Life in the Trenches, Part One – A retrospective on the Battlefield 1 Beta

Looking back at the Battlefield 1 Beta

With Battlefield 1 mere weeks away from release, I thought I’d reflect on my time with the not too distant Beta, and what changes BF1 seems to be getting set to bring to the franchise’s Multiplayer.

I have some great gaming memories thanks to helping companies like Bungie and Dice stress test their pre-release games. It’s a good way to get an indication of how a game’s going to play before it’s released, and if Battlefield 1’s Beta test is anything to go by, I’m going to get so addicted that the good silverware better get locked up before I pawn it to pay for overpriced DLC. 

The Battlefield 1 beta was the largest in EA’s history with over 13.2 million players participating, and I spent as much time as I could with it on Xbox One. I wanted to experience as much as the Sinai Desert map had to offer, but thanks to having way too much fun in the large scale chaos of 64-player Conquest, I never made it to the 24 player Rush mode.

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The scale of the Sinai Desert Beta map is everything you’d expect from a Battlefield game and more. And its location and setting has me researching WW1 details and wanting to revisit classic films such as Lawrence of Arabia and The Light Horsemen, a side effect I did not expect.

The Great War and the birth of modern warfare

When EA and DICE announced the setting of Battlefield 1, I was sceptical and I wasn’t alone. I’ve being playing WWII shooters since the original Medal of Honour on PS1 (Not including Wolfeinstein 3D on SNES) and I’d had my fill of the era – unless of course you bring something outstanding to the table.

So, how would going back even further benefit the series?

A lot, it seems.

With CoD intent on pushing further and further into the realm of science fiction warfare, looking instead further back into the past than most shooters have gives the series a breath of fresh air (with a hint of mustard gas).

World War 1 saw a host of “innovations” in weapons and tactics that are still used on the battlefield today. Planes, previously only used to observe enemy positions and movements were armed with machine-guns and bombs. Landships or tanks as they would become known were designed to traverse the no man’s land between opposing trenches.

Artillery played a massive part in the war being used to bombard enemy positions ahead of advancing soldiers. Machine guns became more reliable, smaller and more portable. The flamethrower was designed, and utilised to clear out trenches. The horror that is chemical weapons was first used.  Even the telephone and radio saw advancement due to the war, as up to date information was delivered to commanding officers and then orders relayed back to forward positions.

And all of this was delivered spectacularly in one way or another in the Battlefield 1 beta.

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Aim small, miss small. A prone sniper tries lining me up from the mountain. Sniping and counter sniping was fun and rewarding in the beta. Hopefully it wasn’t found to be over powered and won’t receive too much of a tweak in the final version.

What’s old is new again

DICE mentioned during E3 this year that the weapons of BF1 wouldn’t handle like clunky old antiques, despite being from the dawn of last century. These weapons of war were fresh off the production line and the height of the era’s technology.

All weapons I played with during the beta handled well and as you’d expect. Bolt actions and semi-auto’s excelled at the longer ranges of the map’s sand dunes and town’s outskirts, where automatic weapons fell short in the accuracy stakes. But then autos balanced out as their suppressive qualities came into play in the town’s streets, courtyards and other mid-range engagements.

While not all of BF1’s weapons were available to test out in the beta there was still a good selection and I was surprised by the amount of different models on offer. I mainly play support in Battlefield (I like having ammo to burn, and the support kit allows me to resupply myself), and I found an impressive variety not only in the way they handled but also the way in which they operated.

The Lewis gun with its top loading “pan” magazine operated and handled as I thought it would  giving a slightly erratic vertical/horizontal grouping, good for mid to short ranges. Whereas the Madsen MG, also with its top loading mag offered much better accuracy mid-range but restricted field of view due to the magazine’s more traditional banana style.

Things such as this, the diversity of engineering styles of the era’s weapons, coupled with some’s ability to fire select, came into play when I was deciding what suited my playstyle and was reflected similarly in each class. It was a little thing but it certainly made BF1’s weapons feel much more than just the same gun with different stats.

Melee weapons now come in a much wider variety representing the makeshift nature of some weapons that were wielded during the brutal close quarter’s combat of trench warfare. Trench knives with knuckle dusters attached, spiked clubs, hatchets, even the humble shovel can be used to dispatch your foes with. The bayonet is also available to be attached to some weapons and can then be used to perform an adrenaline fuelled charge that instantly takes down an opponent upon contact.

All of these weapons, their takedown animations and related yells, grunts and screams gave a sense of savagery to the hand to hand combat and offered a reminder of the horrors of war rather than glamorising it.

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Heavy Metal

Gun emplacements, while not exactly a new addition, I found to be much more suitably located this time around. Artillery was heavily used during WW1 and can be used to great effect in game in the right hands.

Got a persistent sniper bothering your team’s capture of an objective? Why bother counter sniping when you can simply drop the building around them from hundreds of meters away? An enemy plane bothering your airborne squad mate? Simply jump on a flak canon to be his flightless wingperson. Machinegun emplacements were also conveniently placed for defending some objectives.

While this may not work out as good on all maps as it did on Sinai Desert, it was certainly welcome during the beta.

Class War

Battlefield’s not Battlefield without its classes or Kits, and all the usual suspects from previous entries make an appearance here in one form or another with the exception of the Engineer kit’s various RPG’s and missiles. The Medic has medpacks and syringes for healing and reviving team mates. Assault has access to submachine guns and dynamite, a must for any avid tank hunter. Support, the heroes of any Battlefield match, let’s be honest,  carry ammunition supplies and trip mines as well as get access to LMG’s.

And Scout, which is the sniper class, can equip spotting scopes and flare guns for marking and blinding enemy targets. All represent previous games classes, or mashed up versions of them, and each has an interesting array of era appropriate gadgets on offer in their kitbags beyond what I mentioned.

What is noticeably different about kits though is the new Elite and vehicle based classes. Available tanks and planes are now spawned into directly from the respawn menu screen, hopefully eliminating that annoying tendency of half your squad standing around back at base waiting for a vehicle to appear so they could be the first one to claim it. The vehicle classes have a repair tool, similar to what was formerly sported by the engineer class, that can be used to repair their vehicles while still inside.

Unfortunately this removes the Achilles heel that land vehicles previously had of requiring an engineer to repair them from outside. While this kind of made sense for pilots in their bi and tri planes, it contributed to making the tanks feel over powered, especially as there was no RPG weaponry available in WW1 and if on foot, you had to get in close with dynamite or anti-tank grenades. Dice noticed this during the beta and have made mention that they intend to give players more tools to deal with vehicles.

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I call this piece- Agent of Chaos. “Some men just want to watch the world burn”.

I was reminded of Halo MP when I discovered that three heavy weapons were available at separate objectives on the map, but these are more than just a limited use weapon. The heavy weapons are considered an entire kit known as an Elite Class and could only be used by one player at a time per elite class, turning the user into a walking power house, although, with limitations.

The Flame Trooper wields the flame thrower and is a producer of screams that’ll haunt my nightmares this entire console generation. The Flame Trooper is a monster at close range but its effectiveness drops off dramatically at mid-range and beyond and has limited vision due to the full time gas mask that is worn. Nonetheless the flame thrower produces some of the best and most terrifying flames I’ve seen in games so far and at close range around an objective can engulf an entire squad in a hellish inferno in seconds.

 

The Sentry is the infantry equivalent of a one man tank with personal armour plating and a belt fed water cooled machinegun. The MG’s two hundred rounds makes short work of infantry, shredding them at close to mid ranges, but can only be hip fired limiting its accuracy the further away the target is. The class’s other weakness lies in that a gas mask cannot be put on while using it allowing smart players the opportunity to counter Sentries with mustard gas.

The Tank Hunter. Anti-material rifles existed well before the well-known Barrett .50cal sniper rifle, and this is represented by the Tank Hunter Elite Class in BF1. Using the M1918 Tankgewehr, the first anti-material rifle ever made, the Tank Hunter is capable of destroying light armoured vehicles and infantry with a single well placed shot. Tanks and Planes require more but the range of the M1918 makes it a powerful support weapon in the right hands.

The downside for this weapon is that its bipod must be deployed to fire it due to its massive recoil (the M1918 fired a 13.2mm diameter projectile, .50cals are only 12.7mm), meaning that it can only be fired from behind cover and in the prone position. That coupled with its single shot, means that the M1918 should only be getting designated to the most effective marksman in your squad.

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While my vehicle was state of the art in BF1’s setting, my driving didn’t meet Uber’s standards.

Planes, trains, automobiles and, horses?

Vehicle combat is a major part of what makes every Battlefield match a unique experience and the Beta, with some cool new vehicle entry animations, was no exception.

At one point I raced across the desert on my horse to defend objective Butters (Yes Butters, more on that in a second) while a bi-plane did barrel roles overhead trying to avoid incoming flak canon fire from a passing armoured train, only for myself and Steve (my horse)  to be promptly obliterated by a tank upon our arrival. This and many more encounters equally as chaotic and captivating is what makes Battlefield’s multiplayer worth coming back to.

While tanks did seem overpowered, especially the single man Light Tank, Dice’s Daniel Berlin, Lead World Designer on BF1 has commented in the Battlefield blog about what they learned from the Beta test-

“The Light Tank, which is a bit too effective in the Open Beta, will definitely receive some work… We’ve also learned through the Beta that you guys need more tools to deal with vehicles earlier, which we’ll definitely look into (including a Gadget for the Support class which should help neutralize powerful vehicles)”.

This addresses one of the few gripes I had with the beta in that there were limited resources for ground troops to deal with armoured vehicles.

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Parachuting behind enemy lines is only effective if you open your parachute, something I learned very quickly.

Planes seemed effective in strafing and bombing and the slower nature of the time period’s flying machines seemed to allow for more intense air battles than previous entry’s jet fighters. I’m no fighter ace so I left flying to others, but the option to spawn in as tail gunner or to use planes as a mobile spawn point to drop into enemy territory was great and something I look forward to making more use of when the full game releases.

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Cavalry horses, the new transportation addition to Battlefield 1, in a way do the same job as motorcycles did, but more effectively. Motorcycles were a buzz to ride in Battlefield but offered no armour and had no real offensive capabilities.

Horses seemed like a bit of a gimmick upon the trailer’s release but I must say after using them, I’m converted. A saddle holster and sheath contain a lever action rifle and sabre respectively and both function well. The lever action appears to have a generous aim assist for shooting from the hip mid gallop and the sabre is a gleaming nightmare of murderous steel in the right hands that cut down millions during the Beta (Dice reports over 62.2 million kills made by players whilst on horseback).

On many occasions the distant snort of a fast galloping horse had me scrambling for cover or a vantage point merely to be mercilessly slashed down before making it ten steps. Combat via horseback is an art form all of its own and I can see a subset of the community coveting steeds just as much as others hunger for the skies in their fighter planes. Horses weren’t the only new thing as far as transport went in the beta though.

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Behemoths. Behemoths are special vehicles that are similar to the AC130 in BF3 & 4. Unlike the AC130 though, the Behemoths are controllable within limits and rather than going to the team that holds a certain objective, they will sometimes appear on the map for the losing team to spawn into with the intention of giving them a chance to even the score board.

The BF1 Alpha test saw the massive Airship L30 Zeppelin available, while the beta players had access to an Armoured Train. Like a squad of strangers though, the Armoured Train was only game changing when used effectively, which was only about half the time, and was not available every match.

Even when used effectively by a capable driver and crew it was still possible for the winning team to keep control of the round. As an example, one match I played the armoured train was key to capturing and holding three objectives- Apples, Duff and George, the three flags that its rails passed close to, but that was only three of seven objectives on the map. Our team was able to catch up but it was not enough for us to take the win. I think if used strategically Behemoths are a good tool for evening out unbalanced teams, but are far from guaranteed match winners.

Thanks again to Cloakless Hunter for this epic first portion of Life in the Trenches. For the thrilling conclusion, you can find the second part up now.

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