Given the game’s bizarre debut trailer, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I sat down with Battlefield V’s singleplayer game mode.
Even without taking that clip’s haphazard tone into account, that’s a familiar feeling when it comes to DICE’s games, which can never seem to keep the same singleplayer formula running for more than a year or two at a time.
Games like Battlefield 3 & 4 tried to copy Call of Duty’s approach and ship with hours-long singleplayer campaigns. Star Wars: Battlefront, meanwhile, didn’t have singleplayer at all. Battlefield 1 tossed some cutscenes in between unrelated tutorials and called them “War Stories”, and Battlefront II returned to a single campaign again, albeit a smaller one.
Battlefield V is trying something different again. War Stories returns from Battlefield 1, only this time there are less of them, and they’re longer.
Longer episodes gives each more time to breathe, and to develop short storylines that may not have much depth, but do pack enough character to leave an impact. It means the missions themselves can also run longer, and have more room to tie into the cutscenes more elegantly.
At launch, there are three stories available to play through. The first has you assuming the role of a misfit British commando, the second a member of the Norwegian resistance and the third a French colonial soldier. All three have a unifying theme underpinning them, in that they’re all trying to tell untold (or lesser told) stories of the war.
The British missions are about the early days of the Special Boat Service, a commando unit formed in 1940 which carried out missions in absolute secrecy, and which helped establish the template that other special forces around the world (including Britain’s own SAS) would follow.
The Norwegian campaign shines a spotlight on efforts to undermine production of heavy water, a vital ingredient in Germany’s nascent atomic weapons program. You play as a member of the Norwegian resistance who gets to hunt Nazis in the dead of night.
The third and final (for now) set of missions focus on a pair of Tirailleurs, French soldiers from Africa who volunteered to fight in Europe but faced persecution from local troops once they arrived. This one really doubles down on telling an untold story: not only are the Tirailleurs a historical footnote (something dealt with during its cutscenes), but so too is Operation Dragoon, the Allied landings in the south of France that took place just a month after D-Day.
As a collection, the short campaigns are an inconsistent bunch. The Norwegian missions have some cool moments on skis and an explosive finale but skew too heavily towards stealth (far from a Battlefield strongpoint), while the French story has some big shootouts that are wonderful when they work and jarring when they break. The British missions, striking a balance between the two, probably hit the sweet spot, especially when they open up and give you a vast desert playground to wreak havoc in.
None are terribly useful as a tutorial. You’ll learn the basics of infantry combat, and maybe some vehicle stuff in the British missions, but there’s no education for tank guys here or fighter jocks beyond a tiny sequence in the game’s playable intro.
It’s ironic, then, that War Stories’ second time around fails at the one thing the original ones did right: teach you how to play all aspects of Battlefield.
But then, do we need that? Five minutes of fucking around in a multiplayer game is probably more useful than a carefully scripted singleplayer moment anyway, which is why it’s nice that DICE have moved slightly away from that here.
Is that it?
While there are three stories available now, there’s another—about a Panzer commander—greyed out in the menu saying “coming soon”, while the playable intro hints at other stories based on a Spitfire pilot and an Allied soldier involved in Operation Market Garden.
Battlefield V’s War Stories—at least those available at launch—are more interested in doing what their namesake implies. By cutting down on a need to cover every aspect of the game, from snipers to tanks to aircraft, there’s more space to tell stories here, which as Battlefront II showed is what folks are primarily after in the singleplayer space.
And these are good stories, for what they are: short narratives layered over the top of guided tours of multiplayer maps. All feature stellar voice-acting and animation, and while there are few surprises amidst the war movie cliches, I ended up enjoying the time I spent with everyone in the game, especially the Kingsman-for-commandos British duo.
Your own standards may be higher than mine of course, but I’ve always been a sucker for big blockbuster shooter campaigns. I’ll play through every Call of Duty (that has one these days, at least), and even enjoyed the Battlefield singleplayer stories when they were still a thing.
Part of me knows that there are massive problems with these games, but their combination of solid shooting mechanics and action movie pretensions is a real guilty pleasure of mine, like curling up on the couch with a trashy novel, or sitting back and watching The Guns of Navarone for the 17th time.
Battlefield V’s singleplayer hits that same sweet spot. It’s good video game junk food. Nobody is ever going to buy the game just for this, but if you do grab it, there are far worse ways to get a handle on the basics of its infantry combat than being taken on a guided tour of some Second World War sideshows.
Not much of what’s going on is historically accurate, but again, that’s not the point. These off-the-beaten-path tales, of lesser-known theatres of the greatest war in human history, acknowledge their fictional nature up-front. None of these stories are meant as a literal re-telling, but instead serve as a vehicle to make us think, to acknowledge that this was a war fought by countless millions who never saw their deeds turned into a Call of Duty campaign or a Steven Spielberg movie.