Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC
Electronic Arts’ flagship first-person shooter franchise Battlefield has often felt like a poor relation to Activision’s rival Call Of Duty – it has certainly never managed to hit the latter’s commercial heights. But it has also generated a fiercely loyal fan-base over the years, and this year’s instalment, Battlefield V, pitches itself against a radically reworked Call of Duty entry, Black Ops 4, which lacks a single-player mode and pins a lot on its zeitgeisty battle royale mode.
Battlefield V aims to hoover up gamers who demand a single-player campaign, and most of those punters – as well as committed Battlefield fans – will feel that Battlefield V is a worthwhile purchase. In most key aspects, it’s a very fine game indeed. But it also leaves you feeling that it could have been a better game – indeed, that it will be a better game after it has been on sale for a few months.
Technically, Battlefield V is an absolute tour de force – it looks simply incredible, and developer DICE has gone to town with the famous destructibility allowed by its game-engine. Fighting out large-scale engagements in, for example, a depiction of a Rotterdam reduced to rubble, you really feel like you’re getting a flavour of what it must actually have been like to take part in World War II. The huge, complex maps, spanning a diverse geographical spread, are all highly memorable and impeccably designed, and when the tanks start rolling and planes populate the skies, the full horror of the war is evoked in a startlingly, sometimes even harrowingly, realistic manner.
The standout multiplayer mode at launch is Grand Operations.
Battlefield V’s single player wisely sticks to the blueprint established by last year’s Battlefield 1. Instead of shoehorning in an overarching narrative arc, players are given a set of War Stories – self-contained chapters that delve into some of the least well-known corners of World War II, and attempt to bust some myths along the way. These chapters have a pleasingly open-world feel to them – after linear periods, they set a number of objectives which you can approach however you want, from employing stealth to taking a more in-your-face approach. They’re impressively cinematic, too – a North African one, in which you play a recruited-from-prison initiate in the newly formed Special Boat Squadron, is pure Guy Ritchie. Another casts players as a teenage Norwegian girl who has joined the resistance, with a very Scandi-noir vibe. A third veers towards La Haine territory, as you play a French North African volunteer involved in the post-D-Day drive to reclaim France – while facing overt racism from the very soldiers you’re assisting.
The War Stories are fun and fascinatingly educational, while providing tastes of the multiplayer modes, even if they suffer from rather dumb AI, which the game attempts to mask by throwing up vast numbers of enemies. But the most potentially controversial chapter, revolving around a German tank commander, won’t be available until after launch – and sadly, it isn’t the only chunk of Battlefield V which will be missing for early adopters. Tides of War – the game’s most ambitious multiplayer mode, which sets players in an ebbing and flowing campaign taking in new locations like Greece – won’t start to arrive until December 6. Firestorm, the game’s individualistic take on a battle royale mode, won’t be playable until March 2019.
Admittedly, there’s still plenty to get your teeth into in the meantime. The standout multiplayer mode at launch is Grand Operations, where the Axis and Allied forces fight in an area over three days, and each day’s events influence the starting point of the next. It does a fine job of bringing the feeling that you’re a part of a wider narrative into multiplayer, mixing up gameplay modes in a manner which makes sense given the nature of the fighting you encounter. Battlefield games have always been about participating with and against real players as part of a large-scale war, and the Grand Operations really nail that ethos.
Conquest is another key mode, with two sides slugging it out across huge maps with as many as seven key areas to capture – you’ll often need to jump into vehicles to get where you need to be (although, as ever, you can spawn on your squad-mates or into vehicles). Infantry Focus offers more close-up, generally on-foot action on smaller maps, encompassing various modes including Team Deathmatch and Frontlines, in which both sides scrap to push the other back (evenly-matched Frontlines games can take an awful long time to complete, as both sides get an unlimited amount of respawns).
Great though Black Ops 4’s multiplayer is, Battlefield V makes it feel claustrophobic and homogeneous. Plus, the latter is much more rewarding and inclusive for those who don’t have ninja-like fast-twitch skills. That’s mainly thanks to the different classes – Assault is the only real run-and-gun one, whereas the Support class arms you with a very handy machine-gun and lets you resupply team-mates with ammo and build fortifications (very useful when the maps have had most of their cover bombed away). It’s always handy to have a fast-healing Medic on hand in a Team Deathmatch, and those who feel the need to snipe have their own class, Recon.
As you would expect in a game whose multiplayer side is so ambitious in its scope and which likes to push the available technology, some glitchiness inevitably crops up in Battlefield V. DICE will continue patching the game and, from 6 December will add significant amounts of content to it. Nevertheless, it’s somewhat frustrating that some of the game’s most anticipated elements won’t be arriving at launch – Battlefield V could become a great game, rather than a very, very good one. But at the moment, it’s only about 70 per cent complete.