When DICE announced War Stories for Battlefield 5, it couldn't have come at a better time. Fans were begging for a return to more historical-inspired settings, and the inclusion of tales from the front lines was a perfect fit for the series. Instead of buzzwords like "levolution" and navigating around destructible skyscrapers, players were exploring the trenches of Gallipoli once more.
War Stories was almost universally welcomed, despite being a fraction short and missing some opportunities to show key perspectives from the Great War. So Battlefield 5 has tried to work on that concept this time around, highlighting largely untold World War 2 stories through personal vignettes.
It's a great idea. But after a few hours with the campaign, it becomes clear that there's a bit of a problem.
Let me be clear from the off: using Battlefield as a medium for telling tales from war is one of the best Battlefield ideas in ages. Not only does it make sense for the series, it's also an opportunity to help spark an interest in history. There's heavy creative license throughout, of course, and modelling wounds and battlefields through the Frostbite engine still doesn't have the same emotional impact as a tour through, say, Peter Jackson's first World War exhibition.
But kids in 2018 will spend more time with Battlefield than they will in a museum. So if you're already dedicated to showing the horrors of war, and you can build the best-looking virtual hellscape in the business, why not try to leave an impact on people?
That's the idea with War Stories this year, anyway.
Eric Holmes, the design director on Battlefield 5's campaign at DICE Stockholm, told a gathering of Asian and Australian media that players like War Stories and they wanted more. So they carried on with the same model from Battlefield 1, but the stories this time would be more individual. "Human stories set against epic warfare," a slide showed, with Holmes explaining that each story focused more on "the definitive day" in that character's life.
It wasn't so much heroism or power fantasy, but more soldiers finding their way.
Four different stories will be playable when BF5 launches, with a fifth chapter - The Last Tiger - being released post-launch. Mark Strong narrates throughout the prologue, which runs for about ten minutes, while the other chapters concentrate on different areas of engagement.
In Tirailleur, you play as the forgotten soldiers of WW2 as they try to retake France. The Senegalese Tirailleurs were part of the French Army, taking part in engagements in the Somme, Ardennes, Champagne and more as part of French colonial divisions. BF5 focuses on Deme, a member of this regiment, as they aim to take out a fortified Nazi chateau and anti-air encampment.
The opening cut scene is effective enough. The Tirailleurs were treated like shit by regular infantry, relegated to digging ditches and the most mundane of labour. That's no surprise: Australian attitudes to indigenous soldiers weren't that different initially, with our armed forces not even allowing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders for the first half of both the First and Second World Wars. (Restrictions were eased to allow indigenous recruits in 1917, and again in 1941 after Japan entered WW2 with the bombing of Pearl Harbour.)
It's a great setting for a mission. But the gameplay quickly devolves into running forward through a series of trenches and batting back waves of German reinforcements.
It's the kind of mission you'd expect from Call of Duty three or four years ago. It's a little reminiscent of Medal of Honor, even, dodging machinegun fire and working your way through concrete ballards to clear out fortified positions.
But it's also a bit of a missed opportunity.
One of the chapters that was fully playable was Nordlys, a tale of a Norwegian guerilla fighter. The chapter is based on a series of operations by commandos, paratroopers and resistance fighters to sabotage Nazi attempts to build an atomic bomb.
At the time, the Germans were hoping to use heavy water (rather than graphite or enriching uranium). Norway had built the first commercial heavy water plant at Vemork in 1934, and the Nazis took control of the facility after invading in April 1940.
It's worth noting that Battlefield 5 doesn't make direct references to the operation beyond the supposed time that the chapter is taking place in. A note at the start of the mission says Nordlys takes place in spring 1943, just after the successful around the same time as Operation Gunnerside (which is outlined well in Thomas Gallagher's Assault in Norway, a book about Norwegian strikes against the Nazi nuclear program in 1943 and 1944.)
Norwegian resistance had managed to get a spy inside the plant, and the interrogation of that supposed agent is how Battlefield 5 introduces you to the action. The timing is a bit off historically: British forces tried to raid the Vemork plant in late 1942, but appalling weather resulted in the crash landing and death of several commandos. A second glider was brought down after heavy turbulence, and Gestapo found the survivors before the Norwegian resistance could, leading to the commandos torture and eventual execution.
But it's not hard to see where DICE drew inspiration from. The real-life resistance placed explosive charges on the electrolysis chambers, which forms the crux of the mission. It's a great tale, although it doesn't completely fit DICE's remit of telling stories players haven't heard before: the Norwegian sabotage was covered in Enemy Front, with one of the NPC characters named after the leader of the Operation Gunnerside commandos.
It's the gameplay where everything comes unstuck, however. BF5's translation of this tale of guerilla success is basically a combination of sneaking past one location to another, dodging spotlights and German outposts until you reach the heavy water plant. It's a longer version of the gameplay from the Lawrence of Arabia and Australian-inspired missions from Battlefield 1, on a much bigger map.
And that's kind of the issue. The singleplayer missions are more like multiplayer gameplay vs AI this time around, with the player navigating large levels at their discretion. Principally it's not a bad idea - complete tasks as you see fit - but it makes for awfully lonely gameplay.
The AI doesn't actively do anything or move around beyond a small zone until they come into contact with the player. Even then, the AI of the bots isn't especially advanced. There's no flanking, bots won't lay down covering fire for their teammates or take advantage of the times when the player is suppressed. They spot the player, fire, progress forward, take some cover, and that's about it.
If this was a traditional on-rails shooter campaign, that would be enough to add tension. But the wide open spaces mean that DICE has little avenue to restrict the player. And with the AI's failure to seriously threaten on its own terms - beyond ramping up the difficulty and artificially boosting damage or turning enemies into bullet sponges - it sucks a lot of the life out of levels.
The first third of Under No Flag was playable on the day, and that follows a similar pattern. Walk to a vantage point, pull out the binoculars, tag a bunch of enemies, decide how you want to proceed and progress from there. You'll spot little groups of enemies along the way, and if you get spotted the resounding alarms will see you flanked on multiple sides.
So, once again, you can just proceed around the outside, knifing and silently sniping enemies along the way. The end objective here is to infiltrate a a secured hanger through an open window on the side, before planting some explosives and then running to safety. There's a lot of long sight lines for sniping, but you'll trigger alarms across the base if you do.
Oddly, the most fun I ended up having was with the throwing knives in Nordlys. You can throw knives while you're skiing along, but the way the animation functions and the Soldier of Fortune way in which enemies drop after being stabbed in the foot just makes the whole affair comical.
It's the wrong tone for the stories DICE wants to tell.
The most interesting and provocative of the stories is The Last Tiger, a tale about the last a Tiger tank crew battling the Allies in Berlin. Das Boat and Black Hawk Down were supposedly large inspirations for the mission, with Holmes saying the intention was tell a tasteful story "with integrity that doesn't let the Germans off the hook".
DICE drew on iconic films as inspiration for other War Stories too, like Snatch and Mad Max: Fury Road for Under No Flag. It sounds like great fodder for a story, but the issue isn't with the source material. It's the mission design, which pans out more as a tutorial for multiplayer than a medium for an iconic tale of heroism or triumph lost to time.
Some will point fingers at the raw objectives - manoeuvring to an objective, planting a bomb, blowing up a truck - but that's a tad too reductive. The problem here is the execution and the loneliness. Much of the playable environment is so awfully empty. There wasn't an overwhelming sense of an German occupation or oppression. And how could there be? You couldn't reasonably fill maps this size with hundreds on enemy enemies: the consoles wouldn't be able to handle it. Most PCs wouldn't either.
And so, the gameplay just falls flat. What DICE wants to accomplish is admirable, but wedging the broader Battlefield multiplayer style into the campaign has drained any emotional impact the developers might have hoped to accomplish. I'm hoping there's a lot more impact in the parts DICE didn't show, but even if the cutscenes leave a mark come November 20, I strongly doubt that the mission design will.