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‘Battlefield 1’ review: An odd way to play with history

(Courtesy of Electronic Arts)

Battlefield 1
Developed by: DICE
Published by: Electronic Arts
Available on: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows

“Battlefield 1942” made war into an irreverent sport. Released in 2002 after a burst of World War II nostalgia driven by “Saving Private Ryan,” “Band of Brothers,” and the “Medal of Honor” games, Swedish studio DICE designed a 64-person multiplayer shooter that would emphasize cooperation across enormous maps using the finicky weapons of World War II. The mixture of unforgiving tactical simulation and the moment-to-moment drama of a rugby match created an ideal stage for improvisational slapstick. Players landed planes on top of other planes mid-air, used the game’s character animation to stage impromptu dances, and exploited the game’s physics system to launch tanks as if they’d come off a ski jump. The game accepted there would always be something fundamentally tasteless about translating war into play and basked in the uncanny schism.

“Battlefield 1,” the 12th main game in the series, is an unconvincing attempt to bring solemnity back to this raucous din. The game retains the series’ sprawling multiplayer matches, where team tactics feel like they’re on the verge of being lost in the chaotic hail of artillery fire, but it’s immediately clear that something has changed during the game’s somber opening cutscene. “More than 60 million soldiers fought in ‘The War to End All Wars,’” we read in spare white text against a backdrop of silence. “It ended nothing. Yet it changed the world forever.” This is a long way from the opening of “Battlefield 4,” which brought us a special ops soldier on the verge of drowning in a submerged 4×4 lamenting the fact that Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” was on the radio and would probably be the last song he heard before dying.

“Battlefield 1” is built as an anthology, with five multi-level “War Stories” set in different locations mostly during the last year of World War I, when automatic weaponry was conveniently most accessible. Every story is set up as a flashback, with its hero recounting how the war intruded on his life and drew him into the vortex of history where he was reduced to a name on a list. There’s a limousine driver-turned-gunner in an unreliable Mark V tank, a brief tutorial appearance by the Harlem Hellfighters, and a climactic storyline that follows a young fighter under the tutelage of T.E. Lawrence seeking revenge against the Central Powers in the Arabian Peninsula.

World War I might seem like rich source material for this kind of fragmentary, modernist reconstruction. The opening years of the war were fought under extreme constraints, by a significant percentage of teen soldiers, with as many as 250,000 under the age of 18 fighting for the British, some as young as 14. And the war was widely protested both at home and in the ranks, with some 20,000 British troops courtmartialed for desertion or cowardice, and 3,000 sentenced to death for it.

“Battlefield 1” is strangely uninterested in history despite its serious tone. Instead, the game uses its source material as a way to sentimentalize suffering, an approach that starts to feel like self-justification for the game’s increasingly inflexible design. As ever, the game’s sense of fun is inseparable from the player’s ability to shoot at as many things as possible — planes, tanks, people, zeppelins, field guns, more people, windmills, horses, trains. “In war, the only true equalizer is death,” one of the game’s characters says as he stares over the bay at Gallipoli, knowing he’s about to be killed by friendly artillery fire from an Allied warship below. You could say an even greater equalizer is the wish to not die, especially under friendly fire, and that imagining every life lost in war as nobly resolved to their fate in advance might not actually honor that sacrifice.

Another string of missions follows a poker-playing pilot through a bombing campaign, a crash landing in enemy territory that sets up a series of stealth missions in which bludgeoning the enemy to death with a shovel briefly replaces the shooting, and which climaxes with a sunset set-piece mission that ends with him tumbling onto the surface of a burning zeppelin. After he has killed the German troops crewing it, we leave him lying in the wreckage glazed over with a calm that seems more like yogic afterglow than shellshock.

The “Battlefield” series has stormed through more than a century of warmaking in search of a good time — World War II, Vietnam, the Iraq War, and even a couple of trips into the near- and not-so-near future. Each game reduces war into the same essential struggle for control points, sniper nests, vehicle spawns, and mortar posts. Freed from the ersatz catharsis of the single player stories, “Battlefield 1’s” multiplayer modes get incrementally closer to depicting the hopeless repetitions of the war’s long and grueling stalemates. In the new centerpiece mode, “Operations,” two teams of 32 compete for control of five different quadrants across two enormous maps, one loaded after the other has been finished. Three “Behemoth” vehicles occasionally appear to sway the tide for one team — either a zeppelin, a battleship, or armored train.

It’s a gratifying to play for a few hours, and the overlay of experience points and weapon upgrades offer formulaic but still effective reasons to keep coming back. Yet, all of it feels like it’s speeding further away from its source material. It’s a reminder that what we want most from history is the make-believe. We shouldn’t take history so seriously that we can’t think sideways about it for a bawdy laugh or two, but it’s self-delusion to demand reverence for sideways thinking. Playing “Battlefield 1” feels like a disservice to both causes, neither irreverent enough to actually be fun nor respectful enough to illuminate something about history. Instead, it feels like being asked to play a game of football at a funeral and then made to keep the noise down when you score.

Michael Thomsen is a writer in New York. His work has appeared in the New Yorker, the Atlantic, Slate, the New Republic, the Daily Beast, the New Inquiry, Kill Screen, Edge and Gamasutra. Follow him on Twitter @mike_thomsen.

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