Last week saw the global reveal of Battlefield V, a game that is "returning to the series’ roots" by promising “an unexpected take on WW2.” With a multitude of new features, refinements, a new co-op Combined Arms mode and some fundamental shifts in the formula to encourage more squad-focused cooperation, Battlefield sounds more interesting than it has done in years. Strong emphasis on “sounds”. The now-infamous reveal stream may have seemed like a slog to those who tuned in, but trust me — it had nothing on the press conference we had to endure that day. We heard little, and saw even less.
Much like the live stream, there was a noticeable and alarming lack of 'game' on show at this press conference dedicated to a game. Scheduled to run from 9:30am to 12 with interviews following, attendees including myself assumed DICE and EA might have a lot to show off (three hours is a long time for a press conference, especially one without hands-on). A lot of press travelled in from outside of London for this. The fools.
Instead of watching gameplay footage of pre-recorded matches, showing off new features and additions, or even glimpses of spectacular campaign moments... we were blessed with a three-hour PR spiel peppered with every buzzword you could imagine. The presentation was formed of meaningless platitudes and oddly granular detail: how the physics-based destruction is “the best it has ever been”, how a gun’s bullets travel slightly differently from one another but remain consistent, how you can spot players by the reactions of tall grass. The closest we got to sniffing the game were short gifs of a character’s animation while running through water, and how the prone mechanic now works like MGSV. These are nitty and technical details that yes, may make a difference when playing, but shorn of that context don't really mean anything at all. Talking about your grass physics is on a par with Call Of Duty: Ghosts' fish AI. If that's what EA choose to show five months before release, you kind of wonder if there's much else worth talking about.
I don't say all of this just to have a moan at EA's expense, but as something of a reflection on the death of the video game press conference as source-of-information, and the new form it has adopted over the last decade. It's not just that the whole event is a glorified presentation, containing little of the thing people actually want (show us the game!). It's that this presentation is designed to shape the rest of that game's hype cycle and, if you look at what they're trying to get you to say, maybe it tells you how EA and DICE really feel about Battlefield V.
The second part of the conference had jaws agape and eyes glassy, as the assembled crowd was bombarded, over and over, with marketing lines. All maps will be released for free and Battlefield will feature a new service called the Tides of War, which EA told us is summarised by four ‘concise’ points: “Evolving Narrative, Evolving Gameplay, New Gameplay, New Content”. Yes, that is crystal clear. Let's be honest; it means nothing at all, though the subtext is quite interesting. If you ask me, and hey you're reading this, Battlefront II's reception has spooked DICE and EA to the extent that they're soft-pedalling Battlefield into a 'service' model and being generous with it. The first one's free, right?
There was a lot more talking about Tides of War, but I noticed a really interesting tear in the fabric of my chair's arm. The longer explanation was vague anyway, this will “immerse the players deeper and deeper into World War 2, the DICE way.” Again it's just piffle. We're also told that Battlefield V is focusing heavily on character, vehicle and weapon customisation as well as some limited time events. Is any of this news?
Words are cheap and what exactly it all adds up to was left to our imagination. All the time spent on Tides Of War could instead have given players a specific example of what to get excited about, because surely no-one is doing backflips about all this vague verbiage. After an hour I was still confused about what it actually was, where it would differ from what I expected from Battlefield (wild guess: not much). So I asked some of my fellow attendees, which was pretty unfair after such a snoozefest. Was it free? Did I miss that crucial bit of information? Some people thought it was free, while others thought it was a paid service, probably because of the near-religious repetition of the word “service” on-stage. Fortunately the PRs swept in to make it all clear: Tides Of War is a service that is free.
EA and DICE were, in fact, doing everything they could to avoid even mentioning the grubby topic of monetisation. The most obvious lesson from the biblical disaster of Battlefront II seems to be that microtransactions will be cosmetic, with the focus now on all the things you can do to customise your 'Company' through various grunt and vehicle skins.
There was about as much useful information at this reveal as can be summarised in a paragraph: changes to the squad system allows everyone to revive teammates; weapon emplacements are now movable via vehicles; players can now build fortifications (no details on how this works though); the campaign zeroes-in on 'untold stories' of the war; the new format of Grand Operations is a 3-4 mission long multiplayer campaign, possibly concluding with a 'Final Stand' mode featuring no respawns and a miniscule amount of ammo.
Some of this might sound great, but we didn’t see anything beyond a few GIFs and animation loops. You attend this event and hear all this stuff about the game, but then have to take it on faith that the game exists. It's a little like going to pay reverence to some saint's remains, where you're told the bones are in the reliquary but never actually set eyes on them yourself.
Instead we were told how the game would play. In the language of superlatives a Grand Operation was conjured: starting as a paratrooper aboard a ship, parachuting in to knock out enemy artillery, allowing the main invasion force to take over with its battalion of war machines etcetera. The above sentence required almost an hour-long storytelling session.
Problem is, nobody could write anything more on Battlefield V than what was specifically said in these rehearsed sales pitches. We can’t talk about our early impressions, or even how it looks, or whether what was being said seems to match up with what's on-screen. It's hard for me to say with certainty that Battlefield V exists even though I know, surely, it must be real. This was like attending a live reading of a press release and, like a press release, it was designed to shape the story. EA could have saved money on the free lunch and room hire by just sending an email, so you wonder why these bizarre rituals continue at all. If you can’t give press something to write about, what's the point in going?
The old adage 'show, don’t tell' has no currency at the AAA end of the games industry. Perception is everything, and the reality of Battlefield V may well be that... it looks a lot like many other Battlefield games. Who knows why EA chose to say what players would do instead of showing us? It's bemusing and felt like nothing so much as the bleed of the 'reveal teaser' into real life — those little videos that do nothing but whip up hype for an impending announcement. This wasn't a reveal, it was a tease and a lot of wishful thinking. I'd been thinking this even before, at the end, EA announced gameplay will be debuting on June 9th during the EA PLAY Press Conference. Why were we even here?
Interviews with the developers of any game are a key part of preview coverage, but pointless when the questioners haven't seen the game. We were expected to ask about a few pieces of concept art and a CG trailer — played three times during the morning — and there's nothing interesting about those.
Battlefield V's reveal was a colossal waste of time, and clearly the public felt that way too. Flying in Trevor Noah, the host of The Daily Show, to run your reveal event sends a clear message. This is going to be a big deal. This is worth watching. The stream’s length was only a fraction of the press conference, you lucky souls, but nothing is still nothing. Customisation, the vague idea of fortifications, DICE’s steadfast refusal to use any terminology that may be shared with Fortnite, a service called Tides of War that seems to offer the same things players expect as standard in modern gaming... none of this stuff really gives us a sense of the game. It feels like players are being asked to dissociate any love of Battlefield from the games themselves, and simply genuflect because EA and DICE deign to show a logo.
The CG trailer did have one interesting aspect though: the presence of a badass woman rocking a prosthetic arm. In the absence of anything else to talk about, Battlefield V's reveal then got tangled up with the usual misogynistic idiots arguing (incorrectly) about historical accuracy, quarrelling over the official Battlefield account's wording in a tweet... just an ugly mess. But the internet abhors a vacuum and, during what should have been Battlefield V's big moment, there wasn't much else to latch on to.
Based on how quickly everyone became experts on the subject of women in WW2, perhaps Battlefield V’s objective of helping tell “untold stories” was the only partial success of this reveal. This is a series with ambition. It wants as big a slice of the huge AAA FPS market as it can get, and the competition is better every year. DICE has pedigree, and I hope to see some amazing stuff in a few weeks. But having attended the game's reveal all I can really say is that, on a balance of probabilities, Battlefield V probably exists, and sounds extremely boring.