Battlefield 5 is a mess. It's the glitchiest, most technically troubled DICE's sandbox multiplayer has been since the infamous launch of Battlefield 4, and even the launch itself is all over the place. Here's a game that's not out for paying punters until later this month. Or it's out today, if you're willing to pay a little bit more. Or, if you'd rather not pay for the whole thing, it's been out for a week for EA Access subscribers. Or maybe a bit over a week, if you're an EA Access Premier subscriber. Of course.
And even when that particular mess is behind us, Battlefield 5 isn't where you might expect it to be. The inevitable Battle Royale mode - surely the perfect fit for DICE's own brand of chaos - isn't out until next March. The co-op mode that was announced at launch isn't coming until later as, for that matter, is one of the four single-player War Stories, another planned piece of post-release support. Such omissions and scarcity of features is all collateral from EA's move from its older business model towards free, regular updates, though Battlefield 5 feels so incomplete at launch as it veers away from the dreaded season pass at times it feels more like an Early Access title. Small wonder the sense of anticipation around this one has been particularly muted.
Put that down to another episode of epic mismanagement from EA, and take some pity on DICE, because the game it's crafted beneath all that chaos is frequently fantastic; a shoring up of the Battlefield formula with a suite of new systems that can come together beautifully. It makes for some of the most fun I've had with Battlefield since the heady days of Bad Company - not that fun is something that's encouraged by the sombre tone throughout Battlefield 5 (a tone that was absent in the upbeat reveal trailer, which suggest that maybe there was a change of gear in the run-up to release).
That sombre tone is at its most cloying through the single-player War Stories, a trio of two hour episodes that highlight 'untold tales' - the Norwegian resistance in one, Senegalese colonial troops in the French army in another as well as the British Special Boat Services, with the final story on a German tank crew to follow. They do well to fold in some of Battlefield's staples into their levels - these are big open spaces with multiple objectives to tend to - but they're undone by an overreliance on spotty stealth and broken AI, making them all something of a slog and entirely inessential.
They're awfully serious, too (apart from when they're not - the one episode that shoots for any levity, Under No Flag, stars a pair of cockerneeees so undercooked it can lead to severe nausea), shooting for the no man's land between Terrence Malick and Michael Bay and ending up with the emotional depth of a John Lewis Christmas ad. It makes you pine all the more for the return of Bad Company - perhaps the last time a DICE campaign didn't have a severe case of tonal whiplash.
At least Bad Company comes to mind in a more favourable fashion once you're deep into the multiplayer, where demolition is ramped up to a degree we haven't really seen since that beautiful brace of games. Outhouses come tumbling down - sometimes bringing out entire squads camping in them - while wood splinters and stone crumbles in showers of destruction that transforms maps over the course of a round. It's complemented by a new fortification system that allows you to craft defenses around certain points - typically capture flags - which makes for a pleasing ebb and flow of building things up before seeing them brought down again.
There's something supremely satisfying about building your own defenses - perhaps it all links back to making pillow forts in the living room - and it enables organic choke-points to emerge during a skirmish. You can build yourselves a formidable base behind the behemoth of a pipe organ that sits in the bombed-out cathedral in Devastation, peeking out from sandbags to take anyone who dares tread the stairs while your teammates sit on the balcony sniping those down in the stalls.
Devastation is one of the more impressive maps in the eight available at launch - a collection that holds few surprises. Battlefield's dense, infantry-based urban map is provided by Rotterdam, while Hamada provides the more open-ended experience, but it's most probably Twisted Steel that's the highlight - all swampland and little crops of buildings with a gnarled iron bridge running right through it. It's the closest Battlefield 5's initial line-up, which can take a while to warm to, has to an instant classic.
Regardless of the quality of the maps, there are more classic Battlefield moments to be had here than in recent memory. That's in part down to how teamplay is more focussed - indeed, it's now aggressively encouraged, with players entering the arena under-resourced and unable to fully heal themselves, leading them to rely on teammates to play their support roles properly (it's worth noting, too, that some classes have been neutered so they're almost useless to the lone wolf - medics now only have access to SMGs, making them woefully underpowered, though at least you can now revive teammates from the very off, and get a tidy points haul for doing so).
Before you baulk at all that, it's worth knowing that it's entirely possible to play on your own, without uttering a word - there are plenty of tools in place for the vast majority who like to play solo and in silence, with the Commo Rose blooming to take in more commands, even if it is now a bit unwieldy. It's quicker to demote a squad leader who's not issuing orders, and rewards smart teamplay with reinforcements - all the way up to a V1 bomb that can be called in once a certain threshold has been reached, the missile told with outstanding audio design, the put-put-put of its engine giving way to silence before the deafening boom.
DICE has always had a panache for sound, and Battlefield 5's outstanding audio underlines how this is an iteration that builds meaningfully on all those old staples. Yet again, it's a satisfyingly physical shooter with a real sense of presence (albeit one that feels notably faster in the hand than previous models). You can feel the weight of your body as it slams into a door, hits the ground when you dive into a prone position or lean into cover as the shed you're seeking shelter in begins to splinter around you.
It plays as well as Battlefield ever has, basically, and even goes towards fixing some of the age-old problems of the series. Progression feels meaningful and not painfully drawn out, helped by new daily objectives and the light customisation you're afforded for your soldiers and your arsenal. For the first time I can really recall playing a DICE shooter, I'm invested in levelling up my squad. Considering how limp that part of Battlefield's game has been in the past, that's no small feat.
Old problems remain, though. Battlefield 5 is a spotty experience, beset by bugs and glitches that continually pull you out of it all. The new animations don't seem fully baked, with legs prodding out at inhuman angles and players warping through the floor, while elsewhere quirks and server lag rear their heads. I had one particular game of Frontlines the other night that, thanks to a bug that prevented the round timer working properly, went on for well over 90 minutes, ending up in a strange armistice as players got tired of shooting each other and camped peacefully under a bridge together instead.
Yet that's the real thrill of Battlefield; those moments where the sandbox surprises you with unexpected moments of player agency. Is Battlefield at its best when it's a bit of a mess? I wouldn't go that far, and it's clear that DICE has a long road ahead of it to get Battlefield 5 ship shape and where it really needs to be. It's too slim, and too spotty, to recommend diving in this early. The foundations are in place, though, for something truly special.