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Battlefield V review: war never changes

Fighting Nazis is timely again, and yet Battlefield’s return to World War II feels ill advised. Endless war has taken a toll on this series, and the generals need a new strategy.

I’ll start with some praise. Despite its flaws, Battlefield V is a breathtakingly cinematic game, and has all of the relentless chaos that fans expect. In my experience playing a press preview of the game there were only a few bugs (mostly funny ones, like corpses wobbling in midair), and the game retains the series’ recent level of polish. Control inputs feel tight and fluid, everything looks really nice, and the user interface is better than ever — all real accomplishments. Battlefield V is an unquestionably well-crafted object.

But as I was thinking about this review, I could not escape a strange feeling. I’ve now been playing Battlefield since 2002. I’ve spent thousands of hours playing these games: a weird fact that’s difficult to reconcile with my personal identity as an adult. A past self decided to love these games, and now I’m cursed by my mastery of them. At this point it’s hard to tell whether I’m playing for enjoyment or routine.

It’s at least comforting to play the same game over and over, as the movements become rote. It’s nice when the body and a task become the same thing. (I think this is how games like Battlefield become so abstract; after a while you’re not holding a gun or fighting Nazis, you’re just responding to patterns and using your limbs effectively.) But this familiarity can also be alienating. A few hours into my multiplayer tour, as the rest of the world faded to background, I had a genuine out-of-body experience. It was like watching a phantom version of a younger self, charging an enemy flag. The sameness of it all made me feel like a passenger. My Battlefield exploits now read more like The Myth of Sisyphus than a medal of honor citation.

Despite my optimism for big changes to the series, developer DICE bluffed its hand. The game’s “Grand Operations” mode strings together multi-day battles that are supposed to have continuity, but the consequences of winning or losing a match are minor, like adding a little bit of time to the next round. You have to squint to see how Grand Operations differs from the 16-year-old Conquest mode, and other modes like Breakthrough and Domination don’t offer meaningfully different experiences. Battlefield V’s multiplayer is essentially a lot of the same chaos: capture a point, drive a tank, fly a plane, die, repeat. Character customization and progression are tedious and don’t add much to the experience, though I wholeheartedly welcome EA’s confident turn toward inclusiveness. Ultimately, Battlefield is still rock-paper-scissors with explosions — something with exciting moments, but no sense of accomplishment. At least they’re really nice explosions.

As multiplayer shooters are rapidly evolving with the emergence of differentiated battle royale games, Battlefield is no longer an FPS bellwether. I’ve been playing another recently-released WWII game, Post Scriptum, which is made by a team of folks who, incidentally, started as Battlefield 2 modders. If Battlefield V is a glistening statue, Post Scriptum is a pile of rocks. It’s buggy, clunky, and only for people with the patience for an early access game that might never be finished. It’s also one of the most memorable shooters I’ve played in a while, with moments that I want to run to tell my friends about.

Post Scriptum is a shooter that lets you do things other than shooting, which I think ought to be the future of every multiplayer game with guns. Its clever trick is using the stakes and atmosphere of a war game to make the non-shooting activities feel genuinely rewarding. Lately I’ve been obsessed with playing Post Scriptum as Euro Truck Simulator: World War II. As a logistics truck driver, I can ferry supplies to the front line while getting shot at — letting me be a part of the deadly spectacle of a large-scale battle without killing people. Playing music out of my truck over the game’s local chat is met with laughs and appreciation. It’s something I simply can’t find in a Battlefield game. It’s weird. It’s fun. It makes me smile. I just wish it was made by the artists at DICE.

And then there’s Battlefield V’s single-player campaign, which really surprised me. The “War Stories” format, introduced in 2016’s Battlefield 1, is the smartest attempt at single-player storytelling in war games that I’ve seen. I just wish DICE had made more of them. There are only three war stories to play in Battlefield V, with a fourth coming in December. (Battlefield 1 had six.) Each story takes about an hour to complete, and while they’re hampered by forgettable action sequences, laughable NPC intelligence, and formulaic set pieces, the format still feels like something with great potential.

Instead of playing an untouchable hero who inexplicably massacres hordes of enemies like in so many other shooters, these short stories allow you be a vulnerable part of war’s death machine — something that feels more authentic than getting the costumes right. Battlefield V’s opening sequence achieves this feeling to stunning effect. When you start the game, you jump between characters in rapid succession, often taking the place of someone who just killed you and continuing the fight from their perspective. The opening whisks you from a nighttime raid, to a desert ambush and huge aerial battle. I wish the entire game had been like this.

The war stories format also cleverly echoes the intangible experience of hearing real war stories told, which often walk the line between real historical account and tales stretched tall by time. I was impressed by one Battlefield V story about two brothers from West Africa who were sent to France to fight for a colonial power whose land they had never seen. After native French soldiers took their guns and handed them shovels, they had to overcome the racism of their allies before being allowed to achieve glory in battle — only to see themselves erased from history in the story’s epilogue. It’s a tight and powerful single-player story that’s wrapped in the modern context of a veteran reflecting on his long-secret contribution to history. I wanted more like it.

The “Tirailleur” story could have been the model for a deeply-felt war game — one that elevates neglected heroes into popular historical canon. We’ve had decades of interactive Clint Eastwood movies, and so I appreciate DICE’s attempt to break away from tried-and-true narratives, even if it’s clumsy about expressing them in gameplay. I just wish these stories were the centerpiece of a more complete game, and not a context wrapper for multiplayer deathmatches.

If the next Battlefield game only has a collection of untold war stories, I don’t think I’ll miss its multiplayer spectacle. After 16 years, I’m ready for my own war story to end, and for others to begin.

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