World War 2 has broken out once again as EA DICE heads back to the 1940s with Battlefield V, a theoretically safe sequel with some curious, and possibly divisive, ideas at its core.
After the thematic reset that was Battlefield 1 I wasn't expecting much from this year's instalment of the long-running shooter series – class tweaks, new period accessories and still-higher fidelity explosions, all of it fed through the same mix of giant, vehicle-strewn maps and objective modes. There's certainly a lot here that's familiar, but EA DICE has made some dramatic changes to Battlefield's squad system that shunt an already team-oriented game even further away from lone wolf play. That's in addition to the ability to rebuild trashed structures, fortifying maps that hitherto existed only to be ripped apart, and, less attractively, a tsunami of live service and earning mechanisms gathered under the banner of the “Tides of War”. As I discovered during a two-hour presentation today in London, it's a riskier, more stimulating prospect than the “return to roots” messaging suggests.
Where the last game sought to dispel cliches about the Great War while making it more germane to Battlefield's combat sandbox, Battlefield V wants to “challenge preconceptions” of World War 2 by telling stories in settings other than Normandy's beaches or the tank-ridden fields of northern France. You'll still go to France, but you'll also tour the Norwegian mountains as a resistance fighter, parachute into a burning Rotterdam and roam the North African desert. The campaign is once again an episodic, multiple-perspective affair, and there's much talk of “real” people dealing in “relatable” ways with the horrors of a global conflict.
It's hard to judge based on the campaign footage I've been shown - a 30-second snippet of a resistance fighter falling into a lake - but going by Battlefield 1's rather straight-laced narrative I doubt any of this will prove mind-blowing. More enticing is the reintroduction of a standalone co-op mode, aka Combined Arms, where you'll join up to three other players on missions behind enemy lines with dynamically generated objectives, often under the pressure of scarce resources. These sound tough, but DICE's creative director Lars Gustavsson says they will act as a “safe haven” for newcomers while offering a more focused, intimate challenge for the pros.
The ethos of greater intimacy extends to PvP, where you'll find the usual classes – Assault, Recon, Medic and Support – and some familiar modes – Team Deathmatch, Conquest and Domination, plus a redoubled, even overpowering emphasis on squadplay. Players now spawn into a four-head squad by default, regardless of mode, though you can choose to matchmake as a lone wolf; when respawning, you're also given the option to squad-spawn first rather than being kicked out to the full map deploy screen.
Squadmates can now revive each other regardless of class, though only Medics can restore you all the way to maximum health - a powerful incentive to band together, where previous games often saw “team-mates” scattered across the map like children at a wedding. Another incentive to buddy up is the reinforcement system, with squads earning points for teamplay actions like giving each other ammo or following the leader's orders. Squad leaders can then spend those points on powerful rewards such as V1 rocket strikes, supply drops and a chunky four-seater tank that only your squad can spawn into. It's the Call of Duty streak system, in other words, but those big match-winning plays can only be acquired through teamwork. Whether less organised players will be able to tell the difference when somebody drops a missile on them is another question.
The beefed-up squad focus shapes many of Battlefield V's new features. Players spawn with less ammo, creating more reliance on classes who can dole it out. There's a brand spanking new set of contextual and environmental animations that make your movements a shade more obvious to both friendlies and enemies: long grass twitching as you crawl through it, or feet slip-sliding on muddy slopes. You can now drag allies into cover before reviving them, so it's easier to play Florence Nightingale under fire. And then there's the new fortifications system, which lets you bolt things like machinegun nests, tank traps, sandbags and trenches to each map's destructible buildings, including those that house those all-important conquest flags.
It's obviously reminiscent of Fortnite – to address the elephant in the room, there's currently no sign of a battle royale mode - and another way of encouraging players to group together rather than spreading out over a shifting battlefront. All classes wield a building tool by default, though only Support players can build the most formidable defensive structures. If you'd rather run amok, rejoice in the knowledge that you can now hitch stationary weapon emplacements to vehicles, in scenes apparently worthy of Mad Max: Fury Road. This sounds like it'll be of particular concern to pilots, as deadly anti-air guns can now be dragged to unpredictable spots and fired on the go.
If Battlefield V is a fairly exciting departure at the level of mechanics, the new live service and player progression elements sound a bit tiresome. Care of the overarching Tides of War system, you'll raise an overall player career level while grooming a collection of individual soldiers. Inasmuch as I could tell from a rather swampy, hour-long discussion of work-in-progress assets, classes now break down into “archetypes” that can be outfitted with different cosmetic and gameplay-affecting traits. We were shown a screen of a Recon class with the paratrooper archetype, equipped with boosts to agility and health regen, plus greater resilience against blast damage. Weapons and vehicles can also be customised in advance of matches with perks such as tougher armour plating or a fancy walnut rifle stock.
It's great to have new options to play with, and Battlefield's standing as more of a simulation-driven shooter suits this fresh layer of customisation. But then the game goes the extra mile with a landslide of quintessentially service-game reward elements that appear to exist solely for the sake of player retention (and microtransactions, about which DICE's lips are currently sealed). You can expect daily and special “orders” such as kill X in Y mode that earn you points for various trinkets, XP boosters, and time-limited special events where you tackle modes with special rulesets for extra-rare rewards. It's all designed to “get you invested”, to help you “create your own identity” and form a “deep connection” with the ephemeral characters and items you amass. I have never warmed to games that try to install themselves into my life this way, and even in the abstract, the offerings here already feel exhausting.
There are upsides to the service-game stuff, however. One is the overdue death of Battlefield's awkward Premium Pass system: all the major DLC elements EA DICE adds will be available to all players free of charge, to avoid dividing the community. That includes Grand Operations, an evolution of Battlefield 1's Operations mode that will serve as the delivery system for many of the add-on maps. A Grand Operation is a series of matches with custom rules on different maps, joined together by a loose storyline – reliving the invasion of Rotterdam from the air, for example, then fighting street to street before one side is reduced to a desperate final stand. Each match outcome affects the odds (e.g. spawn ticket number) in the next, and you can expect a mixture of new modes on existing terrain and brand new maps, with fresh Operations kicking off every few months. The idea is to make playing Battlefield V a “journey”, a perpetual war woven around grinding for loot that calls to mind not WW2 but the contested solar system of Bungie's Destiny.
Battlefield V is, all in all, something of a surprise. Only hands-on time will tell whether the new squad focus is to the game's benefit, but I like the assertiveness these additions reveal. The event gave the sense of a developer that wants to change how its players think about a formula they understand well, and isn't afraid to introduce appropriate incentives and discouragements. As for the service elements, there's a bit of shine with the rain, but much will depend on the monetisation systems that accompany them – EA DICE hasn't exactly earned much trust for itself on this count in the past six months. Watch out for some additional thoughts on the subject from myself and Lars Gustavsson in the next few days.
Battlefield V is due for release on October 19th. There are more screenshots below. Click to make any of the images on this page bigger.