BF1 Beta Hands On: An Arcade Shooter Set in a Fantasy WWI

The Battlefield 1 open beta, which began yesterday for those selected by the Insider programme (which seemed to be virtually everyone I know, I kid you not!) and started today for everyone else, features one map, two games modes and a generous selection of weapons and vehicles. Having spent an entire day getting to grips with it, I think I’m ready to offer up an opinion. Put succinctly, I’m not too impressed. And I say that as someone who has clocked up thousands of hours playing every Battlefield game since BF2.

In Battlefield 1, we find ourselves in a cartoon fantasy version of WWI that bares almost no resemblance, aesthetics aside, to the gruelling reality of a truly horrific war of attrition. Don’t get me wrong, the Battlefield series has never been what you’d call “realistic” (a contentious term in gaming at the best of times), but at least in previous outings the warfare bared some vague resemblance to the period in which it took place. You might as well set it in a steampunk reality and be done with it.

Here we’re treated to something that plays like a cross between Battlefront and the abysmal Hardline, the combat being dominated by overpowered armour, aircraft that fly like X-wings, hero character-type battle pickups, and infantry running and gunning with SMGs and shotguns. And just like the cops and robbers of Hardline, everyone wears a parachute. I know, I know, that’s in all of  the BF games, but it rankles even more in a period in which parachutes were hardly used.

Battlefield 1 beta 01

First and foremost, Battlefield 1 suffers from severe balance issues and arcadified gameplay. The tanks and armoured cars, which come in a variety of flavours and can house up to five gunners (including the driver) absolutely decimate infantry, leaving you at a considerable disadvantage if you’re unable to get in one. Although the heftier tanks can be a tad unwieldy to drive, the weapons are far too effective and easy to operate. There’s barely any drop on heavy shells and aiming one feels too much like pointing and clicking. Even I was managing 19-0 type rounds in the tank, and it’s not uncommon to see people going things like 66-0.

Other than hiding, infantry have to rely on lobbing cumbersome anti-tank grenades, which take ages to detonate, or planting dynamite, but good luck getting close enough. It’s a particular problem with the armoured cars, which are fast, nimble and are very effective in the hands of a half-decent driver. And it’s even worse in Rush, where tanks are able to camp out of bounds and still cover the objectives.

It also doesn’t help that the operator is able to magically repair their vehicle without having to get out first, and believe it or not, that includes planes in mid flight. Oh, and the plane physics/mechanics really are laughably simple and uninvolved, putting even BF4 to shame. Like I said earlier, it’s like flying X-wings. Though at least the planes are less of a constant burden to infantry.

There are some longer range anti-armour solutions, but these aren’t particularly effective. An AT rocket launcher can be unlocked, but it has to be fired from a bipoded position and as such can only safely be used from a distance. And even then it’s not very good and has very limited ammo. Then there’s the anti-tank rifle, a pick-up weapon that once again can only be fired while bipoded, as well as the Scout’s limited supply of armour piercing rounds – both doing very low damage to heavy armour. And don’t get me started on how pants the Medic’s rifle grenades are.

Battlefield 1 beta 02

The infantry balance doesn’t fair much better. Unless you want to camp in the mountains and snipe, as many choose to do, there really is no reason to play anything other than Assault. Not only do these guys take over anti-tank duties from the absent Engineer class, but they’re also armed with by far the best primary weapons – one-hit kill shotguns and easy to use SMGs that feature quick reloads, a decent mag size and an extremely high rate of fire.

Medics, with their relevance reduced due to the changes to Conquest (see below), really struggle at close-to-medium range with their slow-firing automatic and semi-auto DMR-type rifles, but they don’t fair much better at longer range either. And Supports, aside from being able to spam grenades thanks to the instant resupply of their ammo pouches, are totally useless. Their LMGs simply have no chance against the Assault class. Better to pick up the kit of a dead soldier if you need ammo. And while sniping takes zero skill in Battlefield 1, Scouts are generally not well suited to close-quarter combat, hence the camping.

The problem is the fast nature of the game and the ease of use of the SMGs and shotguns means that the infantry gunplay boils down to running and running, spraying and praying and shooting from the hip. It’s all much too dancy dancy for my tastes, with the person who can strafe dance the best tending to win the firefights.

Though it shouldn’t come as a total surprise following Hardline and given that more recent changes brought this type of gunplay to BF4. However, Battlefield 1 really does take it up a notch. And what the hell were they thinking when they added the Elite classes – pick-ups found around the map that turn you into a heavily-armed bullet sponge? It was bad enough in BF4 with the OP pick-up sniper rifles and rocket launchers.

Battlefield 1 beta 03

Admittedly, it’s not all bad. The graphics and sound are fantastically immersive though perhaps a little too close for comfort to the visual style of Battlefront (as is the design of the featured map). And the randomised weather, such as fog and sandstorms suddenly rolling in, adds an extra dimension to the gameplay. I also enjoyed the introduction of animations for getting in and out of the vehicles, as opposed to merely teleporting. They’re really well done, plus it means you can actually shoot a person as they’re clambering over a tank and opening up the hatch. Another nice touch is the addition of a separate class, complete with their own weapons and gear, for players spawning directly into the driver seat of a vehicle.

And I liked that war bonds allow you, to an extent (you still have to rank up the individual classes first), to unlock weapons in the order you want to try them. But why on Earth do modern online shooters insist on having these pointless progression systems at all, further handicapping newer players to seasoned veterans? I much prefer when all the gear is available right from the off, such as in Insurgency and Counter-Strike.

The most laudable change though is DICE’s attempt to encourage more objective play. They’ve significantly reworked the Conquest scoring system, which now counts up and is entirely independent of kills – ticket bleed has been completely removed. Instead points are only gained from capturing and holding flags. The more territory you control, the faster your side will accrue points, and the team that reaches 300 or has the highest score when the round timer ends wins. On top of this, as an individual you receive far more points for capturing flags than in previous Battlefields and a lot less for making a kill.

Battlefield 1 beta 04

It’s certainly a step in the right direction. Shame it does little to stop all the players who spend the entire round camping miles from the nearest objective and looking for cheap kills. And nor does it seem to add much depth to gameplay or detract from the poor balance or gunplay.

All-in-all, from my experience of the beta, I can’t say I’m optimistic for either Battlefield 1 or the future of the Battlefield franchise. Setting it in WWI gave DICE a real opportunity do something a little more tactical and cerebral, but instead they seem to have done the complete opposite. This is just dumbed-down nonsense aimed at a more casual demographic who will play the game for a month or so then move on to the next big title. That’s not to say that things can’t and won’t change between now and October, but I honestly can’t see the overall experience improving too much.

Perhaps the most worrying thing though, well at least for PC gamers, is the conspicuous absence of non-DICE servers (though I’m glad to see they were all 60hz). Previous betas have always included a large number of third-party servers and normally by now EA/DICE would have confirmed which providers have been given a licence to host their game. However, EA have been disconcertingly quiet on the subject, so there is genuine concern that Battlefield 1 will follow the Battlefront model of official servers only. It’s something that could be the death knell of the myriad Battlefield clans and communities built around rentable/customisable servers. Now that would be a sad thing indeed.

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