screenshots courtesy of EA

A Battlefield for Everyone, But Rarely at the Same Time

At its best, DICE's latest achieves moments of greatness, but it struggles to sustain them.

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Nov 24 2018, 4:48pm

screenshots courtesy of EA

What’s your Battlefield? It’s an odd franchise, after all. Superficially many of these games have always been similar, but small differences in design and emphasis can leave their players intensely divided. As a franchise, Battlefield never inspired much devotion from me, but it’s produced a couple games that I could play forever. Rush mode in Bad Company 2, with its grinding assaults that left the earth scorched in their wake, redefined military shooters for me. Operations in Battlefield 1, which turned into pitched battles across bleak and beautiful First World War wastelands, made me feel the game’s scale in a way I never had before.

In other words, I like Battlefield when it’s at its most stalemated and grindy. When it almost straddles the line between shooter and tactics game, with each player has to think of themselves more like a chess piece than a superhero.

Battlefield V can be that game. I’ve seen it, I’ve played it a few times. It’s almost as good as I remember and maybe, in a few key ways, even better. But there is frequently a gulf between what it can be, and what it is. Because, through a combination of game and map design, what Battlefield V is a “something for everyone” military shooter variety show. It is a game that imposes meticulous but pervasive limitations that frustrate as often as they reward.

A group of British troops in snazzy non-regulation uniforms stand tall in green grass on a summer's day in a distant field, with a tank in the background.

Battlefield V brings the military shooter series back to World War 2, with a familiar focus on large-scale battles between teams of 16 to 32 players, featuring hordes of infantry supported by a variety of armored vehicles and aircraft. As in previous games, each player chooses a class before they spawn, with certain unique abilities. To get the most out of your class, however, you’ll need to cooperation of other players and their class abilities, perhaps more than ever before in this series.

It can work beautifully. My single best Battlefield V match nicely encapsulated much that is new in this game, and the ways its strengths live in close proximity to its worst frustrations. Battlefield V’s greatness seems to exist right at the point where the whole thing is on the verge of breaking down.

Around two in the morning, a day or so before the game’s official launch, I was playing my “last match of the night” on a map called Twisted Steel, one of the real gems of this new game. It’s an open-field battle fought in and around a series of farms around a wide, marshy river that is crossed in the north by an elevated steel suspension bridge, and an old Roman-style stone bridge in the south.

This was a Frontlines match, a game mode that’s all about sustaining offensive momentum or breaking it. It probably generates the most set-piece battles in the game thanks to the way it moves across a set progression of objectives, as opposed the more free-form Domination and Conquest modes, which are simply about holding more control points than the enemy.

The time limit for this map was something absurd, like 75 minutes. And for the first 15 minutes of the match, that seemed gratuitous. My team of British troops just ripped through one layer of defenses after another. Everyone’s K/D ratios soared as the enemy reeled.

A pair of young women in stare out of the burning ruins of a building, at a hostile world beyond.

Until we came to that fucking Roman bridge. The last enemy strongpoint was just on the other side, one of those fortress-like French farms with an interior courtyard surrounded by stone buildings and walls. The minute we started pushing across the river, we were trapped in a series of shooting galleries. The bridge itself was swept by machine gun fire. To set foot on it was to die. But infantry needed to hold it because the central span could be destroyed, and in order for our rickety little tank to cross, we needed people to walk up, get out their tools, and replace the broken part of the bridge with an improvised structure. This sort of changeable terrain, and the fact that you can build fortifications and obstacles around most key points on each map, is a new addition with Battlefield V. In this case, our team was basically living the combat engineer’s nightmare as groups of players tried to put up a new bridge, while getting slaughtered in droves. Not that anyone was faring any better with other crossing points.

What normally happens in this kind of stalemate is that more and more players start fanning out across the map with scoped rifles and machine guns, trying to break the stalemate via opportunistic sniping while inevitably causing it to get worse. Whichever team is the first to snap out of this ennui will usually carry the day.

That’s not quite how Battlefield V works, however. The game won’t really allow people to wander off as lone-wolves anymore. In terms of both the weapons available to each class and the ways their class abilities interact, players are more dependent than ever before on having a decent mix of teammates nearby. Nobody carries enough extra ammo to operate for long without the support class’s extra ammunition. Death comes so quickly and so frequently that all but perhaps the most talented and elusive recon snipers will need to call for the medic. The recon class lifts the fog of war and provides the kind of invaluable spotting information that you could take for granted in most previous Battlefield games. You never really know what’s going on with their help. Meanwhile, the assault class has more explosives and easy-to-use anti-tank weapons than anyone else, meaning that they’re essential for storming any defended enemy position, but they need all-of-the-above from their teammates. You don’t have to stick with your squad, but you do need a squad, and that means that Battlefield V is a game where people succeed or fail as groups.

A bomber flies low over a soldier's head on a snowbound battlefield, chased by a trail of explosions in its wake.

Which meant that the groups of three, four, or a half-dozen troops trying to sneak across this river would inevitably get spotted, and then they’d all get machine-gunned in that swamp. But while most of the team was off doing that, there was always a squad or two hanging back and rebuilding sandbag walls, firing-steps, barbed wire, and trench lines. Suddenly our team’s bomb-blasted stable and riverside cottage were stoutly-defended fortresses. It takes a while and you’ll rarely see them in a more dynamic match, but some of the fortification networks you can build are truly impressive in how they transform the battlefield.

We were attacking into just such a network. By our second or third offensive attempt, the opposing team knew every angle we were going to come from, and went about dismantling our attacks in a coolly workmanlike way. After each failed advance, we suddenly had to defend our gains as the other team went back on the attack. and our team lapsed into a kind of undirected funk as everyone tried their own strategies.

This went on for thirty minutes and here is the important thing: It started to suck. Battlefield V was bringing to life the depressing pointlessness and bloody tedium of a lot of combat action in the World Wars. The enemy positions were too strong and too well-prepared to storm, but we had to attack and so a half-hearted, sacrificial effort would take place. 45 minutes into the match, andBattlefield V was starting to channel Paths of Glory. Which was cool, in a way, even as I was starting to think about bailing on the match and going to bed.

A British tank grinds through a misty morning to roll over a German strongpoint

But over the course of all this churn, our team composition completely changed. Few snipers were still active, and most of our team was semi-automatic riflemen and machine gunners, plus a small army of medics—without saying a word, we’d re-equipped ourselves for an assault. On the next push, a small group of troops managed cross the river in both the north and south and even after the attack failed they stayed there, and more of our team started joining them, even as the enemy attack fizzled against our defenses.

The result was that our next attack started with two or three squads poised for a perfect surprise assault. They blasted every enemy position in their path, saturating them with machine gun fire while assault troops got close enough to send grenades through every window and door. Medics would burst inside spraying SMG fire in every direction. It was cacophonous and spectacular as our team advanced slowly, patiently, and relentlessly.

Somebody made it into the capture point, enough to keep the attack timer from running out. Then more people made it across the river. Support players, with better engineering abilities that let them construct fortifications faster, got the bridge fixed and our light tank rolled across, adding cannon fire and heavy machine gun support to the push. Corner by corner, building by building, we scoured that farm. Medics hurled smoke canisters in every direction, screening the advance of more assault troops and buying precious seconds to run into open ground and revive wounded players.

A soldier with a fixed bayonet takes aim in BFV

It was like felling a massive tree. You could feel them start to break, their defenses starting to lean. Suddenly everyone was converging on the capture point, building sandbag walls, making supply runs, and fanning out across new positions. We started getting kills on enemy reinforcements as they tried to recapture the position. The last hold-outs were crushed, and with a final push we had done what seemed impossible.

The last 30 minutes of that match were among the most tense and rewarding of any I’ve played in any Battlefield game. I could diagram much of what I saw and did just from memory. But I am also not sure that I could have had that experience without the previous 30 minutes of wheel-spinning frustration, or the dynamism and easy competence of the first 15 minutes. In the course of a single match we saw how easily things would go when we did them right, how impossible things became when the enemy did things right with a strong position, and finally how brutally, stubbornly effective our bite-and-hold assault tactics became in the final minutes of the match, letting us eke out the final objectives by our fingernails.

When everything works, the class design and cooperative strategies they encourage make for a great game. But too often, Battlefield V’s maps emphasize one style of play at the expense of others. On wide-open, armor-focused maps with huge expanses of open ground, like the desert maps of Hamada and Aerodrome, the fact that a medic can only use close-range SMGs feels incredibly restrictive. Your weapon selection is literally only effective in close-quarters gunfights, and there are huge swaths of those maps where that kind of fighting practically never happens, and so you can either resign yourself to being a walking bandage dispenser, or you can screw your team by playing a class that has access to weapons that fit the terrain.

Taken separately the map rotations and class specializations would probably provide a lot of welcome variety in terms of play experience or tactical environment. But together they create a lot of places where the effective way to play feels very prescribed, particularly compared to the flexibility in tactics that most other games in this series have allowed you to adopt.

But there is nothing in Battlefield V’s as disappointing as its Grand Operations, which promise a sprawling, multi-day, battle narrative, but delivers an experience that feels more like a demo for the game you’re already playing.. Each operation is a variety pack: Narvik’s Breakthrough leads to a mountaintop Domination battle in Norway that consistently turns into a fast-paced multiplayer whack-a-mole. No matter what happens with the assault on the Rotterdam, the Germans will bomb the city and the final day’s combat will unfold on a map called Devastation, centering on a gunfight in a ruined church, followed by a push on three bomb sites.

An armored train plunges ahead into a tunnel in Battlefield 1
An armored train plunges ahead into a tunnel in Battlefield 1 (screenshot courtesy of EA)

Grand Operations were, mostly for better and occasionally for worse, what Battlefield 1 was all about. They were where Battlefield 1 manifested its scope, its vision of history, the ambitions of its design and map layout. You may not like them, but you’ll remember the zeppelins and armored trains raining death across the map. If I talk to you about the San Rocco Turret, chances are you have a strong opinion about it. If you mention “the Ballroom” I will instantly know the place you mean, and can again draw you a picture of why it is such a nightmare to take and hold. It was a game that traded in specifics.

Battlefield V often seems to shrink from them.

That’s partly because Battlefield V never feels like a game that’s resolved the tension between making a modern, inclusive military action game and a war that centers on a deeply racist and sexist fascist regime crushing one liberal democracy after another. It’s never certain whether it’s a game about World War 2, ora series of World War 2-themed playing fields.

So on the one hand you have voiceover and mission text explaining how the Germans bombed Rotterdam to force a Dutch surrender. On the other hand, as the German team flying into an airborne drop over Rotterdam, you’ll get a generic paratrooper sequence: You’re in a transport plane with a multi-ethnic group of troopers in a random mix of national uniforms, with a jumpmaster yelling at you in German as you hook onto the line in preparation to take the leap into the combat zone. When you land, you’ll be surrounded by men and women fighting for your side, all of whom are carrying whatever is their favorite, class-locked (but nationality neutral) weapon for this battle. Germans wade into battle with American M1 rifles, British medics slap fresh magazines into their Maschinenpistole 40s. Everyone is empowered to be the Fallschirmjäger of their dreams.

A squad of soldiers walk up a snowy mountain pass in a blizzard.

The character-hopping, anthology-based single player campaign has its own issues with detachment from the dread context of this war. While it does try and offer some additional perspectives beyond those we usually see considered in WW2 shooter campaigns, Battlefield V’s structure suffers from the series’ familiar single-player problems. It’s too preoccupied with its action set-pieces to allow its characters and their perspectives much room to breathe.

Yet when it comes to its weapons, suddenly Battlefield has a mania for specificity and character. Their recoil patterns, the amount of drop on each bullet as it arcs its way to its target. You’re rewarded for learning the exact feel of each weapon, using muscle memory to counter its tendencies to drift. For each weapon, there’s yet another progression system, so that your most favored light machine gun, for instance, might get a reduced muzzle flash that will make it slightly harder for enemies to spot you. These slight differences among weapons and their upgrade trees demand similarly small adjustments to how you play. But honestly, the class-restricted weapons ends up making a lot of these feel interchangeable in spite of their granular differences.

Speaking of things that felt meaningless: I cannot stress enough how bad the pre-release versions of Battlefield V have been compared to the finished product. In the week prior to the game’s official launch, I encountered a ton of strange bugs and game-breaking glitches: matches that seemed to have run out of time and respawns but shambled onwards regardless, medics suddenly unable to revive anyone, paratrooper missions breaking because the planes stopped spawning. There was also some truly awful matchmaking that seemed hellbent on preventing me from seeing anything but the Rotterdam and Narvik maps. The experience changed so immediately on launch day that I was left feeling like I’d spent a week playing a bad beta build before getting the good stuff.

And there is a lot of good stuff. My Battlefield is still in there. I still love it. But I only get to play it occasionally. The sweet spots are smaller. It’s almost like Battlefield V is letting different visions for the series take turns. During those moments when I catch a glimpse of mine, it’s a special game. One of the best in the series. Then they fade, far too quickly, and I once again feel like a guest in someone else’s idea of a Battlefield game.