header is screenshot from Battlefield V
The Face of Battle
Chris Breault

Sometimes, after I sight a German across the concertina wire and send spidery hit markers skittering up to his cap, and feel the crush of currency and accolades roll in at the foot of my screen, I can’t stop playing Battlefield. I mean I actually can’t. I click the quit button, but it only takes me to a splash screen with a cycling BFV logo, as if the program needs a full minute to load in the real world before I can leave. 2016’s Battlefield 1 used to take so long to convey you through the Quitting Environment that one turned to the Task Manager instead. Not painful enough to fix but agonizingly familiar to fans, this lethargy has become yet another venerable tradition of Battlefield, a series I cannot quit.

Sometimes, after I set up a box of ammunition that no one will take and flop down in the mud beside a flag, as I have done a thousand times over the last decade, I see a gray and silent comrade by my side doing the same. Without complaint, this faceless shadow performs the rites of capture and killing and regeneration until the work is done. Unspeaking, unflinching, the Unknown Soldier of Battlefield charges back into the fight.

I really have seen him.

They should have put that silhouette on the cover of Battlefield V, the most anonymous title in the series. Its streamlining does not revive aging ideas; it only fits a new cage of unlockable incentives over them. Even the glitches are returning characters. It’s strange to imagine this being the first Battlefield game some kid plays: it feels like one for the old soldiers, those satisfied to go through the same motions again so long as nothing truly new has sullied their appeal. Slowly the veterans devolve into the blank gamepieces I’ve seen around, sliding over the board in an endless struggle for victory tickets.

We have uninspiring new lands to conquer. There’s no defining gimmick to give the maps scale, as Battlefield 4’s “Levolution” events and Battlefield 1’s Behemoth “super vehicles” did. You’re never an action hero, as you were when you burst through the windows of a collapsing skyscraper in 2013’s Shanghai, or the toast of the server, as you were when you landed the killing blow on the infernal train of 2016’s Suez. Players are now content to putter around their points building heaps of sandbags to shoot through; I prefer to lie on the wet ground like a worm, as I always have. These limited fortifications would’ve been more at home in the World War I Battlefield, anyway. The tanks have gotten less effective since that conflict, in defiance of history. The peaks and valleys of the player experience have been dragged back toward a medium-fun, shapeless experience with solid gunplay and a lot of pressing the F key.

Battlefield games have always given players space: they give the tanks and planes room to wander, and their pedestrian victims places to hide. Yet the maps now feel constrained in scope and imagination. Next to the sweep of a Battlefield 2 sniper park like Dragon Valley, where you could go minutes without seeing another soul, the modern maps feel like elevator cars. The distance between points has shrunk, but the influence of their predecessors looms large: the central wreckage of Twisted Steel recalls the mangled heart of Giant’s Shadow; Rotterdam feels like Amiens without the fine statue of Actaeon or the drama of the armored train; frigid Fjell 652 is all the miserable parts of Operation Locker pushed together to be more easily carpet-bombed. It misses ideas like the atypically huge Sinai Desert in BF1, where a far-flung point in the southern dunes would draw lone adventurers on horseback, stranded biplane pilots, and long-haul tankers to a chaotic pocket of the map. You took a vacation from the big war to fight a little one, in a spot where any single death could flip the point, and arriving armor changed the dynamic of the point to an unforgiving game of hide-and-seek.

The Commando moments when you barrel into the thickest fighting and dispatch 10 men with shotgun and shovel before catching a tank round between your teeth—these are not interesting to hear someone brag about, and will happen eventually for anyone who plays a shooter long enough. Battlefield’s strength has always been in serendipitous setpieces that arise from keeping so many pieces in play and setting few restrictions on their use.

One of my greatest Battlefield memories was a blip on the map, something you’d barely notice from BF2’s Commander view. (That experimental pseudo-RTS role is survived by BFV’s miserly squad leader Reinforcements.) Three of us were holed up in the mountain tunnel through 2016’s Monte Grappa, hiding from a landship as it ground its hull against the flagpole in frustration. Because Battlefield is a funny old war, the three soldiers in the tank could do nothing with the flag until they’d chased us out of the capture radius, and their driver couldn’t angle the vehicle to fire effectively into the little room two of us occupied. So they laid siege. For once I got to use my full Scout kit, my worst and least-played class: I fired a spotting flare against the ground, laid explosive tripwires by both doors, and backed up against the wall, hoping to use my sniper rifle like a shotgun.

The tank boys piled out and rushed us.

Tanker #1 chose the left door and hit my first tripwire, which somehow killed him. Tanker #2 came through the right door and caught a rifle shot in the gut, then fatally shot my buddy before my bullets spun him around. The last tanker, arriving late through the same door, stumbled into my second trap—the one I only had because my good buddy, name forgotten, laid down his supply crate before his life—and fell to desperate shots from the thunderous Mars Automatic.

I’ve certainly played better, shot better, done more to help my team win. But I don’t think I’ve ever felt better in these games than I did climbing into the enemy team’s tank and driving it out of that empty tunnel, waiting for the credits to begin playing. It was a war story in a bottle, with a note of tragedy in the dying squawk of my teammate, whoever he was, falling after all the time we spent trapped together in that room.

Stories like this probably still happen in Battlefield V. But in my nightly Conquest sessions, they haven’t happened to me. The new points are closely spaced and sort of evenly buttered with action, with long sightlines and plenty of lumpy terrain to help infantry creep above tanks. I’ve seen little of the spiraling chaos and personal showdowns that once made Battlefield seem rich with possibility. But maybe it’s the world that changed, not Battlefield. It competes now with Battle Royales like PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, the best multiplayer story engine I’ve ever played, and not the plain Team Deathmatch grinders of the past.

Even in this diminished game I trudge on nightly, practicing the ancient art of dolphin-diving—once learned in the charnel houses of BF2 infantry-only servers, never forgotten—to fall flat onto my MG42’s bipod. I plant my supply crates in the ground: one extra gadget may save your life, young man, when you find a tank inside of a mountain. No one touches them as I pass by; they must see that colorless, faceless figure.


Chris Breault is a writer on the internet.