The Video Game Awards of 2016 have come and gone, my friends. And you may already be well aware, but Overwatch took Game of the Year. But…that doesn’t mean it was MY pick. In fact, Battlefield 1 was.
I’m personally not the type of person to bash anything. I’m not about to sit here and tell you, “Overwatch is a bad game, don’t play it, it’s garbage, play my game instead.” However, as the VGAs were fast approaching, I began to realize why I was hoping Overwatch wouldn’t win and why Battlefield 1 might just pull ahead and take GOTY. And, since I have access to the internet and a working keyboard, hold my beer while I explain why Battlefield 1 forced its way into my heart.
What’s one of the things that made Overwatch take the cake, in my opinion? Its story. Throw the disc into your system (or download it via the interwebs) and just start playing the game and tell me where the story is at. No seriously, tell me at what point in the game you are told about Winston being lovingly looked after by a genius and, in turn, devoting his life to being just as intelligent. Point to the moment in the campaign where Tracer fails to save a popular religious figure from Widowmaker’s assassination attempt. Oh, wait…there is no campaign huh? And there is never, not even once, any mention as to the true depth of these characters while you are playing the actual game.
Upon your first time signing into Battlefield 1, you find yourself in a violent flashback of World War 1. As a soldier, you are frozen in the middle of a brutal battle in which both your enemies and allies are grabbing whatever is close at hand to kill the other or defend themselves. You jump in and out of perspectives. A foot soldier on the front lines with nothing but your gun to aid you in a suicide mission across war-torn fields. You’re killed. Then you find yourself in an armored tank watching others around you die as you push across trenches and barricades. You are killed by aerial bombers. Over and over you suffer many deaths in the heat of battle showing you just how short the life expectancy of a young man in World War 1 was. That if you stopped for a moment after being dazed by a grenade going off near you, you were pulled to your feet by another soldier and pushed toward the chaos. You aren’t allowed to rest. If you duck behind cover, you can be charged from behind and killed. If you jump into a vehicle, it’s no safer than being on foot. If you kill every single soldier around you, you could still have a tank from hundreds of feet away fire a shot that wipes you off the map.
It’s one of the most moving starts to a video game I have ever watched. From the moment you start playing you are immersed in this intense action and told to keep fighting, the mentality that all FPS games really set up for you, but with these tones and images that remind you that this was a real war, these were real people, and every time you die it represents a life that was lost all those years ago. I’m sure many people will look past the sentiment it delivers, but I received the message and immediately wanted to find out what this single player mode had in store.
And it did not disappoint. It’s a fluid experience with characters that demonstrate the diversity of the real people who fought. A man on his first mission who watches as members of his new squad are killed left and right. Stories of freezing under the pressures of combat, of wanting to run and return home. Stories of young men excited by what the war had to offer and saw this as an adventure. And that not every battle was fought with tanks and planes but on horseback and, in rare cases, by women who would not stand by while the world ripped itself apart. And even better than how amazing the story is? You can skip missions or the campaign altogether. Why do I know this? The pilot missions. I suck at flying planes in video games. I always have. Like, get airborne and immediately crash because I am bad at things. So, sure enough, there are some missions all about aerial vehicles. And I nope’d right out of all of them.
But let’s say it’s not the story of Overwatch that brought you to the game. After all, for you to have any interest in something, you have to know about it first. So let’s talk marketing. Overwatch has a brilliant strategy set up for it. Shorts that address the backstory gaps I mentioned above that make you fall in love with these playable characters. The comics, that provide an even deeper look into the world of Overwatch.
But let me also explain you a thing about how flawlessly EA marketed Battlefield 1. Trailers are great. They give us a chance to see what’s in store for us, what we can expect from a storytelling standpoint. But if you aren’t going to have a story, like most FPS games that lack a decent narrative, then you often get shown gameplay. EA invited not 8 or 10 pro gamers to the stage to test out their game, but 64 people ranging in gaming experience from a lot to little or none at all, and live, on one of the biggest platforms in the industry, had them test the alpha for the public. Not only will the comical pictures of Snoop Dog smoking a blunt while playing this brand new game survive for some time to come, but that the game performed BEAUTIFULLY! It didn’t crash despite how many people were all playing the same game IN THE SAME CONVENTION HALL! From what I saw, there was no lag, no over the top, game breaking glitches. Not a single moment when this felt like a live demo with all the technical blunders that could have happened with it. It was smooth, it showed people of all levels of gaming ability enjoying it, and showed that this game was well made. Watching that demonstration made me want to own it. It was already reliable and it was still only in its alpha phase! Sure, EA catches a lot of hell on social media over server issues, lag, and glitches, but every time I have played Battlefield 1, I have yet to experience anything that has made me sigh, log off, and play another game.
What about gameplay then, since both have been live and playable for some time. I have nothing against the way Overwatch plays. It’s smooth, the developers really listen to the community about what needs to be nerfed and buffed with each update. The abilities are interesting and all. But Battlefield does the exact same thing. I actually wrote an article about how quickly EA absorbed the feedback from its demos and re-worked the game. But there has also been something that has bothered me about Overwatch that we get no explanation for; Why on Earth are the heroes of Overwatch fighting one another?
Let’s say, like me, you’ve been watching all the shorts as they come out. You would know that Tracer and Winston are close allies who have worked together numerous times. You would also know that their archenemies that they are constantly at odds with are Widowmaker and Reaper. So why can I load into a game as a Tracer with all of these characters I would absolutely not be helping? You can argue some Civil War type story about how even some of the heroes have gone bad, but in a story that does set very clear lines between characters who only strive for good and others that only have bad intentions…why don’t we understand more about why we are being pitted against one another? I realize Overwatch is meant for the eSports scene and has already held a handful of tournaments, but it seems that in its core, Overwatch struggles between being a narrative driven game and a competitive team game.
Battlefield 1 will most likely never be an eSports game, with many of its modes supporting such a large number of people on one team, but at the very least it doesn’t break itself by saying this is a war between good and bad forces, then in the next moment shows a German soldier hugging it out with a British infantryman. You are placed on one side of the war with clear objectives. I won’t argue about how realistic the battles, weapons, and so on are with what it was really like during the war, but Battlefield 1 establishes itself as a war game and keeps to that agenda, never really leading to a narrative breaking moment like Overwatch did for me.
As I close out my argument, I really want to say that I do think Overwatch is a good game. But I also think this may have been a case of popularity winning over people’s hearts. Battlefield 1 didn’t win ANY awards and that infuriates me! And that it wasn’t even in contention for the game of the year blows me away even more. DICE and EA took more creative risks than you can see on the surface. Going back to its opening cinematic, they put a lot of emphasis on the fact that maybe we would see how emotional the war really was. That its campaign stopped to show us many different viewpoints of fear, excitement, of going up against impossible odds. Winning, losing, and surviving with physical and emotional scars while still being, what I would have imagined was “just another shooter”. It’s not! There is depth, there is complex game mechanics, and there is teamwork and an equal amount of realizing that you can go off alone and win unprotected points.
The design of Battlefield 1 is beautiful. It looks like a damn war film! Like at the end of the match, credits should roll and you’d be like, “Oh, wow, I didn’t know Spielberg got into the gaming industry.” Or, “These are some Michael Bay quality explosions.” Maybe even a little “Okay, who let JJ play with the lens flare settings.” The sound design is also top tier, and this is coming from someone who has done a fair amount of sound design. You can hear every sound of war you would expect, from loud booms far off in the distance to tell you something major has happened, to near silent footsteps you can only catch if you are trying to avoiding having a shovel dug deep into your skull by a sneaky soldier.
Maybe comparing the cartoony style of Overwatch to the movie-like qualities of Battlefield 1 is like apples to oranges, but isn’t that what the VGAs are about? To look broadly at every aspect of a game and compare it to the other to determine which is best? Well, Overwatch may have a lot of positives, and I know I’ve played my fair amount of it, but I feel like the amount of care put into Battlefield, the marketing, the story, the design, and the ability to jump in with little to no knowledge of the franchise and learn quickly equals, if not goes above the actual Game of the Year winner.
But seriously. If you are in the market for a shooter and have been on the fence about which one you want, I can’t sing enough of Battlefield’s praises. Your teammates may let you down, but this game absolutely will not.