The mockery that tends to be heaped on France for surrendering to Germany has become a tiresome World War II cliche over the years. As Battlefield V realizes, there are much more interesting stories to be told from the French perspective. Hence "Tirailleur," one of a handful of new Battlefield V War Stories shown at an EA event last week. A "Tirailleur" is a term coined during the Napoleonic era referring generally to light infantry. The Tirailleurs in this instance are the soldiers of French West Africa who died in large numbers for the cause of liberating France, but received no credit for their role.
Their story is told in one of Battlefield V's handful of brief single-player campaigns—a format that was popularized in 2016's Battlefield 1. It's an approach that's intended to pull the camera back and show the full breadth of global conflict, from the resistance in Occupied Norway to the exploits of the commandos in the British SBS, or "Special Boat Service." Battlefield 1's War Stories were lauded for their surprisingly sensitive depiction of a painful and tragic meatgrinder of war, and now EA is putting them front and center with Battlefield V.
Battlefield V Focuses On One of the Most Controversial Aspects of the Allied War Effort
Tirailleurs hits on one of the most controversial aspects of the allied war effort: France and Britain's willingness to draw soldiers from their colonial possessions to fight on their behalf. India's story in particular, which saw Indian soldiers fighting for Britain even as Gandhi rebelled back home, highlighted the sharp divisions on this front. But the story of France's colonial troops isn't as well-known, mostly because it's a pretty shameful story.
In setting up the story of the Tirailleur, Battlefield V design director Eric Holmes relates how African troops were explicitly cut out of photos of the liberation of Paris in 1944, their uniforms being taken and given to white troops. A 2009 BBC article goes into further detail about the painful racism that tinged the otherwise triumphant liberation of France from Nazism.
In the end, nearly everyone was happy. De Gaulle got his wish to have a French division lead the liberation of Paris, even though the shortage of white troops meant that many of his men were actually Spanish. The British and Americans got their "Whites Only" Liberation even though many of the troops involved were North African or Syrian.
For France's West African Tirailleurs Senegalais, however, there was little to celebrate. Despite forming 65% of Free French Forces and dying in large numbers for France, they were to have no heroes' welcome in Paris. After the liberation of the French capital many were simply stripped of their uniforms and sent home. To make matters even worse, in 1959 their pensions were frozen.
Battlefield V attempts to spotlight this historical injustice by putting your firmly in the shoes of these Senegalese Tiralleurs as they fight their first battle. Handed slow-firing, substandard rifles, you are asked to charge a well-defended German position. The battle that follows is reminiscent of a typical Battlefield multiplayer match: an open-ended, often chaotic battle across broad front in which you are just trying to survive.
After taking the initial round of bunkers, you are tasked with destroying three separate field guns using dynamite. While you are doing this, enemy reinforcements pour in from all sides, frequently forcing you into close-quarters combat. As you fight, one of the soldiers narrates their experience in French. "Our equipment was often inferior, not up to the job. So you learned to scavenge, improvise, make do," they say as you find yourself scavenging the bodies of dead German soldiers for improved weapons so that you can fight on a more even footing.
Compared to the other War Stories shown so far, which lean more on stealth combat and setpieces, Tiralleur feels far less curated. It reminds me of Avanti Savoia, one of the better War Stories from Battlefield 1, in which a soldier searches for his brother while trying to survive amid a massive battle. Like that story, it opens with an old soldier looking at a photograph and sharing a painful story, upon which we see them fighting waves of enemy soldiers and just generally hanging on for dear life. It's one of the only Battlefield V War Stories shown so far to really deliver on Battlefield's famously massive scope, depicting a large front with dozens of soldiers battling on either side.
Sadly, I didn't get to play through the entirety of Tiralleur. After pushing the Germans into retreat, the soldiers are cheering and excited, empowered at last after being kept down for so long. I feel pretty confident that this story will ultimately have a tragic ending, but it's a bracing scene nevertheless.
Battlefield V Shows a Willingness to Tackle Very Relevant Issues From Today
However this story ends, it stands to touch a nerve that's still pretty raw in France. To wit, when France won the World Cup this summer, there was much discussion about star players like Mbappe having strong African roots. Elsewhere, immigration from French-speaking nations like Algeria continues to be a divisive issue in France and elsewhere.
It's an ambitious and rather fraught story for a military shooter to tell, but DICE has been commendably bold on this front. After so many cliche and frankly boring depictions of World War II in gaming history, it's refreshing to play a game willing to tackle lesser-known stories, even if they don't paint the Allies in the best light. In that respect, Battlefield V is a breath of fresh air in a stale sub-genre. Battlefield V will be out on Xbox One, PS4 and PC on November 20.