World War 2 is a setting that has been done almost endlessly in video games. It feels like we’ve seen D-Day landings a dozen times over the past few decades, the Battle of the Bulge has featured several times, the desperate, deadly defence of Stalingrad, the fall of the Reichstag. They’re key touchstones regardless of the medium, but they also dilute just how global this war was and how many countries and people were caught up in its clutches.
The breadth of the conflict was something that DICE sought to explore in Battlefield 1’s rendition of WWI, grounding each of the short stories they told with an interesting narrative hook and bringing diversity in the settings and battles they picked. Yet WWII sits much higher in the public consciousness, making it feel more difficult to pick out the stories that haven’t yet been told. Except DICE show how easy it is, again leaning on an anthology format to bring certain battles to light, to make each moment and story stand on its own, even experimenting in how they tell them.
As with Battlefield 1, it starts with a prologue that hops from one perspective to another, but instead of the futility of defending or assaulting a defensive line, it’s all about the scope of this war. You hop from fighter pilots trying to take down an incoming air strike to tanks in North Africa, to paratroopers desperately trying to hold their ground during Operation Market Garden. As a showcase of the war as a whole, it’s an impressive compilation, but it lacks, for me, the emotional undercurrent that Battlefield 1’s prologue had.
That carries through to the stories that I experienced and played following this. The closest thematically comes in Tirailleur, as colonial African soldiers are drafted in by the French military to try and help retake their country in Operation Dragoon. As much as WWI relied on the colonies of each empire around the world to provide soldiers and resources, so too did WWII, but even as these French Colonial soldiers step off the boat to fight for France, that didn’t make equals in the eyes of the French. It’s painted as fictional story within the historical setting as Deme and his unit are thrown into battle by a prim and proper general.
The same could be said of Under No Flag, with the criminals and misfits thrown together in the Special Boat Service. By contrast, this is more lighthearted, more outright fun and action, with Billy Bridger a convict drafted into the unit, constantly wisecracking, making his own improvements to the equipment they’re using, to greater or lesser success on a covert raid into North Africa. It’s rather unbelievable that he’d be thrown right into the action with seemingly no training, but it helps add to the fun banter and action romp style of this story.
A key focus has been in making sure that most, if not all scenarios can be played in your own way. That’s most apparent in the stories where you’re given stealth as a real option, where the objectives are spread out before you, as in the climax of the Nordlys story. Here, most unbelievably, a lone Norwegian resistance fighter battles her way deep into a German held industrial facility, dealing with the harsh freezing conditions when the mission takes a turn, and then singlehandedly trying to dismantle the export of heavy water.
There’s some great moments here, such as when skiing to escape a facility, when struggling to survive, going from one fire and warm building to another – looking over a screen at this point, I saw another journalist going on an axe murdering spree at this point – and then the freedom to tackle a sprawl of objectives in an order of your choice. It’s a little bit Bond in a number of ways, with a sensationalist take on the combat, the free form design allowing you to go for the distinctively bombastic Battlefield play that often occurs online.
Most intriguing, in what is possibly a first time in a mainstream WW2 game, one of these stories will also include a German perspective, following a tank crew through the final stages of the war in The Last Tiger. These huge tanks utterly dominated the battlefield, their few numbers doing nothing to diminish the fear that they’d instil in the allies, forcing them to change their tactics and even withdraw. However, as promising as that sounds, playing characters that aren’t the good guys and being presented with the consequences of their actions, it won’t be there at launch, but follow in December as the Tides of War’s first season kicks off.
If there’s one thing that I’m wary of after playing these snippets of single player, it was running into a number of bugs and issues. DICE are a big studio and squashing bugs is the final stage of development, but it feels like they’re running close to the wire in how features and plans have changed over the last few months. I hope it’s an unfounded concern, because there’s real promise in these stories and settings.
Despite being set on the overly familiar ground of World War 2, Battlefield V feels like it’s taking risks in the stories its single player looks to tell and how it tells them. It’s something that was, in my opinion, one of the best aspects of Battlefield 1, and DICE trying to delivering that with more consistency and within a much better known conflict could again be one of the real highlights of their latest game.