For a brief moment, it looked as though Battlefield 1 might fall foul of the stormtroopers of political correctness: when developer DICE announced that the latest instalment of the much-loved multiplayer military first-person shooter would be set in World War One, there was a (mercifully short-lived) ripple of outrage.

But just because a war happened to plumb depths of bloodiness and brutality, why shouldn't a game depict it? That Battlefield 1 manages to lay bare the viciousness and extreme human cost of the Great War, while still being almost criminally enjoyable to play, represents some achievement indeed.

The bleak subject matter seems to have inspired DICE, which had a certain amount to prove after the franchise's previous major instalment, Battlefield 4, was a buggy mess at launch.

The most immediately obvious evidence for that inspiration lies in Battlefield 1's single-player campaign, which is both meaty and innovative – whereas previous iterations had single-player campaigns so lacklustre and insubstantial as to feel like afterthoughts.

This time around, instead of trying to shoehorn some dubious overarching narrative across WW1's multiple fronts, Battlefield 1's single-player campaign consists of six self-contained vignettes called War Stories. In each, you play a different character – such as an Arabian woman performing stealth operations for Lawrence of Arabia, a rookie British tank-driver in the killing fields of Belgium or an Australian Boer War hero operating as a runner in Gallipoli.

That approach gives a great taste of the sheer diversity and global nature of WW1, as well as cleverly teaching you the rudiments of key vehicles such as the early tanks (which you have to repair often, as they were unreliable) and fighter planes. Plus they include cleverly integrated elements of the multiplayer side of the game, often requiring you, for example, to acquire then hold onto specific objectives.

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Strikingly, Battlefield 1's campaign refuses to put any sort of gloss on the horrific nature of World War One, and does a good job of showing why it was such a brutal conflict, taking place when modern battlefield technology had just about arrived, but those who gave the orders employed tactics from the previous century.

The campaign is extremely intense, satisfyingly diverse and genuinely thought-provoking, and lends itself to expansion via DLC, although whether DICE has any plans to do that remains to be seen.

But the majority of gamers will buy Battlefield 1 for its multiplayer element, and in that respect, it is impeccable. The initial annuncement that the game would be set in WW1 prompted a little carping from the fan-base about having to use basic weaponry, but that proves not to be a problem: the weapons are great, as are the tanks and planes (there's some great old-school dog-fighting to be had) and, cleverly, DICE has augmented them with a beefed-up melee engine that lets you take down enemies who get too close with things like hatchets and pickaxes.

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Battlefield 1's high-tech nature also plays a massive part: it feels like the first DICE game that truly manages to milk the Frostbite engine for all its worth. The level of environmental destructibility is spot-on – you'll start off fighting in a picturesque village but by the time the round is over, it will have been reduced to a bleak wasteland of ruins, and you have to be wary of falling masonry, disappearing cover and the like. The game's particle effects are notably impressive, so that artillery barrages leave smoke which can be used as cover, and you have to be constantly aware of gas-pockets (everyone has a gas-mask by default).

Plenty of classic multiplayer modes from the past make a welcome comeback, notably the objective-based Domination and Conquest, both of which involve winning and holding onto specific points, but Conquest takes place on much larger maps and feels terrifyingly like finding yourself in the thick of a real battle. Team Deathmatch, naturally, is present, while Rush involves attacking or defending telegraph poles, which attackers can use to call in artillery strikes, causing the action to move (often swiftly, depending on how good the defending team is) across large maps. It's vaguely reminiscent of Star Wars Battlefront's Walker Assault mode.

The flagship new multiplayer mode, however, is Operations, in which several modes are essentially mashed together to form a huge whole, which can take place across several connected maps. A single Operation takes well over an hour, and you choose whether to attack or defend, then are given multiple objectives, which chop and change according to how the fighting unfolds.

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Operations are where Battlefield 1 reveals itself in all its 64-player glory, and those who fancy a spot of tank-driving or flying get to indulge themselves. It has some cute touches, such as the Behemoths which appear when one side is losing, providing a chance to redress the balance. Depending on the map, they might take the form of an armed-to-the-teeth Zeppelin or a dreadnought anchored in an adjacent bay.

War Pigeons is an intriguing and atypical new mode, in that it takes the fighting to new levels of claustrophobia for a Battlefield game, featuring small, enclosed maps in which carrier pigeons spawn that each team must reach first, then hold onto long enough to dispatch them with a message. It's all very up close and personal, and very frenetic.

Battlefield 1's multiplayer feels like it pays more attention than its predecessors to soldier classes. There are plenty you would expect to find, such as Assault, Medic and Scout, but some more exotic ones too, such as vehicle classes for those wishing to specialise in flying or piloting tanks. In the single-player campaign, you encounter some really unusual types of soldier, such as Flametroopers, and you often get the opportunity to play as them via pick-ups that appear on the map in various modes.

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Battlefield 1, like its peers, has a loot-crate system known as Battlepacks, which offer cosmetic items and are really an excuse to tempt you into microtransactions, via the Scraps in-game currency system, which is dished out in a very grudging manner indeed. Puzzle pieces can be cashed in for exotic melee weapons, which is cool, and there's a pretty familiar-feeling challenge-type Medal system.

Verdict

As you would expect, Battlefield 1's multiplayer feels super-slick and polished, and you couldn't imagine even the most churlish of Battlefield devotees finding anything substantially wrong with it (in marked contrast to Battlefield 4).

Put that together with by far the best single-player campaign of any Battlefield game, and levels of intensity and realism that really do evoke the harrowing reality of World War One, and Battlefield 1 adds up to a military first-person shooter that simply sets new standards.

As a franchise, Battlefield has never quite hit the heights of popularity enjoyed by the likes of Call of Duty – but Battlefield 1 is easily good enough to rectify that.