Derrik J. Lang
LOS ANGELES - How do you make a video game about World War I fun?
After nearly 15 years of creating shoot-'em-up games about World War II, the Vietnam War and fictionalized contemporary and futuristic military conflicts, the creators of the "Battlefield" series are going back — way back — with their latest installment. Uncharacteristically, the new "Battlefield" is set amid a century-old war rarely depicted in the interactive medium.
"In the beginning, we had many preconceptions, such as there were only single-bolt rifles and the action was primarily in the trenches," said Lars Gustavsson, design director at Stockholm, Sweden-based studio DICE. "As we dug deeper, we realized the Great War was really the dawn of all-out warfare and paved the way for everything we've done in the past."
For the interactive industry, it's already a challenge to realistically and thoughtfully construct virtual wars based on real ones, but WWI has always been the ultimate tonal challenge. With its gruesome reputation and political complexities, it's typically a no-fly zone for mainstream game developers who rely on easy-to-understand, good-versus-evil narratives.
The bold departure for the series is right there in the latest edition's title: "Battlefield 1" — not "Battlefield 5," as it would've traditionally been called. In the game, out Friday, players won't only engage in ground skirmishes and dogfights across the Western Front, they'll also do battle in the Great War's lesser-known theatres, such as Arabia and the Italian Alps.
The series' shift back to the early 20th century, when the tools of modern warfare were first emerging, has fundamentally changed the military shooter's gameplay. For example, tech-savvy players can't rely on missile guidance systems, fly drones into enemy territory or employ other military gizmos to take down combatants. It's made for a grittier, more grounded game.
Gustavsson noted the throwback approach has also allowed game makers to explore the chaotic war's cultural diversity, whether it's showcasing Indian soldiers fighting alongside British troops in the multiplayer mode or creating downloadable content about the 369th infantry regiment, the predominantly African-American military unit known as the "Harlem Hellfighters."
"For the campaign, we didn't just want to focus on one soldier who was capable of everything, so we've taken this war story approach that presents many different perspectives from several different sides of the war," said Gustavsson. "We've tried to paint as broad a picture as possible on the battlefields, where troops fought and destinies were changed."
While the developers strived for accuracy in recreating the era's locales, vehicles, weapons and other gear, "Battlefield 1" isn't a true historical simulation. The game's multiplayer mode, where players will spend most of their time, allows wannabe soldiers to pull off such outlandish feats as taking on tanks on horseback and reigning down on troops from airships.
"It's a game," said Patrick Soderlund, executive vice-president at "Battlefield" publisher Electronic Arts Worldwide Studios. "It's still meant to be fun. We've obviously gamified some of the equipment to make for a better experience. If it was completely authentic, the guns would jam a lot more on the battlefield. That wouldn't make for a very enjoyable experience."
It also means players can't die of the Spanish flu. The pandemic isn't in the game.
This year's change of scenery has already distinctly differentiated "Battlefield" from that other big military shooter in the marketplace. Activision's "Call of Duty," which remains gaming's most successful military shooter franchise, will push further into the space age on Nov. 4 with "Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare." Soderlund is optimistic about EA and DICE's unique turn.
"It took some convincing, but I think we have a better, far more groundbreaking product than if we would've just did the expected thing and made another modern-day military shooter," said Soderlund. "This game has really galvanized the company in a way that I didn't anticipate, to be honest. I think everyone here is really excited about it and wants to play it."
Follow AP Entertainment Writer Derrik J. Lang on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/derrikjlang .