Battlefield 1 Authenticity

Here’s a timely post written about six months ago, which sat in my Drafts folder lacking not only a picture, but also some links.

I started playing the Battlefield 1 single-player campaign on a Friday evening, and finished it the next day, on Saturday night. There were six missions. I recorded 12 videos, averaging about 35 minutes each, for a grand total of about 7 hours of gameplay. Let’s be extremely generous and say I cut out an hour of video, so let’s round it up to 8 hours.

I paid $60 for that.

But I won’t dwell on that. My main reason for getting the game was to examine the historical accuracy of it. World War I is my “favorite” war, so I’ve read a lot about it. I’m not an expert by any stretch of the imagination, but I could probably answer a lot of trivia questions.

TL;DR – It’s not very accurate and I give it a big fat F. But it was kind of fun to play.

Some spoilers about the single-player stories below.

Storm of Steel

The first mission is sort of an introduction, and dealt with the Harlem Hellfighters. I think. It’s never actually said, and I only recall seeing a single African American. The story is very disjointed, and you’re supposed to die. When you die, you jump to another person’s POV in another part of the battle. In that way you get to see a sort of potpourri of “front line combat.” It was very confusing and I didn’t like it.

It didn’t specify where that mission takes place so I can’t say anything about the historical context of it. (The Hellfighters apparently fought mainly with the French so maybe the mission was in France.) The only thing I can comment on is that your average soldier in WWI did not walk around with fully-automatic rifles and automatic pistols as depicted in the game.

After the very, very brief introduction mission, in which you are largely a spectator, you get to choose the order in which to play the remaining 5 missions. (This is also the point when you yell at your monitor, “Is this all there is???”)

Most of the stories seemed to be set in 1917 or 1918. I imagine they did that because all sides had figured out how to break through trench lines by then, so more diverse technology was available to use in a game. Unfortunately it means that like 90% of the war goes unrepresented in the game.

Overall I thought the storylines were reasonably good, however there was nothing particularly surprising about them. They followed well-trodden war story tropes. If you’ve seen a few war movies in your life, you’ll probably recognize the plot lines.

The Runner

The first war story I played followed a pair of ANZACs in the Dardenelles.

As I came to realize was normal, there was very little historical context given for the Gallipoli story, except in the broadest possible terms. (There was no mention of Winston Churchill’s role.) It wasn’t clear to me exactly where in time and space the events were taking place, but I think it was the Landing at Cape Helles.

The player’s mission was largely a personal one, and didn’t involve any of the larger events of the battle. There was only a casual mention of the British failures in conducting the battle. Mostly this mission involved, well, running–back and forth, delivering messages.

Avanti Savoia!

I’d never heard of Italian Arditi troops before. The only thing I knew about Italy’s role in the war was their collapse at the Battle of Caporetto in 1917, due to some Italian general’s massive incompetence.

After playing the game, I did a bit of research. The Arditi existed, but I don’t think they operated in the way depicted in Battlefield 1.

According to Wikipedia, Arditi were armed with knives and grenades and were employed as shock troops against enemy trench lines. From what I can gather, they would run up to the enemy lines during an artillery bombardment (possibly getting hit by their own shells), wait for the shells to stop falling, then jump in the enemy trenches and try to stab everyone to death. Sometimes it worked, but mostly it didn’t.

The player in the game, however, is dressed head-to-toe in heavy bulletproof steel armor and carries a big machinegun. Even if such an armor design existed (which it probably did, at least in prototype form), I have a very hard time believing it would be practical in a real battle the way it’s shown in the game. All you’d have to do is knock the guy down and he probably wouldn’t be able to get up again. The difficulty of walking around for long periods of time in that outfit, especially attacking up a mountainside, seems too far-fetched for me to believe. That set of armor plus a machine gun must have weighed like a thousand pounds. Also, I think WWI machine guns required more than one person to operate anyway.

Historical inaccuracy aside, it was fun to play. :)

Oh, then there was the moment when a bunch of (presumably) Austro-Hungarian biplanes flew in, shot rockets at a mountainside, and caused a landslide. I’ll have more to say about the depiction of WWI aerial combat later, but this earned a highly skeptical raised eyebrow from me. For one thing, according to Wikipedia, the Imperial and Royal Aviation Troops were very short-handed in 1917. But more importantly, biplanes couldn’t blow up mountains with rockets.

As for the historical context of the Italian story, there was none given. I don’t even recall hearing the name of the place where the fighting took place. I’ll have to double-check. Story-wise, this was probably the least interesting of the bunch for me.

Nothing Is Written

Lawrence of Arabia is another one of those World War I topics that I’m aware of on some level, but haven’t investigated much. The Arabian theater doesn’t interest me as much as the European theater, to be honest.

The mission was fun to play right up until the final battle against the train, which was about as not fun as a game could get. I slogged my way through it, dying over and over again. I probably died more there than anywhere else.

The story was okay I guess. It’s a pretty standard rebels-versus-empire story, only notable because the Arabian protagonist in the game is a woman.

I don’t know about the historical accuracy of this mission. By which I mean I don’t know if that battle train thingy existed or not. If it did, it seems like the best strategy for combating it would be to, you know, stay away from the train tracks.

Through Mud And Blood

Next we go to what was probably my favorite mission of the game, the British tank assault. We play a tank driver who shows up at the front, never having been inside a tank before. Roughly ten seconds after we arrive, we have to get in a British Mark V tank and drive in an important attack on Cambrai. Okaaaaaay. Given what I imagine was the enormous expense of building a tank, it seems like they would give tank drivers some opportunity to practice driving before going out on the battlefield, but let’s give them some dramatic license on that one.

Driving the tank around, over, and through the rubble, shell holes, barbed wire, and trenches in the first part of that mission felt reasonably authentic to me. That was the WWI that I know. I don’t think an actual tank at that time would have been quite so fast and agile, though, and probably wouldn’t have been able to crash through buildings. Tanks in those days were lucky to make it across flat ground, let alone across the cratered, muddy surface of No Man’s Land.

I thought it was kind of funny that they made me wait for the infantry to run ahead before moving up with the tanks. I’m no military strategist but I kind of thought the whole purpose of a tank was to clear the way for the infantry. Especially in World War I.

After getting through the trenches we went behind the German lines and entered what almost looked like a rain forest to me. For some inexplicable reason they make you (the driver) get out and scout a path for the tank. Luckily someone else can drive the tank while you’re doing that, making your entire role on the team redundant.

Still, that part was fun because it reminded me a lot of the Far Cry games. My favorite part of those games was stealthily picking off people in outposts one at a time until you’ve gotten everyone, and basically the same gameplay happened there in the foggy forest.

After leaving the forest your tank breaks down so you have to get parts from a nearby village. Then there’s a final tank battle. There weren’t any “tank battles” in WWI, but let’s pretend there were. (I only found one instance of a tank battle, in the Spring of 1918, in the Second Battle of Villers-Bretonneux, some months before the events of Battlefield 1 took place.)

By the way, it was the First Battle of Cambrai in 1917 which is popularly known as the first successful use of tanks on the battlefield. (It wasn’t the first, but let’s pretend it was.) The Second Battle of Cambrai was just another ho-hum day at the office for tanks.

Friends In High Places

Finally we come to the last mission I played, the one with the planes. I saved it for last because I’ve never been particularly interested in World War I “Flying Aces” and whatnot. Still, it turned out to be kind of fun to dogfight in Battlefield 1. I can’t even remember the last time I played any kind of aerial fighting game. (The last one I can remember was an Amiga game!) I had to switch to using a controller. I had a hard time handling the vertical stick with a mouse. (I blame the fact that I gave up my “invert mouse” habit some years ago.)

As for historical accuracy, I’m pretty sure no WWI flying planes were equipped with forward-firing rockets of the kind depicted in the game. They had machine guns, and they had bombs, usually dropped by somebody tossing them over the side. Even that meager weaponry was only available later in the war. In the early days, the only weaponry a pilot had was a pistol.

One of the most striking parts of the whole game (for me) happened in the middle of this last mission, when you ditch your plane behind enemy lines. You have to make your way (stealthily) through several German trench lines and then No Man’s Land. That was what I expected to see more of in this game. It was pretty creepy to go through that muddy, blown-up hellscape, at night, especially after all that I’ve read about the conditions of the Western Front. Yuck.

Then, back in London, you’re involved in flying fighter defenses against German Zeppelins and massive bombers. While I was playing, I questioned whether such bombing raids ever took place over London, but it turns out they did. Kind of. Another part of the Great War I hadn’t explored much. (It was a big damn war y’all.)

I didn’t care for the resolution (or lack thereof) in that story. It was one of those “you have to decide whether you think the protagonist is a good guy or a bad guy because we’re not going to tell you and it could go either way” kind of deals. Sometimes that works as a storytelling device, but it didn’t work for me here.

And that’s about all I have to say about Battlefield 1.

But as a reminder, don’t buy it at full price if you’re only going to play the single-player campaign. And, uh, don’t buy it at all if you want an authentic WWI simulator.

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