It was during the final assault on the German position in the French countryside that the unbearable truth hit me—I viscerally hate the single player campaign in Battlefield V, developer DICE’s World War II-themed follow up to Battlefield 1.
The game’s cold open put me in the shoes of various doomed protagonists across the Second World War’s diverse theatres before donning the distinctive fez of a Senegalese Tirailleur helping to liberate France during 1944’s Operation Dragoon. I was excited. I’ve been writing about conflict for a decade and here, finally, was a story I had never heard before. The surviving Senegalese Tirailleurs didn’t even get full citizenship to the country they helped liberate until 2017. Theirs is a fascinating story that needs telling and adds nuance to our understanding of WWII. I wish Battlefield V’s single player campaign had lived up to the promise of that story, but it didn’t.
Battlefield V's single player missions are organized in an anthology format called War Stories. Each self-contained story is a couple of hours long and focuses on a different part of the war, Nordlys is a personal story of family survival set in Norway, Under No Flag is a Guy Ritchie style romp with a British criminal, and Tirailleurs tells the story of French colonial forces liberating a homeland they’ve never seen. In December, DICE will release a fourth story—the Last Tiger—which follows a Nazi tank crew in the final days of the war.
The problem with making a WWII first person shooter in 2018 is that game developers have been making those games for about 20 years. The first Medal of Honor, which created the sub-genre as we know it, came out in 1999. The First Battlefield game, set in WII, released in 2002. As I wrote last year when Activision tried to bring Call of Duty back to WWII, there are only so many ways to storm the beaches of Normandy.
DICE, to its credit, attempted a novel solution to this problem. Rather than focusing on expected battles and nations of WWII, namely the American and Russian fronts, it sought to tell stories that video games have to tell about the war. It's an admirable goal, but the problem is that the settings is the only thing that's changed. Battlefield V doesn't ask players to storm the beaches of Normandy or hold the line in Stalingrad, but it plays either the same or worse than the WWII shooters that came out more than a decade ago.
Playing through the Tirailleurs’ campaign forces the player to rush through a series of set pieces that are just wide enough to dodge the accusation of being called corridors. You shoot bad guys and blow things up. That’s fine, but it’s the exact same thing I’ve done in every previous Battlefield single player campaign, and Battlefield V is the sixteenth entry in the franchise.
There’s also points where the game recommends a stealthy approach, but these sections feel tacked on and haphazardly done. Players can creep, crawl, and toss spent ammo to draw the attention of Nazis, but there’s really no need to go through this song and dance when you can blast your way through any obstacle with ease.
In one stealth section, I was supposed to stealthily take out gun placements and a radio tower before firing a signal flare to start a charge. I kept getting spotted and gunned down, and after a miserable time spent trying to play the game the way it asked me to, I simply fired the flare gun immediately and rushed the Nazi base. It worked. My squad made quick work of the Germans and I was left wondering why the game had even asked me to slink around in the first place.
While this was happening, I kept thinking about 2016’s Doom. Developer Id Software relaunched a classic franchise about murdering demons by doubling down on the demon murder, simplifying the mechanics, and amping everything up to 11. Doom was everything we loved about the franchise, but distilled and perfected. If Battlefield wants to keep going with a single player campaign, it’s time for it to rethink what it’s doing. But maybe it should just get rid of the single player campaign altogether.
Battlefield V’s multiplayer is still fun. The addition of the ability to build fortifications, a more interesting progression system, and the ability to create your own challenges are welcome additions that’s been refined over more than a dozen games. But the single player isn’t avoidable. The first time you run Battlefield V, it launches the single player cold open and forces you through set pieces that make a terrible first impression. Compared to the multiplayer, the single player campaign feels vestigial. Battlefield began life as a multiplayer game and perhaps it’s time to return to that era.
Battlefield wouldn’t be alone in taking that step. Call of Duty left the single player campaign behind this year to focus on online play.
The anthology style of its War Stories is a great idea, but Battlefield V doesn’t pull it off. Every time I died, I’d heave a heavy sigh, prepare myself to try again, and pray that the level would be over so I could go back to the much more enjoyable multiplayer.
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