Let's face it - if you're in the market for a good WW1 game, it's pretty slim pickings. At the moment, there's Verdun on the Playstation Store, but beyond that, there's next to nothing else. While every man and their dog was making a WW2 shooter at one point, the Great War has always been somewhat overlooked. Perhaps it's because WW1 is a little bit less well known than more recent conflicts; perhaps developers were worried there wouldn't be enough massive battles and epic stories to tell - or perhaps there was concern that the weapons of the time wouldn't lend themselves to a fun game. Whatever the reason was, Battlefield 1 proves all the doubters wrong, creating a game that's so full of atmosphere and jaw dropping moments, you'll wonder why they ever left the historical wars behind in the first place.
The bulk of the game here is the campaign, which is divided into five "War Stories". In a really neat touch, each of these War Stories is a self contained story, designed to shine a light into a lesser known part of the war, and provide a glimpse into the lives of those who thought it. Focused around personal stories rather than the over-arching strategies of the war, the War Stories are a fantastic touch - and also serve as a great introduction to each of Battlefield 1's types of vehicles - tanks, planes, and chuffing gigantic armoured trains.
Personally, I've always been a bit of a fly boy at heart, so it was the RAF-themed War Story that was my first port of call. Here, you play as a young American pilot who fancies himself as a bit of a Han Solo - a gambler, a cad, and all around rogue. After having a bit of a gamble with his commanding officer (who's the son of the Earl of Windsor, don't you know), our hero instead decides instead to pinch his CO's plane, and then pose as him. Even if he is almost rumbled by his rear gunner, a quick "tally ho pip pip" is all it takes to keep his illusion intact.
What follows is a sequence of missions with all the adventure and excitement of one of the old Commando comics, only done in gaming form. Things get off to the best possible of starts, as you take your Bristol Fighter for a test flight - which, as we can only imagine is completely historically accurate, mostly involved flying very close behind another Bristol Fighter, as you turn incredibly tightly around a mountain, watching as your wings clip the glistening snow, with very little room for error. The whole scenario is designed to get you used to the flying controls - and it's a good job they do, as it doesn't take long until you find yourself under attack by the dastardly hun - who all seem to be flying bright red Fokker Triplanes, presumably as a tribute act to the Red Baron himself. Still, with frankfurters all around, you're in for the dogfight of your life.
In fact, it's probably worth taking a while to talk about just how much fun the flying is in Battlefield 1, as it's something that's always been a bit hit and miss in Battlefield games in the past. In the more recent military shooters, you end up flying a jet that zips from one end of the map to the other before you've had time to say "bombs away", and almost inevitably end up getting shot down by some ponce with a heat seeking rocket launcher on the ground. Not so in WW1 - with the only rockets here being the unguided ones you can shoot at ground targets, if you get in a plane, you're left a veritable Knight of the Sky.
While we do wish the planes had a better control scheme (it'd be nice to be able to roll the plane independently, rather than always having to turn), the aerial combat in Battlefield 1 is a heck of a lot of fun - especially as you watch your underpowered guns literally tear your opponent's planes to pieces. In fact, you just end up finding yourself wishing there was more of it. We'd pay good money for a proper, traditional, dynamic campaign using the Battlefield 1 flight engine...
Still, what goes up must come down, and after flying a bomber escort mission, things soon go tits up. Before too long, your hotshot flyboy of a pilot discovers he's not as much of a hotshot as he hoped, as he finds himself stuck behind enemy lines. What follows is a mission that's one of the highlights of the game, as you have to sneak through trenches, straight through the middle of no man's land, to find your way back to base. And it's as tense as it is atmospheric.
Looking at Battlefield 1 sometimes, it's hard to imagine graphics getting any better. We've already reached photorealism - if anything, it feels like we've surpassed it at times, and you don't have to squint too much at Battlefield 1 for it to feel like you're actually there. The team at developers DICE have done a phenomenal job capturing the feel of the trenches, and it all comes together to create a phenomenally tense experience. There you are, trudging through the churned up mud, trying your best to stay hidden, as the full moon glints off the hastily placed planks that have been strewn across the path to make it at least somewhat navigable, and a light mist rolls across the ground... You can practically smell the mix of mud, wood and fear that must have come out of those trenches.
However, it's in these stealth levels that one of the more unusual "features" of Battlefield 1 makes itself known. In Battlefield 1, enemies aren't automatically highlighted or distinguished in any way on screen. They don't show up on your radar before you see them, and they won't show up on your radar even after you've seen them - instead, you have to manually "spot" them, by pressing R1 (on PS4). This then sticks a little icon above their head (letting you know they're an enemy), and means should you ever lose direct visual contact with them, the game will give them a handy outline, showing you where they are at all times.
The only problem is, this means that often, the first thing you know of an enemy being nearby is when they start shooting at you, at which point it's often too late - and even then, it sometimes takes you a good few seconds to realise they're a bad guy, because you don't want to risk shooting one of your own team. It also means you end up walking around the level like a WW1 version of Hulk Hogan, pointing at every single enemy you see to say "YOUUUU", so you'll be able to keep an eye on them later. Sometimes, we found ourselves sitting in a vantage point, just moving the cursor all over the screen and hammering R1 in the hope it'd pick the enemies out.
And while there's probably a good argument for this to make the game harder for realism fans, it's not actually that realistic anyway. WW1 soldiers didn't have a crazy auto-tracking system that let them see soldiers through walls, yet the lack of any warning that an enemy's coming makes the game a lot harder to pick up and play for new players - which is something DICE have always overlooked with their previous games.
A perfect work-around would be to only enable it for players on lower difficulties, whilst letting those who want to go the hardcore route have their fun too - but there's only one problem. Battlefield 1 doesn't actually have an adjustable difficulty level. In yet another oversight for newer players, there's no way to tweak your experience in Battlefield 1, or make the game any easier - if you can't do something, tough.
OK, that's enough ranting for now. While the lack of any warning an enemy's around is an issue, it's not a big enough issue to ruin the experience - and it certainly didn't make this War Story any worse. While we're not going to spoil how it ends, the finale is out of this world - let's just say it involves Zepplins, and at times feels a lot more like Crimson Skies than a game set in WW1.
But there's more to the War Stories than just the flyboy side of things. The first proper War Story here puts you in the boots of a young tank driver, as he learns the ropes in the middle of the war torn French countryside. A real trial by fire, this is another great tale that takes you inside the tank, and tells the story of the crew more than the war they're in. In the cutscenes, you see just how cramped it is inside, how the engine runs right down the middle and fills the entire thing with fumes - and how a band of brothers have to come together and put their differences aside to fight for their very survival.
Of course, that's not to say it isn't a heck of a lot of fun. In fact, driving a tank is one of the best parts of Battlefield 1, as they're so incredibly powerful. In true Battlefield fashion, almost everything here is fully destructible - buildings, fences, gun emplacements - you name it, you can blow it up. Or, better yet, you can drive straight through it. Nothing says awesome like flanking an enemy, then taking him by surprise by bursting right through Mr Artois' little cottage.
As Battlefield 1 is primarily a shooter, its first person credentials come into play here too. In an immensely cool touch, you can get out of your tank mid mission, and go for a walk around - smash up a cottage, and see what looks like it might be a collectable inside, and you can get out and go and have a look. In a later level, you find yourself (and your tank) in the midst of a damp, misty forest, shrouded by fog. All on your own, and with no way of knowing what lies ahead, the only solution is to carry on on foot - scouting out enemy defences, taking out gun emplacements, and generally making things safe for the tank to pass through. Of course, should things get a bit hairy, you do have a several tonne armoured monster ready to help you out.
The other War Stories take in similarly varied theatres of war. One sees you take part in the Gallipoli campaign, storming the Gallipoli peninsula (which is now in modern day Turkey) to launch an assault on the Ottoman Empire (who seemingly were very fond of end-of-bed tables); another sees you play as the Italitian Arditi, an elite unit facing off against the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the Alps, led by a man in a suit of armour wielding a gatling gun; while the final War Story has you playing a character named Zara, a woman who fights under the command of Lawrence of Arabia, helping the Arab tribes fight back against the Ottoman Empire - you get to ride a horse in the desert here and everything. There's even a section where you play as a carrier pigeon, delivering a crucial message back to base.
There's more than just the single player to Battlefield, though - online plays a huge part in things, and again, there's a pretty substantial offering here. Delivering huge, 40- or 64-player battles across equally expansive maps, the online mode is a lot of fun - especially as they put such an emphasis on co-op play. Here, you and a group of friends can bundle into a WW1 tank, as one player drives and the others man the turrets; your friend can hop in your gunner seat and keep enemies off your tail as you go dogfighting; and you can even man the turrets on a chuffing Zeppelin. When it all comes off, there's nothing quite like it. However, it does suffer from all the usual Battlefield issues.
For starters, locking off the most powerful weaponry so that only higher level players can use it seems horribly backwards, and means late adopters end up facing a near insurmountable task when it comes to getting started. Then there's the fact you still can't have a private game - without paying to rent your own private server. With no bot support either, there's a lot of features Battlefield games are missing, and they could really do with catching up. While the game also claims to try and match you by ability, we were the only level 1 player in our game over launch weekend - and we were playing with (and against) folk on level 20. We still won, though.
However, despite lagging in a few areas, Battlefield 1 does phenomenally well in breathing life into WW1, and putting you right in the middle of it. The aerial and tank gameplay here is so good, they could make an entire stand alone game around it if they wanted (and to be honest, we wish they would) - but Battlefield 1 is more than that. Playing through the War Stories, you'll learn about a part of history that's often overlooked in favour of its bigger brother, and take part in a series of immersive, emotive and gripping adventures - before heading online to make your own. Arguably, this was a risk for both EA and DICE - leaving behind the near-future war that's been their staple for so long, to take a risk on a more traditional, historically themed game. But if they can bring the past to life in a game that's this good, we never want to play a modern day Battlefield game again. More like this please, EA.