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'Battlefield 1' reminded me that before war was a game, it was hell

The first level is amazing. If only the rest of the game were as poignant.

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The Battlefield games aren't exactly known for having the best single-player modes. In fact, players ignore the series' solo experiences so routinely that this was actually a reason we didn't see a campaign mode in Star Wars: Battlefront last year. "Very few people actually play the single-player on these kinds of games," EA's Peter Moore said at the time. "That's what the data points to." So, naturally, when I picked up a copy of Battlefield 1 earlier this week, I planned to skip directly to online multiplayer -- but the game didn't let me. First, it had to teach me a history lesson. "Battlefield 1 is based upon events that unfolded over one hundred years ago," the game told me immediately after booting up. "What follows is front line combat. You are not expected to survive."

Normally, a game that automatically shoves me into its single-player campaign would have me scrambling for the skip button -- but that lead-in text lingered in my mind. Why had the game bothered to tell me I wouldn't survive? The Western Front appeared onscreen, along with a directive to defend my position against waves of German soldiers. I fought valiantly but, like the disclaimer said, I was doomed to fail.

As my fictional soldier fell to the ground, I expected the game to cut to the Battlefield 1 logo. Instead, the camera zoomed out to reveal an epitaph for the character I had just failed. A somber voiceover touched on the futility of war as my view settled behind the eyes of another soldier. Soon, he fell too. Then another, and another, each expiring under their own floating epitaph showing the character's birth year and time of death. The narrative's emotionally manipulative hook was obvious, but still effective. This wasn't a game -- it was a war. I left the experience feeling like a soldier myself. One who might not make it home.

This isn't what I was expecting. Most first-person shooters border on power fantasies -- walking the player through a series of overblown, high-adrenaline sequences designed to make them feel like action heroes. Battlefield 1 shatters that illusion by putting the player through a carousel of death, complete with narration. "We came from all over the world, so many of us thinking this war would be our right of passage. Our great adventure," the voiceover coldly explains. "Instead of adventure, we found fear."

This helps players empathize with the soldiers in a way other war games often don't and gently reminds them that this is more than a game -- it's history. Battlefield 1's intro isn't just hinting that its campaign is story driven; it's asking you to respect the memory of the soldiers of the war it's based on. "Behind every gunsight is a human being," says the voice, driving the point home. That's not a sentiment I'm used to hearing in my war simulators.

By contrast, Call of Duty, Medal of Honor and previous Battlefield titles are games first, offering great action experiences and more than enough danger to keep players on edge. That's perfectly fine -- and exactly what these games are supposed to be -- but as a result, they almost never break free of the typical tropes. Namely, the player is the hero and the good guys always win. Real war isn't like that, and neither is Battlefield 1's prologue. Despite being scripted and even a bit preachy, it's poignant too. That's enough to get me to do something I've never done before: Play the campaign mode of a Battlefield game.

Unfortunately, the harsh realism of the game's introduction doesn't quite carry over to the rest of the game's single-player experience. The five "war story" vignettes that make up Battlefield 1's campaign mode take players to five different fronts of the Great War, following five soldiers through their respective adventures. Each story is unique and uses a distinct narrative to draw you in -- but they all also fall back on the same heroism tropes used in other war games. It's easy to forget the bleak prologue when you're running across the bow of a German airship in a last-ditch effort to single-handedly take out the rest of the Zeppelin fleet.

Even so, Battlefield 1's single-player stories are still worth playing. Clever writing goes a long way toward softening some of these war hero cliches. One story has you questioning if the over-the-top adventure you're playing is reality or the exaggerations of a braggart. Another is framed as the somber reflections of a soldier struggling to cope with being his team's only survivor. These stories didn't hit me as hard as the game's opening sequence, but they're still strong, character-driven narratives deserving of your time. In fact, they're good enough that they made me go back and see if I was missing anything in Battlefield 4's single-player mode. I wasn't, but I'm glad Dice tricked me into trying Battlefield 1's campaign. Next time they release a game, maybe I won't forsake the solo experience in favor of multiplayer.

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