Battlefield V isn’t interested in boots treading the same old ground of World War II. There’s no re-enactment of the D-Day landings that have been long etched in our consciousness from films such as Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers and last year’s Call of Duty: WWII. Instead, as I play through the War Stories that make up its single-player campaign, the big D this time around is 'Diversity'.
The first and most prominent of the war stories is ‘Nordlys’. Set in the snowy mountains of Norway under the beautiful Northern Lights, you’re a young resistance fighter called Solveig on a mission to rescue another resistance member who’s very close to her. It seems neatly coincidental that DICE, a Swedish studio, is depicting a story closer to home, though franchise design director Daniel Berlin tells me there were other factors.
“It wasn’t necessarily, ah, we’re Scandinavian, we need to go to Scandinavia,” he laughs.
“It’s a particular part of the world that hasn’t been depicted much. Solveig’s personal story about her family really speaks to us but also in terms of the location.”
Indeed, the ice and snow, which you can even get around certain parts of with skis, makes for a distinct visual palette that greatly contrasts with the hotter climate of ‘Under No Flag’ where you’re part of a small crew from the Special Boat Service infiltrating enemy lines on the shore of North Africa. Even when you do take to more familiar sights like the rural battlefields of France, it’s as colonial soldiers who had previously never set foot in this country they’re fighting for.
In Norway, my approach differs from the all-out warfare of Battlefield’s multiplayer. While it’s possible to go in guns blazing, the open environments allow me to take a far stealthier approach. I manage to distract the enemy with lures before throwing a knife in their back, or just take the higher ground, bypassing one outpost without firing a single shot, lest I give myself away, prompting a soldier to rush for the nearby alarm.
This persists in the story’s latter half when I find myself in a vast sandbox (or rather icebox?) surrounded by mountains and alpine trees, giving me freedom in how I approach three targets I need to find and destroy in a bid to sabotage German plans to create a new devastating weapon. Compared to the way Call of Duty’s campaigns have often been referred to as big-budget shooting galleries (left out altogether in the new Black Ops 4), this open approach is a natural fit for Battlefield V’s War Stories.
“A scripted experience can be great, but the truly great experiences are when we just give you a set of tools and then you author your experience yourself,” says Berlin.
These experiences are still punctuated by cinematic cutscenes with specific narrative and emotional beats, but I also get a feel for a variety of tones and narrative techniques. For instance, ‘Under No Flag’ feels more comical in nature, bolstered by the colorful language of the cockney band of cut-throats and criminals that make up your SBS unit. As convict Billy, you learn that his particular set of skills in robbing banks are very transferable for making bombs to blow up German aircraft, so this operation almost has something of a heist element to it.
The next war story to grab my attention was ‘Tirailleur’, immediately reminding me of the 2006 French film Days of Glory. Days of Glory depicts an ensemble of North African soldiers in the Free French Forces, which Berlin tells me was a definite inspiration point.
“That perspective really ties into what we want to do in Battlefield V,” he explains.
“It’s a tragic story about this company that’s fighting for a nation that doesn’t accept them and a land that they’ve never been to.”
Narrated by your character Deme as an old veteran recounting his experiences as a tirailleur, the discrimination he encounters from white soldiers is painfully visible from the moment he first steps onto French soil to when he and other black soldiers like him are sent on a suicide mission to capture a part of the countryside beset with enemy gun placements and tank-stoppers while planes fly overhead. While it conveys the sense of scale Battlefield is known for, you also feel the impossible odds that these black lives are thrown against without any regard from their white commanders.
While I was able to play ‘Nordlys’ in full, I only had a taster of these other two stories. However, Berlin assures me that all of them will be consistently substantial.
“This time around, we knew what we were doing to a larger extent, so we made sure from the get-go that each and every war story had a certain length and quality,” he says.
There’s also one more story that will be released later as part of the new free post-launch service Tides of War, though it may stir some controversy. In ‘The Last Tiger’, you’re not just playing a devastatingly powerful tank, but from the German perspective. Berlin explains that the well-received tank mission in Battlefield 1 had influenced their decision to create a tank mission in Battlefield V, for which there was only one candidate.
“The Tiger is pretty much what Spitfire is to the airplanes - it’s the most iconic tank of the era. The gun alone is the same length as a full American tank,” Berlin says.
“But with that depiction comes the German perspective, and how we tell that story. I don’t want to spoil anything but the emotion we want to evoke is the feeling of consequence, and the fact that, even if you deny your actions in war, you have to live with the consequences of what you have done.”
It’s by no means a heroic story then, but just as the other War Stories are demonstrating a diversity in its, well, diversity, not only through its characters but also in the emotions, narrative, gameplay and palettes, it seems appropriate that DICE isn’t shying away from tackling a darker grey area of World War II.
“We want to show diversity, and we want to show untold stories,” says Berlin.
“Everything comes together as a varied product with a lot of diversity across the board.”