Platforms: PC (reviewed), PS4, Xbox One
Despite returning to the classic World War II setting that's been the stage for so many of the highlights of the franchise, Battlefield V is a strange game that bucks expectations at every turn. It's hard to play it without feeling like it's a game that's reacting to a lot of external forces, rather than building an identity of its own.
Battlefield V will avoid loot boxes and will be getting free DLC largely because of the controversy around Star Wars Battlefront II. Explosives have been toned down to the point of feeling underpowered in what's likely a response to the chaos caused by such weapons in a typical Battlefield 1 match. And though it doesn't have a Battle Royale mode at launch, one will be coming with the game's Firestorm mode in March.
In many ways, Battlefield V at launch feels like a game that isn't fully released yet (a feeling that wasn't helped by the game's strangely staggered release schedule for people who purchased the game in different ways). But the game is out there for anyone to play, right now, and it offers a solid experience that is only likely to improve as the game gets bigger.
Multiplayer: Fast deaths and squad play
If you've never played a Battlefield game before, Battlefield V doesn't do much to explain the particular quirks of the franchise. While the basics of shooting and capturing objectives aren't significantly different from other FPS games, there's a lot more depth that there isn't an easy in-game way to learn. For example: dropping prone and crawling, rather than just crouching, is hugely important to staying alive on foot. That's something that will be second nature to seasoned Battlefield veterans, but which new players will have to discover after a number of frustrating deaths.
New players are also likely to be surprised by how long typical Battlefield V matches go. The majority of the popular game modes are focused on evoking the gradual push and pull of war over a large scale, and matches often play out over 30 minutes or longer. As such, there's no penalty for leaving a match early. These long match times combined with the game's catch-up mechanic, which nudges matches towards closer scores, mean you might play Battlefield V multiplayer for a few hours and only experience a handful of really satisfying match endings that feel earned.
If you're a Battlefield veteran, on the other hand, then what you're most likely to notice with V is how much quicker the deaths come, on both sides of your scope. The time-to-kill in Battlefield V feels remarkably fast at times, and combined with short re-spawn timers and squad spawning that allows you to resurrect at the front lines of combat, it's very easy to die multiple times in under a minute.
You'll be one-shot by snipers, gunned down from behind by an enemy flanking maneuver, and blown up by bombs dropped by enemy planes, and you'll often feel like you didn't have a chance to do much of anything before you died yet again. But since all of your foes are just as fragile as you, wise play will score you kills of your own - and hopefully it all ends up being more fun than it is frustrating.
Part of the reason for the quick deaths in Battlefield V is the limited effect of healing items. By default every player carries a single health pack, and self-healing won't bring you back to full if you've taken any significant damage. You can get more health from supply stations and medic players, but in practice this system means that most players are running around with less than full health, most of the time.
Battlefield V places a heavy emphasis on squad-based play in its multiplayer, which means you and up to three other players will be linked in typical multiplayer matches. Though you have your own individual stats and are free to pursue whatever objectives you like, squads work best when they function as a unit. The squad leader can issue orders, telling the other players which objective to attack or defend, and providing some much-needed guidance in the large-scale chaos of 64-player battles.
Squads also earn points that the leader can use to summon vehicles or rocket barrages, and players can spawn on surviving squad members as long as they aren't actively engaged in a firefight, which incentivizes conservative play when you're the last squad member left alive.
It's possible to change squads during a match, if you happen to be saddled with players who aren't paying attention or who just don't fit your style. As of this review there's a bit of an issue with many squads in matches being locked and inaccessible by default if any of the members are buddies playing together, but like so much of this game, that's something that could very well change in response to player feedback.
On the whole, the emphasis on squads feels like one of the best parts of Battlefield V, and will hopefully provide an easier learning process for new players (since sticking near your more experienced squad members and following their lead is always a decent strategy).
Battlefield V's single-player experience is focused on a few self-contained stories, with more content planned in the game's free "Tides of War" content updates releasing in the coming months. These stories are cinematic narratives which offer plenty of combat and dramatic set-pieces, but end up feeling a bit disconnected from the multiplayer backbone of the game. Though you can earn unique cosmetic items by completing the single-player stories and reaching certain objectives, the stories don't do a good job of preparing you for the intricacies of multiplayer, while also not being long enough to feel like a proper campaign.
The single-player side of Battlefield V takes an Inglourious Basterds approach to its WWII setting, focusing on telling exciting stories rather than delivering history lessons, but in the end it doesn't feel like the game gets the tone quite right. Heavily fictionalized war stories are just fine, and games aren't meant to be history books, but between its dramatic levels in which a teenage Norwegian girl throws knives at Nazis while riding on skis, Battlefield V makes the point of delivering sentences of on-screen text about the real history of the events depicted. To me this felt strange, like the game was insecure about its own storytelling and the liberties it was taking with historical fact.
In the actual Battlefield V launch product, the controversial touches from the game's launch trailer, with its heavy dose of "personality" and a focus on over-the-top style, feel almost entirely absent. Was that ever the game DICE was making? Will we see more of that in the free DLC releases to come? Or was that path entirely abandoned in favor of a more conventional Battlefield offering? It's hard to say.
Though the game does let you play as female soldiers in any combat role, on either side, in practice this feels like a very small cosmetic choice, and it's something that's hard to notice or think twice about during the chaos of battle. The only thing glaring about this nod to avatar customization rather than "historical accuracy" is the female death screams, which tend to stand out as especially notable (and potentially disturbing). A slight tweak of the volume or length of a handful of such sounds might be a wise move in an upcoming update, though of course it's also worth considering why these particular screams inspire so much discussion among the community, in a franchise that has always been about serving up unceasing death for its mostly male soldier avatars.
Battlefield V's character customization comes via its "Company" system, which allows you to tweak the appearance and equipment of four different roles (Assault, Medic, Support, and Recon) for each of the game's two factions. You level up each class individually, unlocking new gadgets, weapons and visual customization options. You also earn in-game currency as you play, which can in turn be spent on cosmetic upgrades for your different characters. You'll eventually be able to spend real-world money on purely cosmetic items, but that's not enabled at launch.
None of the cosmetic options available at launch seem dramatically out of place for the time and factions involved. There are no prosthetic arms to be seen, and you can't dress your British medic in bright pink or purple shades. More options will be available with upcoming free content releases, we've been told, but it's likely those will focus on the addition of new forces into the game (like the French and Russians), rather than taking customization too far from the real look and feel of the era.
Visuals, sound, and room for improvement
Battlefield V looks fantastic, and offers enormous visual variety across its map pool. You'll fight over objectives in the desert, snow-covered mountains, waterlogged swamps, and around a ruined and burning urban church, among others. There are eight maps at launch, which is slightly smaller than what we've seen in previous games in the franchise, but the maps are highly detailed and versatile, and end up feeling different when you experience them in different map types. It's also seriously impressive to watch maps change in real time over the course of a match, as explosives wreck building and fortifications and the ground is torn up with craters.
The sound design of Battlefield V is also very well done, with notable distortions, echoes, and other environmental twists that help lend a sense of place to the combat playing out around you. The music is mostly subtle and unsurprising, but plays a more significant role in the game's single-player stories.
After all the excitement about NVIDIA's real-time ray-tracing coming to Battlefield V before any other publicly available game, the effects in the wild, at least so far, leave a lot to be desired, and definitely aren't worth the performance hit they cause in a multiplayer-focused shooter. If you happen to have a 20-series card capable of the game's advanced reflection features, you should absolutely turn it on to check it out, but you aren't likely to leave it enabled. It's a technical marvel and a neat first step for PC visuals, but real-time ray-tracing isn't a practical addition to the Battlefield V experience right now.
At launch, many areas of Battlefield V are in need of continued improvement. The game's UI in particular can be frustrating, and it takes too many clicks and too much loading to do basic things like leaving a match or modifying a weapon. There were a number of bugs to be found too, ranging from crazy ragdoll effects that stuck bodies into level geometry to more serious, match-breaking complications with the game's mission-critical explosives.
But of course, like so much of Battlefield V as it exists on November 21st, 2018, these bugs are likely to change. DICE and EA have made it clear that this game is a work in progress, with significant free content releases to come. In six months, with more maps, customization options, and a full-fledged Battle Royale mode, who knows what Battlefield V will be like? Right now the game is good, not great, with real shortcomings that have little to do with all the rage spilled about the game in the months leading up to its launch.