Battlefield V is one of the prettiest games you’ll see that juxtaposes the horrific fighting of World War II with beautiful landscapes. As you wade through the golden grass of Arras in France or move through the green bogs of Nijmegen in the Netherlands or walk along the waterfront in Rotterdam, you’ll stop in your tracks and admire the scenery before you go back to fighting.
Electronic Arts’ DICE studio has launched this visually arresting game on EA Access, and it is debuting broadly on consoles (reviewed here on Xbox One) and the PC on November 20. But even when it shows up on that day, I fear it’s going to feel like an unfinished work of art.
I welcomed Battlefield’s return to the Second World War, which felt really fresh despite last year’s Call of Duty: WWII. It’s tempting to compare the two games, but they are very different takes on the same war. Battlefield V’s developers lived up to their promise to tell “untold stories” in places that we haven’t seen a million times before in other shooters.
In an era where video games teach our young folks more history, Battlefield V’s mostly accurate and respectful look at World War II is refreshing. It is a fitting continuation of the approach that DICE took with 2016’s memorable Battlefield 1. The approach — where the emphasis is on telling us gritty and not glorified stories about people we didn’t know were part of history — made the experience of war feel both fresh and real.
Fair or not, the welcome decision to embrace Battlefield’s own historical roots in WWII was overshadowed by the negative initial reaction gamers had when DICE showed off one of the new game’s selling points: diversity.
Some players didn’t like a female soldier on the cover, noting how it was so rare in real history. They also reacted negatively to the body tattoos and a prosthetic arm that one character had in the reveal trailer, saying they were anachronisms. Other players also grumbled about seeing black soldiers in the war.
Some of those things disappeared in the final version of the game. But DICE rightly responded that playable female characters “are here to stay.” Sadly, it felt like Battlefield V never really recovered its footing from the initial negative reaction, as if gamers were determined to ignore it. I don’t think this game will be as popular as some other titles like Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 or Red Dead Redemption 2.
That’s a shame, as everybody should give this game a fair shake. That’s what I did in playing it for the past week. I’m happy to say that diversity didn’t mess up this game. I only wish that the game was better executed.
What you’ll like
Fresh stories told well
The prologue is very well done, and it makes you feel like you’re playing a game of consequence. It asks if there is greatness within you and how you will respond to the choices you must make in your finest moments or darkest hours.
The purpose of this prologue — and the accompanying War Stories, or single-player missions — is to inspire you to play the game for many hours on multiplayer. It shows the epic breadth of the war through four vignettes (one coming in December) that explore distinct characters and stories. These stories are emotional and full of action, and they are meant to hook the players into the fantasy of making you feel like you are in WWII, making choices that define who you are.
I played all the War Stories single-player missions in just a few hours. These are DICE’s version of a single-player campaign, and they depict a different main character and aspect of the Second World War. These are not tales you’ll find in history books. While fictionalized, each story is based on a kernel of truth that makes the stories plausible.
Were there black French soldiers in World War II? Of course, said Eric Holmes, the design director of Battlefield V’s War Stories. The presence of these black soldiers and female operatives makes the diverse characters and tales possible in the War Stories. These tales can inspire players to get immersed in the fantasy of World War II, and that is meant to make multiplayer more engaging, Holmes said, so you don’t just think of a Tiger II tank as a “vehicle with a lot of hit points.”
The War Stories from the earlier Battlefield 1 were also emotional, moving, and tragic — pointing out the horrors of war in a way that multiplayer can never accomplish. These new stories also make you think about sacrifice, coming of age, comrades, choices, and surviving.
In this way, the War Stories are an edge that Battlefield V has over Call of Duty: Black Ops 4, which jettisoned its single-player campaign in favor of a battle royale mode. But I do wish that DICE enlisted a Hollywood screenwriter or two to beef up the drama of these stories.
“Nordlys” focuses on a mother and daughter during commando raids on a German heavy water plant in the Norwegian wilderness, where cold weather is just as big an enemy as the Germans. It’s about a bond that grows stronger during war.
“Under No Flag” depicts the SBS, a secret British commando unit that used unconventional troops. It shows how a common criminal rises to do his duty when set loose behind enemy lines. This was perhaps the weakest of the three stories, but it made up for it with a crescendo of action.
“Tirailleur” shows the black troops in the French empire who performed brave deeds in the landings in the south of France in Operation Dragoon in August, 1944. Their bravery was kept out of the history books.
I didn’t play “The Last Tiger” (debuting in December), which shows the experience of a German commander of a Tiger II tank, as that one isn’t out yet. But the prologue teased what it was like to command a killing machine and to think of the enemy as human.
Great multiplayer maps in places we haven’t been
DICE created some of the best first-person shooter maps ever in Battlefield V. Twisted Steel depicts the bridge at Nijmegen during Operation Market Garden, with the fighting taking place both upon the structure with its sweeping sniper views and in the bogs and farmland surrounding it.
In multiplayer battles — such as Conquest, where 32 players squared off against 32 — the play space is huge. You could be running to get to a control point and see an enemy surface from the river and run into the hedgerow ahead of you. You could break through some trees, only to see a tank rushing forward in your direction. If you pull out your anti-tank weapon, you can work your way around the vehicle and blow it up with a well placed shot from behind. But your bravery might not be rewarded if the infantry picks you off.
These maps are spacious, but they never seem like they’re populated with stock art. Everything seems so real — such as the wreckage of burning vehicles, the destructible houses, and the sound of bullets rushing by your head. There are so many vantage points where you can make your heroic stand, only to find that you’re a perfect target for a fighter plane to come buzzing down on you with machine guns blazing.
The map for Arras was also beautifully done, with golden fields where you can crawl through the grass to capture a flag or shoot into the grass to take out undetected enemies.
I remember sitting in an anti-aircraft gun that had been dropped in the middle of a golden field of yellow grass. I was all alone there, shooting down planes that were flying over me. I had a view of the wide-open blue sky.
Rotterdam looked like a real city, and it was haunting to play on Devastation, which was a map set in the same place after the city was bombed by the Germans for failing to surrender quickly. The Northern Lights of the Narvik map were also quite beautiful, and the dusty desert stretches of Hamada were also so scenic that you could easily forget that it was designed by the developers as a killing ground.
Multiplayer combat is massive and so much fun
Nobody does big battles as well as DICE. You can have as many as 64 combatants in the Conquest mode, where you fight to eliminate the enemy and control a map, or Grand Operations, where the combat lasts for multiple in-game days. You have to take or hold objectives, and if it’s a tie in a Grand Operations battle, you get a final tiebreaker, where every player only gets one clip of ammo.
Each map is like a world unto itself. I’ve played each one multiple times across multiple modes. Conquest is one of my favorites. Grand Operations is exciting as a narrated experience, but the battles tend to last a little too long for me.
I like how there are so many things you can do — from running to one control point to another, defending, riding shotgun in tanks, flying in planes, or blowing up targets with bombs. The squads are set up in a way to reward collaborative play like rewarding you for reviving comrades. In this respect, DICE has a well-honed machine. The complete multiplayer experience is the best part of this game.
Everything is destructible in multiplayer
Where Battlefield V shines is in the destructible objects and environments made possible by DICE’s Frostbite engine. It doesn’t always feel as fast as the combat in Call of Duty: Black Ops 4, but the fighting in DICE’s game is enhanced by the fact that you can hide behind objects that can be destroyed with bullets, grenades, anti-tank weapons, or tank fire.
The physics are amazing, as guns like the MG-42 can even shoot through sandbags, killing enemies in cover. For that matter, as an engineer, you can set up sandbags and barbed wire in places that will give your comrades better cover.
When you get into a tank, you can drive right through obstacles that crumble in your path. You can fire shells into an enemy-occupied building and turn it completely into rubble. But if you don’t have infantry cover, you can find that enemies can sneak around to your vulnerable rear and remind you that your tank is just as destructible as anything else.
Immersive music and sounds
When you play the game, you’ll marvel at its graphics. But the sound is what makes it feel so real. You can hear gunfire coming from different directions. The staccato sound of distant chatter, the plinking of bullets on objects near you, the buzz of fighter aircraft overhead, and the deafening blasts of explosions — they all contribute to that feeling of immersion.
The music is stirring, but it’s not always martial. In the single-player campaign, it is often solemn or quietly pretty. It’s not so much about the glorification of war but about its tragedy and sadness. The pace picks up when a match is about to end and you have to make something happen to win.
Getting revived or dying faster
Believe it or not, it’s actually a lot more fun and important to play as a medic in this game. When your character is shot, you don’t immediately respawn. You lie there, waiting to get help. You can call out to a fellow soldier, or you can speed your death in case getting revived is hopeless or a bad idea because it can get someone else shot. Your character screams, “I’m fucking dying here!”
I got shot aplenty in multiplayer, and medics playing alongside me could revive me at risk to themselves. If you are revived, then your side doesn’t lose a life. And that helps you stay in the fight longer and have a better chance of winning the overall match.
You can’t crawl away to cover after being shot, so the medic has to take a calculated risk of going out into the open and hoping the attacker isn’t lying in wait. Since you get more points if you stick together with squad mates, sticking together in a squad with a medic is a great idea because you can get back into the fight after being shot.
What you won’t like
There’s no battle royale mode
This game feels rushed because it is missing what everybody wants: the battle royale mode popularized by PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG), Fortnite, and most recently Call of Duty: Black Ops 4. Call of Duty’s developers at Treyarch made a good decision in prioritizing the Blackout battle royale mode over the single-player campaign.
I still missed that Call of Duty campaign, but Blackout’s gameplay is really fun and popular. DICE could have justified its choice if its War Stories was a real campaign, but it’s not. We’re going to get Firestorm, the battle royale mode for Battlefield V, a few months in the future. It better be good because it’s going to be really late. This is perhaps the main reason that this game feels unfinished.
Ultimately, I can’t complain too much, as PUBG surprised everyone in the middle of the development cycle, and both DICE and Treyarch had to make some serious trade-offs in deciding which parts of their games to prioritize. For now, if you want battle royale, I recommend Blackout.
Nothing pulls you out of the immersive experience like bugs. I ran into a lot of them, many of them associated with rag doll physics, where bodies fly into air or get contorted into crazy positions after getting shot. Every game has this, but it was noticeable in Battlefield V. I am hoping that the 10 days of EA Access play will help DICE develop a patch that will fix a lot of these by the launch date on November 20, but it’s doubtful.
There are also some bugs that are more like design flaws — like when you are trying to hop over an obstacle, and you don’t do it correctly, and you just get stuck. Perhaps that’s operator error, but there are just a lot of things you have to climb over, and you find you have to hit the climb button more than once.
A lack of compelling battles in single-player
In some ways, one of DICE’s best decisions is also one of its worst. The company chose not to retread on the familiar scenes of World War II that it feared we had grown tired of. It also did not focus its single-player campaign on the experience of one main character.
But it has not filled that void with equally compelling new content about the war in places that the developers chose to depict, such as the south of France, Norway, or the Mediterranean.
I didn’t really want to retread the landing at Omaha Beach or the Battle of the Bulge or the things that I had played already in Call of Duty: WWII. But I did want to see some major set pieces or epic scenes or battles that showed turning points of the war like the tank battle at El Alamein.
By focusing on more obscure parts of the war, it felt fresh. But it also felt insignificant, like tiny victories in a global war. Call of Duty has more battles where you feel like you’re catching the winning touchdown pass in the final seconds of the game. Not so in Battlefield V.
This notion of set pieces also mattered in the War Stories. When I should have fought a big fight, it turned out to be much too easy.
Single-player fighting can be too easy
That leads to a second point. You can beat the single-player missions in about three hours. I played it on a mixture of Normal and Hard modes. In “Nordlys,” the story set in Norway, I arrived at a key building in the game, expecting to find a bunch of German soldiers blocking the way.
Instead, I went right into the building, found what I was looking for, and had to fight only a single, small firefight. That was very disappointing.
And with “Under No Flag,” it was way too easy to reach the target in the first mission. The culminating fight was a big one, but it was also a bit of a turkey shoot, where the enemies didn’t show much initiative in using superior numbers against you.
“Tirailleur” is an exception here, with some very tough fighting. But I expected one more huge fight than I actually got.
The single-player campaign is too short
And that leads to the real problem with the campaign. DICE is wise to say that its campaign isn’t a campaign. The War Stories show glimpses of greatness, but they are short stories, not stories with great arcs or plot twists. They’re so short, there’s no plot to twist.
One of the most interesting War Stories is entitled “The Last Tiger,” where you play the German commander of a Tiger II tank. But it’s not coming until December.
Multiplayer fights can be too long
Some of the Grand Operations battles I played lasted for an hour. The Conquest battles can also take a half hour. In multiplayer combat, that’s a lifetime. That might be OK if there was nonstop action. But with Battlefield, the maps are so big that you have to run a long way to get to some of the action.
If you get impatient with this situation, you may make the mistake of letting down your guard just to run to the action, only to get picked off along the way. Sure, you can spawn on your squad mates to get closer to the action, but there are also plenty of times where you can’t do that. And that gets boring.
The developers of Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 and Battlefield V were both under time pressure, and they made some very different development decisions. Call of Duty ditched single-player and nailed multiplayer, battle royale, and Zombies. Battlefield V ditched battle royale, did OK with a too-short single-player campaign, and created a very different kind of multiplayer that is a lot of fun to play.
These different choices and the execution on them will yield a very different result in the market, and that’s tough because it’s a very competitive time with both Call of Duty and Red Dead Redemption 2 in the market.
Overall, like with Battlefield 1, I thought the whole game was very well done, balancing history, fun, and personalized stories. As I said, each map is like a world unto itself that gives you a window into a different part of a massive war. I missed the set pieces and the familiar battles, but I don’t think I will get tired of playing this game so easily because it takes me to new places.
I like the Battlefield series, and I love the parts of this game that are here. I only wish it were finished.
Battlefield V debuts broadly on November 20 on the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Microsoft Windows. The publisher supplied GamesBeat with a copy of the game on the Xbox One for the purpose of this review.