Battlefield 5 is complicated, sweeping, and enjoyable to play. Its narrative highlights World War II’s lesser known fronts, and its competitive multiplayer is fast-paced and action-focused. It’s romantic, it’s exhilarating, but I can’t shake the feeling that something is off about it. For every grand feat of daring, there is a tension that I can’t ignore.
The Battlefield series started with 2002’s Battlefield 1942, a multiplayer first person-shooter that featured vehicles and large scale battles unlike players had seen before. Since then, the series has expanded and explored numerous settings: Vietnam, modern conflicts, and World War One.
Its battles have grown more destructive as the series added environmental destruction that destroys entire buildings and transforms levels over the course of the fight. It is a boastful series focused on scale. More players, more vehicles, more fronts. In 2016 Battlefield 1 changed the tone with a serious look at World War One, now Battlefield returns to World War Two with a similar self-seriousness.
Battlefield V is divided between two modes with two distinctly different moods. The single player “War Stories” focus on bite-sized tales from around the globe. They’re seriously-told stories, more docu-drama than Call of Duty’s HBO approach.
Each War Story is meant to educate players on one of the war’s fronts, focusing not on familiar battles like Normandy, Stalingrad, or Iwo Jima, but lesser-known aspects of the great global conflict. There’s a stealth-heavy mission as a Norwegian sniper, a cautionary tale starring Senegalese soldiers fighting in France, and a rough and tumble special ops campaign about British commandos.
Developer DICE says it plans to add a final post-release mission focusing on a German panzer unit. Combined, the War Stories provide a fresh perspective on a war that video games have milked and enthusiastically recreated for years, and DICE’s narrative team clearly cared about treating each story with respect. 2016’s Battlefield 1 had more missions but they were shorter.
Compared with the shorter, more numerous single-player missions in 2016’s Battlefield 1, Battlefield 5 takes its time. As a result, each story feels more complete and narratively coherent.
The experience of actually playing through these stories is less consistent Battlefield has always worked best when focusing on frontline combat and vehicle sequences. Battlefield 5 continues to handle both things well, particularly with a frantic defence against German tanks during the British campaign.
Stealth is less of a strength, which becomes apparent during the numerous sneaking segments in the Norwegian story, as well as in a few Far Cry-esque base infiltration missions interspersed through the British story.
When things worked and the heavens aligned, I pulled off deadly sniper ambushes and slipped through the treeline to slit plenty of dirty Nazi throats. When things break apart, as they often do, I was swarmed by enemy reinforcements and left at a severe disadvantage.
Stealth sequences can be tense, but that tension had less to do with solid design and more to do with my mounting worry that some real bullshit is about to go down, be it a guard around a corner or a suddenly forced action sequence.
Those weaker elements do little to undermine the sturdy foundation laid by the War Stories overall. I was excited to get to experience untold stories like the ones DICE is telling, and while the tone can shift radically from one tale to the next — the French story is grim and serious, while the British mission evokes the Three Kings-esque comedy of 2008’s Battlefield: Bad Company — but thanks to that variety, the writers manage to incorporate a number of different ideas.
One story deals with the spectre of impending nuclear catastrophe as Nazis work to develop atomic weapons, while another confronts the racism that so often befell black troops. Battlefield 5 never dives deeply into those topics, but it nevertheless takes time to weave them into the narrative. It’s a creative decision that adds richness to what could have just been been another pulpy war story.
Each story is also greatly improved by Battlefield 5’s stunning visual and audio design. This is a gorgeous game. Soldiers rush through Norwegian snowstorms, each flake flitting in the wind beneath the Northern Lights. The hot sun beats down on Libyan sands, which are kicked up into a frenzy by rolling tanks and relentless missile bombardments.
Rifle fire echoes down hanger halls in North Africa, spent casings hitting the floor. Soldiers cry out in French, English, and German and no matter what language they’re speaking, you know exactly what they’re saying. It’s easy to imagine yourself in these places, and even to get some faint if incomplete sense of what it might have been like for those who were there.
When I play Battlefield 5, I think about my grandfather. He was an immigrant, just 18 years old when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour. I never asked what it was that inspired him to enlist — I don’t know if he felt a higher calling or a simple craving for adventure — but he joined the Navy and fought in the Pacific.
I’ve seen the photos of him back then. Even at that young age, he still looked like my grandfather: Small and wiry, like Popeye without the huge forearms. In most pictures, he looks like he’s up to no good.
My grandfather, who died of cancer in 1999, liked to joke about the war. Once, he convinced my sister and me that he had gotten his head blown off during the Battle of Midway. They sewed some spare fella’s head on his body, he told us. For some reason, we believed him.
I also remember the last time I saw him, as he was dying. He was laid up in the darkest room I’ve ever been in. He said he loved me. I wonder now if he knew that when he signed up and shipped out, that he would be fighting for me.
Sometimes he would look off at things that I couldn’t see; sometimes he would get angry in ways that I couldn’t understand. I learned later that he struggled with alcoholism and was not always the best husband to my grandmother, or the best father to his children. I recall a story about how he had been standing on the deck of a ship when the man next to him was killed.
I don’t know if that story was true. Maybe that’s why he told us the tall tale about his own dramatic head injury. Maybe that was the only was he could deal with that idea that if the bullet had been a few feet to the side, it would’ve been him. I can’t judge the man. I know his legacy was complicated. Whatever he was before the war, he was not the same afterwards.
Battlefield 5 is a game about heroes. It’s a game where you single-handedly dispatch enemy garrisons, hurl smoke grenades before rushing to pick up your wounded buddy, and can turn the tide of a battle with a well placed rocket shot. But whatever valor and triumph there may have been during the second world war, there was also such loss. Not just the loss of money and resources, or even the loss of life but a sort of global, cultural loss.
The allies defeated the Nazis and their genocidal programs, but America also dropped the atomic bomb. Something broke in the middle of the 20th century and we never really fixed it. Battlefield 5’s stories capture the mythologised version of the war more than its cold realities, let alone its enduring legacies.
Those stories are often affecting and inspiring, and they focus on characters and places that arguably deserve their own mythical renditions. But as I blow up yet another German AA gun and leave a pile of bodies in my wake, I think about my grandfather, and the times he would stare off at things that I couldn’t see. I don’t know what he would say if he saw me playing.
That’s not the only tension I felt when playing Battlefield 5. There’s also a hard split between the single player and multiplayer, between the serious storytelling and sick quad-killing V-1 rocket strikes. Battlefield 5’s multiplayer, which throws teams of up to 32 players into bloody battle across sprawling maps, is as exciting as it’s ever been and if that’s all you wanted to hear, you can rest easy.
While it lacks the muddy grit of Battlefield 1, the multiplayer successfully captures the daring images and deeds of a romanticised World War II. DICE has picked up the pace and smoothed off the last game’s rough edges and slower animations, which makes for a game that’s hard to stop playing.
There are dramatic pushes through snowy passes, airborne dogfights, creeping flank attacks on fortified hills, and in the most capable hands —such as the captivatingly skilled YouTuber Stodeh — lone snipers holding off enemy onslaughts singlehanded.
Everything is faster than in the previous game, which allows players to be more agile and deadly on the battlefield. Vaulting over sandbag barriers is speedier than ever. Players can fall to their backs and fire their weapons forward, which is faster than slowly going prone. Aiming down sights takes significantly less time than in Battlefield 1, making it possible to swiftly (and accurately) engage multiple enemies back to back.
The result is a game that might displease hardcore veterans who have come to see the Battlefield series as a more realistic type of multiplayer shooter. The new rhythms required me to make some adjustments in how I played, but once I embraced them, I found them to be both useful and exciting. I can’t count the times these small touches have saved my digital life.
I miss how stark and deliberate Battlefield 1’s multiplayer felt, but Battlefield 5’s higher-energy approach feels more in line with its idealism. This was a war full of heroes, the game is saying. It only makes sense that the gameplay would reflect that.
Similarly, Battlefield 5 makes adjustments to long-standing team-based interactions in order to emphasise camaraderie and cooperation. There’s less ammo to go around unless you have a dedicated Support class player restocking your squad. This system of attrition was excessive in the beta, starving players of resources; it has since been adjusted into something more manageable.
You’ll still need to scour spare rounds or pull out your pistol to survive a scrape, but those moments feel dramatic now, instead of annoying. It also encourages teamwork by encouraging squads to have at least one Support.
Players can also carry a single medical kit to heal injuries on their own, regardless of their class. Squad members can rush to revive their allies, an action previously limited to Medics, which leads to an increase in dramatic rescue attempts. Spotting enemies is now more complicated than just pressing a button. Instead, Recon players can more reliably tag enemies for others to see, increasing team synergy.
At any given time, players can build barricades and supply stations to bolster their defences. As a result of all those changes, each player has a variety of possible ways to contribute to the battle. There is always something to be done, and the doing is always satisfying.
Outside of combat, Battlefield 5 feeds players into a web of progression systems and customisation options that take the arcade-game feel a few steps too far. It’s a problem most evident in the way that weapon upgrades are handled. Each weapon has its own individual experience tree and level, which you increase through repeated use.
Once you have the necessary proficiency level in a weapon, you can spend currency that you acquire through matches to unlock weapon upgrades like faster reloading, or reduced recoil.
Those upgrades exist within their own bubble, with each new trait applying to the weapon without any particular reason other than that you spent the necessary resources. The upgrade trees aren’t extensive, but they exist alongside additional progression systems including an overall rank (private, corporal, that sort of thing) and levels in your individual class.
You want Medic stuff? Play the Medic class. Makes sense. However, the presentation is convoluted and video game-y, and its implementation is awkward. You’ll spend a lot of time in menus checking your loadout, and you have to repeat the same laborious process for each class for both factions. It’s a mixture of busy work and progress-bar-filling that never quite feels right even if it becomes parseable and less obtrusive after some time.
As with several other aspects of Battlefield V, those complicated levelling systems speak to a split between self-serious war reflection and high-octane action. You play and your numbers go up. You shoot a fuckin’ Nazi and get a pop-up indicating that you, you brave bastard, can now spend your digital bucks on a new upgrade. If you’re lucky, you’ll have some to spare for the store’s latest unique soldier skin.
Those systems are, of course, the treadmill on which you run. Each reward is mathematically measured - and sure to eventually be monetised in some fashion — which exist only to keep you happily bloodletting on the digital battlefield. You fight for king and country, and also for that awesome Kar98 sniper rifle. And that next minuscule stat boost. And those bitchin’ uniforms you’ll unlock for completing the next special assignment.
That’s Battlefield 5’s greatest trick: It’s fun. That fun is predicated upon a myth and maintained through modern design techniques crafted for the purposes of player retention. This is not to say that it is wrong to like Battlefield 5. It’s a good game, and I know that I will be playing it for a long time to come.
But it’s also a strange game, and the more I’ve played it, the more apparent that strangeness has become. Here as with many other war video games, the gamification of mankind’s greatest, costliest struggles grates against me every time I play.
I think of my grandfather and the toll this war took on him, even as I know I will gladly lose dozens more hours of my life crusading on these gorgeous digital battlefields. I don’t know what that says about me, but I do think that it’s probably nothing good.