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Electronic Arts’ DICE studio made a big bet when it decided to invest heavily in the single-player vignettes, the War Stories anthology borrowed from Battlefield 1, for its upcoming Battlefield V first-person shooter game coming on the consoles and PC on November 20.
These missions show you the horrors of war, the sacrifices of comrades, and the things about the Second World War that you didn’t know. There are four single-player vignettes, and I’ve got a good look at three of them. I played through the full Nordlys story in a hands-on session at Electronic Arts’ headquarters in Redwood City, California. This story has my impressions of that preview session.
In a sharp contrast to Battlefield V, Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 developers decided to do away with the single-player campaign after 15 years, opting to triple the Zombies experience and add the Blackout battle royale. That’s certainly paying off, but it comes at a big price. And the quality of DICE’s single-player vignettes shows what that price is. From the stirring music to the characters, Battlefield V adds an intimacy and immersion to the experience of single-player missions.
Eric Holmes, the design director for War Stories at Electronic Arts’ DICE studio, said in an interview that the purpose of single player is to get players to be inspired and invested in the characters, weapons, and vehicles that otherwise wouldn’t mean so much to them in multiplayer.
“Playing a Star Wars game would be pretty weird if you hadn’t seen the movies, right? You might think the designs were cool, but if you saw the Death Star flying over a planet you wouldn’t know what that meant,” Holmes said in an interview. “But once you see the movie you know what it is and what it represents. It might inspire fear or awe. That’s the kind of universe-building we have to do in War Stories. We add texture and detail. We add a sense of being there.”
But DICE didn’t want to just remind you of your favorite World War II movies, or take you back to Omaha Beach and the Normandy invasion for the umpteenth time.
“You’ve seen movies and played games,” he said. “You have a lot of baggage. We took a page from Battlefield 1 and took players to places they had not been before. We had an anthology approach in Battlefield 1’s War Stories. Characters could live or die. People liked it, and we brought that to World War II.”
After you play the story with the Tiger tank, you won’t think of the Tiger as just the machine with a lot of hit points, he said.
Holmes added, ” What is going on in this world? Why do I care? Who’s fighting who and what does that feel like? Rather than just red team vs. blue team, tank vs. plane. It’s the Axis and the Allies. It’s not a plane, it’s a Spitfire. It’s not a tank; it’s a Tiger or a Sherman. I know what those things represent and mean. It gets addictive after a while, once you start learning about this stuff. You find yourself on giant Wikipedia binges, or suddenly you have a collection of books. You get sucked into that world. World War II is one of those subjects that just draws you in.”
The first full story I played was Nordlys, which means Northern Lights in Norwegian. It started with a cutscene that shows a German officer talking to a captive Norwegian woman, who is evidently a scientist or resistance fighter who is valuable to the Nazi weapons program. The industrial facility where she is being held makes heavy water, which is a vital part of Hitler’s attempt to create an atomic bomb.
The young officer mentions a commando raid that really happened in the war. The commando operations — with the code names Grouse, Freshman, and Gunnerside — took place in early 1943 and they managed to stop the production at the factory in Vemork. The factory and its surroundings bear a lot of resemblance to the real locations, but this story is fictional.
The gamer plays a young woman, not a commando, who attempts to rescue the captive, her mother. You play as that young woman, and you start out with the thrilling experience of skiing down forest slopes to get to the perimeter of the factory. No matter where I went, I didn’t crash.
The guards were pesky and harder than expected to eliminate, since the weapons I had were fairly imprecise. I had to sneak around guards and take them out with my throwing knife, which had an extreme long range and seemed a lot more accurate than my guns.
Sadly, I didn’t start with a sniper rifle, so it was pretty hard to take out the guards in the high watch towers. I had to climb up the ladders to get them. The AI wasn’t so hot, since they didn’t expect me when I got to the top. Short-range weapons, distant targets: I considered that to be bad level design. Fortunately, the enemies weren’t brilliant or too plentiful. I eventually got a sniper rifle, just when I needed a machine gun more.
It took a number of attempts, but I eventually made it inside the facility. It was, thankfully, deserted. But as soon as I freed the captive, who was my character’s mother, a bunch of enemies closed in. We had to shoot our way out and blow up the place. Once we were outside, we were trapped on a bridge.
At that point, the story gets interesting. You feel a sense of your mission and your duty, and what you owe your mother. As you make your mistake, you have to go out into the Norwegian wilderness during a freezing night. You can take out the sporadic guards, but your hardest task is to get warm. Otherwise, you will freeze to death. That wasn’t easy to survive, and it reminded me of similar survival games where the environment was just big a problem as soldiers shooting at you. It is the wilderness, viewed in panoramic detail, where the daughter is simply an ant in the wild, that pushes you to your limit.
Overall, I thought the story was well done. It tests the daughter’s resolve to carry on what her mother started during a moment of truth. This War Story had an emotional arc, fitting theme music, and a story that left me with an appreciation for the bravery of people who never got any recognition during or after the war for the sacrifices they made.
The battle to retake Europe started with Operation Overlord and D-Day in June 1944, but that fall, the Allies launched Operation Dragoon to hit the Germans on France’s southern coast. Half a million troops invaded and had to fight tenaciously to overcome the German fortifications.
But the pictures of those soldiers showed only white French soldiers. They weren’t the only ones who served, said one surviving veteran who happened to be black. Tirailleur is named after a type of light infantry from France’s Napoleonic days. The black soldiers arrive, eager to fight the Germans. But they are relegated to filling sand bags. The narrator says, “You won’t find the story I’m going to tell you in the history books. That makes you disbelieve my words. But remember: Not everything that is written down is true, and not everything true is written.”
When the Allied soldiers had trouble taking a German-occupied château with an antiaircraft battery, an ambitious French captain sent in the black soldiers. Two of them, Deme and Idrissa, are the main characters of Tirailleur, pressed into the fight into a horrible battle in the woods. Their column of trucks (oddly, so small that each carries about four soldiers) gets attacked by German dive bombers. They are thrust into battle, and you’re forced to take on the Germans with a primitive automatic weapon. As soon as I could, I grabbed a German submachine gun. But it also didn’t have a good range. So I was forced to get closer than I preferred to the enemy in the intense firefight for the fortification in the woods.
I found I had to take cover, but the battle was fairly easy to win on the normal level. I managed to get lost looking for the exit, but once I did, I ran down a hill to a mortifying scene. There was a giant row of concrete fortifications, machine gun nests, artillery, and barbed wire. Our unit charged straight into the trenches and fought fiercely, killing one German at a time. It took me several times to reach the German trenches, but once I did, it became easier to survive. I had to blow up a few artillery pieces. Every now and then, I ran into a German with a flamethrower, and my task was to shoot the tanks on his back before he could burn me with his flames.
Once we advanced beyond the first trenches, we kept going further into the German fortifications. We reached a large redoubt with ammo caches and an elevated position. There, we waited for the German counterattack. I had a heck of a time surviving this battle. Elite German machine gun troops showed up. One of the nonplayer characters took over the mounted machine gun, to my great annoyance. So I had to switch between short-range machine gun fire and a one-shot rifle. The rifle had longer range, and it could take down a soldier with one shot. Annoyingly, the sniper rifle often required two hits to bring down an enemy. That made it worthless because the enemies came in too fast.
The small German trucks would come in and drop off four soldiers at a time, and then drive off. That seemed quite silly in terms of a way to attack an elevated fortification. But it was still a tough battle because I had to shoot most of the enemies with the single-shot rifle, or just wait for them to come within the extremely short machine-gun range. After a long battle, a German tank finally showed up. Fortunately, reinforcements arrived and took out the tank for me. Surviving that wave of attackers was such a pain, but I felt good when it was over.
Under No Flag
After the British fled the beaches of Dunkirk early in the war, prime minister Winston Churchill sent commandos into the German-occupied territory to harass the Germans. In the spring of 1942, one of these units, dubbed the SBS, recruited “volunteers” from brigs and other military jails to find saboteurs. These soldiers went behind enemy lines to fight in unconventional ways. These soldiers had to think on their feet. “Among them were troublemakers, cutthroats, and buccaneers,” the narrator said.
In the first mission, commander Mason and his new recruit, William Bridger (who I played), infiltrated an enemy airfield in North Africa. When we got to a vantage point, we used binoculars to survey the air base. It was heavily guarded, but I chose to skirt around the edges and go into the bluffs overseeing it. Mason trusted me to make some bombs to take out one of the German Stuka bombers in an aircraft hangar. I made my way there slowly. I was lightly armed at first, but confiscated weapons again.
In my first encounter, I wanted to throw a knife at the back of a soldier. But I was armed with a grenade, and threw that. So that beginning didn’t end well. I cut an alarm and bought my self more time. I headed up into the hills and found some outlier guards. I tried to take them out quietly, but the melee attack didn’t kill the first soldier, so I went in loud. Fortunately, the soldiers in the main camp didn’t care much that there was gunfire in the hills.
Next, I got to an antiaircraft gun and started shooting it at the air base. Unfortunately, while some of the stuff blew up, I couldn’t aim the gun low enough to do real damage. Nor could I bring down the giant aircraft hangar. And I couldn’t shoot down the alarm tower. So I found a machine gun and used that to attack. Then I made my way across the base to the hangar. I went around the side, climbed in the window, and planted my bomb.
I thought that was pretty easy. But the bomb didn’t go off as planned, and the German pilot got into the plane and took it airborne. Mason’s bombs went off, and he started chewing me out for failing. So we had to fight a bunch of infantry at the base, and then I sprinted across to the antiaircraft guns in the hills. There, I shot down a couple of Stukas that were trying to take us out. It was a bust in terms of military precision, but we got the job done. The grizzled veteran and the young recruit bond afterward.
The Last Tiger
I wasn’t able to play the last War Story, dubbed The Last Tiger. It features the experience of a German commander of a Tiger II tank, presumably during the last days of the war. The German Tiger commander is shown staring down a young boy-like soldier. The tank goes on a shooting spree through the allied lines.
I remember that DICE’s leaders said they didn’t want to depict the enemy as inhuman. They were people too, and this part of the War Stories shows that the Germans are depicted as people. They’re not just targets in a video game. Some of that message may prove controversial, but it seems like this is another untold point of view.
I don’t know how this story will play out. But it will likely ask the same kind of question raised in films like Das Boot, about a German submarine crew. Can your enemy be a real human being?
In the narration for the single-player campaign trailer, the narrator asks if you will discover what you are capable of at the moment of truth. It suggests that war is a crucible, something that tests your mettle and turns you into a real man or woman. That, too, is a controversial suggestion, as it almost makes it seem like war is good for your own personal character development.
I don’t think the developers mean to push that point of view, but they clearly care about these characters, who push themselves beyond what they think they are capable of in pursuit of a greater cause.
With the anthology approach, DICE can tell very different sides of the multifaceted war without ever seeming like it’s copying previous movies or games. They can introduce you to interesting characters and kill them off, bringing the point home about the sacrifices and bravery of the “greatest generation.” It allows you to learn that war isn’t just a victory to celebrate, or that it’s a nice background for a multiplayer deathmatch. So I applaud Electronic Arts and DICE for preserving their single-player mode as perhaps the most memorable part of Battlefield V.
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