions of gamers love. They're just not for everyone. My colleague Timothy Seppala, a long-time Battlefield fan, spent most of E3 explaining to me just how impressed he was with what he'd seen so far. "I haven't loved a Battlefield game since 2010's Bad Company 2," he wrote back in June, "but during a single round of Conquest set on a map in northern France, I caught a glimpse of the game that had me smitten five years ago."
After that first reveal, I wasn't happy about the choice of war. Growing up in the UK, my main frame of reference for World War I was the poetry of Wilfred Owen, and the various movies (and comedies) set in the trenches. I think of mustard gas, trench foot and men marching in formation to their death. I remember no grand, "exciting" battles, no bold victories; just hopelessness and unnecessary death. How do you set the multiplayer mayhem Battlefield is famous for against that backdrop? It just felt wrong.
Lars Gustavsson, design director at DICE, researched World War I extensively before and during development, and told me during an interview at Gamescom this week that my view of the war, of trenches and terror isn't the whole story. "It was so much more than trench warfare and single-bolt action rifles," he explained. Like me, Gustavsson and the team at DICE had some strong preconceptions about the war, which he says are in part due to the entertainment industry largely ignoring WWI. "We see movies, pop culture, about World War II, about the Vietnam war, about contemporary warfare, even future warfare, but we haven't seen that much on WWI."
"We have no intent of being a historical lesson line per line."
Battlefield 1 isn't looking for historical accuracy in either its campaign or multiplayer games. "We have no intent of being a historical lesson line per line," Gustavsson said. But the game blends together elements that all existed in that era, and will "try to give extra information to players." It wants gamers to be able to contextualize the events they see, and the weapons and vehicles players will use. DICE hopes that choosing World War I as a setting will generate interest in that period, and lead players on their own paths of discovery.
It's easy to scoff at that notion. As Gustavsson and I spoke at EA's Gamescom lounge, dozens of Battlefield 1 fans were very excitedly blowing the crap out of each other behind him. I didn't see anyone giving pause for thought on the reality behind the in-game events. But Gustavsson himself has been changed by his learning experience, and it's not outlandish to think that some gamers will want to learn more.
"This war shaped the world much more than I ever had thought," he told me. "It took the world from old empires and old belief into a modernized, highly mechanized, highly technological world. [One where] empires fell, women went into factories and started to work instead of being at home. It changed so much. That really shaped the world we live in today."
I, too, learned a few things. Not by playing Battlefield 1, in which I was taken apart by players far more adept at the game. But in talking to Gustavsson, I discovered that our desire for oil, which deeply changed the world in the 20th century, really began in earnest during World War I, because Dreadnought ships began to switch from coal to oil for fuel. Perhaps I should've known that already, but I had always assumed this began with the Chaco War of the 1930s.
"Just as I now, at the age of 48, have learned so much in the last years about this war that I didn't know before," said Gustavsson, "we hope that it will spark the same interest for people that play the game."
So far, I've only demoed the multiplayer part of Battlefield 1. I'll be honest: None of Gustavsson's seemingly fastidious research into the war was apparent. Sure, the notion of this action-packed, all-out warfare taking place during the era challenged my preconceptions, but that was all it did. When it comes to the single-player campaign, I hope that DICE can stay true to its word. I hope it will offer some knowledge along with its zeppelins, and really get players interested in what was a fascinating period of history.
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