Battlefield 1 had a surprisingly strong singleplayer campaign, splitting it up into several distinct 'War Stories' that teleported us from the mud-and-blood of the western front to the semi-mythology of Lawrence of Arabia. It addressed concerns about depicting the less familiar, more sacred of the two world wars by telling tight, personal stories, using some artistic flourishes to explore this rarely-trodden territory with sensitivity. It still brimmed with silly solo heroics, tank battles, super-saturated fires and explosions, of course, but it felt like it earned how silly it was.
World War II is a different beast in the popular imagination, so it was always going to be interesting to see how DICE would approach the singleplayer campaign for Battlefield 5. Where The Great War is respectfully treated as a deplorable waste of life in the name of archaic treaties and crumbling colonial hubris, its successor is portrayed differently: it's good-vs-evil, where the Allies always knew they were fighting the good fight, and the Nazis were an expendable mass with all humanity brainwashed out of them. Games haven't really deviated from this narrative over the years.
That's why it's refreshing to see Battlefield 5 get much the same War Story treatment as Battlefield 1. These bite-sized singleplayer campaigns are far removed from the sweeping ideologies and iconic imagery that defined WWII, focusing instead on close-up individual experiences, such as a Senegalese corps fighting in France and a Third Reich tank commander stuck behind enemy lines. I played through an entire War Story during my hands-on, as well as single missions from another two, and at no point was there a crackly recording of Churchill talking about Finest Hours, nor mentions of Hitler, Pearl Harbor or D-Day. Despite WWII being one of the more heavily mined topics in videogames, this actually managed to eke out some different perspectives.
So with the big guns out of the picture, what other stories are there to tell in World War II? Let's start with the one we completed, 'Nordlys', which charts a Norwegian resistance commando's solo quest to rescue her comrade and destroy the Nazi heavy water project. It's loosely based on an actual operation carried out by a squad of Norwegian commandos, though it's fair to assume that they didn't have as much fun as I did skiing between pine trees and across frozen lakes on my descent to Nazi bases. The ability to whip out your skis at any moment and slalom away makes everything feel breezy and wonderful.
The missions eschew almost all scripting in favour of an open approach, where you scope out bases and mark enemies before sneaking or blasting your way in. Admittedly, the final mission in the chapter, where you infiltrate three bases in a vast fjord in any order, was almost identical to that Battlefield 1 one where you run between villages collecting sparkplugs. But it's now enriched with more buildings to enter (and destroy), secret entry points, and impressively detailed interiors. Those gleaming '40s typewriters, brassy magnifying glasses and polished wooden desks clearly benefited from the ray tracing tech provided by the GTX 2080, which makes everything look tantalising and dynamically reflective.
The stealth mechanics don't quite do justice to the level design, however. While the various back paths and grates invite you to stick to the shadows if you wish, your footsteps seem to be equally audible on any surface, and enemies see right through foliage and shadows. It's this occasional lack of detail that remind me this is still very much an aside to the multiplayer. Battlefield 5 looks and speaks the part, but doesn't always feel like a modern singleplayer shooter.
The next story was, for me, the most intriguing of the lot, charting the exploits of the Tirailleurs—a corps of Senegalese soldiers drafted into southern France to fight for a country they never knew. The action was route-one Battlefield point-capturing, based in an oddly dreamy setting of trenches and ambery-red woods in autumnal France. But it's all given gravitas by the narration, told by the main character many years later as he's looking through his old war photos. As you're bayonetting Germans and holding a hill against a formidable counter-attack, the protagonist recounts the alienation, supply problems and discomforts experienced by him and the other colonial draftees.
It was heavy stuff and well told, so it was only right that I finished my hands-on with a palette-cleanser. Under No Flag cast me as a recognisably cheeky chap cockney called Billy Bridger, a criminal conscript to the British Special Boat Service (which made foldable kayaks a viable instrument of covert operations). Just imagine a remake of Dirty Dozen as directed by Guy Ritchie, starring a ragtag team of ne'er-do-wells sent on a series of audacious missions they're not necessarily expected to survive. It's all banter and gander and effin' and blindin', with the mission itself offering a more focused twist on that all-angles approach of the 'Nordlys' campaign.
Battlefield 5 feels like a gleaming version of something I could've played a few years ago, but it thrives in its unique presentation, relying on that same juxtaposition between poignant short storytelling and action-movie gameplay that worked so well for its predecessor.
If anything, the technical improvements since the last game make the contrast even more pronounced this time round, with buildings collapsing dynamically around you, and those impossibly red fires reflecting ever more vividly off the water and metal around you. At moments, Battlefield V can feel like you're starring in one of the great tally-ho war movies of the 60s, but overlaid with a crisp high-contrast Instagram filter that's turned up to just below the level where everything starts to look unbelievable.
These War Stories don't quite tackle the inherent absurdity of the historical war shooter, based as they are around unthinkable individual heroics, nor do they stand up mechanically to dedicated singleplayer shooters like Wolfenstein or Far Cry. But they do live up to their name, illuminating lost parts of the war, and engaging me in intimate vignettes that aren't so much about Axis or Allies but personal battles like family, freedom, or the frustration of not really knowing what you're fighting for.
It's good stuff, even if it is more a continuation than evolution of the previous game's structure. If a singleplayer campaign engages me in its snappy set-pieces and stories while intriguing me enough to read up on the history behind it, then that's surely one of its main missions accomplished.