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Battlefield V: It's not you, it's me

Good but gruelling

During my first five seconds playing the Battlefield V beta, I shouted "YES! BATTLEFIELD!" at my screen. I am not entirely sure why I did this.

OK, so I sort of am: it's absolutely gorgeous. When my first WW2 soldier opened her eyes, she was staring at the aurora borealis through swirling clouds of snow. The colours were offset by a trio of monochrome planes, from which parachuting combatants drifted down towards the battle beneath. Every Battlefield game is breathtaking, but this is the first time I've needed a new pair of lungs.

There was more behind my exclamation than gawping, though. I was excited to step back into those shoes Dice have become so good at simulating, where you're one tiny fella fighting for significance in a clash that sees aircraft plummet from the sky, buildings collapse and hulking machines of war explode.

I knew how good it would feel to cautiously shuffle my way through streets and snowdrifts, how rewarding it would be to land headshots with bolt-action rifles that click exactly like they're supposed to. I knew about the thrill of charging across the front-lines, the glee of catching a squad off-guard and the satisfaction of coordinating with teammates. I'd felt those things before, and I've since felt them again.

Just not as keenly.

Battlefield V rewrites significant parts of the war formula I'm so familiar with, but its basic recipe remains the same. To be clear, those changes aren't responsible for the break up I fear we're due - in fact they're keeping us together, at least for the time being. I'm going to talk about them first, before I get bogged down in war ennui.

The spotting system has been reworked: gone are the days when any old Tom, Dick or Harry could hammer their ‘Q’ key and light up the battlefield with magical unit-tracking markers. Those are now reserved for snipers, who have to whip out a special spotting scope to highlight enemies. It means that class can live up to its "Recon" name, and you can get away with being far sneakier because not many people want to ditch their gun in favour of binoculars.

As a prime sneaker myself, I’m all in favour. I spent the entirety of one match sniping from some undergrowth, which was both unfair and grimly effective. In other matches, I managed to wriggle out of situations I'm sure I wouldn't have back when everyone's eyes were sharper. I remember squatting in some ruins by myself as half a dozen enemies ran past, the hammering of my heart matching the hammering of my squadmate's respawn button.

Blowing stuff up has always been a Battlefield staple, but now you can rebuild. Every class can plop down sandbags to provide cover where it's lacking - only on predetermined spots, but those appear commonly enough to not feel restrictive. I was camped out on the top floor of a building when almost the entire structure evaporated, sending me spluttering to the ground. In previous Battlefields I'd have had to move on, but not here. Once the tank responsible for my eviction had rolled past, I scampered back up the staircase and rebuilt my little sniping nest. I like sniping, if you hadn't noticed.

If you play as the Support class, your options widen. You can build bridges that open up new routes, and barricades that stymie the progress of enemy troops and tanks alike. You're also responsible for dishing out ammo, which is now in much shorter supply. Soldiers only start with two magazines, which means you either need to snag some more off corpses or hope there's a Support nearby who hasn't forgotten he's packing extra ammo pouches.

That's one of many welcome tweaks that encourage team play. The Medic class can chuck first-aid kits that can be saved for later, like a beleaguered parent handing out packed lunches. It's a simple interdependence that emphasises the squad dynamic, and goes some way towards making up for the way Medics are no longer the only class that can revive people. The syringes they carry allow them to pick up teammates a little faster, but anyone can bring a fallen squadmate back to life. It's a change that puts your comrades in arms literally in your arms, as their hands scrabble around to get hauled up by yours.

Lying on the floor in the hopes of being revived might still be the most boring part of Battlefield, but this time Dice have made sure there are some voice lines to keep you ... well, 'entertained' is the wrong word. I'm half-convinced Dice have deliberately made the howling and gurgling that accompanies calling for a medic as horrible as they possibly could, so nearby teammates are less likely to ignore your cries. They still do, most of the time. Yet another reason to play with friends.

Sounds good, right? It absolutely is, but once the initial glow had faded I started to recognise a familiar feeling: futility. 64 player battles are stunning, but insignificance is an intractable part of spectacle.

Even when I'm on a seemingly unstoppable spree, the 31 other players on my team make it difficult to feel like I'm meaningfully contributing. Battlefield's humongous battles have always felt gruelling, like wading through war-soup that's determined to drown you. That may be thematically resonant, but at this point I may be done with it.

That said, the beta includes just two maps and two modes - which have both been picked to show off Battlefield at its most bombastic. I prefer fighting on a smaller scale, where the action revolves around just one or two objectives. Capturing a point in Conquest mode is an ambiguous achievement that'll likely get undone a few minutes later. Blowing up an objective in Rush mode is a concrete success.

I'm still eager to visit Battlefield V's other colossal theatres of war, but this time I don't think I'll stick around for long. Maybe I'll spend my time in its battle royale mode instead.

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