Battlefield 1 Review — The Empathy Dollar

by Jed Pressgrove

With Battlefield 1, publisher Electronic Arts taps into the “empathy” market established by the likes of Journey and Gone Home — games that want you to tear up regardless of whether they say anything substantial. Although many journalists have said otherwise, there is nothing outstanding about Battlefield 1 taking place during World War 1 and trying to be sensitive about the lives that were lost (have most critics forgotten about the admittedly forgettable Valiant Hearts?). Battlefield 1, more than anything else, is a new league for a popular sport with the goal of gaining new fans through the pretense of historical perspective.

Battlefield 1’s intro manages to capture the chaos of war in a way that only a video game can. When you die in this scene, you see the name of your deceased character as well as his fictional date of birth and death before Battlefield 1 throws you into the role of another soldier. The effect is jarring as you sort out where you are in relation to allies and enemies after a character switch, only to fulfill the preceding narrative: “What follows is frontline combat. You are not expected to survive.” Despite the intro’s predictable tokenization of the Harlem Hellfighters (you only learn names and dates, not personalities), this sequence holds its own against great opening scenes of war movies like Saving Private Ryan in how it dismantles any notion of glory.

The rest of the single-player campaign reminds one that Battlefield 1 is just another entry in a series that uses history as a playground. While the campaign offers five character arcs, the overall story doesn’t provide any fresh, meaningful context for the conflict, as it limits your perspective to that of the British, Italian, American, and Australian armies and forces led by Lawrence of Arabia, one of the most glorified heroes of World War I. Even if you take these tales for what they are, they come up short against superior fiction. For example, the tank-focused “Through Mud and Blood” arc begs for a comparison with David Ayer’s 2015 film Fury but is far too neat in its depiction of conflict, failing to match Fury’s provocative commentary on the role of masculinity and morality in wartime.

Battlefield 1 proclaims that World War I “ended nothing” but “changed the world forever,” but it’s difficult to feel this statement among contrivances that obliterate the suspension of disbelief needed to instill the sense that you are looking at a war and not a new map for an eSport. Stray too far from a path in order to better flank enemies, and the game will tell you to “return to combat area.” Not only does this prompt announce the real purpose of Battlefield 1 (competition in a regulated space), it shows a lack of imagination from the developers in terms of designing a world that doesn’t seem artificial and behind the times. During “The Runner” arc, I stopped caring altogether about the story and action because blades of grass stopped my bullets while I was on the ground firing a rifle. Every time you die, you see the current protagonist’s name and lifespan before you jump back into an arena of varied and attractive combat options. This monotony reveals the truth: Battlefield 1 desensitizes one to death like most first-person shooters. As long as we keep competing, Electronic Arts doesn’t mind if World War I remains largely misunderstood.

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