Monday, September 5, 2016

Battlefield 1 Open Beta Impressions!

                It's hard for me to watch a trailer that features the Seven Nation Army song and not to get at least a little bit hyped, it even happened for G.I. Joe Retaliation and we all know how that movie turned out. But somehow, this hype building song didn't do the job on the Battlefield 1 reveal trailer. Maybe because the game is advertised to be chronologically first and it seems disrespectful to the grandfather 1942 or maybe after Battlefield 4 I grew cold towards a series I used to love. Either way, the nice thing about EA DICE's increasingly pricy FPS games is that we have the opportunity to try them before buying through Open Beta Tests which might as well be called Multiplayer demos. So, I put my skepticism aside and gave Battlefield 1 a chance to see if and how the series has progressed.
                A year ago I said that EA DICE was afraid to make Battlefront more of a Battlefield game, this year Battlefield isn’t afraid to become more like Battlefront. I can’t say I’m surprised by this shift, the series has been going further and further away from realism in favor of more entertainment value derived from casual gameplay elements. But there are some expectations when it comes to such a drastic change in setting and those expectations are not really met. The WW1 switch seems to be nothing more than a marketing scheme for a game that somehow feels more like WW2. There are no trench wars, not in this Beta or any other material shown, and the number of automatic guns can compete with that of a modern shooter. This doesn’t mean it isn’t fun to play, but it’s not really the kind of fun that a WW1 setting was supposed to provide. Battlefield is a series targeting the mainstream and the gameplay is clearly designed to reach that target audience in disregard for the new setting. But it’s not all bad, many players will enjoy the new additions and changes that have been made to set this game apart from its predecessors while trying to fit into its new timeline.

                Battlefield 1 is the same combined arms warfare which I really like in my online shooters. The game’s basic philosophy hasn’t changed, combining heavy infantry gameplay supported by armored vehicle, tanks that look like tractors and the flimsy looking airplanes of WW1 which are deadly nevertheless. We are visiting the Sinai Desert where the British forces clash against the Ottoman Empire in a battle to death on the two classic modes of the series: Conquest and Rush. As expected since Bad Company 2, the map is adapted to fit both game modes which are different in the way they play, but this time around I didn’t feel like the level design for one mode drastically affected the other (or maybe because Rush is limited to 24 players). Either this map was showcased for a reason or DICE has learned from the clusterfucks that were Metro or Grand Bazaar and we might see less linearity and chokepoints in the overall map design of Battlefield 1.
I'm not sure what I'm trying to do.

                Speaking about maps, the one we got to play on during this OBT has inherited some of the good features of Battlefield 4 and even from previous games.
                One of the first things that pops up in players mind when they talk about the latest Battlefield titles is destruction and I’m happy to say that Battlefield 1 is taking a trip to the past but with the technology of the present. The level of destruction is amazing, going way over what Bad Company 2 had to offer, but keeping the same intensity. Buildings can be turned to rubble, hills can be leveled and the lack of trenches is diminished by the craters left behind by explosions. The battlefield is a place of mayhem and the primary factor for that is its destructibility.
                Another cool feature that was carried from Battlefield 4 is the shifting landscape under weather changes. Beautiful sand storms kick in affecting visibility (and frame rate) and subsequently the gameplay, pushing players into close quarter fights and forcing snipers out of hiding.
set_visibility_range 0

                The map is always evolving, be it either through the destruction, the shifting weather or through other special events that are triggered on certain conditions. Sinai Desert is crossed by a railroad which serves a more important role than just being part of the scenery. In case the score between teams is heavily imbalanced, a train will arrive at the losing team base in which players can hop in and traverse the map with, upsetting the power ratio on the battlefield with its multiple canons. It’s an interesting way to add a counter balance force and give the losing team a chance to come back, though, I doubt everyone will agree with this mechanic.
Let's scratch it!

                The highlight of the level design in Battlefield 1 is the environmental interaction. The developers have been struggling to add more of it to the game without burdening the players with barriers at every corner. This has been visible throughout Battlefield 4 and it carries to Battlefield 1 as well. There is plenty of environmental interaction and with the help of physics it can be done on the run by sprinting or shooting without slowing down the action. Walls can be jumped over, doors and windows can be opened closed or destroyed, barbed wire deals damage and there are plenty of various static weapons to have fun with. These small gameplay options might not be visible all by themselves, but put together they increase the level of interactivity that was kind of lacking in the older games.
I would watch this animation over and over again!

                The first major change to the core gameplay was done to the classes system. The long awaited split between assault and medic has finally happened, but that’s not all. Driving a tank or piloting an airplane is not something done by every class anymore, these two roles have been assigned to the Tanker and Pilot (some sort of engineers), which are special classes that come with a distinct combat loadout and the ability to repair their own vehicles (now on the go). Aside from the concept of ground and air vehicles which has been around since 1942, Battlefield’s 1 most exciting addition to the mix is cavalry. Cavalry plays quite nicely as a class of its own equipped with a powerful rifle and a sword that can cut through enemies like they are made of paper. Riding on a horse is as enjoyable as it is powerful and while the play style might be more fitting for lone and reckless players, it can benefit the team greatly as a wild card that has the power to disrupt the enemy lines.
Just epic!

                Last but not least, inspired by Battlefront’s heroes, Battlefield 1 is receiving a similar system through its new Elite classes. The Elite classes are loadouts that can be equipped from certain points on the map allowing players to wreck havoc on the battlefield with powerful unique weapons and considerably increased armor. Burn your enemies with a flame thrower, gun your way through the enemy line with a heavy machine gun or stop vehicles with an anti-tank rifle.
Burn baby burn!

                The classes’ equipment is similar to the previous games with a few adjustments to integrate the transformation of the engineer and the reintroduction of the medic. Assault is still equipped with machine guns, but now has the gear to take down armored vehicles and tanks instead of med kits. Medic is going into battle with semi-automatic rifles while being equipped to revive and heal its teammates. Support can choose from a line of powerful light machine guns which throw the balance between classes out the window. And Recon is a bolt action rifle menace which players often choose to escape the automatic guns hell that is the close quarters combat.
Headshot or I'm dead...

                The system of unlocks has changed as well, with each profile rank up awarding Warbonds which is a currency that can be spent on various unlocks of your choice, slightly gated by a class ranking system. The new system comes as an improvement over the tiresome grind of Battlefield 4 which had you going through dozens of unlocks just to reach the desired one. The customizations for weapons aren’t missing even in this WWI wannabe, but they have been disabled for the OBT so we can only speculate what else could be there aside of skins.
WWI Robin?!

                A match of Battlefield 1 goes pretty much as expected, an all out war on a large enough map that can easily house more than 64 players, but it’s afraid to do so. The changes that come with the setting and the new adjustments to the classes system don’t have such an impact on the gameplay as one might have been expecting, what does change the flow of battle is the visibly increased pace of the gameplay. I was expecting some bolt action rifle action from one side to another and while this happens occasionally leading to some memorable moments, the speed of the game just doesn’t benefit such battles.  More often than not the fights take place in close quarters with automatic guns and those not equipped accordingly are at a huge disadvantage.
                The enemies are a bit spongy, sometimes taking more than eight bullets to kill, a problem that can be associated to the damage model or the skimpiness of the hit-registration. This creates battle situations that sometimes are more weird than engaging. The diminished bullet drop reduces the skill cap considerably and it’s only tempered by some unstable recoil and bullet spread from the early firearms. But that won’t last long as better weapons are unlocked pretty fast and the customizations might enhance them even further, compensating for their lack of stability.
I got this!

                The melee combat plays the same role as before and hitting each others in the face with a shovel can be amusing if not betrayed by the netcode. The addition here is a bayonet charge which is as hilarious to use as it is ridiculous. The bayonet one shots, as expected, and the increase of speed while charging gives little chance to the enemy shooter or somebody who doesn’t see the threat coming in time. But the entertainment value seems to take precedence over balance and this concept is reflected in many of the design choices.

Aaagh!!! (I missed...)

                I talked about the separation between Assault and Medic, as in old Battlefield games, and I thought that with this change good things will come. The medic is the pillar of every squad and part of the glue that holds that creates teamwork, but through a weird design choice its core job has been rendered useless. Players are now able to give up on waiting for help when they are downed and because of this extremely few players actually wait for help, despite the fact that giving up doesn’t speed up the spawning process. Those that can be resurrected can’t be spotted on the map unless they actually ask for help. This leads to some awkwardly frustrating moments when as a medic I was running from one body to another without managing to get anyone up. The even weirder choice of removing the bleeding tickets from player’s deaths diminished the utility of the medic to the point where it has become a killing class with self sustain.
Even those with weird names deserve a second chance if they press Q.

                After playing the Beta for a while I couldn’t help but notice a disregard for teamwork with the game being pushed towards action by many of its new features. It starts with a general increase in speed with animations being faster than usual, but it doesn’t stop here. The way some of the new classes work, the annoying spawn system, the uninformative UI, the fact that deaths don’t have the same impact anymore and many other questionable design choices are obstacles for does who try to play as a team. The player is lead into frenetic action by arcade elements (that fall damage…) and features that should otherwise provide additional tactical options.
                There are some incentives for teamwork, starting with the increased number of points awarded for capping objectives, which is a great change from previous games. The vehicles also play a big role, with multi-turrets on both airplanes and tanks which benefit squads greatly through synchronized gameplay. But at the end of the day, it’s not enough to compensate and the balance leans heavily towards pure action. The game is routed this way and the best example for this was the time I've spent playing in a squad with friends which wasn’t much more different than when I played alone. We did some good for the team, captured and held objectives, but I haven't felt that rewarding feeling of teamwork that other tactical shooters provide, a problem that wasn’t this big even with the latest games in the series.
                Some might try to blame this on the players, but I think it’s safe to say that the majority of players that joined the OBT have been in contact with the series before. And the game isn’t all that different from what EA DICE usually makes, so I don’t see that as being the root of this problem.
                The target audience has become even wider and as more game mechanics are integrated to make Battlefield appealing to players from the competition, the more Battlefield is losing its own identity and what really defined this series. Maybe it’s just the Battlefield 2 and 2143 player in me talking, but I hardly recognize the series anymore and while progression is something I yearn for, it’s not what’s making me feel this way.
Armored assault!

                It’s always a pleasure to get to the technical part of games powered by Frostbite engine. This engine provides such a crisp and beautiful visual quality while hardly having any optimization problems and Battlefield 1 doesn’t make an exception. The game runs smoothly on my rig even with upscaled resolution and the graphical quality is breath taking. You can rarely see so much beauty in a desert, but the color saturation and the showy level design make for great landscapes, which, courtesy to the Destruction engine incorporated in Frostbite can be destroyed to some of the smallest details. There is such an antithesis in each of DICE’s maps showing the beauty of a man made world and allowing the satisfaction of destroying it.
                The animations are also top notch. Even if they are speedier, the fluidity hasn’t been affected at all. Seeing a horse galloping through the enemy line or groups of players charging into battle under heavy bombardment is truly immersive.
                Being a Beta Test, the graphics aren’t devoid of problems. I’ve spotted numerous textures flickering, some shadows and objects popping out of nowhere and floating rubble is something quite common. But I’m confident that these problems can be sorted out before launch. What I did find underwhelming was the texture quality and particle effects which are clearly a step backwards from Battlefront’s photogrammetry and impressive explosion effects.
                That being said, I’m looking forward to see some snow covered or forest maps and, who knows, maybe a landscape that can top the beauty of Alborz Mountains from Battlefield 3.
Just beautiful...
A hot day.

                On the sound departments EA games are flawless as usual. The gun shots might not have the realistic echoes that are usually heard in simulators, but they sure do sound good. Battlefield 1 is a treat for the eye as well for the ear. The quality sound design with low end reverberations that make your ears tremble from close explosions does get the adrenaline going. On top of that there is some great voice acting with believable British and Turkish accents that really you think that two of the most notable forces of WWI are actually engaged in this digital war. Even the kill and notifications sounds are something worth praising as they are joyfully warning that you did something good.
                I appreciate the sound in Battlefield 1, it’s quite an immersive factor, scoring big points on the production value and proving that the investment into high quality technology it’s worth it.

They play dirty, but I'm prepared for that!

                The one major thing I noticed while playing Battlefield 1 OBT was my lack of excitement. In the past I was ready to take days off to just to play as much as possible during these tests, now that feeling is gone. Maybe because Battlefield Open Beta Tests are something trivial as the changes that come from one game to another add very few reasons for excitement. Yet, I’m still glad EA keeps doing this. These tests are giving players a chance to know what they are buying into while the player’s feedback is helping the developers to sort some of the problems before release.
                EA DICE has learned from some of the past mistakes and there are improvements over the last two games and nothing can prove that more like the return of the server browser. The annoying Facebook experiment that was Battlelog has finally come to an end. Sadly, all the improvements can’t hide the fact that Battlefield 1 feels the most disconnected game from the series’ roots. I haven’t felt such a lack of teamwork in any Battlefield title, including the chaotically fun Bad Company 2 and that’s worrisome. The series has always been advertised as team oriented with large scale battles and tactical gameplay in comparison to its competitors. Today all these things that defined Battlefield are just a box hiding a game which seems to be more like its competitors in its own detriment and even if I’m not counting myself as a fan anymore, I can’t say I don’t feel disappointed.
                In retrospective, there is great potential for entertainment in Battlefield 1, just be sure that the game provides the kind of entertainment you are looking for because the series is not what used to be anymore. And as with Star Wars: Battlefront, time will tell if the gameplay has enough depth to stand the test of time, one thing is sure, the Beta did flash out many problems and EA DICE has less than two months to fix them.
                Battlefield 1 Open Beta Test will be available to play until September 8. The game is coming to PC on October 21, unless you are willing to pay 10$ extra, in that case the game will be available on October 18.


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