The battle of the Nazi hangar is a frantic affair of dust, smoke, explosions and screams as the allies desperately hold the bottleneck against the German onslaught. Happily, I’m not part of it. In fact, I’m several hundred meters away in an air-traffic control tower, watching the battle through a sniper scope and taking (occasionally successful) potshots at any enemy who wanders across my sights. The wooden structure provides cover, and a fellow sniper is in position nearby, letting us run a neat little system whereby each can revive the other should he be hit (disabling injuries are rarely instantly fatal, giving friendly soldiers a chance to revive their downed comrades). The only flaw in the plan is that, with no players filling a support-class role nearby to resupply us, we’re likely to run out of ammunition before we run out of targets. That was before we seriously annoyed the tank. The first shot tore the front half of our hidey-hole to pieces and I watched as it, and my colleague, were flung off-screen. The second shot finished the job (and me), smashing the remains of the tower, with the only surviving part now being the staircase which literally led to nowhere. C’est la guerre.
The latest entry in the (now venerable – 17 years and counting) Battlefield series, Battlefield V returns to its roots, transporting players to the fields of WWII and letting them wreak havoc on foot, in planes and tanks as they fight their fellow players for control of the map. While primarily a multiplayer game, those who prefer singleplayer have a choice of 4 short multi-mission scenarios (5, if you count the brief introductory mission).
The first game to implement nVidia’s ray tracing, there’s no denying that Battlefield V is one of the most visually stunning games around. Each environment, soldier and vehicle is lovingly detailed (right down to the rivets in the planes’ wings), and battles turn into chaotic affairs with explosions lighting up the environment and sending plumes of dirt and debris flying.
With regard to ray tracing, DICE has used it to create the first realistic reflections in a computer game. While this mightn’t sound like much, it makes a surprising difference to the overall feel of the game. This is especially noticeable when an explosion realistically lights up the entire environment and is reflected in windows, puddles, on the bodies of cars, and even player’s hands. Initially this came at quite a performance cost, causing many players to disable the feature as it could put them at a significant disadvantage in online matches. Thankfully, DICE has been steadily working to optimise their approach and have increased performance to the point where players can enable the feature and still enjoy a smooth 60 frames-per-second.
Multiplayer is probably why most players will buy this game. Battles range from small and intense 16-player skirmishes, to huge 64-player battles, complete with artillery, tanks and planes. Maps are satisfyingly varied and well designed, and feature some surprising touches, like the whale that can be seen from the deployment screen for the Narvik Bay map. There’s also quite a variety of game modes (with more being added), including standards like team-deathmatch and Conquest (in which points have to be captured and held in order to win), and Frontlines (where opposing teams try to progressively capture ground and force their enemies from the field). There are also Grand Operations (several modes strung together into a long scenario), and Squad Conquest (small scale Conquest, for 16 players and a few vehicles, leading to surprisingly tight and intense battles).
Regardless of the mode, multiplayer revolves around class-based combat, and players really have to work together in order to survive, let alone win. For example, while all classes can revive fallen teammates, the Medic Class can do it far more quickly, and also lay down a covering smokescreen. Similarly, the Assault Class has the edge when it comes to anti-tank abilities, while the Support Class can re-arm allies, quickly build fortifications to help defense, and (at the expense of mobility) lay down a withering barrage of fire. This is not Doom or Serious Sam, so while doing a ‘Rambo’ act is possible, attempt it in anything other than a plane and you’re likely to be pushing up the daisies more often then not (also, don’t go solo just because you’re in a tank – they’re distressingly vulnerable when surround by hostile infantry).
As you’d expect, there are quite a few players and servers, so finding a game is unlikely to be an issue. However, the player base tends to be quite skilled, so for the newcomer multiplayer is likely to initially be an exercise in frustration (this is from my own experience: getting repeatedly gunned down by foes I hadn’t spotted, or being blown out of the skies by a superior enemy just wasn’t fun).
Persistence pays off, however, and you’ll soon find you know where and what to look out for, how to use the environment for cover and how to handle each weapon. For example, I was firmly convinced that the Medic’s Sten gun was the most useless weapon in the game, until learning to compensate for its recoil. A string of nicely lined-up foes resulted in 5 kills in as many seconds. As an added bonus, continued play unlocks upgrades for weapons, infantry and vehicles (from a game-balancing perspective I’m not altogether convinced as, while it is fun, it makes the already strong players stronger).
Also, it’s in the multiplayer that you’ll find a plethora of memorable moments, whether it’s the daunting sight of a hail of glowing AA fire rising to meet your now doomed plane from a deadly Flakpanzer, or an enemy tank driving through the walls of the building in which you’re hiding (not a pleasant experience). There’s the satisfaction which comes from flanking an enemy squad and silently eliminating them all with a melee weapon, or the nerve-wracking sound of the V1’s engine which has all players scanning the skies nervously. Nicknamed a ‘buzzbomb’ for its distinctive sound, the only sound worse than the V1’s engine is the abrupt silence which means this insanely powerful bomb has started its short, terminal drop towards the ground. Ultimately, multiplayer battles are fast, spectacular, and enjoyably chaotic.
Singleplayer is quite a different beast, and the various scenarios see you take on the role of a British commando, Norwegian resistance fighter, French colonial soldier, and a German Panzer commander. Each has quite a different feel and the voice acting in the native language of each group is a particularly nice touch. The Nordlys campaign, for example, sees you infiltrating a German heavy-water manufacturing plant. Wonderfully tense stealth gameplay (surround-sound headphones really make quite a difference here, with you being able to hear where the guards are from their footsteps), is mixed with a grand finale worthy of a James Bond film (including a huge ski-jump, massive open map with vehicles you can commandeer, and a spectacular showdown involving a U-boat). In contrast, the Tirailleur campaign pitches you headlong into all-out, frontline combat – spectacular, but also relentless and exhausting.
My favourite by far, however, was The Last Panzer. Complete with destructible buildings and epic tank battles, it basically puts you in charge of one of the most fearsome tanks of the Second World War and lets you go nuts. If you really want to ‘go solo’, this is the place to do it. It also shows off Battlefield V’s graphical prowess and ray tracing to the full (you really don’t realize what a difference this may make, until you see a building with glass windows all reflecting properly).
Each campaign also tells its own story, and with the exception of the first campaign, these are anything but light-hearted. Attempting to drive home the horrors and injustices of war is not exactly something liable to leave you feeling particularly good at the conclusion of the campaigns, and it can feel a little out of place. It also doesn’t help that at times the stories can feel confused. (One minute you’re on the run from enemy troops, and the next you’ve captured their empty chateau??? What?!) There are also some patently contrived moments designed to cheaply manipulate the emotions of the player (the moment you find out that your character’s brother has a wife and child waiting for him back home, you just know he’s not going to survive and it’s going to be your fault). That said, when they get the storytelling right – as in The Last Panzer – it works brilliantly, creating an engaging scenario where the events and emotional impact logically and seamlessly grow out of the setting, rather than seeming artificially imposed.
While the stories are somewhat hit-and-miss (a bit like the spread from the guns), there is a severe design misstep which nearly spoiled the entire singleplayer experience for me. DO NOT attempt the campaign challenges until they’ve been revised by DICE. In the first campaign, after I carefully hunted down every letter for one of the challenges (thoughtfully spread out to make it as tedious as possible to collect them), and fulfilled every requirement (including restarting, for the umpteenth time, from the same checkpoint in order to complete the maddening challenge of shooting down enemy planes without getting hit – what on earth were they thinking???), I discovered a glitch involving one of the letters I collected. It meant that the challenge would not register as being completed, and that it was not possible to go back and restart the challenge as, once a letter is picked up, it is permanently removed from the map (as of the time of writing, this glitch is still present). The frustration from this bled over into the other campaigns and I found myself being rather picky and unfairly critical. It was only re-approaching them nearly a week later that I started to really enjoy them.
In summary, despite the missteps in the design of the singleplayer campaign (including that maddening glitch) and in spite of the fact that the multiplayer has a steep learning curve, Battlefield V is ultimately an exceptionally fun game. While fans of the more action/solo oriented shooters such as Doom or Serious Sam may struggle with the very different team-oriented gameplay, Battlefield V is one of the most visually impressive, spectacularly chaotic, and ultimately fun Battlefield games around. ■