“All out warfare has never been so epic!!!” This is EA’s comment on their new game title, Battlefield 1. Now usually I can stand historical first person shooters, indeed, I enjoyed COD 5 and some of the Medal of Honour series as much as anyone, but something about this game continues to strike a nerve. Disclaimer : This game has yet to be released and I could be completely wrong about it, but it’s being made by EA/Dice so I doubt I am.
Let’s start with the facts. The first world war began in 1914 and finished in 1918. During this time around 11 million soldiers, and around 7 million civilians, were killed on all fronts. This was a war on an industrial scale, and indeed, it saw technology take over from army size as the deciding factor in battles. For the majority of the war, the largest front was bogged down in a war of attrition defined by trench warfare. Though this was not the case everywhere, for instance, the eastern front was more fluid but prone to stagnation. The main belligerents were France, The British Empire, Germany, Russia, Austria, and Italy – with America joining in 1917(and putting troops on the ground essentially in 1918). Its cause can be put down to a series of European alliances formed in the period after the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 which allowed the assassination of the Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, by a small state sponsored Serbian independence terror cell, to spark the largest conflict the world had ever seen.
Now, you probably didn’t need that one paragraph refresher course in WW1 history but it seems to me that Dice/EA do. Having watched the footage released so far it’s clear that the people behind this game wanted to make a WW2 game but felt that that setting had been overdone so decided to put a WW1 skin on it. As a history student, I pick up on inaccuracies quite a lot, especially around subjects like aerial warfare which I am especially interested in – and to which WW1 represents genesis. So when I see a red triplane being chased through a desert canyon or an extremely low-level dogfight that does annoy me. It’s the same with tanks, which were ironically unreliable when they first appeared in 1916 and were used more as mobile cover and barbed wire destroyer rather than the fast attacking machines we see in the trailers. And no it doesn’t need to be fully historically accurate to the last detail but some effort would be nice because to me it just looks like Dice had a meeting where they went around and everyone said one thing they knew about WW1. “Zeppelins”, “Ze Red Barron”, “TANKS”, “Laurence of Arabia”, “Gas”, “Barron Von Richthofen” “Hey I said him already”.
Also, the pace of the action annoys me. It is so fast and fluid, to the point where we may as well be fighting in Normandy and north Italy circa 1944. But I know, “its got to be fast paced otherwise it wouldn’t be a good(multi-player) game”. I don’t agree with this at all, look at Verdun’s Frontline game mode as an example of a world war one multiplayer shooter with good pacing. It’s not slow, but you have to fight hard for every bit of ground you get and then you might lose it all if the other team is able to counter attack effectively. This makes it all the worse when a machine gun takes out your whole squad as you try to recapture a position you held moments before. The gameplay shown at E3, on the other hand, looked like something out of Hero’s and Generals, driving about on a motorbike and using submachine guns. From what we saw, especially in the E3 multiplayer event, Battlefield 1 will play like a modern shooter.
However, as much as these factors annoy me I am much more worried about the tone of the game. There were no good guys or bad guys in the First World War, which is where problems arise from trying to re skin a World War Two game – especially in single player. On all fronts you had armies of ordinary men spending 4 years killing each other. Yet in the reveal trailer we get two shots of gas masked Germans beating to death British or American soldiers unknown, we see armoured Germans mowing down allied soldiers and firing flame-throwers. Compare this to the obvious protagonist, who we see c bravely facing down a descending Zeppelin. Its only in the game play trailer we see some allied brutality, a half a second shot of an empire troop putting an axe in a German soldier. I have no problem with the player being on the side of the allies but please, and Dice I’m begging here, do not make the Germans “Bad Guy’s” like in WW2 single players.
For example, fighting your way through the Reichstag in COD 5 is brutal but you don’t feel bad because you are fighting the SS. Hell, at points it feels heroic. This game should not be that. It should be morally grey, at points an unpleasant experience – just as the real war was. I may write another piece on ideas I and a friend had on achieving this. If Dice decide to portray the war as black/white, good v bad, however then they are embodying the true “Bad Guy’s” of WW1. The propagandists who sought to incite hatred in the ignorant in order to fuel the meat grinder the war became. As Paul Baumer says in All Quiet on the Western Front “What about those leaflets… where they said we eat Belgian babies? People who write things like that deserve to be strung up. They are the real Villains.” I wait with baited breath the Belgian baby DLC.
This brings me back to the quote used at the EA conference. The First World War was, as war’s go, not epic and nor was it fast paced or action packed. I’m not asking for absolute historical accuracy, but for respect for the subject matter. This does not mean that it cant be at points a fun experience though it needs to be grounded in the real history. I don’t think that it is a coincidence that no games like this were made when veterans could dispute their basis in reality. WW1 was always going to be a difficult setting in which to make a game for any genre, but lazy design in order to appeal to a mass market is, in my eyes, disgusting. If the setting and subject matter don’t fit the game you want to make then it would be better to swap setting, though it is too late in the case of Battlefield 1. I hope I am wrong and that Dice will pull it out of the bag, but all the evidence does not point to this. 100 years ago preparations were being made for the start of the Battle of the Somme which would kill over 19000 Englishmen of the age this game is marketed to. In the first morning. They deserve better.