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Hands-on with the Battlefield 1 closed alpha

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We spent 10 hours with this varied World War I shooter

The general vibe amidst the mud and rubble of Battlefield 1's closed alpha this week is highly positive, as you'd expect from a game that enjoyed a good showing at E3, where the shooter impressed attendees and media.

This World War I-themed game follows the essential pattern evolved by developer DICE over its 15 years of making hit shooters, which translates into large battle spaces, lots of vehicles and environmental damage, dubbed "levolution" by Electronic Arts' marketing people. It's all familiar stuff, well-wrought and polished.

Based on this Conquest mode alpha, the Battlefield faithful are happy with how Battlefield 1 is shaping up. Most of the comments I saw during my 10 hours were glowing with praise. You can get a sense of the action from our video stream (below), posted yesterday and hosted by Russ Frushtick.

Whatever lessons the developers are learning will likely be at a data-centric level, as opposed to anecdotal. After all these years making Battlefield games, DICE has a pretty good handle on what fans like, and what they don't like.

Huge and varied map

DICE says it's learned a lot from shipping an unfinished Battlefield 4 back in 2013. And judging from the fun I've had so far with this alpha, there've also been advances in creating memorable spaces.

The alpha's massive battle arena, dubbed St. Quentin's Scar, all takes place on a single map, pitting Germans against British. Players take turns on each side. There are a number of well-defined classes to play — Assault, Medic, Support and Scout — each with their own weapons, vulnerabilities and special abilities. Basic upgrade paths lead to a limited selection of improved weapons which are, nonetheless, chunkily pleasing.

Based on my time with the game, it seems to take the best of previous Battlefields while improving on those aspects that previously seemed half-baked — most notably, big narrative moments and the use of the environment to create action.

It's this advancement that makes Battlefield 1 feel like a genuine advance in multiplayer shooters. So much of the world is mutable, chaotic and uncertain. There were moments this week, sitting in an armored car and watching stooped Tommies and broken buildings flash by, when I felt a palpable sense of the Great War, if only in its most fantastical, fictionalized form.

Environmental damage

When battles roar, mud, brickwork, buildings and even chunks of land spew into the air, changing terrain and firing lines as well as tactical redoubts. This happens in a way that feels organic and not, in the case of Battlefield 4, carefully scripted.

I'm a poor marksman and so games like Battlefield 1 can be a major challenge. I struggled with the sniper Scout, though it was evidently a popular choice. The Medic is also well-armed with a sturdy rifle.

Battlefield 1 Electronic Arts

I managed to find a class I really liked, one that played to my strengths. Support can lay down major suppressing fire from a high distance if he is well-hidden, allowing more mobile units to flood a target.

I got a huge kick out of taking a position on a hill and clearing out alleys and streets for my comrades, before someone came along and staved my head in with a shovel, or mashed me up from an armored car.

Even as Assault, I enjoyed being part of massed attacks on enemy positions. With half a dozen flag points to conquer and defend, this map is a rolling mess of battles. But in the games I played, it often hit a point where you could clearly identify a front between allies and enemies.

There's also fun to be had with static gun emplacements, though I didn't really get a sense of how much damage my artillery was doing, such was its firing distance, in comparison with more immediately effective machine gun nests.

Vehicles and defenses

Armored cars and tanks are also extremely useful spawn points, getting the player into the thick of action. That said, it's never a good idea to ride in these vehicles for too long. As in previous DICE games, they soon get blown to smithereens.

I had a mixed time in the air. The single-seater fighter planes are difficult to control at first, and they tend to fly over the map so quickly, it's hard to really get a bead on anything moving on the ground. They are clearly designed for pure air combat.

Larger, slower aircraft are more fun in that regard, most especially the zeppelin, which gives the player a leisurely machine gun shot at enemies scurrying around on the ground.

Undoubtedly, the decision to go with WWI represented something of a risk for DICE. For most of us, the 1914-1918 conflict is about pale lads pouring out of trenches only to be cut down by machine guns. Even as we remember the Battle of the Some, 100 years on, we think and speak of the horrible waste of WWI, and not its individual gallantry and adventure.

To be sure, there are trenches in this map, but they are situated in a non-crucial position, and seem more like a decoration than a serious tactical factor. It'll be interesting to see how they are used in other maps and modes.

This map had a wide variety of environments, from the convincingly absolute waste of a WWI battlefield to bombed-out villages, to nests of buildings that, at the start of each game, seem almost untouched by war. There are houses and hills, bomb craters and windmills, barns and fields, all of which soon reveal their own pros and cons as battle terrain.

It's something of an achievement for DICE to bring us a game that not only includes the guns and uniforms of the period, but also a sense of its inchoate madness.

Battlefield 1 is bloody, brutal and immensely good fun. Ten hours of playing a single map in a single mode gave me plenty of variety and adventure.