History Repeating: War vogue and Battlefield 1

bf4The announcement trailer for Battlefield 1 shook the gaming world like a Somme barrage. While Infinity Ward persisted with the trend of projecting future conflicts for Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, DICE are reaching back to World War One for their forthcoming Battlefield instalment. Broadly speaking, the gaming public reacted negatively to Activision persisting with sci-fi, while lauding EA for producing an innovative twist on a familiar franchise. But is Battlefield 1 really the revolution that Internet hype has made it out to be?

Now, Battlefield 1 is a strangely non-sequential choice of title for the series’ fourth outing on current-gen consoles. Of course, the intention here was doubtless to invoke the game’s World War One setting – awkward, but fair enough. Another reason may be a sly nod to the Battlefield franchise’s heritage. In a sense, the first game in the series was set during World War One – the engine powering Codename Eagle, a WW1 shooter by Refraction Games released in 1999, was later used in Battlefield 1942 and Battlefield Vietnam after DICE acquired Refraction.

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The World War One sequence in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate

The Battlefield 1 announcement comes at a time when World War One has crawled out of its muddy trench of relative obscurity, and featured in some reasonably high-profile titles – Valiant Hearts: The Great War, Verdun, and a lengthy cameo in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate . Its current growth in thematic popularity, however mild, may be linked in part to the war’s centenary, and high-profile public events commemorating the devastating conflict. Yet there may also be a cyclical element to horses replacing quad bikes in the latest Battlefield outing.

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Red Baron (1990), an early WW1 flight sim from Sierra/Dynamix

In the 90s, my brother and I spent much of our formative gaming time with World War One-themed flight simulators like Red Baron, Knights of the Sky, and the processor-intensive Flying Corps. These games were both popular and commercially successful (though to be fair, this was when flight sims in general were very much in vogue). Now, that’s not to say that World War One has completely fallen out of favour since its flight sim heyday – it’s always been around, but more in the form of low-profile strategy titles, or as a result of the mod community’s efforts. Fast-forward to 2016, and suddenly it’s a bankable conflict for Ubisoft and EA.

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The BF1 trailer put a heavy emphasis on the inclusion of combat aircraft

The ebb and flow of a war’s popularity is an industry inevitably, it seems, as we embrace (then grow tired of) its historical peculiarities. For a time, World War Two was everybody’s darling, dominating the better part of a decade with a solid startling lineup of Battlefield 1942, Medal of Honor: Allied Assault and, of course, the original Call of Duty. Now it lurks on the periphery, loved by only the most dedicated and hardcore in Red Orchestra. The Vietnam War was kind of cool for awhile, too, and although Battlefield 2 started playing with 21st century hardware in 2005, the big historical shift came with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare two years later. Suddenly we became totally fascinated with the capabilities of contemporary weaponry, and what its near-future cousins might look like.

That infatuation had truly begun to sour, however, with Battlefield: Hardline – though this was more a result of its poorly-timed glib portrayal of police militarization, rather than its modern setting alone. Even so, we have apparently grown tired of overloading our Picatinny rails with scopes and foregrips and laser sights – call it ACOG fatigue, if you will (admittedly The Division, armed with a pedantic modern arsenal, continues stumbling from strength to strength, while Overwatch revels in an eclectic range of retro-futuristic weaponry). Even so, we can probably expect a variation on this theme for Battlefield 1 – upgrading a Lee-Enfield Mk III rifle with some kind of obscure, prototype optical sight that DICE spent hours researching, for example.

So is Battlefield 1 really going to be a breath of fresh air for The Big Two FPS war games? Or just a case of Malibu Stacy wearing a new helmet? And looking (perhaps ironically) to the future, what happens when World War One has served its term as a game setting? Do EA and Activision keep going backwards through time, reaching deep into pre-history as Far Cry: Primal has done, even going as far back as Call of Duty: Trilobytes? Or does the chronological loop repeat, with Japs and Nazis once again falling into our sights? These questions, no doubt, will be answered in large part by each franchise’s sales figures later this year.

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