The trouble with Battlefield 5’s single-player story is that watching its rip-roaring trailer is a lot more enjoyable than playing the actual campaign. It’s not that the campaign is bad — it’s just less good than the promises made by its grandiose marketing.
To be clear, Electronic Arts’ pitch is very good.
Let’s take a look at World War II from new perspectives, EA says. Let’s get away from the same old scenes on Normandy beaches. Let’s move on from grizzled, white GIs, and embrace the heroism of women, children, reluctant working-class draftees and marginalized people of color.
Unfortunately, based on playing a few sections of the Battlefield 5 campaign at EA’s offices, the reality fails to coalesce. The noble pursuit of indie-film-influenced human stories comes packaged with a series of linear maps in which dramatic cutscenes are interspersed with so-so action sequences.
The stories are expensively disguised exercises in weapons experimentation, systems tutorials and ponderous discourse about the nature of global conflict. They are, in essence, extended commercials for EA’s good intentions and for the multiplayer stuff that makes up the bulk of the game.
Big little stories
Big-budget action video games usually present World War II as a grand stage, augmenting the prestige of the victorious nations, feeding off Hollywood history and cherished myths. But in Battlefield 5, developer EA DICE says it’s more interested in individual stories of struggle and desperation.
And so the campaign is presented as a series of shorts, taking place in disparate parts of the world, at differing years in the war, and from a variety of perspectives.
“Nordlys,” which I completed, is about a Norwegian girl tasked with skiing to a German camp and liberating a freedom fighter. The next two, I played about a third of each. In “Under No Flag,” a young London criminal is drafted into a special ops unit and sent off to plant explosives in sensitive enemy installations. Then, in “Tiralleur,” two brothers from French colonial West Africa land in France to fight fierce German defenses as well as the entrenched racism of the people they are seeking to liberate. And in Battlefield 5’s fourth War Story — which I did not get the chance to play — a Wehrmacht tank commander tries to defend Berlin as frightened boys are forced into uniform in a desperate bid to prevent the final collapse of Nazism.
Each story is told in a differing style, using a variety of narrative devices, as if directed by different people. The Norwegian story has a gritty, indie feel, like that awesome movie The 12th Man. The British one aims for comedic Guy Ritchie-like undertones. In the French one, an old soldier examines his memories of glory, and of bitterness. I really like that each tale is told in its native language.
The stories are decent enough, most especially because they make a genuine attempt to find new perspectives on old themes. But they lose themselves in flashy set-pieces that feel like a piñata at a funeral.
Ultimately, Battlefield 5 is a first-person shooter. No matter how carefully these fictional characters are rendered and written, sooner or later they are likely to start charging through barracks or an air base or a gun emplacement, slaying dozens of enemies with a righteous blaze of high-caliber weapons.
The levels I played are laid out in such a way as to encourage careful exploration of the map and a bit of stealth. But it soon becomes clear that the edges of the map are limiting. Enemies are extremely twitchy, so I’m soon in the midst of a good old-fashioned run-and-gun situation in which I’m just going to kill every fucker who gets in my way.
And let’s be clear: This is a shooting game, not a stealth game. The point is to engage the enemy in firefights, which is all just fine. My problem is that the wham-bam firefights don’t sit comfortably with the narratives that surround them.
I work my way through save points, planting the bomb or releasing the prisoner or whatever, just as I’ve done in every single-player Battlefield mission ever. Cutscenes play out, which either bombard me with explosive action or make a play for my empathy. It’s an oddly disjointed experience, further inhibited by the game’s clear desire to steer me from one place to another, trying out all its gadgets and vehicles. EA DICE’s attempt to fuse an action comic with an indie-film aesthetic is perhaps a bridge too far.
I want to like what EA DICE has done here, but as shooting games tilt ever more heavily toward multiplayer, battle royale and other service models, this effort looks weak. If Battlefield 1 is anything to go by, Battlefield 5 will be a great multiplayer game. But EA DICE needs to come up with new ideas if it wants to preserve the future of single-player campaigns.
Battlefield 5 will be released on Nov. 20 on PlayStation 4, Windows PC and Xbox One.