Thoughts: Battlefield V

bfv_panzerstorm

It’s… good?

Let me first preface this by saying that my opinion of Battlefield V is complicated, and describing it simply as “good” is papering over many of the cracks in what is an extremely flawed shooter with far more than its fair share of bugs. However, even taking those into account BF V has been receiving a kicking from both the gaming press and the Battlefield fanbase that I feel is rather disproportionate to its sins, many of which can be laid at the feet of Electronic Arts rather than series developer DICE. It’s EA that forced them to release in time for Christmas without much time to polish, and it’s EA that launched the game with a baffling array of purchasing options and release dates that appears to have confused the target audience to the point where many were unaware it had released at all, and both of these factors have done much to turn the regular playerbase against the game. Given that, and the host of other issues plaguing Battlefield V that do partially stem from DICE’s terrible track record for Battlefield launches, it’s frankly a minor miracle that I can sit here with a straight face and describe the game as “good”.

Battlefield V is good though, god help me. I didn’t like Battlefield 1 at all. I fell out of Battlefield 4 very quickly. I did put over a hundred hours into Battlefield 3’s multiplayer, but my gold standard for the series remains Bad Company 2, the first game that truly leveraged the Frostbite engine’s destruction physics and which had a heavier focus on infantry combat and attempted to minimise the experience of being killed over and over by some sad sack in a fighter jet obsessed with maximising his K/D ratio. And while I wasn’t expecting much of Battlefield V when I bought it, and it certainly doesn’t surpass the good times I had with Bad Company 2, I am very surprised to find that it offers the best Battlefield experience since Bad Company 2.

bfv_fields

Battlefield V is a return to the series’ World War 2 roots, except this version of World War 2 rendered in the Frostbite engine is both absurdly pretty and seems somehow unreal because of it, like it’s almost (but not quite) blundered into the Uncanny Valley. That feeling isn’t helped by Battlefield V being very much a modern shooter under the WW2 trappings; because FPS players in 2018 are used to modern settings and modern weapons there are far more semi-auto and assault rifles floating around in Battlefield V than you’d strictly expect from a World War 2 engagement, and to justify this each classes’ weapon options mostly consists of experimental prototypes that might have possibly been fired at a Nazi one time, maybe, if you squint at history a bit. Both sides have access to the same selection, too, so you’ve got Germans running around with Sten guns and Brits laying down hails of fire from their MG42s. The choice of setting is largely reduced to visual flavour and there’s almost no concessions that have been made to it in the gameplay; it’s a modern Battlefield dressed up in WW2 chic rather than a true flashback to the glory days of 1942. This isn’t necessarily a problem as (with the exception of Battlefield 1) the modern Battlefields have been very good multiplayer shooters – just so long as you know that’s what you’re getting.

I suppose the WW2 set dressing ringing so hollow was ultimately a good thing, as I have quite a soft spot for Battlefield 1942 and Battlefield V utterly failing to bring it to mind in any way meant my nostalgia wasn’t getting in the way and I could assess the thing semi-objectively. The centrepiece of the game is still those gigantic 64-player rucks with a bunch of vehicles and planes thrown into the mix, and it would be a mistake to say that Battlefield V is doing anything truly revolutionary with the concept. What it does do is make a whole host of under-the-hood changes to mechanics that had previously been taken for granted as part of the Battlefield formula, and this moves the series back in the direction of thinky tactics and teamwork over run ‘n gun twitch shooting and/or sitting back in a tank racking up a kill count.

bfv_dynamite

In fact, tanks are a great place to start breaking Battlefield V down. Tanks in Battlefield have always been somewhat vulnerable to infantry — especially if that infantry could get close with C4 charges — but Battlefield V really dials up that vulnerability to the point where a tank cannot proceed into an environment that has a lot of cover without friendly infantry support to protect its flanks. Every building might conceal a panzerfaust. Every hedgerow might vomit forth a stream of angry troops with dynamite. Even if you’re in a heavy tank a single Assault class player with these weapons can do enough damage to push you to the brink of destruction so you have to take them seriously. And while there’s a third-person chase camera for driving around that might give you a some advance warning of approaching infantry, if you’re actually fighting in a tank you have to go back into the tunnel vision of first-person turret view to reliably land your shots, giving them plenty of opportunity to slap that dynamite onto the vulnerable rear armour of your tank. Even if they don’t kill you the tank damage model means they’ll likely cripple the tracks or turret or otherwise inflict irreparable damage that forces you to withdraw. Tanks that lack infantry support must either sit in the middle of a wide open field and snipe from afar in a not-particularly-effective manner, or else make suicidal runs into enemy-held territory that will end with them exploding 90% of the time. On the other hand a tank that does have infantry support is an incredibly effective force multiplier, distracting and suppressing the enemy and creating space for the friendly infantry to take and hold territory. You can still get some impressive kill counts in a tank if you play it right, of course, but that doesn’t feel like it’s the primary goal of the tank any more.

The increased vulnerability of tanks also has a lot to do with the spotting changes in Battlefield V. Previous Battlefield games have given all players the ability to spot enemy players for the rest of their team by putting their crosshairs over them and hammering Q; this attaches a giant red triangle to their heads that tracks them as long as they remain in vision and points out their location to the rest of your team. I didn’t particularly like this spotting system because it made it practically impossible to sneak around and attack from the flank; one enemy player spotting you meant that the entire enemy team now knew where you were and your surprise attack was ruined. Battlefield V, though, takes the spotting ability away from the vast majority of players. You can still push Q to put down a static danger marker for your squad to indicate the general direction of a threat, but this is imprecise, doesn’t track enemy players, and isn’t visible to the rest of your team. The Recon class still has something close to the previous incarnation of the spotting ability, but they have to whip out a special Spotting Scope to do it and while they’re using that they can’t fire their precious sniper rifles, so having a Recon on your team who’ll actually spot enemies is kind of like finding a unicorn in the wild. However, when they do it — again — acts as a tremendous force multiplier. Spotting is a powerful ability, but everyone having it just meant that everyone was spotted all the time. Giving it to one specialist class with a specialist tool highlights just how good it is; I played a round a couple of days ago where three friendly players were defending a house against two enemy squads, but they also had me perched on a hill two hundred metres away spotting the enemy positions for them, and they were able to slaughter the enemy because they knew exactly where they were while the enemy squads had to fumble through their attack blind.

bfv_spotting

Even little things like your equipment loadout make you more heavily reliant on other players in your team to be fully effective. Battlefield V has a very low time-to-kill with only a few bullets being required to put somebody on the ground, which I quite like, but most of the guns in the game have very small magazines and your soldier avatar doesn’t carry around a huge quantity of spare ammo. It’s next to impossible to dispose of more than two enemy players before getting stuck in a lengthy reload animation, so you’re not going to be Rambo-ing your way through a four-person squad single-handedly and will need backup from your own squad in order to survive. A single sustained engagement will exhaust your ammunition supplies, so you’ll need a friendly Support player on hand to give you more; this has been the case for a while in Battlefield, but I can’t remember it ever being quite such a pronounced requirement as it is in Battlefield V. You spawn with a single set of bandages that you can use to restore your health after being riddled with bullets, but after that’s been used up (which will happen pretty damn quickly) you’ll be stuck a single bullet away from death until a Medic tosses you a fresh pack. Medics themselves have their usual ability to pick up downed teammates before they outright expire and get long-range smoke grenades to conceal them while they’re doing this, but that smoke is also startlingly effective when dropped on an enemy strongpoint to smother their vision — if you can coordinate the rest of the team to charge in before it disperses.

Then there’s this newest iteration of the Frostbite engine. Battlefield’s recent use of Frostbite’s terrain destruction features has baffled me somewhat. Bad Company 2 set the standard with some comparatively primitive yet effective building destruction that ranged anywhere from “make a hole in the wall” to “drop the building on somebody’s head”, but subsequent installments rowed back from such comprehensive destructiveness, instead choosing to focus on some big and impressive scripted destruction (like the communications mast coming down in Caspian Sea). I don’t recall dynamic destruction ever being a really noticeable element of 3 or 4, which was very disappointing. However, Battlefield V’s destruction finally surpasses what DICE achieved eight years ago. Buildings get shredded in a satisfyingly organic manner when hit with explosives and heavy calibre rounds. Somebody using a house as a fortification? Blow up the walls and take away their cover. Somebody camping the stairs? Stick some dynamite on the ceiling underneath them and drop them into your waiting gunsights. Lobbing a panzerfaust through a window will cause chunks of debris to rain down from the roof, and this debris can damage and kill enemies hiding inside (which you’ll get the kill credit for). Buildings don’t outright collapse as they did in Bad Company but this is an acceptable substitute, and once enough explosives have been punted into one it might as well be destroyed as it’ll have no walls left and its cover value is precisely zero.

bfv_hamada

Battlefield V goes one step further with its terrain features, however: it allows you to create as well as destroy. Each map’s control points has a set of fortifications that can be built up from sandbags and barbed wire, and while the Support class can build faster and can also add stationary weapon emplacements these basic fortifications are something that all classes are capable of building. These fortifications are less useful as actual cover — you can build firing steps to peek over the top, but this just guarantees you’ll be shot in the head instead of the body — than they are at limiting enemy access and blocking their line of sight into a point, but that’s reason enough to build them. There’s a basic mantling system in the game that can be used to vault through windows and over walls, but you can’t vault over barbed wire, and having a nice thick wall of sandbags obscuring enemy sightlines allows you to move about on a point in relative safety. Of course this is just another piece of terrain to be destroyed by explosives when an enemy gets close enough, and fortifications can be built and destroyed several times as a point changes hands from one side to another. Fortifications aren’t exactly transformative to the gameplay, but they are a very nice extra feature that I think I’d miss if they didn’t appear in subsequent Battlefield titles.

Put that all together with some very satisfying ballistics — the guns all feel incredibly satisfying to use, and the sound is as great as you’d expect from a Battlefield game — and you have a Battlefield whose core loop of spawn-fight-die-repeat is extremely engaging because there’s so much you can do to help out your team beyond just killing people efficiently. No matter how many bugs and rough edges and general lack of polish Battlefield V has, DICE have gotten the basic gameplay of battling alongside your team in colossal firefights very, very right. The maps are a bit hit and miss but there’s only one outright stinker (Hamada) and they’re let down more by a focus on infantry combat over the vehicular antics that the Battlefield series is known for than they are inherently poor map design. Even if you strip all of the long-term progression stuff out of the game and reduce it down to just that basic experience of shooting dudes, that basic experience is still decent enough to make Battlefield V a very fun game to play indeed.

And that’s a particularly good thing for Battlefield V, because almost everything outside of that basic experience is a flaming garbage fire.

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First up, Battlefield’s battlefields, fun as they are, are not without some serious balancing issues. There’s no killjoy quite like being instantly obliterated by JU-88 that’s dropped a staggering 32 bombs on your position that you can do absolutely nothing about; the air war has always been the preferred dumping ground for the terminally dull tryhards in Battlefield, and Battlefield V is no exception. What really bugs me about planes is how non-interactive they are for an infantryman. When a tank rocks up on your position you can at least spawn as an Assault and try to whack it with a panzerfaust or three. On the other hand when you see a bomber coming in there’s absolutely nothing you can do; the static anti-air emplacements do so little damage to them that a bomber can come in on a direct approach, taking fire the entire time, and drop its bombload straight onto on the the AA gun, and then fly away to repair. Your best bet is to run for cover, but the interface for dropping bombs is pinpoint-accurate and if the bomber decides to aim at your particular clump of scattering infantry you’re dead. At least in the modern Battlefields I could take a shoulder-launched AA missile that’d make a helicopter or plane think twice before diving on my sector of the battle. Here you might as well try the old Soviet trick of lying on the ground and taking potshots at the plane with your gun as it flies overhead since it’ll be about as effective as anything else you can do. The actual counter to bombers is fighters, but there’s a limited number of aircraft spawn slots and if they’re all taken (usually by people on your own team seeking those sweet bomber kills) you’re out of luck. This is the biggest ongoing failure of the Battlefield series: they have never managed to make aircraft interesting for anyone who wasn’t flying one, and Battlefield V is a particularly bad example of the problem. The best you can do is ignore them and hope they don’t target you.

There’s also — and still, over a month after the game released to the first wave of people who bought EA’s subscription service —  a ton of really aggravating annoyances and rough edges based mostly around movement and positioning. Battlefield V’s mantling system is incredibly hit and miss; your avatar will be able to pull themselves over this two-metre wall no problem, but that two-metre wall is a no-go. Is it because it has vines on it, or because the mantling system is buggy as fuck? I honestly can’t tell. At least your avatar has something of an excuse there; there honestly isn’t one for them being unable to drag themselves through a window on the first three attempts until the mantling finally catches on to what you’re trying to do, and it turns out that ineffectually hopping around outside a building or next to a knee-high snowbank is a great way to attract the attention of the enemy and get shot half a second later. If you set yourself up prone with a bipod machine gun behind a nice piece of cover looking down a street (which is exactly what you should be doing) what’ll often happen is that you’ll slowly slide sideways out of cover into full view for absolutely no reason. Reviving people as the Medic now involves a short animation of zapping them with a syringe of go-juice, but you need to be in just the right place for this animation to trigger, so often you’ll pop your smoke, scuttle over to your downed friend — and then just stare at them stupidly because the revive prompt hasn’t appeared because you aren’t standing in the correct spot, or because they’re too close to a wall for the animation to happen. The subsequent dance you have to do around their body to get the revive prompt to pop onto your screen is, again, an excellent way to get your body aired out by 9mm parabellum.

bfv_medic

This is nowhere near the full list of issues with the gameplay, it’s just the set of issues that most immediately came to mind when writing a paragraph about things that get in the way of me enjoying the game. There’s a lot more of these rough edges that, although more generally benign — the bug where revived players occasionally get hurled thirty feet across the map because the game can’t figure out where to respawn their avatar is at least entertaining — still betray a gross lack of time for DICE to polish their product. It’s not quite at the point of feeling like I’m playing a beta (which puts it above some other Battlefield launches I could mention) but still needs another couple of months before it can achieve its full potential.

But hey, at least I have some faith that all of those dents and scratches in the gameplay will be buffed out at some point down the line. Battlefield 4 was incredibly broken on launch, but my friends who stuck with it tell me that it was eventually patched into a very solid game. Crucially, aside from planes (which they’ll never fix) there’s nothing you’ll encounter in a round of Battlefield V that’s so irredeemably bad that DICE are better off ripping it out completely and replacing it with something better. Unfortunately the same can’t be said once you step out of a game and back into Battlefield V’s menu systems, which are hands down the worst UI experience I’ve seen in a AAA game this decade. The interface for actually getting into a game is, thankfully, only moderately confusing (although god help you if you want to participate in their Tides Of War battle pass thing), but most of Battlefield V’s menus are focused around equipping and upgrading your soldier classes, and this process is an absolute car crash.

bfv_squad

For starters, despite having access to identical equipment loadouts you must set up your Assault loadout for the Allies separately from your Assault loadout for Axis. Just unlocked a new gun and want to try it? Hope you remembered to equip it in both the Axis and Allies menus, otherwise you’re going to end up wondering why you’re starting a match still clutching the piece of shit Sten gun you had before. It’s not even like they’ve made it painless to switch between each side’s loadout menus for a class; you have to click back out into a team menu, click again to switch sides, and then click a third time to go back into the class menu. Bizarrely, while loadouts are tracked separately your gun customisation is not, so sticking a new sight onto your MP40 only needs to be done once — this is the way I’d expect it to work, obviously, but it’s a lack of consistency that betrays just how haphazard this UI is, and it feels like it’s been put together without any real unifying concept of how human beings use menus in a Battlefield game. Or, you know, human beings in general. The really, really aggravating thing about tracking each side separately is that you’ll end a match as a Allied Medic, get switched to Axis for the next map, and find yourself starting as an Assault because that’s what you were playing the last time you were playing on Axis. It’s just a totally unnecessary duplication of effort — having to set my Medic loadout twice every time I want to change something, having to keep an eye on things to make sure I’m still the same class I was before, it’s hardly game-ruining but it is a constant drag on my enjoyment.

 Of course the reason you now have to set up each side’s loadout separately is the one you’d expect: cosmetics! While the actual usable equipment for each side is identical, the unlockable (and, obviously, purchasable with in-game currency) cosmetics are not, so the game doubles up on equipment menus just to let you have one outfit for the Allies and another for the Axis. I’m not inherently opposed to customising my characters’ looks — except this is an army, where people wear uniforms, and the meaning of that is kind of inherent in the name. You can’t introduce cosmetics into a game where everyone is supposed to look the same without breaking that game’s internal fiction. As it happens Battlefield V has only the most tenuous connection to the actual Second World War so I’d have been fine with DICE going whole hog and making it full-on alternate dimension WW2 if it had resulted in something interesting to look at, but instead they half-ass it with a bunch of ragged outfits and drab camouflage patterns that make everyone look like they’re fighting in the Hobo War. I don’t know how they expect to sell anyone these cosmetics because they’re so boring — not only that, but because all classes can equip all cosmetics it totally breaks any concept of recognising an enemy soldier’s class via their character model. That’s an important information channel that’s been totally shut down for no benefit, in addition to creating this godawful menu system where I have to do everything twice.

bfv_cosmetics

The rest of Battlefield V’s UI crimes are mostly sins of obfuscation. Every class, vehicle and gun now has a specialisation menu, which affects how they play, and a customisation menu, which is cosmetic only (except for the gunsights), and the difference between the two is never explained and I’ve seen several people miss that the actually-important specialisation menu even exists. When you unlock a new equipment option you can’t access it right away; instead you have to go to the Armory to “claim” it (literally a box-ticking exercise) before you can use it. I think the Armory is supposed to be an in-game store that got the actual store parts ripped out of it when the Battlefront 2 loot box controversy blew up, because there’s only seven or eight things in there that you can buy with Battlefield Bucks1 and no way of purchasing Battlefield Bucks with real money that I can see, so it just adds another pointless step to unlocking stuff. Battlefield now has daily quests in the form of Assignments, and you can also equip up to four Special Assignments that take longer to complete, but once you do complete one there’s no way to equip a new Special Assignment in game; you have to quit back out into the main menu to do it, and because that involves sixty seconds of staring at a black screen with a loading symbol (I have absolutely no idea why it takes so long to load the main menu, and I suspect DICE don’t either because it’s still happening a month after release) I’ve inevitably forgotten all about it by the time I get there.

In fact, do you know what Battlefield V’s menus remind me of? This tongue-in-cheek attempt by web developers to design the worst possible interface for entering your phone number into a web form. Battlefield V isn’t quite that bad, but then the only reason those web forms are worse is because they’re intentionally shit, and they both share a fondness for wasting the user’s time in byzantine rituals that are almost Kafkaesque. I genuinely have trouble believing it’s something that a human being sat down and designed and a bunch of other human beings looked at and signed off on for this AAA game that took hundreds of very talented developers and millions of dollars to make. UI design is a science these days; you can hire clever specialists who will have endless meetings with you to discuss what exactly the user flow through a website or an app is going to be and how to make their experience as intuitive and painless as possible so that they’ll stick around to (hopefully) give you some money.  Somebody should probably tell DICE this, because right now they’re coming across as the UI equivalent of Flat Earthers, and it’s a good thing for them the actual game is so good because I die a little bit inside every time I have to do anything that’s not playing the game in Battlefield V.

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I guess at the end of the day DICE aren’t doing anything particularly out of the ordinary here, either for them or for Battlefield. Nearly all of the Battlefields have been excellent multiplayer shooters in one way or another, and Battlefield V is no exception. This particular flavour of Battlefield happens to be more to my taste than other recent attempts, but while the changes it makes do have a significant impact on the overall timbre of the game they’re hardly revolutionary; it’s still Battlefield, and — more importantly — it’s still a Battlefield game developed by DICE that launched just over a month ago, with all of the baggage that that entails. This means you kind of have to grimace and/or laugh through the staggering fuckups you know are going to be in the game because, despite their internal idiosyncracies and their truncated development timeframes, DICE are still the best in the business at producing this kind of mass-market military multiplayer shooter. While Battlefield V is in something of a rough shape right now it is at least a fully-featured game that you can play and enjoy and get a lot of fun out of in spite of its significant shortcomings. It’s sad that I have to lower the bar like this, but that’s a damn sight more than a lot of other AAA titles have managed this year, and while Battlefield V would definitely have benefited from an additional three months of development I think DICE at least have their priorities in the right order: it’s full of irritating little bugs but none of them are ragequit-worthy, and while the menus might be mind-bogglingly stupid it’s not something that directly impacts on the shooter part of the game. That part they got mostly right, and hopefully it’s only going to get better from here.

(Oh, and as usual I played some of the single-player campaign, and as usual it was some of the most derivative horseshit I’ve ever experienced in an FPS. I’ve been saying for years DICE should drop it and focus on the multiplayer exclusively — you know, the bit they’re actually good at — and hopefully now that Call Of Duty has gone multiplayer-only Battlefield will too, if only because DICE won’t have anything to slavishly copy any more.)

  1. The actual name for it is Company Coin, which is further proof that DICE don’t have a clue what they’re doing when it comes to in-game purchasing.
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One thought on “Thoughts: Battlefield V

  1. Kolos Stadler says:

    You got me laughing at the web design part. I’ll send that link to our UI designer, he LOVES stuff like that!

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