“Battlefield V” is an unfinished game.
It’s immediately apparent upon starting up the game. If you select the single-player campaign, you’ll be greeted with three of what developer DICE has labeled War Stories (a number already stark in comparison to the five of 2016’s “Battlefield 1”), along with a fourth, greyed out option, advertising content that isn’t here yet.
If you instead choose multiplayer, you’ll be greeted with another menu with yet another large, greyed-out tile, advertising for Tides of War, a battle royale mode clearly aimed to capitalize on the world-altering success of “Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds” and “Fornite Battle Royale,” but again, a mode that isn’t yet present.
DICE and publisher EA were clear months ago that this mode wouldn’t be present at the game’s launch — a launch originally scheduled for October of this year, and pushed at the last minute just about a full month, to this week. So it’s not necessarily fair to hold these things against it. If you’ve paid any attention, you should know at least that much about what you’re getting into.
The problem, though, is these aren’t the ways in which “Battlefield V” feels the most unprepared for the gaming public at large. That combined with some baffling mechanical changes, makes the whole game much harder to recommend than expected.
“Battlefield 1” surprised just about everyone with a campaign that managed to rethink the way the series had traditionally offered singleplayer content. Rather than one over-arching narrative and one set of characters, it delivered a series of playable self-contained stories. “Battlefield V” follows this concept more or less, with a trio of standalone mini-campaigns featuring very different characters, from a pair of British SBS — the Special Boat Squadron, the precursor to modern military special forces — a young Norwegian resistance fighter, and a regiment of Senegalese Tirailleur fighting against overwhelming odds to take a German artillery position.
The premise of each chapter is interesting, finding inspiration in stories that games and even films haven’t traditionally mined in the relentless cycle of WWII media, which is in and of itself kind of a miracle. The mission design is less varied, however, a real surprise after the often dramatic changes in mechanics and sensibilities from “Battlefield 1.” There are only two real modes of play to speak of: various straight ahead shooting sequences that resemble the same kinds of first-person shooter campaigns of a decade ago, and open spaces with multiple objectives that offer a lot of options for players to experiment with.
Every war story is, more or less, shaped by this back and forth, with little to differentiate them apart from setting. On the bright side, the open spaces, a highlight from “Battlefield 1,” still offer a lot of avenues for expression and exploitation of Battlefield’s series-defining bullet physics and destructibility. There’s also a reasonably implemented stealth system, making sneaking around a viable and satisfying option, albeit one that can make the otherwise short missions much, much longer.
The linear elements of “Battlefield V’s” campaign, are, on the other hand, dated and largely frustrating. Something, in general, feels off about the game’s handling, but more damningly, enemy placement is routine, predictable, and murderous. Enemies are frequently hard to see, even on a 4K TV in HDR on Xbox One X version of the game (a problem that resurfaces in the game’s multiplayer). It all feels like an exercise in hidden objects that also want to kill you.
The ultimate disappointment here is in presentation and story. Character development is minimal, a sharp downturn from “Battlefield 1,” and the frequent first-person story-telling sequences are heavy-handed and punishing. Over and over, “Battlefield V” forces the player down sections with extremely specific requirements to progress, and the primary way of informing them that they aren’t doing the right thing is to kill them and send them back to a checkpoint.
Not every game experience needs to be fun, but it seems obvious that “Battlefield V” is trying, and failing as often as it succeeds. It becomes a slog more often than not unless you prefer to blast your way through as unsubtly as possible — which also isn’t especially enjoyable.
The campaign is also plagued by a bizarre lack of polish and some behavior that seems, to be blunt, like something is broken. Interacting with objects frequently didn’t work on the first button press, and the same behavior appeared with reloading weapons. Much of the ground geometry feels rough and easy to get hung up on, and traversing obstacles — something the last several Battlefield games have generally been very good about — feels clumsy. It’s easy to get stuck on things, especially when retreating to let health regenerate.
There are other bits that are especially jarring, including typos and missing words and letters in the game’s subtitles, which is especially apparent given how much of the War Stories are told in German, French — and Senegalese inflected French at that —and what I believe is Norwegian (I wouldn’t be able to tell you if it was Sami). All of these things intersect with the limited content and limited options on hand to make it feel like “Battlefield V’s” campaign was dragged out into the light before it was ready.
Multiplayer has its own related issues. The same interaction difficulties popped up on both Xbox One and PC clients and backing out of menus often caused the game to hang indefinitely, especially on Xbox. A number of reliability and crash issues were ostensibly patched this week, but Battlefield’s history of launch difficulties — a history defied by “Battlefield 1” — was at front of mind while dealing with the myriad minor problems in overall stability.
When “Battlefield V” works, the game is a collection of solid fundamentals like weapon handling and character movement with some baffling design choices.
Some changes are welcome. The ability to build barriers and defensive positions is a nice new wrinkle, especially as the destructibility of the generally massive levels has been ramped up considerably over “Battlefield 1,” finally approaching some of the series’ arguable peak with “Battlefield Bad Company 2.”
The size and scale of levels remain a core differentiator for Battlefield, and it makes decisions moment to moment in combat feel meaningful. It gives the series’ trademark bullet drop mechanics purpose, and few games provide as much of a sense of tangible reward for properly judging distance and range. And Battlefield’s willingness to commit to longer matches rewards players with a greater chance to turn around a losing battle. The most satisfying matches in “Battlefield V” are squeakers, and Conquest games that come down to the final dozen respawn tickets aren’t unheard of.
However, some changes are confusing and detrimental to the game’s fundamental back and forth battles. Operations from “Battlefield 1” were a welcome addition providing narrative context and win-based variables to teams across multiple rounds, but “Battlefield V’s” Grand Operations, which link together even more matches and change up the game type from round to round stretch player commitment levels to what may be the breaking point.
Round length is an issue of time, but there are also new or more exacerbated issues of basic legibility. Put simply, it’s only gotten more difficult to discern enemy players across the field. The camouflage patterns of soldier uniforms are perhaps too effective here, as combined with the lighting and overall visual makeup of “Battlefield V’s” maps, it’s easier than ever to walk by a soldier or in front of their field of fire and not even know they were there.
This is accompanied by what may be “Battlefield V” multiplayer’s most stupefying change: the removal of spotting from all classes save recon players. Previously, hitting the right bumper on the controller would mark enemies for the rest of the team to see, which accomplished a variety of goals — it gave less skilled shooters an opportunity to help their team outside of the game’s class system, it encouraged teamwork outside of the squads players are separated into within teams, and it allowed DICE to make the game as realistic as possible without worrying too much about players reading within the environment. Now spotting has been replaced with a marker that can be placed on the field with the right bumper, a poor substitute.
True spotting has instead been relegated to snipers using a spotting scope, which only makes worse the Battlefield series’ issues with long-range classes. Fields of fire in Battlefield have been far too open for years, with recon players having little effective penalty to pay for finding a spot to live for extended periods of time. It’s been a frustrating problem for years, and as the game’s levels have grown, it’s only gotten worse. With spotting, players could at least expose them for the team, but there’s little of that kind of recourse available now. And, in an especially strange move, the mortar tool from “Battlefield 1,” one of the best, most interesting counter-sniper/range tools the series has seen, is unavailable in “Battlefield V.”
It’s not that it is absent of fun — it’s still doing things that other games generally aren’t, and combat finds a space apart from the twitchiness of the Call of Duty model of fast time to death. “Battlefield V” is more of a thinking shooter, slightly more deliberative. But few of the changes make for a better game, rather than a slightly worse, different one.
And, to come back around, Firestorm, the anticipated battle royale mode, still isn’t here yet. And neither is the fourth War Story, though I have reservations here — 2018 seems like a strange moment to attempt to humanize a WWII German tank commander, which very much seems like its goal.
This year’s pickings are slim for a shooter with a story, and even multiplayer shooters have been comparatively few amidst the ascendance of the battle royale genre. With that in mind, “Battlefield V” isn’t without reasons to recommend it. But the impression that it leaves is a game that isn’t quite ready, and players will have to decide whether they’re willing to pay to wait for more of it to arrive.