Why doesn’t World War I get more attention in popular media? It’s complicated. Sure, we all know it started when some archduke got assassinated, but most non-history majors would be hard put to explain why it took over a whole continent. There are no black-and-white good guys and villains, just a lot of mayhem that led to some 17 million deaths.
“Battlefield 1” (Electronic Arts, for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, $59.99) takes that ambiguity and builds a surprisingly effective narrative around it. The latest war game from EA’s Sweden-based DICE studio offers few rah-rah moments of triumph; more commonly, you’re just relieved to make it out alive.
DICE has taken a savvy approach to the story here: Rather than following one unlucky grunt through an unlikely gauntlet of the war’s most renowned engagements, you get an anthology featuring different characters in each location.
You begin as a member of the Harlem Hellfighters, hopelessly trying to stave off a relentless German invasion into French territory. After that grim scenario, you take the roles of a tank driver in France, a British fighter pilot, a desperate Italian soldier in the Alps and a wily old Australian veteran in Gallipoli. The final story ventures into the Middle East, where you are a Bedouin fighter in Lawrence of Arabia’s guerrilla campaign against the Ottoman Empire.
The anthology approach gives DICE a chance to show off its flair with gorgeously rendered landscapes, as well its skill in building a variety of weapons and vehicles that feel like they have genuine weight. This is the 1910s, so you don’t get the same kind of cool high-tech gear DICE flaunted in its last game, 2015’s “Star Wars Battlefront.” Instead, you’re stuck with sluggish rifles, clunky grenades and a temperamental tank that tends to get stuck in mud.
As a result, “Battlefield 1” feels much different than most contemporary war games. Unlike, say, “Gears of War 4,” you can’t just run screaming into the fight and expect to make it out alive. Most scenarios demand a more tactical approach, where you must find a way to quietly eliminate enemies one at a time before breaking out the heavy weapons. It’s the rare war game where I felt compelled to retry scenarios to look for more subtle ways to accomplish missions.
There’s a full suite of online multiplayer contests, highlighted by DICE’s signature Conquest mode, where up to 64 soldiers fight over a sprawling wasteland. There’s also the new Operations mode, a tug-of-war between offensive and defensive troops that grows increasingly tense as you move from map to map.
Between “Call of Duty,” ”Halo” and too many others to count, the market for war video games is saturated. “Battlefield 1” is the first I’ve played in a while that felt like it had some fresh ideas — and one of the few I’d recommend to people who don’t normally care for the genre. Three stars out of four.
Follow Lou Kesten on Twitter @lkesten
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