“Death is death no matter where you are,” a voiceover says during Battlefield V’s opening, “And suffering is the same in every language.” True to this, the beginning of the game zooms around the world to show people of various nations in the midst of World War II’s international battles. The player assumes control of one of them—an Allied soldier fighting Nazis under the spectral green waves of the Northern Lights in Norway, say—for a short period of time before being killed. The next perspective in this instance is a German tank driver fighting on the Libyan coast. He, too, dies quickly before the camera flies into the stratosphere to pick a different region of the globe to provide its focus. The idea with all of this is to hammer home the always worthwhile message that war is absurdly cruel no matter who it’s visited upon. For those asleep in the back, the sequence is capped off with a video montage depicting other combatants in peril, all overlaid with saccharine flutes and a stoic narration about the gravity of the Second World War.
Again, the sentiment is just fine and is, in its globe-hopping, a valuable reminder that WWII was fought by more than just strong-jawed white Americans in Western Europe and the Japanese-occupied Pacific. It is, though, more than a little strange when contrasted with the superfluous nature of playing Battlefield V itself. Once the cutscenes end and the fighting begins, the game turns into something very different. For its single-player, this means running around a selection of environments completing objectives in whichever way’s deemed best. In some cases, a lone soldier might quietly slit the throat of a Nazi guard to plant explosives on an anti-aircraft emplacement. In others, that same soldier may sprint around German soldiers like a maniac, shooting blindly at nearby threats while hammering the jump button, and lobbing grenade after grenade at a gun pit to accomplish the same goal. For the multiplayer, of course, the ridiculousness of seeing so many other digital soldiers fighting the war with similarly alien movements is increased still further. None of it feels very somber unless the player takes great pains to adjust their behaviour to be as thematically appropriate as possible.
And yet, war is portrayed in Battlefield V with an almost enthusiastic sensitivity whenever the controller’s set down—as in the video introductions to the game’s selection of single-player short stories. One of them follows a young English criminal sent to fight in the British SBS. By the time it ends, the combat mission turns into a coming-of-age tale where the criminal’s brusque commander becomes something of a father figure, providing a level of comfort and understanding the recruit’s actual, bank robber dad wouldn’t give him. Another, centered on a Senegalese Tirailleur, sees he and his troops treated with disdain by the racist French forces they fight alongside to liberate their colonizer’s country. Not only are the Senegalese soldiers shown mourning the deaths of their own Tirailleur comrades, but the chapter ends with the protagonist storming the inner holds of a Nazi-occupied chateau only to find a dozen or so enemy troops sadly groaning in a makeshift field hospital. Earlier in this story, one soldier stops another from shooting a fleeing enemy, suggesting that there’s been enough violence already.
Rather than position its levels focused on the Norwegian resistance as a dispassionate tale of partisan combat, Battlefield V centres itself on a mother-daughter story that models patriotism as a virtue analogous to intimate familial relationships. A Nazi lieutenant tasked with interrogating the player character’s mother is shown as being hesitant to do his job and justifies the German’s atomic research by saying that if they don’t develop the weapons first, people like the British or Russians will do it anyway and use their creation to destroy his country. Even Nazi tank commanders get a fair shake in a story that follows a beleaguered Tiger crew as their nation collapses around them. As these things must, the crew ends its section of the game expressing guilt over the crimes they and their country have committed, though what those crimes are, exactly, is never explicitly laid out well enough to complicate the goal of sympathizing with the doomed soldiers. The final moments of this tale, instead, try to create a grand tragedy out of the small-scale conflict that accompanied the more than welcome defeat of Nazi Germany.
In each of these stories, to various degrees of effectiveness, World War II is appropriately portrayed as a nightmare into which the whole globe has slipped. The characters who fight these battles grow as individuals while enduring the torment of simply trying to carry on through inhuman circumstances. Battlefield V wants very badly to remind its players that its battles are drawn from a history of immense international pain. The multiplayer, which is largely devoid of plot details beyond historical battle settings and the occasional structure of a competitive round simulating actual events from the war, still attempts to showcase the brutality of the events depicted in its endless, ultimately numbing online battles. Axis and Allied characters alike have little pre-recorded statements they yell when taking part in mission-important objectives or bleed out with grasping arms from their wounds (Cameron Kunzelman explores the implications of this detail well in a recent article) that seem to exist for no reason other than to wring additional pathos out of pedestrian competitive design staples.
All of this, from the sympathetic lens of the single-player stories to the attempts at humanizing details in multiplayer, speaks to a tension at the heart of Battlefield V. The game wants very much to impart the seriousness of its subject matter, but not so much that it’s willing to restrict player behaviour or multiplayer design in service of reinforcing that message. Though the player may be convinced as she watches the cast bleed and cry and scream in cutscenes or death animations, soon enough they’re back to running and gunning through levels whose objectives (blow up a strategic point, occupy a strategic point, shoot the enemies near a strategic point) are so neat, clear-cut, and reassuring to anyone who’s played a shooter before that they feel comfortable.
Battlefield V’s epilogue—spoken, seemingly from the present day, over footage from the rest of the game—says that war didn’t end with the horrors of WWII, but that we can take hope from the goodness of others shown during that terrible era. This, like the rest of Battlefield V, is a message at apparent odds with the game’s rendering the war into little more than an aesthetic, the look and feel of its combat inevitably divorced from the horror it portrays in non-interactive moments. Rather than there being something educational to be gained from the melancholy, humanistic moments of its cutscenes, the game is another step toward rendering a momentous historical event—and the lessons its brutality and infamy are meant to have left for posterity—into an adventure. The end result is constant whiplash, whose lasting impression is of a sad story read in a jungle gym.
Reid McCarter is a writer and editor based in Toronto. His work has appeared at The AV Club, GQ, Kill Screen, Playboy, Paste, and VICE.