With tracer fire hissing overhead, and grenades and artillery shells exploding along a muddy ridge I was using for cover, I sprinted through the skeletal remains of a crashed airship down to the railway embankment that followed the river’s meander. I dove to the ground, hauled out an anti-tank rifle, and aimed down the railway tracks toward where a massive black armored train was rounding a distant turn. Bristling with weapons and sheathed in the kind of steel plating more common to Warhammer 40K than a history book, the train was an eldritch figure as it emerged from plumes of smoke and a grove of burning flares. Closer and closer it crawled, looking slow but approaching surprisingly fast.
I fired rockets as fast I as I could, while gunners raced out of cover to drop ammunition crates around me, then resumed laying down withering machine gun fire to suppress the encroaching British infantry. The cacophony was dizzying, intoxicating, and oppressive once the artillery gunners on the train started drawing a bead on my position via the machine guns that were set up around me.
Now the train filled my vision when I took aim, a mass of color and texture more than a coherent shape—black iron, gray steel, erupting in flowers of fire. Next to last shell into the breach, a quiet thunk as it launched, and then the train vanished into a cloud of explosions. My shell, or one of the half-dozen others that were being fired at it from all around the map, broke that tank’s back just as it was about to roll over me. It was one of the most uncanny and spectacular moments I’ve had in a multiplayer shooter. Or just another day in Battlefield 1.
I’ve been playing BF1 a lot lately. Basically ever since the Battlefield V closed alpha came along and reminded me of everything I’m going to miss about this game when the multiplayer community moves onto the new edition, and back to World War Two. Every day I log in and see some new ongoing stage in the “Road to Battlefield V” event, and every day I’m reminded that my dread of that destination slightly outweighs my anticipation. To me, Battlefield 1 is a specific place, with a vivid and memorable set of experiences and sensations. What I saw of BFV, on the other hand, was less suggestive of a place than of a commodity.
I should say upfront that my experience with the closed alpha was far from smooth. I rarely got into Operations matches, which are probably the star attraction of the series right now. Operations are basically full-scale battles where one side attempts to attack and capture control points in a series of sectors until they’ve advanced across the entire map. It’s where the multi-class and vehicle-heavy design of Battlefield is at its most interesting. Playing the Conquest mode, which is a more conventional control point mode in a more arena-like setting, isn’t going to show Battlefield V to its best advantage.
But what bothered me more was the lack of character and identity I felt in BFV compared to BF1. It’s not really about the World War Two setting being over-familiar, but the way that BFV makes it feel over-familiar. We’ve all had years of playing around with MP40 submachine guns, Bren guns, and Kar98 rifles. But they all felt so… tame and as-expected in BFV. The SMGs felt like mannerly up-close bullet hoses, the light machine guns were slightly wilder but once again could turn open ground into a shooting gallery if you had a second to get set-up behind cover or prone on the ground. There was nothing specific about them, just a vague sense of class identity. Maybe that will be more pronounced with tuning and the introduction of the full slate of weapons. But right now, those weapons feel like they could be in any shooter, not just any World War Two game.
Weapon behavior isn’t just about mechanical interactions and skill development, but aesthetic as well. And BFV’s anodyne weapon models are matched by a strangely Instagram-like sheen on its world. Again, I’m basing this off the Norway map, but in its crystalline white snow, deep ocean blue skies, and sharp contrasts, Battlefield V looks like a postcard war zone: “Living my best life at Narvik Harbor and rolling deep with my squad. #blessed”
That might turn out to be a compelling aesthetic in its own right, and there are moments that the hyper-real, too-vivid look of Battlefield V suggests a character all its own. Flying into Narvik in a formation of paratrooper transports, with the aurora borealis shimmering along the horizon, tracer fire and flak bursts tearing through the formation and setting planes ablaze like comets, there’s something marvelous and hypnotic about BFV’s look. But that’s a carefully constructed diorama: Once your boots hit the ground, BFV’s aesthetic feels like it is actually erasing and flattening more character and texture than it’s highlighting… and it kind of plays that way too.
Battlefield 1 isn’t trying to be historically accurate, but it is trying to evoke really specific sensations and feelings toward its subject. There was never, I guarantee you, a battle inside a ruined zeppelin where soldiers fought an armored train. That’s not the point. The point is that everything in Battlefield 1 suggests the perverted progress and crude ingenuity of its time.
The armored train grinding its way forward is a symbol as much as it is a mechanic, and it’s of a piece with the hacked-together Howell Automatic Rifle with its absurd side-mounted gunsights, or the Mark V tank whose cannon turrets are obstructed by its massive treaded nose. Everything works after a fashion, but very little ever feels like it works quite right. You just learn to make do with everything you’re given, mastering the quirks and compromises of a not-quite-modern war.
Battlefield V feels, at this stage, to have done away with most of that. In its place, you can whack together sandbag barriers and emplacements. I was hoping that would feel fresher than it does, a further step toward a more deliberate and tactical Battlefield game. Instead, it ends up feeling like a nod to the landscape beyond military shooters, in a game that already feels worryingly like a synthesis of other experiences and influences that has yet to create its own.