I have a few points that need to be stated upfront before getting into this one.

  1.  Battlefield 1 isn’t an objectively bad game.  It’s competently made and I think it particularly is well-designed as a game that was made for Battlefield fans.  
  2.  There’s some subject matter here that is very much akin to an article Robert Edwards wrote for us about the multiplayer shooter Verdun.  It talks about some of the ethics in making a World War I video game that I’m not going to get into – check it out.
  3.  This article is only regarding the single-player aspect of Battlefield 1.

I was skeptical of Battlefield 1 from the get-go.  Sure, the annoyingly flamboyant trailer set to a dubstep version of a song often sung by drunk college students was enough to make me roll my eyes.  But when I saw this syrupy nonsense – narrated by some gruff-voiced American – that made it seem like the 17 million deaths in the first world war were for some righteous cause, I knew that Battlefield 1 was going to disappoint me.

And it did.  Big time.  However, as bummed as I was about Battlefield 1, it did remind me of a small UbiArt game that handled World War I much more effectively than EA’s blockbuster, Valiant Hearts: The Great War.

In the same way I had to preface by saying Battlefield 1 isn’t a bad game, I should also point out that Valiant Hearts isn’t a perfect game.  It might even be difficult to argue that it’s a great game.  Developer, Ubisoft Montpellier take breaks in between their excellent examination of the titular Great War to forward a conventional plot where an American needs to hunt down a German Baron and take revenge, and all of that stuff is largely forgettable (like, honestly I had forgotten about it until I played the game again recently).  But Valiant Hearts certainly better encapsulates and explores the strangeness of World War I than Battlefield.

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The most obvious way to point this out is by comparing the thematic elements of the two games.  Valiant Hearts is a game about the human cost of war, the way it tears families apart and the unique weapons that were introduced in the conflict.  Battlefield 1 is less interested in the human side of war and more interested in war itself – see the title: Battlefield.  But I couldn’t help feeling like DICE had missed an opportunity to make a game that was truly unique – at least in the single player experience.  Even as I watched both of the dumb trailers couldn’t imagine them leaving out the horrible battles of Verdun, the Marne, and the Somme – but they did.  I couldn’t imagine that the game wouldn’t force us to engage in the horrors of living in the trenches, the fear of shelling, and the nightmare of No Man’s Land – but they did.  Battlefield 1 might be related to World War I through its guns, but it’s not about World War I.  If it’s about anything it would be that war can make people do incredible things – mainly killing lots of people – and in regards to World War I that message rings hollow because the cause is so trivial.

In Valiant Hearts, the objective is rarely to kill people – more often it’s merely about staying alive.  This feels more akin to the spirit of the first world war.  There wasn’t much difference between the Central and Allied powers as both sides formed for little reason than royal handshakes and enlisted others to their cause with the promise of land and spoils.  There wasn’t the justification for violence like in World War II.  The first world war was the product of a complex web of alliances – a large part of this was the work of Otto Von Bismark who kept Europe at peace for a long time, but I digress.  There were no “good guys” in World War I, and there were no “bad guys”.  The fact that Battlefield I is told almost purely from an Allied perspective feels myopic, if not ignorant.

Valiant Hearts explored the complex moral ambiguity by having characters on both the Allied and Central sides of the war – and proving that the Allies could be just as awful as the Central Powers.  Sure, the main antagonist is a German – and I think that’s a problem for the game – but largely Valiant Hearts doesn’t place you on a “side”.  It forces you to engage as more of an observer of the war than a participant.

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When it comes to the influence of weapons on the games, you might be thinki I’m talking about tanks and airplanes, ect – but I’m not.  Sure, mechanized warfare was perfected toward the end of the first world war and the final years saw almost a prototype of what World War II would look like, but the real meat of the conflict relied on the weaponry of trenches, and gas, and barbed wire, and shelling.  While these elements lay at the core of Valiant Hearts, influencing the gameplay to say something specific about World War I with it’s digging to progress through levels and menacing almost villainous portrayal of gas – the same elements are more used as set dressing in Battlefield 1.  There are moments when you don a gas mask, but the threat of the gas is little in the gameplay and the way you still most often die is by being shot by the enemy, like any other conflict.

While both games are made by Europeans (Ubisoft Montpellier is in France and DICE makes it’s home in Sweden).  It’s strange how much Battlefield 1 feels like a game made by Americans. There an American providing narration, a pilot who seems to have been finally cast after playing understudy to Nathan Drake – but most of all, it’s impossible to deny that it’s a game made to pander to American sensibilities of what war means.  And perhaps that’s what is most upsetting about Battlefield 1 – it doesn’t feel like it was made to challenge anyone or anything with it’s gutless recreation of World War I.  It feels incredibly safe.

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And World War I can’t be explored safely.  When I first played Valiant Hearts, I wondered if it wasn’t in poor taste.  The over-the-top UbiArt animation felt ill-suited to capture the grave themes and inhumanity of the conflict they were recreating.  But Ubisoft Montpellier is so confident in their vision, you can’t help but be moved by their wonderful game.  It all ends in a powerful moment that underscores the whole experience.

Battlefield 1 is a fun game that certainly wants its fan base to enjoy its experience.  I almost wish it had been called Battlefield: Steam Punk so it could more liberally embrace what it wants to do with its zeppelins and biplanes and tanks and machine guns.  Instead, through some misplaced dedication to the series’ convention, the game chose to be associated with World War I – and that’s unfortunate.  But, if you really want to play a game about World War I, go back and give Valiant Hearts a shot.

About The Author

The Glorious Predecessor

As I write this, I am listening to Striking Matches and eating a blueberry muffin. The music is good, the muffin is even better. I dance when I drink and have been known to occasionally free-style rap, none of which benefits society.

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  • Louis

    You’re allowed to say Battlefield 1 is a bad game, you know. We’ve seen the numerous glitches present. We saw how they cut several influential countries out of the game entirely. It’s a cash grab capitalizing on the Battlefield name, while reducing history to a coat of paint through which they can grace us with 1910’s-era machine guns and sniper rifles.

    • Josh Hinke

      I think you’re right with most of those criticisms, but I still don’t think it’s bad. I don’t think think it tries hard enough to be bad. Here’s a weird analogy – I think Battlefield 1 is like getting corn flakes for breakfast in a very expensive cereal bowl. The game doesn’t have much to say beyond, “Look at all this money we spent!”

      • Upvote for stating the obvious. No wonder an “industry” outputs factory inspired product. It’s why Andy Warhol’s The Factory, and Manchester’s Factory Records are so deliciously subversive after all.

  • Fuchsluemmel

    Great article and totally agree! Best Indie Game for the last gen imho.