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'Battlefield V' struggles to make sense of history

"Battlefield V," the 15th game in the series, returns the action to World War II. The online multiplayer spreads six different modes across eight expansive maps loosely drawn from history.

EA DICE

By MICHAEL THOMSEN | Special to The Washington Post | Published: November 30, 2018

The “Battlefield” series has never gone in order, or even really added up. “Battlefield V” is technically the 15th game in the series (depending on how you count), not the fifth. It’s the direct sequel to “Battlefield 1,” which was the 14th game, not the first. The first was 2002’s “Battlefied: 1942.” 2005’s “Battlefield 2” was actually the third in the series, and there were seven games released between it and “Battlefield 3.”

Though the title of each always seems straightforward, when you look back across the series it seems to have lost track of itself. These are games built around moments that blend together without ever really connecting.

Perhaps for that reason, DICE has taken “Battlefield V” back to the familiar territory of World War II. The centerpiece, now as then, is the online multiplayer, which spreads six different modes across eight expansive maps loosely drawn from history. There are two in the idyllic marshlands of northern France, two in the snow-covered peaks of Norway, two in the cramped urban grid of Rotterdam, and two in the dusty barrens of North Africa.

In the absence of big, new ideas, like “Battlefield 1’s” “Behemoths” or “Battlefield 4’s” system for radically transforming the terrain of maps with scripted catastrophes like tsunamis or a skyscraper collapsing, DICE has focused on a collection of gentle design nudges to encourage people to play in a slightly different way. Players start with less ammunition for guns, encouraging four-player squads to stick closer together. You no longer have to play as a Medic to revive squadmates, though it will take significantly longer to do so as another class. One new mode, Airborne, has players parachuting into the map from planes after each death. Another, Grand Operations, has players competing for the same handful of control points as other modes, but spreads it across three different rounds that are meant to simulate three days of battle, with the team ahead given extra supplies to use for the next round. Unfortunately, these updates feel marginal.

Inside the push and pull of each match, the game sets numerous petty goals that help players to gain levels and gear: Capture control point C, kill eight more people in multiplayer to unlock Assault level 14, damage 10 enemies with an explosive gadget to complete a Daily Order to earn in-game currency for new uniforms and cosmetic gun parts. Even minor actions like squatting beneath a capture point or piling sandbags accrues experience. There’s something ghostly in how urgent each new goal is, and how quickly forgotten past ones are. It’s like trying to run through a to-do list written in disappearing ink.

The sense of forgetfulness extends to the game’s single-player “War Stories” mode. As with “Battlefield 1,” DICE has chosen an anthology structure with three unconnected chapters. One follows an English prisoner set free and sent to Libya to fight for the England. Another follows a Senegalese man in the French infantry as part of the “tirailleurs,” units recruited from colonies and sent to the frontlines. The third follows a stealthy young woman as she tries to save her mother, a resistance fighter kidnapped while spying on a Nazi program to develop a nuclear weapon.

The mission, which takes place in less than 24 hours, is inspired by Operation Gunnerside, a covert effort to destroy a heavy water manufacturing plant in the mountains of Norway that took over six months. A small band of Norwegian resistance fighters spent months attempting to parachute into the snowy mountains but were turned back twice, once due to engine troubles, another time because of heavy fog. When they finally reached the ground they had to haul themselves and their 650 pounds of gear nearly 100 kilometers through the snow. They spent the next several months waiting for a second group to parachute in before finally conducting the raid, which was pulled off successfully with no gunfire, and was followed by arduous weeks of escape back through the mountains.

The game doesn’t just erase these details, it overwrites them. The fantasy of lone heroism displaces the facts behind history’s slow and collective struggles. Games like “Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad” offered players no aiming reticle or onscreen information about health or ammunition while encouraging players to spend most of their time waiting behind cover, with only fleeting glimpses of the enemy. “This War of Mine” asked the player to balance resources while surviving a siege with no end in sight. Even “Call of Duty: World at War,” presented its impossibly high-speed shootouts as self-conscious hedonism. Its tastelessness felt not just appropriate but almost responsible, a mental exercise reminding one that the game’s violent spectacles belong more to the realm of fantasy than fact.

By comparison, “Battlefield V’s” unironic solemnity feels untrustworthy, too comfortable in investing its hedonic inventions as history reduced to its purest essence. It has the surreal clarity of a false memory, something the game’s visuals amplify. Everything has the molded hardness of plastic, a profusion of replicas that aren’t beautiful so much as they are captivatingly animatronic: ten thousand bright yellow canola flowers moving without any wind; skin pores rimmed with dirt, eyeballs that glisten in worried faces; enemy soldiers that lean sleepily against a crate, then walk off to the bushes to urinate, return to their post, and then walk back into the bushes to urinate.

There’s an impression of disposability behind these sights, a tone that resonates through the endlessness of the game’s multiplayer modes and binds its single-player stories together. The game trains you for it with its opening tutorial, in which you zoom through the final moments of a half-dozen soldiers during World War II. Players control each for the last 30 seconds or minute of their life and when they die the camera leaps out of the first-person perspective and soars into orbit before settling on a new location and zooming back down to inhabit another body. As the deaths pile up like candy wrappers, you are being taught to take pleasure, not in discovering history but throwing it away, one stray detail after another.

Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows
Online: www.ea.com/games/battlefield/battlefield-5

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