Leaping from planes, we fall through aurora that looks as though it’s melting into the sky. We drifting for a few quiet moments above the tundra, descending with the snow. What we can’t truly grasp until we land, though, is that we are gently gliding into hell.
A series of dramatic vignettes ensues, touching half a dozen theaters of war: Soaring over Hamburg during an RAF raid; tank combat in Libya; sniping from behind enemy lines in Algeria; machine-gunning through the muck at Nijmegen Bridge in the Netherlands. While the locations are far-flung, an abject chaos connects them all, and the conflicts therein. We fight, and die, and fight some more. This is World War Two. This is Battlefield V .
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Out today for PC, Xbox One, and PS4, the latest in DICE’s military-shooter franchise trains its focus on multiplayer action. The Call of Duty series, its closest rival, has pursued a similar corrective to compete with Fortnite and other always-online juggernauts of the moment, but Battlefield V seeks scale as well: As many as 64 players come together on its expansive maps. You can’t pack that many people, and that much firepower, into a single virtual arena without breeding discord—but that too is intentional. Like its immediate predecessor, the WWI-set Battlefield 1 , Battlefield V steeps players in the dizzying miasma of large-scale combat.
And since creating a satisfying experience for 32 players is a far steeper challenge than with 12, the game instead imposes narrative through subdivision. In addition to your larger team, you’re a member of smaller squad, tasked with incremental missions that connect to the larger overall push. Your significance becomes tripartite: you matter for your own efforts, as well as that of your squad, and finally as a constituent piece of a charging war engine.
There’s meaning to be found there, even in defeat. In one mission, after your squad has scaled a small peak, the three of you secure explosives to an enemy outpost and wipe out a pernicious mortar that’s been stalling the advance of your downrange comrades. Even so, the detonation gets the attention of a sniper, and you all meet your end while fleeing the scene—gunned down in the snow.
It’s not often that a game is confident enough to deprive players of the role of the hero, and here the futility becomes almost poignant. Where much of the shock of Battlefield 1 came from its disorienting grandeur, compounded by bodies and trenches and the creeping fog of chlorine, its successor aims for precision. The advances here aren’t mindless, but measured in discrete checkpoints and clear missions.
There’s a comfort and clarity to that guidance that, while punctuated by the random death of shelling and snipers, holds. Your life may still be meaningless in the vastness of it all, yet there’s solace to be found in proximal goals: even if you should be snuffed out by the whims of strife, you were a piece of some eventual success.
Your life may still be meaningless in the vastness of it all, yet there’s solace to be found in proximal goals: even if you should be snuffed out by the whims of strife, you were a piece of some eventual success.
World War II was perhaps the last major global conflict for which there is a cohesive narrative largely shared by all sides; this makes it a relatively easy one to distill into a story. Battlefield V does so through a series of longer missions scattered across the western theater, encompassing everything from the liberation of Norway to the stall of Nazi build-ups on Crete. Alongside a supersaturated, sharply animated, hyper-realistic presentation, it plays up the bravado of a smattering of individual heroes—but heroes whose stories put into context how preposterous the whole exercise is.
And that’s where the game, and the franchise as a whole, once again hits against the one conflict it doesn’t deign to address: the tension between war as a story and war as a thing, a thing that people continue to do. As much as DICE has forgone the trope of the American supersoldier in favor of more complex narratives, the fact still remains that there are two stark facets to war that can scarcely be wed at all. Battlefield V fails to marry them, but instead finds its identity in their fracture—poignant at parts, monstrous at others.
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