Single player has never been Battlefield’s forte. Sure, the Bad Company games offered a decent (if unremarkable) solo campaign, but the franchise is - and always has been - famous for multiplayer. Regardless, developer DICE always provides a single player outing with each version of Battlefield that comes along, and with Battlefield 1 (opens in new tab) it introduced the emotional and finely-crafted War Stories. Now, with Battlefield 5 (opens in new tab), the War Stories are back and… whisper it… I think the creator has finally cracked single player.
There are five war stories due for Battlefield 5. Well, that’s a bit of a fib; the first of these, Prologue, is more like an interactive montage where you play out all the themes and emotional messages of the game. You flip from one soldier to the next as they fall in combat, their deaths abrupt and uncelebrated, as the narrative paints an increasingly sombre, unwinnable picture of World War 2. So, if you don’t count the Prologue, as it only lasts about ten minutes, there are four War Stories in the game. These are: Nordlys, Under No Flag, Tirailleur, and The Last Tiger. I’ve played all but the Last Tiger, which is actually due for release in December (don’t fret - it’s a free download for everyone), and each one offers a very distinct flavour of WW2. To say ‘you’ve never played anything like this’ is too generous a statement, but they do offer tried and tested WW2 shooter action in settings and scenarios that feel very different to other games you’ve played previously.
The cold war
The first of the War Stories (although you can play in any order) is Nordlys, which you’ve seen footage from in previous Battlefield 5 trailers. You play as Solveig, a Norwegian resistance fighter who is infiltrating a heavy water plant to rescue her mother. And blow the place up, it turns out. Set inside a snowy, mountainous region of Norway, this first story is literally chilling and dark; classic Battlefield violence mixes with stealth and a handful of handsome cut-scenes, all set against the glistening snow and the glow of the Aurora Borealis. It’s hauntingly beautiful. The mission itself is multi-part, and classic war gaming fare: go here, blow this up, escape, kill more Germans etc etc. There are multiple ways to do it all, and you can choose to stealth or go in all-guns-blazing, thanks to the wealth of routes and choke-points on the map. There are even vehicles to drive, and plenty of weapon caches to loot if you fancy a different load-out. Nothing revolutionary, then, but it’s an extremely polished and well-produced story. It could easily last a couple of hours, if you take it slowly, and the core relationship triangle between Solveig, her mother, and the German officer who is overseeing the enemy operation is an interesting one.
There’s a brilliant orchestral score, the enemies are smart, the action is well paced and… my goodness, it’s almost like DICE has nailed the Battlefield single player experience. If there was about 10-15 hours of War Stories like this, included in a single package with an overarching story, you’d play it and say “Yeah, that’s a great story shooter - glad I paid $50 for it.” Sadly, the fact that there are only four War Stories here means it falls short on value as a purely single player outing but… y’know… there is a class-leading multiplayer game in there too.
The second stage I play is Under No Flag and, while it tries hard to capture the spirit of the Bad Company games, it falls short. The action is thrilling - you play as Billy Bridger, an ex-con turned Special Boat Service soldier - who is tasked with infiltrating an airfield to blow up the planes. There’s the most awful cockney banter, clearly designed for and by people with no understanding of British regional dialects, and it renders all the characters instantly dislikeable. I only play the opening section, which sees Billy getting it all badly wrong and having to take down the entire airfield to cover up his mistakes, so let’s hope the story gets better in the remaining acts. Again, the action is great - a neat blend of stealth and all-out warfare, with WW2 weaponry that packs a genuine punch - so it manages to nail 50% of the ‘War Story’ moniker.
Vive le France
Finally, I play Tirailleur, which focuses on the French conscript Deme Cisse fighting for his country in the south of France. Except Deme is a colonial soldier, has never actually visited France before, and is now being asked to fight and die for a nation that treats him as a second-class citizen. The opening cinematic sees him eager to fight, but instead he’s presented with a spade and told to fill sandbags while ‘proper’ French troops battle the Germans. With manpower short, however, and the situation desperate, Deme forces his superiors to let him fight. The rest of the stage is wonderfully chaotic warfare, and easily the best of the War Stories I play. Deme charges into an artillery bombardment and forces his way up a hill filled with machine-gun nests, trenches, and guns that can obliterate him with a single, hellishly-aimed shell. There’s a real sense of confusion in this stage, and the ability to climb the hill any way you can feels less like deliberate open-world game design and more like a glimpse of how the war may actually have been fought. In that sense, Tirailleur succeeds admirably.
Slightly more disappointing is the ‘siege’ style scrap at the top of the hill, as Deme fights to repel waves of choreographed German attacks. Entertaining, sure, but more fake than the enthusiastic opinion of your favorite YouTube star. Tonally, it’s a bit of a let-down after the strong start to the War Story. Still, Deme is an interesting character, and his story feels wonderfully unique in a near endless sea of WW2 shooters.
Overall, the Battlefield 5 War Stories seem to succeed more than they fail. The action itself, in each of them, is consistently brilliant - it’s just the storytelling itself that occasionally falters. I don’t doubt that both Under No Flag and Tirailleur have plenty more emotional moments to reveal during the course of their narratives, and if their endings are as poignant as the one that concludes Nordlys… well, they’ll certainly stick with you for days after you finish them. They’re proof positive that Battlefield is finally ready to be taken seriously as a solo-player shooter, even if the bulk of this outing - Battlefield 5 - is still rightly focused on multiplayer.
Battlefield 5 launches worldwide on November 20 on PC, PS4, and Xbox One.