Battlefield has been through the wars for long enough now that many of us have had a time with the series that we look back on with incommensurate fondness; the iteration that makes us sigh wistfully, look out the window (that’s trickling with cold condensation, for effect) and say ‘that was the golden age of Battlefield’. For a lot of people, the one that started it all, Battlefield 1942, is most firmly entrenched in the old nostalgium lobes of the brain (a notion that presumably wasn’t lost on EA when it decided to return to that same theatre of war for Battlefield V).
Battlefield V panders to that nostalgia in more than just theme. Like its predecessor, it’s a hyper-real representation of its conflict, playing out at double-speed like some jittery vivid dream. Its vision of World War II has almost fetishistic appreciation of the gleaming metal of guns and armour, and hell-red fires and explosions that send soldiers Wilhelm-screaming across your screen. Like Battlefield 1, in full swing and at full capacity the spectacle and scale of the carnage threatens to pound all cohesion into the dirt, giving me an inkling of what French WWI soldiers meant when they sardonically referred to their Western Front experiences as ‘marmalade’.
To some, that’s the essence of Battlefield, there ever since the days of 1942 when you could - with a little tweaking - cram 100 players onto a vast map. Back then, the spectacle wasn’t attained through glossy visuals, but sheer size and the combined-arms bedlam of having troops, tanks, cars and planes on a single map. Multiplayer battles were organic, player-made setpieces, where dozens of soldiers would stream in on checkpoints until the pluckiest ones finally found a way through the gauntlet of gunfire.
Battlefield V does a good job of mimicking that sense of scale, even if its environment is now much more controlled and tighter than it was in those sprawling, freewheeling days. But among its roster of multiplayer modes, it introduces something that appeals to a more niche sect of Battlefield nostalgics. Now, alongside the classic 64-player Conquest and Grand Operations (a successor to the multi-chapter battles of Battlefield 1) there is Infantry Focus: a 32-player carousel of Team Deathmatch, Frontlines and Domination (a compacted Conquest mode without vehicles) which gives me momentary flashbacks to my favourite Battlefield of all time - Bad Company 2.
This 2011 console-centric twist on Battlefield was an invaluable step for the series, proving that its core systems - the squad focus, the class system, the control points and communication auto-commands - worked just as well, if not better, when compacted to 32 players.
The busy, destructible maps tended to be more linear, with plenty of cover, fewer ‘No Man’s Land’ spaces, and clearly defined fronts that meant you were a lot less likely to be shot from somewhere beyond your peripheral vision. It had a ‘Special Forces’ feel to it, affording you more time and space to work as a team rather than using your squad as an expendable mobile spawn point. There was more opportunity for individual heroics like closing the distance on a tank and slapping it up in C4, covertly knifing an enemy squad to death, or zipping deep behind enemy lines on a quadbike to take a control point (via a conveniently placed jump ramp or two). It was pure war fantasy, in contrast to Battlefield 1 and V’s descents into a kind of chaos that makes me want to pull me want to pull my helmet over my eyes and blub in a bathroom that’s just had its walls punched out by a Panzer tank.
Battlefield 3 and 4 kept some of that BC2 faith with Conquest Small maps - scaled-down Conquest that held onto vehicles and trimmed the action down to three control points. But these were never included in the Quick Match options, forcing you to dig through the bowels of server lists and custom games to find the enclaves of players who preferred to keep games small and personal. This tangent hit its nadir in Battlefield 1, where sub-64-player Conquest was scrapped altogether as EA DICE turned its focus to grander, more ambitious modes like Operations.
So it’s good to see that in Battlefield V smaller battles have for the first time been granted a prime spot in the multiplayer menu. It shows that EA DICE is once again willing to cater to those who like a little breathing space in their Battlefield, even if the playlist doesn’t quite hit all the marks yet.
Infantry Focus shares the same map roster as Conquest and Operations, but it’s interesting to note that quite a few of these maps than have a busier, tighter design that works particularly well for smaller player counts. Fjell 652, for instance, takes place in the virgin-snowed mountains of Norway. It’s an uncompromisingly slopey map, interconnected by precarious passes weaving around mountainsides and bottleneck canyons. You emerge from one of these paths onto a small village, scenically nestled across the valley, which requires just a short dash across no-mans land to capture. It still feels impressive, without relying on raw size to do so.
The two urban maps, meanwhile, eschew the familiar, vast boulevards of Paris, Berlin and Stalingrad in favour of the canal-city of Rotterdam; a condensed grid of tall, svelte buildings flanked by narrow streets out front and cosy courtyards and alleys behind. The second Rotterdam-based map, Devastation, is a bit more open on account of half of it being pulverised to rubble, but that traditionally compact Dutch architecture continues to dictate the pace of the action. It’s elegant and manageable, always giving you a clear sense of where the front is without slipping into 360-degree chaos (even the typically chaotic Team Deathmatch feels consistent, as spawn points seem to adapt more sensibly to the location of the enemy than before).
Infantry Focus has its issues. Frontlines, a 32-player mode introduced in Battlefield 1 (possibly to replace Conquest Small) where two teams fight over five control points one by one before having to blow up three enemy structures, is too protracted, and doesn’t gel with the faster pace of the playlist. I had a couple of Frontlines battles (on the charming rural map Twisted Steel) that were stuck in stalemate for the full hour before resolving in a dissatisfying technical victory for one team or the other. Matches are just too prone to turning into attritional slogs.
But something the two Frontlines maps in Infantry Focus have that is lacking in the rest of the playlist are tanks. Just one or two, but even that’s enough to make an impact on these smaller-scale skirmishes. The suspense is almost palpable as squads scramble to deal with a monstrosity that can single-handedly swing a battle, which harks back to the economical but effective use of vehicles in Bad Company 2. Frontlines’ objectives feel in need of serious trimming, certainly for 32 players, but its vehicles tease the days when the series knew how to use them sparingly yet effectively.
You could reasonably argue that any amount of vehicles is too much for a playlist ostensibly focused on infantry, but from the perspective of a Bad Company 2 sectarian it’s disappointing that there’s no sign of Conquest Small, which was the closest approximation to that game’s pacing. The small version of maps like Aerodrome - a rugged, pockmarked plain with a couple of small bases and an air hanger - and Devastation, with its relatively open area sidling up next to a more built-up one, would’ve been great stomping grounds to test the appeal of a bite-sized Battlefield.
Small Conquest maps also were the best playgrounds for light-and-zippy vehicles like bikes and 4x4s; such wildcard vehicles are not only fun, but also have the tactical potential to break deadlocks when things get stuck in the mud. They’re virtually non-existent in Frontlines as things stand, and generally haven’t had the same level of utility in the last two Battlefields as previously. The tanks could be ramped up a bit too. While the sparing use of tanks in Frontlines proffers some great moments, Bad Company 2 showed us that even having four tanks on a small map doesn’t have prevent battles from feeling succinct and tactical.
It’s hard to tell whether Infantry Focus will hold onto its spot on the multiplayer homescreen. With a Battle Royale mode eventually inbound it’s quite possible that it may be supplanted by the hipster’s game mode du jour. But it would be great to see EA DICE work on it, scaling down current and future Conquest maps to this palatable scale, and not being afraid to throw some vehicles into the mix. Or why not just reintroduce Conquest Small as a game mode unto itself?
Whatever happens, Infantry Focus is an important acknowledgement that bigger isn’t always better, and that spectacle doesn’t necessarily equate with a better experience. At the very worst, it could be that EA DICE are pushing a more frenetic CoD-like experience with this playlist, which is pretty palpable when playing, say, Team Deathmatch on Rotterdam. But I want to be optimistic, and read this is a step towards offering a happy place for Bad Company 2 vets like me who’ve found themselves lost amidst the escalating carnage of full-scale Conquest. For all its flaws, Infantry Focus gives me hope that there may yet be a place for a true small-scale Battlefield experience.