When people talk about games like Battlefield 5, individual characters are typically the last thing on the list that people care about. But amidst all the chatter about the multiplayer, general progression systems and DICE's direction for Battlefield more broadly, there was one little performance that I wanted to call out.
Writing, for the most part, is not the domain of your AAA blockbuster shooters. It's not their target market or their primary focus, and that's entirely fine. It's like the butter you put on a piece of toast. It's the warm, crunchy carbs that you're really after. You want the butter to spread, and having nice butter makes a difference, but not as much as moldy bread or a buggered toaster might. It's just there.
So we tend to overlook the writing and characters that go into the campaigns and singleplayer stories of games like Battlefield. Occasionally they'll get a call out for one reason or another - Kevin Spacey in Advanced Warfare is a good example - but someone who plays a bit part for half an hour or so, not so much.
With that in mind, let me introduce you to Mason.
If Mason looks familiar, it's because he's very, very close to the Australian actor DICE used for Frederick Bishop in Battlefield 1's Gallipoli campaign. (Fun fact: that actor played Shane Ramsay on Neighbours in the mid '80s, if your memory stretches back that far.)
In Battlefield 5, Mason is played and modelled off the face of Craig Fairbrass. Fans of Call of Duty campaigns will know the voice well, as it's the same bloke who voiced Ghost and Gaz in the Modern Warfare games.
Fairbrass pops up during the first of the Battlefield 5 stories, Under No Flag. I've written about the gameplay before, and particularly how the open-ended nature of Battlefield 5's maps exposes a major weakness in DICE's singleplayer design. Now that I've been able to play the full chapter, the problems are still present: the mission is drawn out, beset with simplistic enemy AI and a lot of downtime as you run, drive or fly from one point to another.
But what hasn't been acknowledged through that is Fairbrass's performance as Mason. The mission itself puts you in the role of Billy Bridger, a bumbling idiot recruited into service after being arrested for trying to rob the same bank three times. Mason retreives him from a cell, and the pair (with the help of a third who is never seen again) travel to North Africa to sabotage a series of airfields.
Mason plays the veteran in Under No Flag, fulfilling the exact same role that Bishop did in Battlefield 1. And in that sense, there's an argument to be made that DICE have been a little lazy: the narrative structure is almost identical to the Gallipoli mission. Mason berates Bridger for his stupidty, poor decision making and youthful naviete. There's no glory in blowing up a series of Nazi planes. War is war, full stop, and the only joy to be taken out of victory is the right to live another day.
But what I love about Mason is that the character is the delivery. Fairbreeze doesn't have an awful lot to do in the grand scheme of things - there's really only a few pages of dialogue, if that - but every line is delivered really, really well. It helps counteract the stitled nature of Bridger, whose lines are short, often restricted to only a word or two, and sometimes a little out of place with the conversation.
Mason also gets some decently written dialogue. It's not award-winning stuff, but they're the kind of lines and conversational style I remember hearing from my grandfather and his unit on Anzac Day. It's effective, there's no narrative fat on the lines, and Fairbreeze completely nails the caedance and tone.
It's just the right amount of everything: incredulence at Bridger's incompetence, the perfect uptick in pace when he's tearing shreds, the rising concern as the Stuka plane pulls out of the hangar.
You hear those same characteristics yet again, after Bridger successfully sabotages a radio tower, some ammo dumps while retreiving supplies for the wounded Mason. The pair are driving off, only for Bridger confidence to become quickly sabotaged by another commanding delivery.
That's how I remember my late grandfather dropping the c-bomb, too.
It's such a short little segment, the kind of thing that will get completely overlooked when people discuss Battlefield 5, or games from 2018 more broadly. There will be a segment of Battlefield fans who will never even see this sequence, as is customary for any multiplayer-focused game.
But little performances like these should be appreciated, even if they mean little in the grand scheme of things. Under No Flag, for the most part, is a fairly ordinary mission. It's too drawn out. Bridger is difficult to connect with for most of the mission. There's too much downtime traversing from one point to another.
The maps are too large for what DICE wants to accomplish. Maybe once the next generation of consoles arrives, these missions will be filled with NPCs, where players help command co-ordinated assaults on airfields instead of running solo missions into waves of seven or eight enemies.
Those days aren't here yet. But there are no such limitations on good voice actors, and with the little screentime given, Mason does a cracking good job. Well played, sir.