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Battlefield 5 review - the best shooter of the year suffers from an identity crisis

War is hell. The Second World War claimed the lives of tens of millions of poor souls and saw our species commit unimaginable atrocities. Humanity’s ugliness laid bare.

Battlefield 5 wants to acknowledge this horror. It wants you to feel shellshocked and disoriented as the screams of agony and death mix with tank tracks trundling by and the crack of gunfire whizzing overhead.

Every soldier you take control of during the single-player prologue dies. In the multiplayer, every death is a statistic - another ticket lost.

It is harrowing, until you open the customisation menu and see a gas mask painted with a Union Jack, equippable red dot sights, and the ability to bling out your assault rifle with a gaudy golden finish. War is hell, indeed.

There’s a reason people are still hankering for a return to the Bad Company series, and it’s not just because that game was filled with some of the best multiplayer maps ever made. For one thing, it wasn’t based on a real war where people were torn in half by mounted machineguns. It was about killing and conflict, but it wasn’t conflicted.

Battlefield 5 wants to put you in the muddied boots of a WW2 grunt, but it also wants you to have fun. I’m not saying ‘fun’ isn’t a valid goal in game development, but I doubt any of the soldiers who fought in WW2 would describe their experience as a jolly old time. So, by its nature, Battlefield 5 is a game at war with itself.

Of course, to deflect this criticism, developer DICE would probably wheel out a quote like, “We’re going for authenticity over realism”. Again, this is fine, but let’s not pretend it’s respectful. Battlefield 5’s soldiers are kitted out with fully automatic assault rifles, they have modern sights on their guns, and they run around hitting people with a cricket bat while calling their teammates ‘mukka’.

The moment to moment play is solid – much more tactical and thoughtful than the competition – but the setting comes across tasteless. It’s like eating wagyu beef in a supermarket homebrand bun.

Battlefield 5 has mud all over its face, but if you turn off your brain, there’s a solid shooter underneath it all. I’d even go as far as to say it’s the best shooter of 2018. There’s a varied, interesting single-player campaign that’s split up into War Stories that take you across different theatres of war and place you into different perspectives. Then there’s the multiplayer, which values tactics and positioning over twitch skills.

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The Battlefield games have never been worth buying for the single-player alone, but this is the best it’s been since Bad Company 2. It takes the strengths of the multiplayer - the open areas, the freedom of approach, the vehicles - and applies them to its campaign. One mission where you can deploy skis at will and conduct guerilla warfare in the snowy Norwegian hills is easily the standout.

With multiplayer, DICE has put the focus exactly where it should be: on team play. Soldiers are equipped with limited ammo so the support class plays an integral part of a four-person squad, doling out ammo packs and suppressing the enemy. Likewise, medics keep teammates topped up with health packs. The assault class is there to knock out vehicles. And, this time, snipers are the only class who can spot enemies so their teammates can see their positions on the UI.

The best squads are always the ones that have a good mix of classes, though there’s also an element of situational reactivity. A tank is rolling into your base? Why not all respawn as assault and take it down with a synchronized strike. Your frontline is getting decimated and you’re running out of respawn tickets? Let’s squad up as a team of medics and save the day.

To cement this teamwork further, any class is now able to revive fallen squadmates. Only the medic can resurrect people outside of your squad, and they revive people much faster, but everyone is free to keep their squadmates alive. This encourages you to stick together.

The fact spotting can only be done by snipers using binoculars also solves one of Battlefield’s biggest issues. In past games, you could spam the spot button to find enemies who are hidden, lighting them up with an icon and keeping them lit up, even if they move behind cover. In Battlefield 5, you shoot at enemies, not icons.

This also opens up the game for more stealthy approaches. Flanking has always been an important tactic in Battlefield, but it’s now more viable than ever. You can crouch through fields and approach enemies unaware, or crawl through the long grass without fear of being spotted. Sprinting while crouched is also possible, meaning your movement isn’t hampered by your willingness to stay hidden and accurate.

As always, the range of maps are excellent, whether fighting through crumbling desert ruins, in the yellow fields of France, or around the canals of Rotterdam. Each is packed with flanking routes, bombing runs for planes, chokepoints, and ambush opportunities. With EA and DICE promising to keep drip-feeding in new maps for free, Battlefield 5 could end up supplying the most varied conflict arenas since Bad Company 2.

Another new feature allows you to fortify capture positions, laying down sandbags, digging trenches, and putting up barricades to repel enemy counterattacks. Not only does this open the game up for more tactical play, it also solves the issue of Battlefield’s maps becoming flat and coverless as the battles rage on. It’s another smart design tweak to an established formula.

Overall, Battlefield 5 is a brilliant shooter that’s hamstrung by its setting. Ignoring all the tonal weirdness, the core of the game is the best it has been since Bad Company 2, filled with smart design choices. When we finally get away from this latest trend of revisiting historical conflicts, when Battlefield is once again freed creatively, we could finally get something to rival the Bad Company series.

Version tested: PC.

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