Battlefield 1‘s single-player campaign is the best that the FPS genre has had to offer in years, and is all but guaranteed to have a notable impact on the direction of similar campaigns in the future.
Battlefield 1 excels as a result of not confining itself to the linear storytelling method typically employed by FPS games, with it instead presenting an anthology of “War Stories” set in World War I that each tackle the theme of heroism, albeit from different perspectives. From its opening mission, in which players are tasked with fighting an unwinnable battle on the front lines, the game makes it clear that it isn’t about glorifying the Great War. An opening statement from developer DICE points out how, despite being billed as “The War to End All Wars,” it actually “ended nothing.” The game then launches the player into frontline combat, in a mission that will see you control a number of members of the Harlem Hellfighters regiment, known for being the first predominantly African-American unit to serve in the war. As one Hellfighter dies under your control, their name flashes up on the screen alongside their birth-death years, before your perspective switches to another soldier. No matter how well you perform in this mission, you can’t prevent these men from dying. Other stories in the game present less bleak outcomes, but it always feel respectful of its source material.
Although Battlefield 1 is still a video game and is therefore prone to flights of fancy when it comes to its interpretation of the events of WWI, its anthology format ensures that it doesn’t require players to suspend their disbelief too much. Whereas in a typical FPS campaign players assume the role of one character, with this character then going on to improbably insert themselves into every interesting moment their respective war has to offer, Battlefield 1‘s War Stories mean that you will instead be taking control of a variety of different characters, who each have their own disparate experiences of the events of WWI.
You’ll take control of a fighter pilot defending the United Kingdom, a woman orchestrating the Arab Revolt alongside Lawrence of Arabia and a young soldier enlisted as part of a British Mark V Tank crew, among others. The landmark moments of WWI are mostly avoided in favor of telling these mostly fictionalized but entirely plausible short stories, each with their own key moments and different methods of illustrating their narrative. This ensures that the player has a range of settings to explore, vehicles to commandeer and weaponry to handle without feeling as though they have been placed in control of a one-man army. Not only is this beneficial when it comes to respectfully tackling the subject of WWI, it also grants players multiple ways to experience the game any way they see fit, without DICE having to contrive a way in which to force them from point A to point B as is so often the case in the genre.
The Modern Warfare problem
Every multiplayer-focused FPS game since 2007 has struggled to create a single-player campaign fit to stand toe-to-toe with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. CoD4 defined the genre by way of a plethora of genuinely exhilarating action set-pieces, ballsy plot twists and tight shooting mechanics, with mostly every FPS since then attempting to replicate its success by way of simply filling their games with more ostensibly cool stuff. More explosions, more off-the-wall action and more bloodshed has led to so-called military shooters suffering a complete disconnect from reality, with the CoD series itself being the worst offender by a considerable margin. Shooting rockets from horseback? Check. Killing an airport filled with innocents in an effort to take down a man who is literally within shooting range during the entirety of the harrowing, completely unnecessary scene? Double check. Now the series has made the transition to outer space, and for many it feels as though its developers are choosing to throw as many ideas at the wall as possible in an effort to see what sticks.
But Battlefield 1 masterfully highlights how all of the CoD4 boxes can be ticked without having to dive head-first into absurdity. By transforming its single-player into an anthology, DICE can successfully and frequently hit those action beats — the set-pieces, the stealth sections and, yes, the explosions — without having to jumble them into one singular story. The end result is a campaign that is consistently compelling while remaining believable, which in turn greatly contributes to the level of emotional investment you have for each character. Of particular note is the story in which you take control of a lying, thieving but gifted US pilot, who forms an unlikely bond with a British ally. Though their story is only brief, DICE injects enough personality into both men that it is affecting nonetheless, while also ensuring that neither character outstays their welcome. War Stories allows for more personal and human stories to be told, rather than DICE being forced to wrap up the events of WWI in one blockbuster finale, as would have likely been the case if they had chosen a more linear storytelling format.
A campaign for the modern FPS player
This is generalizing the FPS genre’s demographic somewhat, but it could be argued that most fans of modern FPS games favor short, snappy bursts of exciting gameplay rather than lengthy world-building and scrolls of dialogue. Although FPS developers try to pack as much action as possible into their games, they still inevitably need to take breaks from the gunfire in order to ensure that their game doesn’t become too repetitive, or to accommodate for plot/character development and world-building.
When FPS games are strapped to a conveyor belt guiding the player from beginning to end, many developers have struggled to handle their pacing as a result of having to fit so much in while still trying to retain a cohesive narrative. As such, most modern FPS’s can either become too scattershot by way of trying to do too much at once, or too mundane as a result of not wanting to descend into over-the-top action sequences. Battlefield 1 manages to successfully evade both of these pitfalls, boasting enough variety as a result of it placing players in the shoes of a selection of different characters, while managing to condense these characters’ story arcs into each of its chapters. This also directly serves the genre’s key demographic, maintaining the attention of the player by way of concise chapters made up of a diverse range of characters with uniquely interesting stories to tell, taking place across a variety of different locations.
With single-player campaigns in FPS games now mostly shunned in favor of their online components, it’s not difficult to see how more games employing Battlefield 1‘s method of storytelling would be beneficial. Enabling the player to begin their campaign with whichever chapter of the game’s story they’re most interested in, and then seeing them able to complete said chapter within a single sitting, this will certainly be more appealing to those who will pick up an FPS for its multiplayer and then stumble upon its single-player mode at a later date.
With Battlefield 1 set to be a blockbuster hit and potentially the most successful entry in the series thus far, I’m expecting plenty of players to share similar thoughts regarding its campaign, and for its popularity to have a demonstrable impact on how FPS developers handle their single-player story modes from here on out. Battlefield 1 still retains all the elements we’ve come to expect from our first-person shooters since the original Modern Warfare, but presents it in a way that makes it easier to digest and therefore drastically more appealing to its target audience. I can absolutely see DICE employing this method for Star Wars Battlefront II, presenting the player with a series of chapters each recreating battles within the Star Wars timeline, and I expect plenty of other developers will follow suit, too.