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Battlefield 5’s bite-sized campaign is more of a whimper than a bang

At under three hours, Battlefield 5’s War Stories struggle to stand on their own

EA DICE/Electronic Arts

The days of the massive, splashy single-player campaign in shooters may be coming to a close. The success of multiplayer-only games like PUBG, Fortnite and Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 has shown that there are plenty of folks willing to skip a campaign entirely. The disappearing single-player mode feels like a byproduct of boardroom decision-making: If publishers can make money without one (and not stir up too much controversy), why bother?

Battlefield 5 feels like a compromise between the dense single-player campaigns of recent entries in the series the idea of doing away with the offering altogether. There’s little doubt that the focus is on multiplayer (you can read our review of that here), but the game does offer a bite-sized solo campaign to scratch that itch. And while the campaign features some heartfelt storytelling, it remains mired in dated and uninspired design.

The Battlefield 5 campaign comprises three missions, clocking in at two to three hours of gameplay, depending on the difficulty you select for yourself. A fourth mission is listed as “coming soon,” with a planned release date of December or January.

Each mission tells a discrete, stand-alone story. This concept was brilliantly executed in Battlefield 1, where each of the six missions felt like a glimpse into an unseen part of World War I, like a Bedouin soldier on horseback or a messenger delivering crucial intel to the front lines. The Battlefield 1 campaign was notably meatier than Battlefield 5’s is, at more than twice the length. But length isn’t the only edge. Where that campaign had novelty in its environments and level design, the Battlefield 5 campaign seems content to coast on familiar landscapes and objectives.

Battlefield 5 - paratrooper caught in tree EA DICE/Electronic Arts via Polygon

The three campaign missions in Battlefield 5 are set in North Africa, Norway and German-occupied France. Battlefield 5 is visually stunning, capable of pumping out massive, incredible vistas, but the set-pieces are familiar nonetheless. You perform the typical World War II video game fare — assaulting anti-aircraft guns, using rocket launchers on tanks, that sort of thing. In both the North African and French stories, I felt like I was flashing back to missions I’d played countless times before, with screaming soldiers demanding I push forward to “take out those AA guns.”

The Norwegian mission is a nice shift, set in a snow-blown forest around a commandeered power plant. While the objectives here are once again familiar (infiltrate and rescue a crucial member of the resistance), the mode of entry is more unique. I was able to use cross-country skis to navigate this landscape, equipping them whenever I wanted to silently close the distance on potential targets. The skis feel surprisingly excellent, adding a bit more variety to what would have otherwise been a rote trudge through the snow.

Battlefield 5’s campaign succeeds when it gives the keys to me, opening up a massive map and letting me decide how to tackle it. Each of the three missions has at least one of these moments, and it’s fun to be able to approach objectives from whichever angle I wish. While stealth is encouraged, having the power to “go loud” when I feel it appropriate is satisfying, giving more life to the world.

Unfortunately, these moments are saddled with dreary linear sequences in which I have to push through a seemingly endless supply of soldiers to reach the next checkpoint (see the above GIF for one instance of this that also highlights the woeful AI). If the same level of freedom applied to all of these sections, it would be more palpable. But too often I would attempt to go off the narrow trail, only to get a warning saying I had 10 seconds to return to the mission area. The inconsistency felt weird and forced.

While the gameplay never shines particularly brightly, the writing and performances in these missions is well-done. I spent less than an hour with each batch of characters, but was moved by the efforts of a Norwegian resistance fighter and her mother, whose familiar bond is as clear as what they’re fighting for. The same can be said for the Senegalese soldiers who fought for the liberation of France but never saw much recognition for it. These simple but elegant stories succeed in humanizing the war, even if the gameplay never seems to.

It’s impossible to know if this is the last Battlefield single-player campaign we’ll see. If so, it’s a shame that the tradition will culminate with a whimper. Battlefield 5’s solo experience rarely sets itself apart, and probably won’t be mourned if this truly is the swan song.

Battlefield 5 was reviewed on Windows PC using a final “retail” Origin download code provided by Electronic Arts. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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