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Battlefield 1 turns the horrors of war into an online sport

The latest entry in the video game franchise blurs the line between history and entertainment to unusual, unsettling ends.

Over the course of a single weekend playing Battlefield 1, I killed hundreds of people. I shot them in the head with sniper rifles. I mowed them down in trenches with powerful machine guns. I ran over them with tanks and blew them into the air with mortar shells. I choked them to death on poison gas as they tried to advance on my position, stabbed them with knives as they peered through windows, and bludgeoned them in trenches with tiny shovels. I listened to their screams of agony after I set them on fire. All together, I racked up 321 kills. I myself was killed nearly 500 times, a ratio that suggests I’m not yet a very effective soldier.

Battlefield 1 opens by solemnly explaining that it is based on “events that unfolded more than 100 years ago,” and offering a reminder of the 60 million soldiers who fought in World War I, the “war to end all wars.” That war, an opening credits sequence declares, “ended nothing. But it changed the world.” What follows, it says, is “frontline combat” that you “are not expected to survive.”

You are, of course, expected to kill. And kill and kill and kill. Even the best players will do their fair share of dying, but the game is about shooting and killing in elaborate digital environments designed to resemble World War I battlefields: a massive French chateau, an Ottoman fortress, the rocky crags of the Venetian Alps.

In the multiplayer part of the game, you play on a team versus others online, and your goal, usually, is to capture and hold objectives marked on the map. There’s a bodiless announcer — a British woman with a slight urgency in her voice — who keeps track of the objectives and, at the end, declares a winner. Every time you capture an area or kill someone from the enemy team, you’re rewarded with points.

Battlefield 1, in other words, turns the horror of war into a sport. It is incredibly, thrillingly entertaining. It’s also kind of appalling.

Battlefield 1 is epic in scope and design

Perhaps surprisingly, given its title, Battlefield 1 is not the first game in the Battlefield video game franchise, which has been around since 2002. Like all of the recent entries, it’s more like two games in one: a single-player campaign and a round-based competitive multiplayer experience.

Unlike some recent Battlefield games, the single-player part of the game is not a single story built around a single protagonist. Instead, it is structured as an anthology of stories that take place toward the end of World War I, with each level covering a different character and a different theater of the war. Although the single-player campaign offers brief moments of human connection, thanks to its narrative approach, the level design is fairly linear, and beating the levels requires little in the way of tactical planning. There are only six missions in total, and the whole experience can be completed in a day. Ultimately, it’s just a short shooting gallery interspersed with some cut scenes.

The true heart of the game lies in its multiplayer. Battlefield 1’s multiplayer is an expansive and riotous affair in which players battle it out, virtually, on massive maps designed to mimic the feel of various notable World War I locales. Designed by EA DICE, the maps are visual wonders, with convincing weather effects and dappled sunlight and textures that make them feel almost like real historical places. There are moments of strange and serene beauty, as you rush over a fog-covered hill, eyes scanning the horizon, waiting for the enemy.

Still of Argonne forest map from Battlefield 1
Argonne Forest is one of Battlefield 1’s infantry-focused maps.

The maps are expertly designed to maximize the gameplay possibilities — which means they are as dangerous as they are gorgeous. Each area is an elaborately designed warren of nooks and crannies, sniper hideouts and ambush alleys, discreet cover and terrifying open fields. There are lookout towers and walled fortresses, placid farmhouse settlements and destroyed cities that exist in a permanent state of rubble. The fundamental layout of each level is static, but many of the buildings and structures can be destroyed, subtly altering the available strategic options — and sometimes, the balance of power between competing teams. They are designed to keep you on edge.

The Battlefield franchise separates itself from other online shooters with both the size of its maps and the number of players allowed to compete at a time. While most team-based shooters max out around 10 to 24 players, Battlefield 1 lets up to 64 players compete on the same map in a single round, allowing for maximum chaos. The sheer number of players, and the inclusion of various types of vehicles and large explosives, makes the game seem far more disorganized than the five-on-five shootouts found in other games. There’s an epic sweep to battles, a sense of danger and drama, that makes them feel almost like you imagine real warfare might feel like — or at least some fun and frenzied fantasy version of it that you want to keep playing rather than escape forever.

There are various game modes, but most revolve around taking and defending objectives with the rest of your team. Despite the team-oriented setup, you don’t need to know anyone to play: The game’s matching system will drop you into games with online strangers, creating teams of roughly balanced skills that anyone who shows up can play. You can think of these as the online shooter version of pickup basketball games, always ready for anyone who shows up at the court. Except instead of hoops, you’re playing pickup murder.

The game’s wealth of strategic options makes it endlessly replayable

It’s not all teamwork, though. In many ways, the game proceeds like an online role-playing game. You earn points by playing, and your character progresses through a set of levels visible to other players, unlocking new tools and more powerful weapons in the process. The steady, earning progression is part of what makes the game so addictive.

The difference is that it’s not really your character that’s developing — because in Battlefield 1, you’re not a person. You’re a gun.

You’re a gun.

The heart of the game is the progression of intricately customized firearms that become available the longer you play, each of which has different advantages and disadvantages. Some guns are great for close-quarters hallway shootouts but lousy across a field. Others are great for picking off enemies at a distance but take forever to reload. Some pump out bullets faster; others offer bigger magazines or more damager per hit. Some guns have more recoil, while others are more effective when used with a scope. A loadout screen details the stats for each weapon with various charts, and allows you to make adjustments to the shape of the sights, the magnification of the scope, and even the pattern of the recoil, as well as compare each gun to possible alternatives.

The key to the game is figuring out how to play both your gun and the map, balancing your weapon’s strengths against the layout of the environment. You want to maximize the number of encounters you have that are likely to play to your weapon’s strengths and resolve in your favor. You have to know both the territory and the tools.

While Battlefield 1’s gun customization options are simplified compared with previous games in the franchise, the whole thing still feels at times like reading a technical manual. But the game’s finicky nature is part of the appeal. The infinitude of strategic options and tactical decisions makes for a fascinating and intricate game of both planning and moment-to-moment reactions, all in the context of gorgeously rendered environments and massively chaotic, constantly shifting battle scenarios.

Battlefield 1 is a competitive shooter for hardware fanatics and obsessive systems optimizers. It rewards the most efficient and focused dealers of death. It’s endlessly replayable, and amazingly fun.

When realism complicates the fun factor

At least, that is, until you stop to think about it. And even in the multiplayer, which lacks the strong narrative elements of the single-player game, Battlefield 1 often asks you to stop and think about it.

That’s particularly true in the best of the multiplayer game modes, known as Operations. In Operations, players battle across multiple maps in an extended game scenario that is designed to let players experience “real battles of World War I.” Each encounter opens with a brief voiceover setting up the battle on which the scenario you’re playing is based; the remarks serve as marching orders. It’s a little disconcerting when one asks you to imagine your weapon “piercing the heart of the hun — every last one of them.” And then you move into the game and proceed to attempt to kill every enemy player — the group of strangers who got stuck on the other team in the pickup game.

Artwork of Battlefield 1’s Operations mode.

The game’s breathtaking visuals and detailed weaponry further complicate the fun factor. For a combat game, it is unnervingly realistic, making its constant violence harder to dismiss than it would be in a sci-fi scenario.

I am mostly untroubled by video game violence, and I have sunk hours into playing Battlefield games before. Nor is Battlefield 1 the first shooter to take place in a real-life war setting. But the game’s commitment to a veneer of accuracy, along with its repeated reminders of the actual war it draws from, means that the game blurs the lines between history and fantasy and entertainment in a way that is unusual and unsettling, and occasionally borders on upsetting.

The game’s attitude toward its historical subject matter is at once grave and frivolous. Is it historical reenactment, as the framing of the Operations game mode suggests? Or is it mindless virtual violence? This is a game where mass violence is rewarded, encouraged, and required, in which the entire point is to kill, by any means necessary, in order to score points, level up, and win one for the team. You kill and kill and kill and kill, just like in World War I, when more than 17 million people died, only this time it’s supposed to be entertaining.

To be honest, it is a lot of fun. But I’m not quite sure I enjoyed it.

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