It’s a warm spring Tuesday when I arrive at the National Art School in Sydney. The School is located on the site of the old Darlinghurst Gaol and is steeped in the history of the area. Its connection to DICE’s Battlefield V, a multiplayer-centric first person shooter set in World War II, is a bit of a mystery to me, but it has the right aesthetic — like the people and machines of World War II, it is old, sturdily build and difficult to miss.
The focus of our time with Battlefield V was on the game’s single player War Stories, less a campaign than a series of shortform vignettes set in different parts of the world during the war. It was a mode that proved very popular in 2016’s Battlefield 1 was rightly lauded for the obvious care and respect put into each story. The gaming world was so used to humanitarian tragedies like The Great War being mined for bombastic, action-movie content that the Battlefield 1‘s bittersweet sincerity came as a welcome surprise. In Battlefield V, DICE is steering even further into that curve.
The War Story we spent the most time with was “Nordlys”, a campaign that focuses on Norwegian resistance fighters struggling against overwhelming German occupation. It’s a great yarn in its own right — stealth, spies and sabotage abound — but it lays the theme that was woven through each of the other War Stories I played — that of cataloguing a few of the more forgotten or under-represented stories of the era. Though not all of the War Stories we looked at were complete, it’s already possible to tell that a war historian’s heart beats behind each one. “Under No Flag” chronicles the misadventures of an uncharacteristically rock-and-roll unit of British soldiers, while “Tirailleur” puts the Senegali Tirailleur infantry, men who fought valiantly for the French resistance and were largely wiped from historical records in a fit of racially motivated cruelty, in the spotlight.
“Nordlys” proved that EA’s Frostbite engine is still capable of producing absolutely world beating visuals in the right developer hands. The mountainous Norwegian landscape, blanketed in thick snow, howling winds and undulating auroras in the sky, is a remarkable feat of art design. It looks like the real thing and it feels like the real thing — the fear of ending up at Nazi gunpoint being overridden by the need to locate a heat source is too real.
A fourth War Story, “The Last Tiger”, wasn’t playable during our session and will be made available post launch. It is the most intriguing and, potentially, the most controversial vignette of the entire anthology. The story follows the crew of a German Tiger tank, headed into a battle they can’t hope to win and beginning to question the values and ideology that brought them to where they are now. One of the great World War II Shooter conundrums has always been “Could a developer ever let players take control of a Nazi in a way that wasn’t explicitly advocating for the Germans, or in some way diminishing the scale and hideousness of their views and actions? And even if you could carve a path through those dense moral thorns, is there any scenario in which it was worth it?’
According to War Stories design director Eric Holmes who spoke about each War Story at the beginning of the preview event, they’ve found an avenue that allows them to tell a story about Germans with “care, integrity and (without letting) the Germans off the hook.” I’m honestly a bit wary, but having seen and heard the sincerity with which Holmes’ delivered his pitch, I’m interested in what the team have got. I certainly hope they know what they’re doing.
In terms of gunplay, the stuff you usually come to Battlefield for, everything felt exactly as it should. The weapons were all era-appropriate with long reload times and some decidedly angular aiming. Even characters get some space to shine. DICE have a real eye for detail with this stuff — check out some Nordlys footage and watch the player character’s hands as she reloads. She’s hurried, a little undisciplined and definitely scared, and all of this is communicated through the way she reloads her weapon. For a pair of gloved hands shoving bullets into a machine gun, it’s a remarkable piece of animation and I’ve been thinking about it since I saw it.
Having played through “Nordlys” and the early parts of “Under No Flag” and “Tirailleur” I am now far more interested in Battlefield V than I was before. I wish more war-focused titles put this much effort into their campaigns. I look forward to seeing how the finished product shakes out.
Battlefield V launches on November 20, 2018 on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Windows PC. The author was flown to Sydney as a guest of Electronic Arts Australia.